What is self-cultivation?

Some people just seem to have life figured out from day one. They’re the ones who know what they want to do before they can even walk straight. But for most of us, life feels more like a giant maze.

We start with those early school years, spending what feels like forever with textbooks. Only to realize later that much of what we learned doesn’t quite fit into the realities of an adult life.

Then comes the university years, the adventure years, the family years, the climbing up the career years, … 

And yet, there inevitably comes a moment —a quiet morning with a steaming cup of coffee, perhaps—when a whisper from within stirs our soul. ‘Wait a minute. How did I end up here? Is this really where I wanted to be?’

At some point, we all get the call and wake up to see the maze for what it is. 

To see that we are not where we thought we were. To see that the person who lived our life was not exactly the “I” in us. Perhaps it was family expectations, social pressure, cultural rules, chance, or all. 

Some choose to ignore the call. They pretend they are still dozing off, and that works for some.

Some choose to take the call and find their way through the maze, to figure out what they are, to understand their true selves.

But why?

Somehow finding one’s true self, finding meaning in one’s life, and discovering inner desires and passions feels like a path worth taking. It’s just that, a feeling of something being right. There is no peer-reviewed science or social studies research to support it. It’s just a hunch.

Questioning our old path and purpose is also about finding meaning in our experience of life.

It’s an inward path toward rediscovering the self outside the social norms and expectations.

The natural self

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an 18th-century philosopher and writer. He has this concept which he calls the “natural man.” Rousseau writes that people are born with an innate sense of self and goodness but social influences corrupt this natural state of being.

The “true self” or “natural self” refers to one’s authentic, genuine inner being. This self is free from external influences and societal expectations.

Psychologist Carl Rogers believes that the true self comes to light when our values, feelings, and actions align.

The true self is who we are, beyond the roles we play or the masks we wear to conform to our social norms.

The path to finding and nurturing this true self is self-cultivation.

Self-cultivation and finding the self

Cambridge Online Dictionary defines self-cultivation as “the development of your own mind and abilities through your own efforts.” 

Taking it at face value, the emphasis on the word ‘own’ could underscore that firstly, it is something you do with your ‘own’ mind. And secondly, it should come through your ‘own’ effort. Suggesting that no one can do the act of self-cultivation for us. Essentially, it implies that self-cultivation is a solo cultivation—an interesting lesson to keep in mind on the way!

The term cultivation is used in agriculture, for growing things, like cultivating tomatoes from seeds. A farmer is there to care for the seed to become ripe tomatoes! 

The idea of a farmer cultivating seeds is interesting because a farmer cannot force the seed to become tomatoes or bell peppers.  The farmer is only there to help the seeds become what they truly are.

Self-cultivation is about tending the soil and helping the growth of the true self. Just like the growth of a plant, it comes with acceptance, care, and patience.

Self-cultivation is about improving personal qualities and skills. It’s a process that starts with self-awareness and leads to personal growth and fulfillment. 

It’s about peeling through layers of superficiality and learned behavior to find what’s special about you. It’s about finding your place and discovering talents and potential.

A roadmap to self-cultivations

What does the path to self-cultivation look like? Given that most of us aren’t inclined to pack our bags and live a solitary life in a cave on a mountaintop, what can we do to take on such a journey? How can we take small steps toward it? Where can we find a roadmap to this?

Any learning process will have to include these three steps:

  1. Learning.
  2. Practice.
  3. Realization.

Let’s see how these steps could apply to self-cultivation.

1- Learning: Where to start?

Today, philosophy is seen as an academic topic, often a dry and technical one.

However, at its core, philosophy is about reflections on our existence. Beyond its technicality and complex prose, there exists a sincere effort to understand the human experience.

Apart from religion, philosophy is the only structured body of knowledge that addresses our state of being. Therefore, the path to self-cultivation naturally involves learning from philosophy.

Moreover, self-cultivation is a journey of learning about the self. Given the extensive empirical research in psychology on understanding the human experience, entering a path of self-cultivation necessitates learning from psychology.

So, both philosophy and psychology offer invaluable resources for the journey of self-cultivation.

2- Practice: What to expect?

In general, practice is about applying the learnings. In this context, it is about nurturing self-awareness and personal growth.

For example, in Chinese and Indian traditions, self-cultivation involves physical and mental exercises. These could be yoga, martial arts, meditation, or other breathing exercises. They also include working on moral virtues, managing desires, and rethinking habits and perceptions.

3- Realization: what does self-realization look like?

A human life is a work-in-progress project. So, no fixed destination serves as the goal of self-realization.

More like a tree that is always growing until it reaches its end, self-realization is a state of growth. However, it’s growing according to the nature of the self.

So, it could lead to personal fulfillment and achievements, whatever those might mean to us.

However, there is a tangible goal to self-realization. We call it satisfaction – the satisfaction of realizing a life worth living.

Self-cultivation philosophy

Christopher Gowans is a philosopher a professor of Philosophy at Fordham University in New York City.

Gowans argues that self-cultivation philosophies offer a path for growth in human life. They offer practical wisdom to guide the “untutored condition of human beings.”

In his book Self-Cultivation Philosophies in Ancient India, Greece, and China he explores different self-cultivation practices. For instance, in India, self-cultivation is reflected in texts like the Bhagavad Gita, Sāṃkhya and Yoga philosophies, and the teachings of Buddha. In Greece and Rome, it’s found in Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Pyrrhonism. Also, self-cultivation plays an important role in Chinese Confucianism, classical Daoism, and the Chan tradition(Zen).

Furthermore, in modern philosophy, discussion of self-cultivation could lead us to:

  • Carl Jung’s theories on individuation and the integration of unconscious
  • Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy of individual’s freedom and essence
  • Henri Bergson’s concept of creative evolution and becoming.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “Will to Power”
  • Martin Heidegger’s idea of authentic existence.
  • Simone de Beauvoir’s emphasis on individual choice.
  • William James and his focus on self-realization.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson’s stress on true self and individual truth.

Let’s briefly review some of these self-cultivation philosophies.

Self-cultivation Buddhism

Buddha’s teachings, found in the Pali Canon, are focused on liberation from suffering and attaining enlightenment.

Suffering in Buddhism covers dissatisfaction and unhappiness because of attachment, desire, and ignorance. As the Buddha stated in the First Noble Truth:

The noble truth of suffering (dukkha) is this: birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; disassociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering. In brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.


Also, Buddha emphasized that philosophical understanding should serve the purpose of overcoming suffering. His teachings, summarized in the Four Noble Truths, cover the nature of suffering, its origin, cessation, and the path to liberation.

According to Buddha, some desires are problematic and lead to suffering. While some other desires are compatible with enlightenment.

  1. For example, desires that can Lead to Suffering are:
    • Craving for material possessions, such as wealth or luxury items.
    • Desiring power or dominance over others.
    • Seeking sensory pleasures without moderation, like overindulgence in food or entertainment.

But, aspiration for spiritual growth or the well-being of others can be compatible with enlightenment.

  1. For example, desires that are compatible with Enlightenment are:
    • Aspiration for spiritual growth and understanding.
    • Compassion, and desire to ease the suffering of others.
    • Pursuit of knowledge and wisdom for the betterment of oneself and others.

However, excessive craving is detrimental. Since desires for material possessions or status can turn into obsessive cravings.

Impact of Craving on Spiritual Progress:

Excessive cravings can hinder spiritual progress in several ways. Having too many strong desires can slow down spiritual growth in several ways. First, it stops people from focusing on higher spiritual goals because they’re too busy chasing everyday wants.

Second, it makes them too attached to temporary pleasures or things, which get in the way of feeling truly satisfied and peaceful.

Third, it fills their minds with worries and frustrations, making it hard to think clearly and stay calm.

So, in brief, craving keeps people stuck in a cycle of always wanting more and feeling unhappy, stopping them from becoming wiser and more compassionate.

Understanding “No-Self” (Anatta):

Buddha links craving to the delusion of selfhood. Having a self is problematic since it leads to strong likes and dislikes and causes suffering.

So, Buddha’s teaching believes in “no-self” (anatta).

The idea of “no self” rejects the permanent, distinct self. However, there is an interconnected and “non-permanent” human experience of being.

The concept of “no-self” in Buddhism challenges the idea of a fixed identity. By realizing that there’s no permanent self, people can release ego-driven desires and attachments. This leads to spiritual growth and freedom from suffering.

To sum up, Buddha’s teachings emphasize overcoming craving, rooted in the delusion of selfhood. They also highlight the pursuit of liberation from suffering.

By practicing mindfulness through activities like meditation and reflection, individuals can become more aware of their desires and attachments. This awareness helps them make mindful choices that bring peace and fulfillment.

Self-cultivation Confucianism

Self-cultivation in Confucianism is focused on practicing righteousness, morality, good manners, and piety toward parents.

As a philosophy, Confucianism is concerned with improving the social self. Its goal is to bring order and righteousness to the society. So, practicing moral values and virtues can help one become a better version of themselves.

Also, self-cultivation means learning classic texts and developing moral virtues. Imitating ideal role models is another aspect of this path to self-cultivation. Since imitating the right role models makes learning from others much easier.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

– Confucius

The Analects of Confucius emphasize duty and advocate for ethical conduct and empathy. Confucius emphasizes cultural and peaceful endeavors. And promotes benevolent and culturally distinguished governance.

Self-cultivation Taoism

In Taoism, self-cultivation is about connecting with the natural way of the world. Taoist texts like the Zhuangzi and Tao Te Ching express a philosophy of life based on spontaneity and alignment with the Dao. The Dao is the creative natural order in the world and represents the harmony and balance in nature.

In Taoism, the idea of the “natural self” is a self that is attuned to its nature. So, self-cultivation is about finding authenticity and embracing the natural flow of life.

Taoism emphasizes living intuitively without the restraints of the rational mind. This means, letting go of overthinking and being in tune with our true selves.

So, Taoist teachings and practices aim to sprout intuitive ways and advocate living in harmony with everything around us.

Self-cultivation and wu wei

There is also this element of virtuosity that is often discussed in the context of wu wei and effortless action. It aligns with something that we might refer to as peak performance. Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi), expresses this idea in the Cook Ding story.

The story is about Lord Wen-hui observing a butcher, named Cook Ding, cutting an ox with remarkable skills.

When praised, Cook Ding attributes his mastery not to his skills but to his alignment with the Dao. He expresses that:

What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now– now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop, and spirit moves where it wants.

Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, p.47

So, according to Zhuangzi, by suspending conscious thinking and aligning with the Dao, the butcher can achieve a level of performance that would otherwise be unattainable.

To sum up, self-cultivation in Taoism is about reaching the “natural self” and innate talents through living spontaneously. By letting go of logical overthinking and force, one can find harmony in alignment with the Dao.


In conclusion, self-cultivation covers a diverse range of philosophies and practices. Self-cultivation is about improving life experience.

However, the definition of self-cultivation could mean differently depending on the definition of the self. For example, Confucianism focuses on cultivating the social self. Taoism is more focused on the personal self. And Buddhism offers a combination of both.

Self-cultivation practices although different, all aim for personal growth and improving life. And can be summarized in three stages:

  1. Self-awareness and self-knowledge: This is about uncovering thoughts, emotions, behaviors, values, and beliefs.
  2. Personal development and growth: This is about taking steps to foster growth and development. It involves continuous learning, improvement, and cultivating resilience.
  3. Self-realization: The last step is about self-fulfillment and integrating the found insight into our daily habits. It is about aligning our actions with values and finding purpose.


Gowans, Christopher W., Self-Cultivation Philosophies in Ancient India, Greece, and China (New York, 2021; online edn, Oxford Academic, 21 Oct. 2021), https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190941024.001.0001