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.