Woman laying on floor developing her spiritual self

The Illusion of Self Development

If you are fortunate, there will come a time when your attention turns inward. That turn will likely place you on one of two possible paths. The first, the one commonly taken, is the time-based path of self-development and self-improvement. This path is well known to us.

It begins with the assumption that we are our personal self. We engage in workshops, listen to teachers, learn from books and videos, and begin meditation practice, slowly accumulating knowledge and skills over many years. A calmer life, diminished reactivity, improved relationships, helpful insights, and an overall enhancement of individual well-being are the most common results of this effort. This upgrade to the quality of our day-to-day life is a good and worthy achievement.

However, what we cannot see is that this achievement, although remarkable from an ordinary perspective, further obscures the unseen possibilities that lie beyond our personal self – even beyond the most elegant updated version of our personal self. We may feel proud and satisfied with this achievement. Others may praise us as well.

Yet, for all our well intended efforts we have unknowingly ended up with a “booby” prize because our efforts are based on the false assumption that we are our personal self and nothing beyond. Although leading to an improved life, these efforts cannot overcome that false assumption. In actuality they inadvertently strengthen it.

Regardless of our good intentions, we enable and sustain, however subtle, the defensiveness, protectiveness, self-cherishing and disconnection that is innate and inseparable from our mistaken investment in the supremacy of individualism. We have gained a somewhat improved self, but have missed the gold.

Cultivating a “healthy” personal life, although a meaningful accomplishment – for self, others, and culture – is the more superficial of the two aims of meditation. It is a preliminary activity, not the main intention.

The traditional and ultimate aim of meditation is to transcend the false and tenacious belief in our mentally constructed individual self, upgraded or not, to reveal the further reaches of human potential, of human flourishing, that lies beyond. That noble intent seeks to actualize in our lifetime that subtle and persistent human felt sense that there must be “more to life.” Those, across time and diverse cultures, who have gone beyond the confines of the personal self universally affirm that there is more to life than our ordinary consciousness can know.

That realization, however, cannot be achieved by further effort, striving, discipline, accumulating more and more knowledge, developing advanced meditative skills, seeking the isolation of retreat, or increasing levels of method-dependent mental calm. It cannot be attained through sequential steps of self-development. The ultimate aim of meditation is not to solidify, enhance, improve, or strengthen the illusion of a personal self but rather to deconstruct the mentally fabricated belief that we are our personal self.

The profound awakening to universal truth, oneness, compassion, inner wisdom, boundless freedom, and our essential Self can only be experienced beyond the confines of our individual self. It cannot be gained by “doing a better person,” irrespective of the sincere intent or quality of that doing.

For ease of discussion I referred to two possible paths that become available when one turns inward. However, the second path is not actually a path. It is not as if we can GPS it. It is not a movement from one place to another, from a starting point to a specific location, from an intention to a goal. That is not what this second “path” is. Here we begin with the faith and inner knowing, the assumption, that we already are what we seek.

We already are truth, freedom, wisdom, and heart, and have always been. That essential self has always been available to us. It is not developed through effort or achievement. There is nothing further to create, develop, or attain. All that’s required is a turning away from the false learned belief in a personal self and a turning inward towards a simple yet profound effortless presence.

So what is this second “path?” It’s no more or less than revealing what is already there by removing the obstacles that obscure our true and ever-present nature. We simply need to remove these obscurations and create the conditions and circumstances that spontaneously disclose our true self, welcome as the poet says, the stranger who once was ourself.

How do we “do” this? Awakening to the true self (irrespective of the culture, philosophical, shamanistic, meditative or religious traditions) is identical in its essence. The first and essential condition is ego-dissolution, the loss of our exclusive and tenacious belief that we are the personal self, a “self” patched together by the mind from past experience, memory, and the habits of conditioning. Once our belief in the ego self dissolves, we are released from the shackles of this illusion and then the essence of life spontaneously reveals itself by itself. That is the universal awakening experience simple and effortless, requiring only openness, a welcoming attitude, spaciousness, letting go, and letting be.

Fortunately, we have all had the experience of ego dissolution more than once. We just didn’t recognize it at the time. Remember a time – in nature, intimacy, dance, music, art – when for a moment or longer you experienced a state of flow, joy, peace, and wholeness. Everything felt complete and natural. Unknown to you at that time, the momentary life circumstance allowed your personal self to spontaneously and effortlessly dissipate, revealing the experience of the transcendent state.

However, it is different to encounter this as a fleeting serendipitous experience, with little understanding of its significance, than to know it as the essence of oneself with intention and stability. So you have had the experience but missed its meaning. You had a glimpse of what lies beyond the ordinary mind and self. You had a glimpse of the experience of ego dissolution and the revelation of your true self. Next time you will understand the meaning.

When guiding an individual along the first path of meditation, we teach methods to calm the mind, to attain greater mindfulness, and offer lectures, and readings. The formula is learning, reflection, and practice. When teaching the second “path, we abandon methods and directly point at the true self, immediately, from the beginning.

We each have an organic knowing of our true self. We know the feeling of spaciousness, flow, openness, and a natural stillness. We know non-effort, an empty mind, a welcoming soul. It may be a rare experience for you, but I assure you that you retain an organic memory of your essence. With the proper pointing every individual can rapidly drop into their natural self and abide in it for periods of time, gaining familiarity, confidence, and whenever grace finds you ready, a second spiritual birth.

At first your well habituated mind will draw you back. Expect that. It has been protecting its throne your entire life. You will hear comments from your ordinary self like: “It can’t be that simple,” “How can I live this in ordinary life,” “I can’t ‘get there’ by myself.” In time we learn to let these self-sabotaging Siren calls pass like clouds in the sky, leaving no trace.

We discover that the lesser, the ordinary mind, cannot comprehend or access the larger mind through its logic, commentary, or doing, but the larger self can comprehend and transform the smaller self. We get two for one. By letting go of who we are not and progressively living in who we truly are we attain both aims of meditation – living in the essential self yet having access to an upgraded personal self, a healthier illusion to play with in the world.

When we first start a formal daily meditation practice, we call that formal time a sitting “meditation.” After the session is over our daily life that follows is called “post meditation.” Now I am pointing to a more advanced understanding of meditation. Whenever you are fully present in your essential self, truth, or authentic nature you are right then, in that moment, in “meditation,” whether that is in your formal practice session or during your usual daily activities. Whenever you are lost in your personal self, its projections, dramas, reactions, and doings, you are in “post-meditation” whether during a formal session or during your daily life. What is essential is your presence and beingness in life, not the formality of a scheduled session.

Once we cease effort, struggle, strategies, manipulation, control, methods, and all similar “doings’ of our ordinary self, we are invited to simply and naturally drop into the effortless awareness of our natural self. Actually, dropping in isn’t quite the term. Once we establish the welcoming conditions our natural self, without effort, spontaneously reveals itself. We clean our room, open the window, and with grace the gentle wind of serenity, contentment, and freedom will gift us the experience of our natural and full possibilities.

Then we will know that in actuality the essence and true experience of meditation is merely a simple awareness, openness, presence and human beingness. Meditation is not a method, but life itself fresh, alive, and vital in each moment. Then there will be no distinction between “meditation” and your life. You will have become who you always have been. Simple, no fireworks, no exaltation, just full being. How ordinary. How stunning.


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Written by Elliott Dacher MD

Explore Wellness in 2021