“Advancement in spiritual life is dependent on the attitude of the follower.”
– Srila Prabhupada in ‘Nectar of Instruction’
Why people give up spiritual practices after an initial phase of enthusiasm? Or why is it that some, while externally professing to be spiritual leaders, may internally give up the discipline and land up with a duplicitous lifestyle?
Besides the spiritual explanations, there is also a lesser discussed factor – a human weakness – or a psychological factor.
A child tried solving mathematics problems but lacking a natural aptitude, he failed. In another test, he failed again. This happened a few times. What do you think the boy’s mind reasoned? “I am no good. I can never do well.”
When it was time for the next test, he had internally given up even trying- he had not learnt math’s skills but he did learn a dangerous phenomenon called ‘helplessness’ – learned helplessness. He has ‘learnt’ to be helpless. Initially he was failing but he kept trying. He had hope. But his redemption became zero when he believed it’s not worth even the effort.
The scientists first discovered this phenomenon with dogs which gave up trying to protect themselves from electric shocks, after forced to face it initially for some time. Later when the dogs had a chance to escape the pain, they relinquished the effort and thus suffered more.
Humans too become weak internally when they fail repeatedly and many decide to ‘give up’. More than our failures, our ‘learned helplessness ‘ – the giving up attitude seals the issue for us.
Many also give up spiritual practices after initial enthusiasm because in their private struggles they fail and feel guilty and inadequate. They try harder but soon realize the fight against their lower nature is formidable and they are puny in face of their wicked mind.
Besides, they also misunderstand the concept of ‘helplessly depending on God.’ The subconscious mind latches on to the ‘helpless’ in this phrase and ‘depending on God’ is abstract and inaccessible to them. Already there is helplessness feelings because of failure experience and now it gets fueled further when we hear we are anyways helpless in face of the onslaught of the indefatigable material nature. The fact that God is all powerful and kind doesn’t register in our inner consciousness because the overwhelming feeling of guilt and a sense of failure compels us to give up the struggle.
That’s why despite so many Holy Name seminars that we attend, we not only fail to improve our chanting, we also give up the effort to chant better. The inner dialogue is, “What’s the point? Mind is incorrigible; I can’t do it.” At such times the fact that God helps us or Holy Names have unlimited power doesn’t register in the mind, because the mind effortlessly picks up internal dialogues that take us away from god. It’s like the law of gravity- mind likes to slip further and we ‘learn’ to be helpless.
Interestingly however, you will notice there are a few other spiritualists who despite failures, are positively marching forward. Are they shameless or feel no moral compunction? Far from it, they have an internal strength and power known as ‘Vijnana maya Kosha ‘ – a developed sheath of wisdom, called by modern psychologists as Self efficacy. They also slip and may even fall down but they don’t fall away. They bounce back and march forward because they possess self-efficacy. Their sheath of wisdom and conscience is evolved and they are ready for spiritual life and all its challenges. They are on a journey home.
What is Self-Efficacy?
We know what is self-confidence. There are people who believe they are good and are confident of success. However, when it comes to specific tasks like managing a crowd or controlling diet, they may think they can’t do it. The confidence and belief on some particular activity is called self-efficacy.
I know people who are high achievers in the corporate world but due to low self-efficacy, give up spiritual discipline. I know a devotee friend who is very diffident but when it comes to deity worship or cleaning and crowd management services which can get real intense, he is always enthusiastic and possesses high self-efficacy.
People with strong self-efficacy believe they can get success in a specific project or service despite presently failing. In fact, they see nervous symptoms or failure as signs they are almost there and mentally they get more excited.
They also underestimate the difficulty of a task. People with low self-efficacy will hear something is difficult and will immediately imagine it to be more challenging than what it actually is. Hence if they see a challenge, they’d prefer to avoid it. A person with a high self-efficacy gets excited at the prospect of a challenge.
For example, let’s say you are attending a class where the speaker, oblivious to your mental makeup, declares how spiritual life is difficult. He quotes verses to explain how we have to be attentive all the time and it’s a war and one has to be careful of offenses etc. He goes on for a long time how one has to be very serious in Bhakti practices. After this class how do you feel? I have known people who confessed to me that they feel nervous and I also know some who quietly withdraw from making more commitments. And there are others who are raving about the class and get inspired to make a new schedule and itinerary. How can the same class encourage someone and discourage another?
Scriptures give examples of practitioners with high self-efficacy. Vishwamitra not only failed twice and badly, but he bounced back with a renewed vigor. He even shares his fall down with his own disciples and doesn’t hide it. A modern spiritual practitioner may get mortified at such ’embarrassing’ setbacks and may prefer to avoid the journey itself. Others who fail may hide their stories for various reasons. And a few may even covetously present themselves as advanced while secretly leading a promiscuous life. But great sages like Vishwamitra are glorious because they had a spirit to take on the challenges – high self-efficacy.
What is your inner dialogue when you hear or see a challenge in spiritual life? If it’s uneasiness and reluctance to march forward, you could be having low self-efficacy. When you fail, if you drift to ‘give up’ dialogues that reflect ‘learned helplessness ‘ then it’s time you learnt four methods to improve your self efficacy.
The four E’s of Self -Efficacy.
1. Easy achievements
It’s important you face success in order to feel enthused to go on. Therefore, fix small, achievable targets that are within our achieving zone. And do them daily. They could be really small but the key is consistency.
For example, instead of worrying how to chant 16 attentive rounds daily, we could target chanting just five maha mantras attentively. This means out of 1728 mantras that you chant daily (and I dare assume they are inattentive and spaced out), you now resolve to offer five quality mantras. Remember it’s not five rounds but five mantras. Since you can achieve this target, you will be inspired to chant a little more and you may land up with 40 to 50 attentive mantras. That makes it almost three percent good chanting. But keep your minimum at five and don’t get carried away.
Or hearing Srila Prabhupada’ s class – just five minutes daily or one lecture in a week. Something that you can achieve, record that and feel inspired to continue.
Make sure you are not on the panic zone. Stay just outside your comfort zone and in the stretching area but don’t go too far out of the comfort zone.
While others may extoll superlative achievements of many exalted devotees, you can quietly focus on your small and humble targets and slowly but surely move forward.
2. Experiences of others
Listen or read attentively the stories of others. When some devotees speak of their own stories, be present and take inspiration from the struggles and sufferings they went through. This creates an inspiration “if he can do it, I too can.”
Often we love to hear super natural pastimes of Krishna and devotees and these miraculous pastimes like the three month Chaitanya charitamrita marathon are awe inspiring. But balance it by hearing the ‘human’ side of devotees struggles. Recently during Ram Navami, I read Ram’s lamentation on losing Sita from a human angle- the pain and suffering empathy helps us connect to suffering and pain of this world and makes our heart soft and strong.
The wounds of this world are real and painful. When we hear of them from an authentic space, we get strength. A wounded healer, remember, is the best healer. When a person struggles and moves on gratefully, we need to hear from him.
Unfortunately, when we only hear magical pastimes, those of us with poor self-efficacy feel more despondent or artificially encouraged. We need genuine stories and honest struggles and experiences of others are always very helpful.
3. Encouraging association
We need preachers/teachers and friends who give us hope and not those who speak always about lofty, unattainable feats of Krishna consciousness. Be respectful to those who declare that one who doesn’t get up for mangal arati daily is fallen. But associate more with those who lovingly walk the tough path with you. Make friends with those who don’t judge you but accept you for who you are.
Friends who are happy and confident are a great asset. Associate with them more. Happy devotee is the best preacher. I know a few friends who are not well known as preachers but they are amazing. They carry incredible confidence in Krishna and just being with them is spirituality surcharging. Be shameless to hang around with such devotees. And of course, serve them and see how encouraged you feel yourself.
Create an environment that improves self-efficacy. A temple atmosphere or having spiritual ambience creates a sacred space. Incense, tulasi plant care, deities at home etc. are ways by which one allows spiritual energy to enter our house. If such an environment is not possible at home, go to a nearby temple and spend time in the temple hall, looking at the deities. Take in the spiritual energy wherever it is available. For a change, access spiritual energy from the receptacle of your own heart, not from the mind or sermons of others.
If we don’t improve our self efficacy as a spiritual practitioner, we would not only give up the practices but also land up being cynical or hypocritical. Our internal unfulfillment leds us to offend others and that aggravates our misery.
Unfortunately, many are trapped by a futile search for objective formulas to advance in spiritual life. They constantly seek acronyms or three tips or four E’s or five keys etc. Despite a surfeit of tools, you’ll feel despondent if the change within doesn’t happen. Ultimately it’s your inner make up (refer to Srila Prabhupada’ s quote in the beginning of this article) that will determine your success.
Srila Prabhupada took decades to write his commentary on Bhagavad Gita. When he got a publisher and a financer, he was happy at first but aghast soon after when he discovered the manuscript was stolen. Such an incident would have broken many of us but Srila Prabhupada quietly began his work again the next morning. So instead of looking outside for specific answers and solutions for your spiritual life challenges, ask your own inner self.
Be brutally honest to accept you have work to do and be courageous to change. Then wait patiently for Krishna’s love and grace to descend. Remember Krishna is a ‘transcendental autocrat’ – how and when he will reciprocate with a practitioner is uniquely personal. One needs supreme confidence to go on positively despite repeated setbacks. It’s not enough to say that one needs to have faith in Krishna; what’s more important is to develop that confidence and self-trust. The sages of India called it as Vijnana maya Kosha- the wisdom body. Practitioners with an evolved wisdom body carry quiet confidence even as this world throws crazy surprises day in day out.
Try the four simple steps and see your self efficacy improve.
Stay confident and stay happy in Bhakti practices.