Stephen Covey in his best selling book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” revealed that a large portion of our success is contributed by our habits.
Habits are things we do without thinking. These are like little programs that run in our head at a subconscious level that control our actions. For example the way we brush our teeth is automatic. It’s not random; instead it is an exact pattern that we use repeatedly without paying much attention to it. For example some may begin brushing by starting on the right side from the upper back and then stroke the brush in a specific pattern to work from there and progress to all other teeth. Every time they brush they will use the same pattern, without thinking much about it.
Just like brushing teeth, much of our lives are spent on “auto pilot” where our actions are governed by a set of fixed habits. Stephen Covey realized this and found that most successful people had similar underlying habits that propelled them to success.
Just as we have patterns of actions that we do without thinking, are there patterns of thoughts that predispose us to think in a particular way? If we use the term “habits” to describe repetitive behavior without conscious thought, what is the term we use for repetitive patterns of thoughts? The word “Attitude” comes to mind. Our Attitude describes how we are predisposed to think. If Habits are channels along which our actions flow, Attitudes are channels along which our thoughts flow.
What is the connection between Habits and Attitude? Some repetitive patterns of thought turn into repetitive pattern of action, and some of these turn into habits. This shows that attitudes give birth to habits. If we want to change our Habits we must look deeper inside towards our Attitudes. Here are four attitudes that we should cultivate for success:
1. Patience and Flexibility in face of discomfort
When faced with a situation where we feel discomfort we react in a predictable manner. Sometimes the discomfort comes in a form of hurt that somebody inflicts on our ego and we feel slighted or insulted. Our reaction then flows out in a predictable pattern of anger and vengefulness in an attempt to assuage the original uncomfortable feeling.
Sometimes that discomfort comes from a novel situation or a change in our circumstance. At other times it comes in the form of a new idea. To assuage the discomfort we may react in a manner to instinctively oppose change or oppose the new idea.
Successful people have an ability to hold on to discomfort. This is very important as it allows them the space to think consciously before acting. The urge for immediate retaliation is reduced. The urge to immediately expel an unfamiliar thought or idea is diminished. So also the urge to resist change. All this makes successful people more patient and flexible.
How can we cultivate the attitude of patience and flexibility in our lives? One answer lies in consciously teaching ourselves to live with discomfort without reacting to it. The other method is to practice yoga, pranayama, and meditation. All these reduce the size of our ego and allow us to be less reactive to discomfort.
The Yama “Ahimsa” (non violence) in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali also points us in this direction. We commit violence when we exhibit impatience or we are inflexible to accept new ideas or new situations. When we accept to become non-violent it is a commitment to cultivate the attitude of patience and flexibility.
Here is a problem that most of us face: We are too vested in our actions and the outcome of our actions. Why is this a problem? The reason is that most our actions are not in our control as they are driven by our habits even without our conscious participation. We are like someone who is riding an elephant that is going where it wants to. Why then should we expend all this energy attempting to justify the actions of this elephant?
When the elephant we are riding takes an unexpected wrong turn, it is likely that the end result of its actions may not be to our liking. We spend huge amounts of energy worrying about the outcome of the actions of this elephant, which serves no productive purpose. One way out of this is to build an attitude of indifference to outcomes. But this is easier said then done. How can one become unattached to outcomes that we are so emotionally vested in?
The first step in this direction is to understand this model of riding an elephant. We have to understand that our actions and the results arising from our actions are largely occuring due to our habits and our attitudes. Both of these are not in our direct conscious control. We are like riders on an elephant that is only partially in our control. Once we absorb the lessons of this model, we go from thinking about our actions as “These are my actions!” to “These actions are a result of my habits and attitudes.” The detachment so created allows us to go from asking the question: “Why am I not getting the results I want?” To the question: “How can I train the elephant to automatically go where I want?” Yoga, Pranayama, and meditation can be key to build this attitude of detachment.
The Yama “Aparigraha” (non-possessiveness) also tells us to cultivate an attitude of detachment.
3. Acceptance and Humility
Non-acceptance is a disease. This is because it forces us to spend fruitless hours fighting what has already occurred and cannot be changed. Our ego and our arrogance are so strong that they have the audacity to deny what has occurred and fight it. One result of this attitude is that we treat the outcome as a “one off” and then spend more energy trying to “right the wrong”. Instead of learning our lessons from an unfavorable outcome we feel the need to “prove ourselves right”. Many people have wasted their entire lives in trying to prove a point.
There are two reasons why an unfavorable result may occur:
- One is that the elephant did not go where it was supposed to go.
- The other is that the elephant went where it was intended but yet the expected results did not materialize.
In the first case you spend your energy trying to train the elephant better and plot a course from where you are to where you need to be. In the second case you try to learn your lessons and come up with a new goal post where you want to drive the elephant to.
An attitude of acceptance and humility is a key to success. This attitude allows you to see that you are only partly in charge and the elephant is also playing a part in where you land up. It also allows you to assess your current situation and continually map out a new course based on what new things you are learning. This should prevent you from spending a life time “trying to prove a point” driving to a fixed pre-conceived goal post. Once again you will find that Yoga, Pranayama, and Meditation can help you build an attitude of Acceptance and Humility.
The Niyama “Santosha” (contentment) is something that comes about by having an attitude of acceptance and humility.
Those with super-sized egos have an attitude of “I am always right”. Other people exist only as props for such individuals. This means other people’s opinion does not matter, or is relevant only if it confirms the super-ego’s ideas. There is no trace of compassion in such individuals. Listening also goes out of the door. An inability to listen compassionately and digest contradictory information is a key to lack of success. Large egos make us less compassionate and less able to invite criticism and feedback. Other people realize that we are not open to suggestions and leave us alone. Valuable information and feedback that would have otherwise come to us is denied. We are hence unable to get the full picture of what is happening and chances of our success is diminished considerably.
We have to consciously decide to become more compassionate listeners. This means we have to stop ourselves from interrupting others or be defensive when we get unflattering feedback. Cultivating a more open and compassionate attitude is a key to success. Yoga, Pranayama, and Meditation are known to help reduce the size of the ego and make us more compassionate.
The Yama “Satya” (Truth) is strongly linked to an attitude of compassion.The ability to listen dispassionately and embrace the truth comes from a loving and compassionate heart.
The metaphor of the elephant and the rider is a powerful one. This metaphor indicates that our habits and attitudes (the elephant) control where we go. Our conscious and logical self (the rider) has very little impact on our actions. Commenting on this metaphor Jonathan Haidt said, “The rider evolved to serve the elephant.” This means most of us will, without knowing, spend our entire lives at the service of an elephant that is running loose and out of control. This essay provides us with the tools to understand the situation and control the elephant. It shows that the principles as laid down in the Yoga Sutras can show us how to be successful in life.