Many a time, people tell me that they sit down to meditate but their mind wanders off. Or that they tried to learn a new skill but it was too hard. How come certain people acquire and champion new habits almost effortlessly where many others fail terribly? Let me begin with the story of the Chinese Bamboo tree.
The Chinese Bamboo is rather unusual. Unlike other bamboo trees, it doesn’t grow at all for a long time. At least, nothing appears on the outside. You plant the seed, water it and nurture it but nothing sprouts. You may even think that the seed has already perished. A whole year goes by and there’s no growth, not even a sign of a sapling.
You continue nurturing it but again nothing shows up in the second year either. Year three, nothing. Year four, nothing. Nothing at all. Year five, nothing. No matter how well you fertilize or care for the seed, there are no results in the first sixty months. Nothing tangible, anyway. Finally, at the end of five years, you see a small sprout. Two tender leaves force their way out of the ground.
How fast could it possibly grow if it took five years just to show its face, one wonders? Well, the bamboo plant actually shoots up as high eighty feet in merely six weeks. For the first five years when nothing seemed to be happening, it was growing beneath the ground.
I can’t think of a more apt story when it comes to building new habits. Most of us give up too easily, too soon. When you want to build a new habit, expect no results in the beginning. If you are serious about mastering a new skill, just keep inching towards your goal. One step at a time.
Acquiring any skill or habit is akin to the Chinese Bamboo tree. You plant the seed and you keep caring for it, regularly, steadily, carefully. And once a strong foundation is in place, you will soar high in practically no time. A few months ago, I wrote Why do Your Plans Fail? (Here). Let me share with you the three golden rules of building any new habit.
Take it as a given that it’s going to be hard in the beginning, even boring. Learning anything new is bound to have a set of challenges. To reach a state where it becomes effortless, you have to put in a great deal of practice. It takes a concert pianist an average of 10,000 hours of practice before they reach that “expert” level. Practice. Practice. Practice. When you are bored, practice a bit. When you think, you are tired of practicing, refresh your practice. When you feel you can’t go on, practice a bit more anyway. Gradually increase the intensity, quality and duration of your practice.
If you don’t give up, you can’t fail. For example, if you are learning to meditate, don’t expect that you will start diving in the ocean of tranquility within the first few hundred hours. Don’t expect that just because you are determined to meditate, your mind will go quiet. It took me several thousand hours of intense, mindful and correct practice before I began experiencing different states of consciousness. Patience is the key. It becomes much easier to be patient if you don’t have unreasonable expectations from yourself.
I once read a beautiful quote by Max Lucado: “The one who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.” As you progress with focus, you learn to know which or whose feedback you need to act on versus what to reject. By focus I mean a sort of mindfulness. If you are practicing patiently, chances are you are focusing anyway. If you want long lasting results from your practice, however, you have to be mindful. Going back to the example of meditation, while meditating, pay attention to every passing moment, every emerging thought, every inhalation and exhalation. This razor-sharp alertness will take your practice to an entirely new level. It’s the art of turning inward and listening to your own voice.
Mulla Nasrudin bought his wife a new piano for her birthday. The neighbors would hear her practice every day, several hours in a day. A couple of weeks later, the sound of piano stopped coming from their home.
“What happened, Mulla?” they asked him. “Your wife doesn’t practice piano anymore?”
“For heaven’s sake,” Mulla exclaimed, “don’t even mention piano. I had her switch to flute with great difficulty.”
“Because with a flute,” he replied, “at least, she can’t sing while playing…”
Don’t switch (and don’t sing either if you are just starting out). Humor aside, if you really want to master any new habit then keep practicing quietly.
To build a new habit or to champion a new skill, somewhere, you have to want it desperately. More desperately than gaining others’ approval. Those who don’t have the same vision as you will disagree with you (sometimes with all the right intentions). There will be those who won’t believe in you, but if you are serious then all you have to do is to continue practicing patiently and mindfully.
In anything that you undertake, if you don’t give up, you’ll move from a phase of intense effort to absolute effortlessness.
The higher you want to rise, the deeper your roots need to be. It’s the depth that takes time. If you are not afraid of going deep, you will have no fear of heights either.