Getting Started Is the Hardest Part
“I can’t do this!” My seventeen-year-old flings her Advanced Maths book down in frustration. “I quit!”
I have seen her going through a frustrating time, as she is doing the advanced level of the subject for the first time, but I try to encourage her gently to persevere. For the umpteenth time, I sit her down, speak to her about the virtues of regular practice, about not giving up when results do not come as fast as we would like, about how any subject is difficult to master at first. I paint a dismal picture of her future without a sound education, and about the importance of setting small but realistic goals each day, and increasing the challenge level slowly. I can see her youthful features contorted into a light frown as she mulls over what I say.
As I watch her fondly, I begin to think how these basic tenets apply to everything in life. How easy it is to explain to another, and how difficult to put these principles in place for ourselves! Looking at the most important goal of my own life, my simran and bhajan, it hits me then that I need to take stock of what I am doing, pretty much like a student who sets goals for a subject that is both tedious and challenging.
The first step is already taken care of. As with any subject, we need a teacher who is a Master at the task. We are already blessed with the best of them, one who has been there and done that, one who walks the talk. And the beauty is that we did not even make any great effort to locate him – it was he who found us! Maharaj Sawan Singh has said in Spiritual Gems:
Meeting the Master is a condition necessary and precedent to the working of his grace, and does not seem to imply any limitation of opportunity…. The key is in the hands of the Master.
Next comes the daunting application process. With the best universities in the world, we need to have certain prior qualifications, but in the case of Sant Mat, the prerequisite is quite the opposite. We need to shed our prior conditioning, give up practices that would burden us along the way, such as consuming non-vegetarian food and alcohol, and simplify our lifestyle. In other words, instead of being weighed down by more achievements, knowledge, wealth and prior beliefs, we need to simply let go, dispossess and lighten the load. We cleared this level too – our application was accepted, and our registration completed the day we got initiated.
Here is where the real challenge begins. The day to day demands of consistent practice, regularity of timing, diligence, and most of all, a conviction that we are getting somewhere with this hard work – this is what seems to be the most difficult phase of all.
As with any new job or course of study, the first baby steps are the hardest. This is a transition phase. Old habits must be kicked, specific goals and targets must be set and most of all, the utter conviction must be built that without this, I have no future.
Let us examine these one by one.
The secret of getting ahead is getting started.
Mark Twain as quoted in The Key Journey to Success
Often, we start by looking at the enormity of a task. We see the whole mountain, whereas Tensing Norgay, one of the first to have reached the summit of Mount Everest, initially saw a set of rocks, and figured out how to conquer them. As I tell my daughter that one seldom starts a new project with an instant breakthrough: If we set mammoth goals, we are often too daunted to even start. So start small, and be prepared to falter. We can break up our meditation sessions into two, or even three sittings, but we must ensure that we do succeed in sitting through all of them, whether we do so with complete concentration or not.
The perfect is the enemy of the good.
What Voltaire meant was, if you try to be perfect right from the start, you have set an incredibly high, almost impossible goal. With meditation, too, a common complaint is that perhaps we are not cut out for it. Thoughts bother us; we cannot focus, so we give up.
However, the very purpose of meditation is to slowly build towards the state of thoughtlessness – if we could start out so mentally peaceful already, most of us would be liberated souls by now! The idea is to achieve the state through consistent practice – the way we build our bodies at the gym, slowly, painfully, but surely and steadily over time. Concentration is the outcome of simran, not a prerequisite. Maharaj Charan Singh explains:
I do not see why you should do less meditation under the impression that you are not pure enough to do it. In fact, it is meditation that makes us pure and washes away even the worst of our sins. The very purpose of meditation is to lighten our load of karmas and attach our soul to that divine sound that is ringing within each and every one of us. Please do not neglect meditation, but give it proper time every day, with the right attitude.
Quest for Light
The road to any goal is long, and the loftier the ideal, the rockier is the path. The one thing that keeps us on it is discipline. My daughter often complains she finds higher Maths difficult, and I explain that it is all about drills – if you do even twenty minutes of practice daily, you will find results over a short period of time. With simran too, it requires the discipline of consistency and regularity. At a fixed time every single day, we need to set aside all else, and sit for the period of time we have set for ourselves, no matter what.
For most of us, we accept the gift of initiation with enthusiasm, but somewhere down the road, life takes over, we find excuses not to sit, and our zeal for spiritual practice fizzles out. The test lies in that critical moment where I am about to choose whether to do or not to do – the trick is not to allow the mind to decide, but, without exception, get the body to do.
Faith is the bird that feels the light,
and sings when the dawn is still dark.
Another reason why it is difficult to follow through with our meditation practice is that we cannot see what lies at the other end. Tangible rewards are often enough to drive us to persevere, but the abstract nature of a promise of eternal liberation is not potent enough to propel us towards it. Here is where our faith is ultimately tested. We know what we want – freedom from the great cycle of birth and death – but what is it that stops us from working towards it? Perhaps, we often think, if we only had a small glimpse of the bliss of Sach Khand, we would never falter in our spiritual duties. However, is the Master’s word not enough? Why must we see to believe? It is because this pure faith is lacking somewhere deep down, that we do not take our duty seriously. Like the bird in the quote above, we will only start to feel the ‘light’ once we embark with full faith on our journey of meditation, and ‘sing’ the divine Shabd in our hearts. As Maharaj Charan Singh writes in Quest for Light:
The disciple’s duty is to go on meditating as advised by the Master and not to bother about the results. That is not his concern. This is looked after by the Master.
As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe explains:
What is not started today is never finished tomorrow.
My daughter sighs, hugs me and goes back to her books to try yet again. As should I. It is about making a new beginning – here and now.
Remember, one day you’ll be parted from everything on this earth,
However great your fame and power may be.
Why not awaken to this fact,
And begin to remember the Merciful One?
Kabir, The Great Mystic