Self-Development Practices


Why do we sometimes experience a sense of ennui for the life we have chosen? Why do relationships fail to deliver the satisfaction we expect? Why do we feel uncertain, anxious or out of control? Why do we act in ways that we later regret? The way that we interpret, react to, and respond to our environment is determined by the quality and nature of our personality. If the personality has had healthy nurturing and development, we are more likely to feel internally satisfied, experience autonomy, and feel compassion for others. Lacking development, we experience a life pervaded by a sense of incompleteness and discontent.

Self-development (SD) is a consciously-directed maturing of the personality. However, before stepping into any self-development program, its basis and projected goal must be fully understood. Failure to clearly understand and define these will result in loss of enthusiasm and effort over time at best, and contrary result at worst. For the integration of self-development into one's life to be possible, there must be a well-formed conviction for doing so. This requires an understanding of the personality and its functioning. The personality can be described as comprising three aspects: Body, Mind, Intellect. The body is the outer personality. This gross, physical component is the immediate recipient of sense data: color & form, sound, smell, taste, tactility. Once sense stimuli have been received by the body, they react with the inner personality of mind & intellect.

Mind is the non-rational aspect of the personality; the seat of attractions & aversions, impulses, desires, emotions. The mind has no capacity for conscious self-governance. For example, desires are not self-regulating; emotions do not self-select for appropriateness; preferences and aversions do not necessarily have a rational basis, they simply ‘are.’ Subtler than mind is intellect, the rational aspect of the personality. It is responsible for objective observation, discrimination, assessment & judgement, reasoning, and forming conclusions. It is “the ability to think freely, logically. The faculty to reason and judge without bias.”1 Crucially, it is the faculty which is employed to “guide, direct the mind and its emotions.”2

The reaction to stimuli includes one's attitude towards them (like/dislike) and the formulation of a decision regarding the most appropriate response to them. This response is executed back into the external environment through the physical body. Thus Receipt-Reaction-Response is the mechanism by which subjective experience proceeds. By correctly orienting the mind & intellect, our subjective well-being is enhanced; our relationships with external circumstances improves; and we make better choices.3 The process of making this reorientation is the practice of personal development. It is thus the improvement of the mind and intellect, and proceeds via the practices outlined below. .

Setting an Ideal

The goal of SD is a more mature and stable self. Maturity of self is designated by the ability to transcend ego and egocentric desires.  This results in the development of self-sufficiency and empathy. Before setting an ideal, the ego must be carefully investigated to understand its deleterious impact on inner peace and harmonious relationships. By focusing only on one's own perspective and demands, the world is met in a way that naturally promotes inner anxiety & stress, and outer disharmony. Thus the first step to integrating personal development into life is to establish a conviction that this is a worthwhile use of one's time and effort.

Having established the need for personal development, one sets an ideal for his or her life. The ideal is a goal that transcends one's existing ego-centered demands, and its purpose is to draw us out of a narrow, egocentric view of life. By invoking or recalling the ideal, the personality (i.e. mind & intellect) attunes to its relatively selfless nature. When there is consistent application of the ideal through the three practices, there is a gradual shift in the quality and nature of one's thoughts, desires and emotions. The effectiveness of an ideal rests upon a powerful law of human nature: As you think, so you become.

An ideal is also essential in keeping us on the path of SD. While there is inevitably an initial sense of inspiration and relief at having redirected attention towards SD, significant gains are the result of long-term effort. The enthusiasm for incorporating SD into one's life naturally waxes and wanes, and during times of low ebb the intellectual conviction will maintain the mental direction earlier set.

Watch: An Ideal (4 min)

Personal Development Practices

The three practices outlined below are targeted to the three 'equipments' of a human being and their expressions: the feelings of the mind, the actions of the body, the thinking of the intellect. A SD practitioner must necessarily incorporate all three channels. However, each person's inner temperament differs. Some are more emotionally-inclined, others more intellectually-inclined, still others are more predisposed to physical activity. As a result, the three practices are administered in the proportions appropriate for one's own temperament. One person may spend 70% of her time and effort in the path of action, with an equal 15% split of devotion and knowledge; another 40:10:50, and so on.

Therefore the second step in the path of SD is therefore to correctly analyze your own inner temperament. Ask yourself: To what extent does my head rule my heart? A person who tends to feel his way through life, functioning on emotion and impulse is more emotional, and is designed for the path of emotion. One who refuses to accept assertions or actions without proper analysis and understanding of their basis and mechanism is intellectual, more suited for the path of knowledge. One who is fairly balanced in these tendencies, sometimes acting from feeling, at other times from rationality, is active, and designed for the path of action.

Emotional Practice – Devotion

The emotional practice is the development of devotion. Devotion and love are the same emotion, differing only in direction. Love is a feeling of oneness or identification. For example, each of us regards the various parts of our own body as being one. That is, although they may be separate in one sense (the leg is not the arm), in another sense they are all considered to be 'Me.' So too, love for (say) a family member is to feel a sense of oneness with that person, the absence of any separation: their experience becomes yours.

When this feeling of oneness is directed towards the higher, it is devotion. A higher object is one for which a person feels a natural, healthy deference. A child naturally feels a sense of deference to his parents; a student to her teacher; a religious person to his God. Devotion flows when there is recognition of one's state of relative ignorance; the effect of this realization is the effacement of egoistic assertions. A simple analogy: When one is sick, he visits a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. Implicit in this visit is the recognition of "I don't know medicine," and he therefore depends upon and defers to the other's knowledge. The recognition of "I-don't-know" is humility, the recognition that knowledge can be only partially accurate at best. It directly counteracts egoistic claims of knowledge or the privileging of one's own perspective above others'.

With the ego thus suspended, egocentric desires cannot flourish, and eventually fall away as this heightened emotional attunement becomes more established. Devotion therefore brings a greater sense of wellbeing as anxieties and agitations arising from unfulfilled desires disappear.

This emotional state is closely associated with the feeling of gratitude in life. One cannot simultaneously harbor gratitude and an egoistic sense of entitlement. The practice of 'counting one's blessings,' for example,4 explicitly recognizes those elements in life upon which one's satisfaction and enjoyment are dependent, eliciting a spontaneous sense of gratitude, the essence of which is humility. The sense of entitlement cannot exist in this mental climate. However, gratitude has limitations. Beyond this, the intellect recognizes the inherent ignorance under which all live. Devotion can be directly elicited by consciously investigating the areas of one's ignorance. It may start by enquiring into one's ignorance within one's own field of knowledge or interest. This enquiry naturally grows into the more profoundly perplexing questions of life: What are the fundamental forces that compel the existence of life itself? Where, whence, wherefore this world? In the words of Stephen Hawking, "Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious."5 Recognizing that there are questions that defeat our capacity for rational understanding generates devotion to that unknown.

The feeling of devotion can also be elicited by observing the natural world function, attuning to the beauty of nature. We begin to inwardly perceive an underlying order, and by recognizing the presence of indefatigable and mysterious laws & cycles of nature, our own small but vital and perfect place within the greater whole clicks into perspective. By delving into this feeling sense of connectedness we develop empathy, compassion. The sense of otherness dissolves into a living sense of 'We.'

Poetry & music can also create this. Artistic beauty combined with universal themes can create a deep devotional impression on the mind, enabling transcendence of personalized perspectives and a sense of universal connectedness.

Intellectual Practice – Knowledge

Each one's worldview has as its basis what one 'knows,' what one accepts to be true about oneself, the world, and how nature functions. This knowing, of course, may be accurate or inaccurate. Many of the assumptions we hold are true only 'for me.' Thus, egocentric perspectives are inherently partial, flawed. No single perspective can accurately encompass the Truth of a situation, Reality is not ego-centered. The ego's perspective is sustained when assumptions about ourselves and the world remain unchallenged. Challenging what seems to us to be obviously true is the role of the intellect.

The intellectual discipline is to accept nothing for granted, and to question everything in life. It is to seek that Knowledge which is eternally, universally true or real. The test of Reality is that it must exist in all periods of time – past, present, and future. The path of knowledge is therefore to posit the existence of a permanent Reality and to seek It in the impermanent phenomena of life.

This process begins by taking up the study of the subject of life & living, seeking out the ideas of others and allowing the intellect to react with them, questioning and reflecting upon them. This leads to an intellectual conclusion, the acceptance or rejection of an idea as true or false. Without a genuine sense of enquiry, the best that one can accomplish is the retention of others' ideas, becoming well-informed on the subject investigated, but gaining no deeper insight into the nature of life & living. Thus, knowledge is not mere erudition or scholarship. What we are seeking with the intellectual discipline is insight. When insight is gained, ideas are no longer merely intellectual propositions that provide a theory of how things 'might be.' Reflection upon an idea brings a moment of clarity in which the whole personality recognizes that the idea represents an actual truth that exists and functions directly in life. This process of questioning weeds out the false assumptions upon which our existing worldview is based. Study and insight change the personality structure itself, dismantling previously-held, false ideas of reality, replacing them with a more accurate vision. As our knowledge base becomes a more accurate representation of reality, our narrow, egocentric perspective is replaced with one that is more mature and universal.

The study is most effective when it is a daily practice. Like any discipline, effects only accrue with consistent application, consolidating and building upon previous incremental gains. One cannot expect results from haphazrd or occasional effort. The material studied must also be systematic, starting with basic principles, and gradually leading to more complex or subtle ideas.

The study is also most effective when undertaken in the early hours of the morning (4-6 am). Once the body has become accustomed to rising and studying early, one finds that at this time of the day the mind-intellect is less preoccupied with mundane affairs, and at its most wakeful.

Physical Practice – Service

"Two broad principles govern human action. Based on the attitude of giving or taking."6 The unchecked ego seeks to possess and enjoy objects and beings, extracting experiences from the world to satisfy its own demands with indifference or even enmity towards the effect on others.

This ego-centered perspective generally remains unidentified, yet exerts a powerful influence on attitudes and behaviors. The physical practice therefore begins with the intellect asking the question, 'What is this course of action I am adopting? For whose benefit is this being done? What am I doing and why?' By understanding one's own actions and motivations, they can be measured against the ideal of SD earlier set. Maturity is the ability to forego the ego's immediate satisfaction and redirect our attitudes and actions towards that which we ourselves have recognized as being a greater good.

There can then be a re-orienting of the motivation away from mere ego-centered satisfaction and towards the needs of a wider cause or community. This is the attitude of unselfishness, of giving, and maintains one's psychological wellbeing. No selfish person is without agitation; no unselfish person lacks mental peace. It is impossible for us to maintain the attitude of 'What can I get from this situation?' at the same time as 'What can I offer this situation?' Therefore we consciously 'inject' the thought of others' needs, enabling a shift out of our own perspective and adopting the other's. Thus it is vital to recognize that service is an attitude and not an action. No action can be considered bad or good per se. It is the attitude of service that renders the mind balanced and resilient. As John Milton aptly points out:

"He also serves who only stands and waits."7

However, unselfish giving has limitations. There remains the ego's sense of otherness (that it is 'I' who gives to 'You'), and personal desire (to realize 'my' view of what is good). Higher still is selfless giving. As Kahlil Gibran writes:8

"And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue"

This form of giving springs from the simple recognition that it is each one's duty and responsibility in life to give. Nature is a continuous flow, a sustainable cycling of matter. Each element of nature expresses itself without reserve, never accumulating for itself. Where there is accumulation, there is stagnation and disease. Witness the stagnant pond in a waterway, the accumulation of wealth in an economic system. As an integral part of nature, each one of us can adopt this universal approach, giving of ourselves to sync ourselves with the functioning of the whole. By constant practice of suspending the egocentric perspective, we drop the egocentric demands that plague us and bring about disharmony, and rehabilitate the personality to a wider, more mature perspective.

1 A. Parthasarathy. Governing Business & Relationships. 2010. p. 22

2 A. Parthasarathy. The Fall of the Human Intellect. 2008. p. 12

3 "Better" here can be thought of as maintaining or improving SWB and harmony in relationship.

4 E.g. Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade. (2005). Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change.

6 A. Parthasarathy. Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities. Chapter IV, 'Elements of Right Living'

7 J. Milton. On His Blindness.