If ethics is about principles, practicing ethics is about method. In this field, we can assume that not just any method will do. So we have to figure out which method will be the most efficient to get us closer to our goal of progressing towards spiritual perfection.
For the purposes of this post, I will assume that the reader is familiar with the various psychological forces at play in the paradigm of the process of perfection, and in particular with the concept of imperious self (IS), which may be defined as an impulsive force systematically opposed to spiritual progress. The IS is protean—it creeps in through the cracks created by our moral faults or lack of attention. It takes on different looks depending on the person and the circumstances. One day it will oppose itself to your spiritual work head-on, and the next, like a chameleon, it will pass itself as a spiritual thought and deceive your reason.
Wanting to reach spiritual perfection is akin to being a student. When you go to school, you sign up for a course to receive instruction: that’s the theoretical part. But to assimilate the concepts you are taught and effectively prepare for exams, the first thing to do is to come up with a study plan. And when it comes to this, however brilliant you may be, if your method is shaky or not adapted to start with, your chances of succeeding in the end will be limited.
A good plan should not only take into account our personality and objectives, it should also be set with honesty and circumspection. Because at this decisive stage in our spiritual agenda, it is quite likely that our IS will show up. Indeed, what better strategy for our IS than to undermine the very foundation of our practice, that is, the plan we will have set for ourselves with great confidence and for several months?
Our first exercise will therefore consist in putting together a plan that will be both relevant and realistic, while at the same time locating and defusing the “time bombs” our IS will most likely try to place. The aim of this article is to provide some tools to allow us to be one step ahead on the starting line when the time to take out our blank sheet of paper comes.
A. The bombs of the imperious self
1. Aiming too high
The simplest trick to undermine our chances of success is to devise a plan that is too ambitious. This happens when we tell ourselves things like: “I can’t stand this fault anymore; what I need is a radical plan that will eradicate all traces of this nasty character trait within me!”
How is that a problem? Well, by setting such a high aim for ourselves—to become a paragon of generosity, will, altruism, or anything really—we are likely to quickly realize the extent of our weakness and therefore of the distance that separates us from our ideal.
But why do we still give way to this tendency? First of all, because it flatters part of ourselves and preserves our self-esteem: “True, I have this fault, but I am aware of it.” And mostly: “I will get rid of it once and for all.” Further, “raising the game” has sort of a bonus effect: while the long term risks are discouragement and giving up, in the short term, the challenge has a rather galvanizing effect. If you have ever subscribed to an unlimited gym pass, you know the kind of excitement such a subscription provides during the first (couple of) weeks, and also how unlikely you are to maintain the same rhythm after a few months.
In order to stay realistic and optimize our chances in the long run, we have to aim small and allow for variation; go crescendo (start small and then increase the difficulty). In this regard, exercises that require too much time (compared to the time actually available to us), means and conditions that are specific and difficult to create, overweening efforts (going from nonchalance to martial discipline to fight against laziness), etc., are all to be avoided. If we follow this first rule, we will avoid the depression and discouragement inevitably created by such over-ambitious programmes.
2. Picking a practice that suits us
When we finally decide to grasp the nettle (our most salient faults), our IS comes and tells us that the “nettle” is not where we think it is: it is going to suggest that we should focus on this other problem we have (which is minor), or worse, suggest an exercise that pleases us. The purpose is to please our ego and avoid confronting any real fault at the same time. But it is not only because of our IS that we pick the wrong target: we may do so because of poor self knowledge or lack of experience.
Let us take the example of Silvia: she cares about her appearance, but also has a tendency to backbite a lot… While the priority for her would be to fight against backbiting, she decides to work out for 5 minutes every morning. The loudest voice in her head tells her: “Very good plan: you need to take more care of your health since you let stress from work affect you so much!” Another voice, somewhat muffled, whispers to her: “Very nice… Perfect occasion to finally get rid of these extra 6 pounds!” Yet another voice, deeper—the voice of her conscience—replies: “Dealing with this weight problem is absolutely secondary and postpones dealing with your number 1 problem: backbiting.”
This touches upon one of the essential differences between the self-management approach and the spiritual approach. In the former, the aim is to “feel good” and reach a balance essentially measured by a subjective feeling of well-being. In the latter, the goal is to become more human and more ethical by fighting against our moral weaknesses, which often implies sacrificing our ego or some immediate benefits.
The solution: take your time and consult with people who are close to you. Let us face the facts, a friend, partner, parent, anyone who knows us well enough, will be less biased and accommodating in picking the fault that should be our priority. Maybe you will learn that this tendency to be slightly muddle-headed or this “artistic” aspect of your personality, that you personally find rather likable, can become a real ethical issue when it makes the people close to you go through hell in situations where they really counted on you.
3. Picking an exercise that is too vague or too generic
We have mentioned the impossible exercise, the convenient exercise, now, the blurry exercise: “Avoid negative thoughts throughout the day”. What a beautiful manoeuvre, both ambitious and vaporous. What is a negative thought? How can you not have them? And for the whole day? This exercise is quite simply impossible to manage—it is too vague, not specific enough and cannot be quantified.
A better way to formulate this exercise would be: “If I realise that I am having a negative thought (hatred, jealousy, resentment, complaints…) or a vain thought (unproductive or futile daydreaming), replace it with a positive or constructive thought, or by a prayer.”
These three tricks of the IS are the most common, but they certainly are not the only ones. I encourage you to share your experiences in the discussion that will follow this article. Going back to some of the ideas mentioned above, I will now touch upon a few methods that could significantly improve our chances of success.
B. Let’s go to war!
1. For every exercise picked, provide the means for assessment
It is not a matter of having the best intention in the world. The exercise we choose must be described in sufficient detail and allow for easy evaluation. In other words—it has to be easy to say whether or not we have succeeded. A good way to do this is to accompany each exercise with a quantitative or numerable constraint. For example: “do something useful for someone else three times a day” or “do at least 10 minutes of spiritual readings”. Going back to the example of negative thoughts, we can add a quantitative notion: “spot a negative thought at least once a day”…
2. Favour frequency: ideally, the exercise should be daily
Getting into a habit is not as easy as buying a pair of shoes. For true change, repetition and perseverance are key. We cannot hope for any deep transformation otherwise. Becoming a true human being is not a matter of one day or one action, however exceptional they may be. It requires quiet, meticulous, long-term work, free of swagger; successive small steps along a discrete yet clearly defined road.
In order to change our primal nature, get rid of our faults, develop qualities and, God willing, have these become a second nature, we must develop habits: the habit of observing, of fighting, of evaluating. And when it comes to this, the time factor is essential. A good plan will favour exercises that can be accomplished at least weekly.
3. The key to success: self-assessment
This, I believe, is the most essential point. Forgetfulness is the IS’s ally. And with the hectic lives we live, our time-consuming jobs and the constant solicitations we have to deal with, there is a real risk that our plan will fall through due to lack of… monitoring.
A good plan will therefore allow time for self-assessment. Such assessment can take place at different levels: daily, to assess our punctual success or failure, and weekly or even monthly, to measure the overall progression and the difficulties encountered. The latter type of assessments will allow, if needed, to redefine the exercise or modify certain aspects of it.
But the first bastion against the IS is to set it as a rule to make an assessment every night or every morning—to mentally go through our experiences of the past 24 hours in one minute maximum (“flash” type of assessment) and prepare for the day to come. It is a simple strategy: divide time into units of 24 hours, that are fixed and non negotiable. The benefit is multiple: renew our attention and remind ourselves of our goal, get motivation as we take note of our successes, or take responsibility as we review our failures, but most of all, make a mockery of the IS, which, let us recall, will do anything, absolutely anything, to make us forget our nice resolutions.
Now, these are fine ideas, but their value fully depends on their implementation. I therefore invite you to send your feedback and experiences. Did the above tips help you build an efficient plan? What kind of practice did you pick and most importantly, how did you pick it? Was it difficult to do so? Did you notice difficulties that are not mentioned here? But also, how is your self-assessment going? Are you able to evaluate yourself on a regular basis? Lastly, please share your successes and victories—we all need motivation.
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