Self-Improvement That Works: Life-Improving Changes

Written by Joe Cohen, BS | Last updated:

Most of us have a strong innate desire to become better and self-improve. I sure have this desire. Over the years, I’ve found some kinds of self-improvement enhanced my well-being, while other kinds just made me less happy and more neurotic.

Defining The Terms: The “Aware Mind” vs The “Narrative Mind”

For the purpose of this post, I’d like to define two phrases that I’ve never heard before, so I’m assuming you might not know what I’m talking about. Our cognitive processes, based on what we are capable of experiencing can be broken down into two different states of mind: the “aware mind” and what I’ll call the “narrative mind.”

There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have had a clue as to what these two mind states were 7 or more years ago. This is because I never paid close attention and thought my narrative or thinking mind was my only mind. But through reading and listening to people speak about these topics, I started to become more aware and pay more attention, which resulted in understanding how our states of mind can be different.

The “aware mind” is what we associate with being. It’s that mentality that knows what words to say or notes to play next without thinking about it. It knows how to play chess, program, write and make complex calculations without thinking about how to do these activities. It’s capable of being aware of our internal states like motivation, mood, love, and desires that sweep over us.

The aware mind is what takes over when you’re fully engaged in a sport and you stop thinking – although complex brain function hasn’t ceased at all. This aware mind is what is responsible for our experiences.

Hence, when longtime meditators shut their narrative or thinking mind down, the aware mind is left and they start to have peak experiences because they are in a state of pure being (as I understand it). In short, it’s a state of flow, where our autopilot system takes over.

In contrast, the “narrative mind” is what we see as the thinking mind because it’s doing all of the thinking that we’re aware of.

This is the mind that most people associate with ‘themselves’. We think we are a collection of our thoughts. This is the Ego or the “I”. It’s our sense of self, distinct from others, and we usually experience it as the conscious mind.

We think this mind calls the shots and makes our decisions for us. I call this the narrative mind because it’s what constructs an imaginary narrative of who you are or what you think you should be.

It’s that voice in your head that speaks the same language as you do.

Sometimes this voice compliments you and sometimes it puts you down. Whatever the case, it always constructs a narrative and this narrative usually matches your emotional state instead of absolute reality.

Sometimes it can be right, but more than often it’s deluded. If your brain chemistry is off and you’re in a shitty mood, the narrative mind will start negative talk about how we’re no good or life is pointless.

If our brain chemistry produces a good state, we start complimenting ourselves and saying to ourselves how we’re the best thing since sliced rye bread. We become optimistic about our future.

If our brain chemistry produces a sour state, we start putting ourselves down. We become pessimistic about our future. Sometimes, we try to overcome this by thinking positive thoughts, which usually just creates more delusions or masks our underlying feelings. We’re just sweeping the dirt under the rug, but it’s still there.

The more time you use thinking with your narrative mind, the stronger it will become and the more you use your aware mind the more powerful it likewise becomes.

Meditation is an activity that strengthens the aware mind, while rumination and dwelling strengthen your narrative mind.

Dan Harris talks about the narrative mind:

Trying To Change Ourselves Goes Against Mindfulness and Meditation

The gist of mindfulness and meditation is about being aware of what is happening in our narrative mind and/or body, without trying to control it or influence it in any way.

There was a time when I was into meditating and I found that it helped in quieting the narrative mind and building awareness, but I also realized that there were lower hanging fruit that I didn’t take advantage of, so I stopped meditating for the most part (I’d like to get back into it, though).

I think meditation has many benefits, which are now supported by science and I will post about it in the future, but people think that the only way to change is to “do something” and so we meditate as a sort of activity. We feel good about ourselves for ‘accomplishing’ another task. We brag to our friends about how we meditate and how wonderful it is.

This attitude goes against the spirit of meditation, which is to get you to be comfortable with doing and accomplishing absolutely nothing. This is in contrast to the rest of our waking state, where we are usually doing, thinking or striving. It’s meant to silence the narrative mind or what you think of as “You” and show you there’s another world lurking in your brain: the aware mind.

When you deactivate the narrative mind and delegate all of your operations to your aware mind, you start being instead of thinking or doing. (And by the way, not ‘doing’ doesn’t mean you won’t get anything done. If you’re skilled at shutting the narrative mind down and cultivating your aware mind, then the doing comes out of the being.)

The problem is when meditation is over, we go back to living our lives the same way as always. We don’t see meditation as a practice of living a certain way in the real world. In truth, meditation is the training ground for how to live the rest of our lives when we’re not meditating, not some checklist accomplishment. It’s the push-ups for a fighting tournament, not the actual tournament.

What this means is the same way you don’t try to control, influence or direct your thoughts in meditation, you shouldn’t influence or direct them in the real world.

Do you make it your business to think about how to change some aspect about “You” while meditating? No – at least not if you’re meditating correctly.

If some thought like that enters your mind, the meditation practice teaches us to see it as an object that has no value and to wait until it passes (at least mindfulness meditation).

People adopt practices like meditation to help them and then they enter the real world and try to control everything, nullifying to a large degree the effects of meditation.

People will meditate and then read some motivation blog about how we need to improve ourselves or change our mindset. We are told we need to convince ourselves to do or be anything. This is the antithesis to mindfulness and meditation.

There’s absolutely nothing you need to improve about yourself or attain to be happy, except basic needs or maybe improving your brain chemistry if you were dealt a bad hand.

If you stop all of your thinking, your being will take over and accomplish what you are destined to accomplish (based on your talents, opportunities, etc.).

I’ve barely meditated in my life but had much of the benefits of meditation by living a more mindful life and not segregating it to a half hour on a cushion. I would pay attention to the thoughts that were racing through my mind as much as possible and try to think if they were helpful or not.

My experiences over 5 years have taught me that thoughts are never helpful, and they’re usually damaging in some way.

It took me a while to figure this out because I didn’t trust what various Buddhists like Jon Kabat-Zinn were saying. I needed to experience it for myself. I slowly, but surely, did. I needed to experience that all of the thoughts in my mind about the future were never accurate at all or helpful in any way.

By using our conscious mind to try and change our personality or our current state, the overall effect is an increase of the narrative mind and a decrease of the aware mind.

Almost all of the benefits of meditation, mindfulness and paying close attention to our moment-to-moment conscious experience goes out the window.

Meditation may teach us how to pay attention and be aware, but most of the time our philosophy is warped that it doesn’t help us.

We think we need to attain some position in life to be happy, so we go back to striving after meditation. I think this may be why studies don’t capture the full benefits of the meditation practice. By people meditating, their mental conditions improve, but if they don’t implement the spirit of meditation to the rest of their lives, the benefits are more limited.

The reason this practice is helpful for a variety of mental conditions like anxiety and depression is that it eliminates the problems that our narrative mind creates.

When we believe that our narrative mind is the seat of power, we try to use it more to influence our lives and that creates all kinds of internal strains and neuroses. When we let things be as they are, we build our aware mind indirectly.

The more I valued the thoughts that predominated in my head, the more attached to them I became and the less I was able to let go.

The problem is many of us believe that we can use thoughts to control our lives in a specific way, so we elevate them to a higher a status and take them very seriously. The result is we don’t want to let these thoughts go. So we let them predominate and form attachments to everything, which creates all kinds of mental toxins.

I had a hard time with this concept. I believed some thoughts weren’t important, but some were. Only time and experience were able to disillusion me.

As I paid attention to my patterns of thinking and the outcomes that resulted from these patterns, I realized that practically none of my thoughts improved any outcome in my life. Getting rid of them – more accurately, seeing them for what they are – only improved my life.

We mostly aren’t in control of what enters our mind, but if we feel that the thoughts that do enter our mind are important this will feed the thought fire and we’ll become more attached as a result of dwelling.

If we realize that they are simply just a reflection of our current biological/emotional state, then that will help us let them go.

What We Should and Shouldn’t Try to Change

While our beliefs and what we think can influence our emotional well-being, it doesn’t mean we can influence some specific trait with our conscious mind.

This is where the self-help movement goes awry. They acknowledge the partial truth that negative thoughts are bad, but then they think that positive thoughts are good.

Whether your thoughts are positive or negative, you are setting yourself up for negative emotions in the future.

The problem with positive thoughts is that they just add to the house of thought cards you built to describe yourself. When this house faces reality, it will come crashing down and you will be depressed.

If you tell yourself you’re good looking, you may have an encounter with the opposite sex that might suggest otherwise and you’ll become unhappy for a bit. It’s better not to build any picture of yourself at all.

The only way our lives will change for the better is, ironically, by relegating our thoughts to a status that we don’t pay much attention to.

We should treat them kind of like how we treat the deranged and homeless. When they talk to us, we don’t take what they say seriously. If they say we’re no good, we don’t care. If they say we’re great, we also don’t care. What do they know, we say to ourselves? But even with this knowledge, sometimes we can’t shut them up, so we kind of listen, but we still never take them seriously.

On the other hand, if someone with status tells us we’re no good or we’re great, this influences us a lot, because we place value in what they say.

If we place value in our thoughts, the same thing will happen. Instead of trying to shut them up, we should be aware and see them as objects that don’t have any serious value.

As Kabat-Zinn says, we should die on purpose. If we see our lives and thoughts as an unfolding movie, they take on less significance.

I’ve found that after a while, if you sincerely believe that your thoughts are just delusions and biological facts we can’t control, the voice eventually shifts to other topics that have nothing to do with you (perhaps to your work or creative projects, etc.).

So, for example, let’s say I have thought such as I’m no good at something. The first step is to be aware of this thought. Then I’ll try to determine if my biology has gone awry, which is usually the case. Am I in a bad mood in general, I’ll ask myself? This can happen sometimes if I stay up all night or maybe I’m not eating healthy or I’m not exercising or getting enough sun, etc.

If my biology is fine, then the only other possibility is my thinking mind has gone awry. This usually happens because I’m taking myself too seriously, doing too much or striving too much.

This won’t necessarily increase traits such as mood or motivation, but it’ll surely decrease your level of neuroticism and perhaps free your mind to pursue more productive endeavors.

Examples of things we should try to do/change:

  • Be more aware by being mindful and meditating
  • Pay more attention and listen better to our thoughts, bodies, and patterns – mainly by simplifying, doing less and building awareness
  • Be more mindful – paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, non judgmentally, as if our life depended on it
  • Live life more experientially
  • Let go – of our attachments and impulses
  • Accept who we are
  • Simplify our lives
  • Not judge
  • Be more patient

The first 4 bullet points are the same thing, but I just thought I should say it differently.

Examples of things we shouldn’t try to change with our thoughts:

Some of these traits can change, but only as a byproduct from changing the things that you can change. So you’ll become less neurotic if you cultivate your aware mind, relegate your narrative mind and practice letting go.

Otherwise, we may be able to change these things by alternative means such as through drugs/supplements, devices, lifestyle changes or perhaps through changes in environments.

If you increase orexin or take pregnenolone, you’ll become more motivated. If you hang out with more conscientious people, you’ll likely become more conscientious.

What will not work is actively trying to change these directly, especially through our thoughts. And if it does work to some degree (hasn’t for me), you will pay for it in other ways.

How Neuroticism Results From Trying To Control Your Life

Neuroticism is characterized by anxiety, moodiness, anger, guilt, depressed mood, worry, jealousy, and emotional instability.

People, especially neurotic people, have this need to control everything. I had this more than anyone else I knew: It’s called OCD and I was neurotic like hell. I was so neurotic that I had daily panic attacks -multiple times in the day, actually.
I have a friend who spent 20 years trying to tweak his mental state in an attempt to like working and better his mood. After 20 years, the only thing that changed was his level of neuroticism (it went up). After realizing he couldn’t change who he is, his level of neuroticism went down dramatically. It took him 20 years to realize that he couldn’t change who he is, which is why I’m presenting these ideas to you.

I’ve come to realize, slowly, but surely, over a period of 5 years that trying to change who we are or become something we aren’t, not only doesn’t work but is harmful to our emotional well-being and will result in an increase in neuroticism.

When trying to change our personality with a top-down approach, what we are doing is dwelling on things that we have little control over in reality. We are in essence rejecting who we are and instead hoping to be more like something/someone else we’re not and this, in turn, creates an internal strain.

When we see Elon Musk, we ask ourselves how can we be more motivated like him?

Let me tell you a little secret: the only person you’re ever going to be is yourself. You will never be Elon Musk, nor should you try. Whatever you are currently, is what you should accept.

Trying to increase your motivation is like trying to change your desire for sex. How can we understand sticking our tongue into someone else’s mouth and enjoying it?

Unless you believe in Christian Gay to Straight camps, men who like men will always be like this. The point is, our nature is fixed and we can’t control who we are.

Preoccupying our conscious mind with these attempts to change ourselves creates attachments and attachments hinder our ability to let go.

Dwelling on these matters makes us want it more, but the only way we can increase something like motivation in the short term is by increasing psychological stress.

The same can be said for trying to become happy, another rather inflexible trait. In America, we make it a point to pursue happiness. We’re the only country in the world that has it written in our constitution that we have “a right to pursue happiness.”

While I agree that we should have this freedom, studies show that this pursuit of happiness just makes us more neurotic, more self-conscious and less happy [1].

We experience more stress because there is a gap between what we want and what we have, where we want to be and where we are now and who we are and who we want to become.

By making it a preoccupation of our mind, our subconscious is tricked into thinking that bridging this gulf is more important than it really is for our survival and well-being and activates the necessary systems to create anxiety and fear to try and bridge this gap.

We put so much emphasis on “hacks” to increase our productivity and change who we are and at best we break even on getting more done and in many cases we may even become less productive.

Is it any wonder why Tim Ferris (see link) is one of the most neurotic people around? He is constantly striving to change who he is. I don’t blame him. It’s not like he chose to be this way. We latch on to his hacks in the hope that we will transform ourselves (become more motivated, happier, etc.).

I think it’s important to realize that all of these pep talks and motivational sites you read aren’t helping you succeed in any way, but are rather just increasing your anxiety and only making you feel good while you read them. But once we finish reading them that good feeling goes right back down.

Again, if we place so much importance on our conscious mind and we try to influence our life with it, it just creates internal strain, attachments, anxiety and causes you to be emotionally less balanced.

I used to be so afraid of losing or forgetting my thought patterns because I placed so much importance on my thoughts.

I now believe that there’s no value in these thoughts or thought patterns and they can be harmful if I take them too seriously and dwell on them.

Of course, I still have tons of chatter in my mind, but I realize it for what it is – something largely out of my control and that doesn’t improve my life.

I probably should meditate more and reduce them, but I don’t feel any compelling need to since I’m happy and anxiety-free (I rarely meditate now). If that changes, then I’ll probably take it up again.

As long as we experience negative emotions, it means that we haven’t truly accepted who we are and our limitations and we’re still trying to control some process (assuming your biology is sound).

If you want/strive for something more, you’ll also more likely be jealous when you see others have it.

The act of striving or wanting is essentially not accepting your current reality as it is.

And anger is essentially a result of frustration in not having things work out the way you want them to.

When you’re constantly willing some end result or trying hard to control some process, frustration will increase if you can’t get there, which will lead to anger.

The bottom line is that there are serious negatives that come along with trying to implement the advice of the self-help movement.

By Not Controlling The Process, You Can Get Into A State of Flow More Easily

Many people use some form of letting go and not controlling the process to increase performance. When you stop trying to control your life, you’re more likely to get into a state of flow more often.

When you do things in a spontaneous fashion, your brain doesn’t process it in the same way that when you do the same activity in a highly planned way.

Spontaneous activities seem like play and fun, while highly planned and goal-oriented actions feel like work.

Any sport or game, whether it be tennis, surfing or chess, you aren’t controlling the process. Sure, in the beginning, you tried to figure out what to do and required a very small bit of planning, but eventually, you just practiced and let yourself get good at it. You just play the game a lot and allow your talent to be expressed.

In the same vein, Nobel prize winners don’t plot their path to success or plan their lives too much – they just focus on the science and their innate talents and fate take care of the rest.

What this means is I am against all of Tim Ferris’s productivity/motivational/mood hacks and any other person with advice on accomplishing more through additions.

I am against any organized attempt to improve. I sometimes look at what Tim Ferris does to market himself, what makes him popular and how he utilizes new technology, but I don’t employ any of his hacks for productivity or motivation, nor do I think other people would gain from this. All of these hacks are just distracting us from getting into a state of flow.

My only advice for productivity is to simplify your life. Anything that you can subtract from your life is a simplification. This includes subtracting thoughts, plans, possessions, and time-saving hacks.

As far as motivation, pick a path where your talents express itself most and you will be motivated to do this. If you find yourself struggling to be motivated, then aim to switch career paths. If you can’t find an area that captures you, keep searching.

Bruce Lee had something to say about this. This message is more Taoistic, but it isn’t really different than what I’m discussing. When you lose control, you go where the tide takes you. He says:

“Be formless … shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You pour water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put water into a teapot; it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow….or crash! Be water, my friend …” – Bruce Lee

The Pathogenesis of The “Limitless” Thought Virus

It’s important to investigate what causes us to try and change our personality, to begin with.

There are four main reasons why we have the limitless thought virus that we do today – the magical belief that we can do anything.

First, the modern environment has created a condition more than ever where there is a gulf between what we want and what have – and that’s caused by capitalism. After all, it’s the job of marketers to convince us to want more stuff.

Second, there is a gap between our the levels of motivation that we’ve evolved to have and the levels that we need to attain success. Capitalism and globalism have created a system where competition is fierce. It’s never been harder to get into Harvard. Never in history have we had the same level of meritocracy. With a meritocracy comes fierce competition. Once upon a time, things might be made right and you just duked it out – there was no real need for motivation.

Third, we think that the conscious mind plays such a big role because many times “You” consciously “decided” to change in a certain way and you did indeed change.

Well, the rooster crows and the sun comes up, but the rooster didn’t cause the sun to rise. Your conscious mind thought something and you may have changed, which gave you the illusion that your conscious mind is in control and caused the change. But in reality, it’s likely that our subconscious mind had already chosen before we even realized it (see the illusion of choice).

Fourth, there are strong cultural influences that emphasize our ability to control our future.

The West has been heavily influenced by science and the Judeo-Christian religions.

Judeo-Christianity emphasized the concept of free will and heightened our self-consciousness. It made us believe that this self has a large role in shaping our choices and that we have the power to change and choose.

Accordingly, we were lead to believe that humans are completely different than animals (anthropocentrism). This gave rise to the concept of dualism, which was popularized by Descartes, who was influenced heavily by Christian ideas.

Science gave us the hope and belief that we can change our lives in this world through manipulation (which is true to a degree).

America is particularly stricken by this thought virus that we can change anything because it tended to attract the most optimistic people (I’m naturally optimistic myself) – we’re the land of opportunity, after all.

Whenever you have a majority/plurality of people with a specific genetic predisposition, a culture starts to take root based on those traits. Germans, as a whole, are naturally punctilious and that molds their culture. So even if you’re not naturally punctilious, you will become more so if you live in Germany. In America, we’ve historically attracted the people who are genetically optimistic and that influenced American culture.

The Internal Strain

We have many biological systems (or neural networks) that are competing against each other.

For example, one innate system may want status, while another innate system doesn’t like the hard work that is required to attain that status.

So we were born with X level of work ethic and motivation, but this level isn’t enough to achieve the status level that we desire.

So, naturally, not willing to let go of our ambitions, we try to increase the other side of the equation – our work ethic, motivation, etc.

And so we adopt mantras and turn to self-help books for answers. 98% of the ideas they offer are truisms, but we eat it up anyway.

We try to implement their ideas, but we eventually – maybe – realize that nothing works. Some people never quit and go from one book to another, only to end up in the same place as before, or worse.

You may think it helps in the short term, but there’s a reason you haven’t kept practicing these ideas for a prolonged period of time: they don’t work the way we want them to.

And so we are faced with this internal strain that we are dealing with our whole life and we feel there is no escape.

This is why the limitless mindset is so tempting – it gives us the false hope that we can do everything – take life easy and accomplish everything we’ve ever wanted to.

My approach is simple, but not an easy one of letting go of your need to accomplish anything. Disengage from your desire for status, influence or power. Stop trying to get anywhere and just allow your system to be without trying.

About the Author

Joe Cohen, BS

Joe Cohen, BS

Joe Cohen flipped the script on conventional and alternative medicine…and it worked. Growing up, he suffered from inflammation, brain fog, fatigue, digestive problems, insomnia, anxiety, and other issues that were poorly understood in traditional healthcare. Frustrated by the lack of good information and tools, Joe decided to embark on a learning journey to decode his DNA and track his biomarkers in search of better health. Through this personalized approach, he discovered his genetic weaknesses and was able to optimize his health 10X better than he ever thought was possible. Based on his own health success, he went on to found SelfDecode, the world’s first direct-to-consumer DNA analyzer & precision health tool that utilizes AI-driven polygenic risk scoring to produce accurate insights and health recommendations. Today, SelfDecode has helped over 100,000 people understand how to get healthier using their DNA and labs.
Joe is a thriving entrepreneur, with a mission of empowering people to take advantage of the precision health revolution and uncover insights from their DNA and biomarkers so that we can all feel great all of the time.


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