Suppose you start studying a new skill. For the sake of argument, let’s say you take up cordon-bleu cooking, learning to prepare elaborate meals for yourself, your family, and your friends. The apparent subject matter of your studies is “food.” Choosing and buying ingredients, setting up menus, practicing techniques, everything you study revolves around food.
Well, that’s an illusion.
If you’re a really good student, everything you study revolves around yourself. How do you interact with your cooking teacher? What kind of listener are you? Do you tend to jump to conclusions and start preparing a dish even before the teacher finished explaining things? And when there’s a little accident in the school kitchen, how do you react to it? Do you get angry when a colleague takes your wooden spoon without asking for permission? Or are you afraid of conflict, so you make nice-nice with absolutely everyone in school, including the notorious child molester?
That’s what you are studying at all times: your own reactions and behaviors, your assumptions, your habits. If while learning how to cook you learn something about yourself—and, better still, if you change some of your psychic energies from negative to positive, from destructive to constructive—then you are working on yourself.
It may be counterintuitive to many people, but you actually learn anything faster and better if you pay attention to your own self first and foremost, and to the subject being studied only secondarily, be it cordon-bleu cooking, trigonometry, or sanskrit. There’s a fine line between self-awareness and self-absorption, of course, but navigating that particular zone also is an integral part of working on yourself.
The principle applies universally. That’s why doing even seemingly banal things like calling a friend on the phone or going around the corner to the bodega to buy a pack of bananas can be called “working on yourself.” When you pursue any one activity mindlessly, you’re letting your psychic energies dissipate and stagnate. When you enter any one activity with a mixture of curiosity and commitment, you’re renewing and refreshing your psychic energies.
Some tasks you face when working on yourself are huge—patching a troubled marriage, for instance, or coming to terms with disease. Others are much smaller. The idea is for you to become good at working on yourself regardless of the task. Start small if you need to, and hone your skills by opening up your curiosity about yourself and your commitment to the here and now, in the bodega and beyond.
And while you’re at it, get some Häagen-Dazs to go with those bananas.