Your life is a mirror reflecting the state of your inner world.

To see clearly you must first polish your mirror to clear it of what distorts the truth: your obscuring self-deception. You’re probably thinking that cleaning your mirror is a job you can literally see yourself doing. I say that in jest, however, the Greek mythological figure Narcissus didn’t think his reflection was a joke. He couldn’t take his eyes off his handsome form mirrored in the water; for him it was a trap. Nothing could tempt him from his self-absorption, which is the case with quite a few people.

Narcissus would have difficulty staying in my monastery because our monastic quarters have not a single looking glass. This is sometimes eye-opening to visitors. I recall a specific time when a new student came to stay at the monastery and was completely shocked that there were no mirrors. He was flabbergasted. He was no longer looking at the reflection in the bathroom mirror, he was looking at himself in a different way: inner reflection.

Self-improvement starts with breaking self-deception and learning to face the truth. You must honestly witness, then evaluate, how your mental, emotional, and behavioral actions obscure the truth. Once you are able to reflect on yourself in this way and are able to see where you struggle, then you can begin to improve yourself.

I once led a self-improvement workshop where most of the sixty to seventy participants were ordinary people looking to better themselves. I asked them to find five personal shortcomings that they possessed. It was very challenging for them to do this! A few of the participants produced at least three imperfections, the others less; then, one gentleman said, “I think you should ask my spouse.”

It’s much easier for you to point out areas where other people can improve rather than seeing your own flaws. This is how it usually is. You have difficulty looking at your imperfections, so you tell yourself lies, stay in your self-deception, and thus never can clearly reflect on what areas need improvement. Self-reflection begins with polishing your mirror until it’s free from the stains of such lies. Unfortunately, many of us don’t want to look at the truth of our imperfections; we want to stay in denial. But, as the saying goes, denial is not a river in Egypt.

Start by Being Honest

There is no hope of changing your perspective when you deny the truth. That is why it is crucial to steer clear of lying altogether. To completely give up lying is quite tricky. Even trivial lies—like those standard varieties that you tell people to encourage them or make them feel better—must be abandoned. They may seem harmless, but these lies do not help our efforts to break free of self-deception. When you encounter a situation where there is no way for you to tell the truth, it is better to just stay silent. You could, however, skillfully redirect the conversation. For example, you can look at what qualities the person you are talking to truly has and then say something encouraging to them based on that. There are always some good things you can point out. Even if you can’t eliminate lies completely, at least try to reduce their frequency. Be strict about it. The very foundation of all practice is moving closer to the truth. You can’t do this if you encourage detachment from reality.

Break Subconscious Habits

It’s important to be consciously aware that no one is perfect—and neither are you. We are all flawed, and that’s what makes us a variety of interesting people. Some of your unrecognized “flaws” are not problematic. Others can cause you a lot of hardship, particularly the ones caused by your habitual tendencies. Insidious, ingrained habits can form from your past actions and experiences. Your past shapes your perception of the present. Suppose you grew up in a place where there were lots of green plants, so you grew comfortable with the color green. You see someone for the first time, and you don’t pay close attention to them; instead, you focus on the green shirt they are wearing. Because of this, you get a good feeling about them. Later, however, someone tells you that they are out on parole for murder. As a result, your perception of that person quickly changes. We all do this. You have certain conditioned tendencies that can blind you to faults, especially your own. These are caused by many different factors, by various causes and conditions, mainly because your life is intimately entwined with everyone and everything around you.

You are not who you think you are—you’ve formed a lot of subconscious habits over the years that are probably unknown to you. That’s why you need the input of those you trust, and you need to pay close attention to your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. If you can’t see your flaws, there is no self-improvement. 

Keep an Open Mind

Just like me, I’m sure you would like to have happiness. But to be happy, you must be honest and see what needs to be changed inside yourself. The world around you reflects you back, mirroring personal information that can help in this regard. It can also offer tips on where you’re struggling and solutions to your issues. Your ego has a way of obscuring areas you struggle with, so you must make certain to consider other people’s feedback about you. It’s not easy to see your own issues, you need a good, honest person to tell you about them.

You are not who you think you are

When you receive unpleasant feedback, try to resist the impulse to defend yourself with lies or get angry. Don’t dirty up your mirror with denial. Take some time to reflect on whether another person’s assessment of you and your behavior is correct or not. If you keep an open mind, you can use this as an opportunity to transform a weakness into a strength. Self-improvement is one of the most important aspects of your life, but to do it properly you need a clear mirror—you need honest feedback. 

Study Cause and Effect

Part of self-knowledge is seeing how we humans operate in relation to one another and our surroundings. You are in a relationship with the world around you, and this relationship is based on causality. This means it’s a cause-and-effect relationship. Some people use causality to explain away their misfortunes; they blame their problems on a case of bad karma. But ruminating on and blaming yourself for some horrible thing you might have done in your past is ineffective; it just doesn’t help matters. We all make mistakes.

When you think about it, everyone encounters some misfortune in their lifetime. Every one of these misfortunes has a rational cause. Naturally, you would like to solve your problems and to find their root source. However, this strong drive to have our problems work out is often why we latch on to the idea of concrete mystical beings who rule our lives behind the scenes. We drum up supernatural ways of eliminating our issues instead of taking personal accountability for them.

A thorough understanding of how cause and effect work in your own life equips you with real solutions to your problems. For example, about eight years ago, I had some bad abdominal pain. Knowing that the only way I could identify the actual cause of my ailment was by visiting a specialist, I sought out the help of a medical doctor. The physician said I needed to take a break from teaching for two months, rest, and continue to take medicine for nine months. Simply by acknowledging my problem and accepting that reality, I felt better. Despite considering the causes, I don’t get caught up in blame. Blame sullies your mirror of self-reflection. Instead, focus on accepting the reality of the problem and do what you can realistically do now. Identify rational causes, then proactively find real solutions.

Every kind of suffering can be remedied. To do that you must first clearly understand that there is no such thing as causeless suffering. When you know that wholesome activities have beneficial effects and unwholesome actions have unbeneficial results, you can then choose the best course of action for yourself. This means you have a measure of control over your destiny. 

Examine Your Motives

When we can witness the authentic truth, our direction in life becomes clearer. But getting to the truth is tricky. To illustrate this, take this story of a dedicated hiker who once decided to trek to a beautiful and picturesque plateau in the mountains with his enormous dog. His GPS stopped working halfway there, so he decided to ask someone in a nearby village for directions. Knowing that hiking can be dangerous if you get on the wrong path, the hiker was leery of any misinformation. Accordingly, he sought out guides that could give him the most honest directions and wanted to avoid anyone misleading. When he arrived at the village, he went to the information center and asked if he could meet with a couple of guides. He asked for one guide that was considered honest and one guide who was prone to lying. Before long, the two guides stood before him, wondering what he wanted. He asked them, “I’d like to hike to the plateau and was hoping to get directions from you.”

The more honest guide told the man that one would typically have to cross the river to go to the plateau, but since he had his large dog with him, he suggested hiking over the mountain first to get to the plateau. The man prone to lying told him the exact same thing! Since the two guides had given him the exact same answer, he felt that there was no way for him to tell which was the truth. The hiker was baffled, so he headed back to the information center and asked, “If the honest guide and the guide prone to lying said the same thing, how do I know what is true? Are they both lying or telling the truth?”

The center’s attendant said, “When the honest guide told you to cross the mountain, this was the truth. When the guide, prone to lying, told you to cross the mountain, clearly, they were telling you a lie.” The hiker looked bewildered, so the attendant explained the reasoning. “The guide prone to lying told you to cross the mountain knowing that the easiest way to the plateau is to take the boat across the river. They lied to you because crossing the mountain is not, in fact, the easiest path to take, so their intention was not considerate. The honest guide, telling you to cross the mountain, took your big dog into consideration. They knew you’d have difficulty finding a boat to take you and your dog across the river. Therefore, they encouraged you to cross the mountain in good faith. Really, honesty is a matter of motive. So, in terms of motivation, one guide clearly lied while the other clearly told the truth.”

Honesty is a matter of motive

Which is more honest: truth in words or truth in motive? When you want to give up self-deception in favor of self-knowledge, consider the reason why you’re doing what you’re doing. Reflect on the various factors and hidden motives behind your actions. The greater your understanding of this relationship between the truth and accepting the reasons behind things, the closer you are to reality, and thus, the less you’ll experience self-deception.

Remember that life is like a mirror: everything you perceive reflects your inner world. Cleaning your dirty mirror of distorting smudges means clearing self-deception and coming closer to the truth.

This article was excerpted and adapted from A Monk’s Guide to Finding Joy: How to Train Your Mind and Transform Your Life by Khangser Rinpoche, © Wisdom Publications July 2, 2024. Reprinted in arrangement with Wisdom Publications.

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