QUESTION: After a good few years of working hard towards personal improvement and continually tripping over myself, I'm struggling to see any real change in my propensity for being foolish. Given the depth of my defectiveness, how realistic is it to expect a significant change at the human level?
SHORT ANSWER: Wrong target.
LONGER ANSWER: To err is human. It does not end. Insight might grow, but that is not an end in itself. Insight might give rise to boredom, however, which could be useful. There is an inevitable self-contradiction - and, therefore, self-defeat - in the notion of ‘self-improvement’. However, while we are ‘struggling to see’, the Buddhas can see us perfectly well already. We do not need to do their job for them, just play our own part.
Actually, viewing from the outside, an observer might well see great ‘improvement’ in you at the same time as you yourself find more and more reason to despair. It is not self-improvement that is required, only a diminution in self-concern. From that might well flow various observable ‘virtues’, but it is not by directly cultivating them that Dharma arrives. They are symptoms and by-products.
This is why teachers say, “Just do the practice and there will be no need to worry.” Chasing after an improved view of oneself is futile. Sometimes, when we examine ourselves, we see virtues and sometimes vices, but it is all just a hall of mirrors. In the morning I do my work. At lunchtime I prune the roses. In the afternoon I do a different job. In the evening I eat my dinner. Namo Amida Bu. Namo Amida Bu. Have I 'improved' in the process? Who knows! It is not my concern.
Yes, I very much realize that the struggle toward self-improvement could be easely aleviated by the "diminution of self-concern". The problem lies probably in the "struggling". Why not instead try to do our best?
I guess that much of the time we do not know what the "best" is. We do what we do and much of the time we have very little idea of the conditions that shape what we do, nor do we take in the full range of real alternatives. The "best" that we could in theory do may often lies hidden among the possibilities that we never even consider.
:-) You never know. Namo Amida Bu.