Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, a Zen Buddhist teacher, once told his students “You are perfect the way you are…and you could use a little improvement.” I understand this to mean that we are inherently perfect with all of our messiness, neuroses, and confusion AND there is also some room to improve the things about ourselves that aren’t truly benefiting us or other people.
This is an important concept and one that is difficult to grasp. We tend to view things as dichotomies – either black or white, right or wrong. So, how can we be perfect if there is something to improve?
Self-acceptance is challenging for many reasons. One, it seems to suggest a laxity, a take-me-or-leave-me mentality with no room to work on ourselves. Two, we are acutely aware of our flaws and fixate on how to eradicate them. Three, perfectionism has become a prison of sorts in which we willingly keep ourselves captive, and there is no room for self-acceptance in solitary confinement.
Self-improvement, on the other hand, is seductive. We are not content with our experience right now, so there must be something we can fix. If we just had that home/partner/smooth forehead/job/jeans size, we would be happier, more satisfied. This is one way in which we take ourselves out of the moment and become fixated on the future. As well, we devalue ourselves right now, deny our wholeness, and treat ourselves like problems to be solved.
Self-improvement is a tricky thing; it can move us both toward and away from happiness. If approached from the standpoint of fixing something that is broken, self-improvement can have qualities of aggression and living in the future. Inherently we are not in the moment when we think our lives will begin or be better once we [fill in the blank]. If, on the other hand, self-improvement is approached from the standpoint of complete self-acceptance, it can be a type of self-love, a way in which we practice awareness, a means of being kind to ourselves.
When I work with clients, we talk about both the things they would like to change and the reasons they are lovable, worthy, whole, and perfect just as they are. Through mindfulness, we can be objective, accepting, and non-judgmental of ourselves, and we can also take a clear look at our habits in a way that allows us to let go of the ones that do not benefit ourselves or others. To love and accept yourself now AND skillfully replace habits that aren’t working with ones that do – these are two sides of the same valuable coin.