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Effort results in effort

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Effort is generally defined as the amount of energy we must expend to achieve something that can be difficult or even painful. It is generally agreed that “in the absence of effort there can be no result”. Conversely, “any effort must necessarily produce some result”. But some results may not seem quite enough to us. Indeed, we often take for granted that self-development programs, coaching techniques and the like naturally lead to quick and palpable results for those who seriously commit to changing themselves. In practice, however, things are far from obvious, and high expectations can be the source of major disappointment. How should we deal with the fact that, most often, the actual results of our efforts are not what we expect them to be?

“For years now, I have been striving to be more attentive towards people and to show concern for them by trying to maintain good relations, to be affectionate, to remember birthdays, to inquire after others, and so on. And yet, sometimes I miss occasions to display my friendship or concern for close relatives. When this happens, I feel as if I haven’t made any progress, and the objective I have set for myself is all but impossible to achieve. But I do not despair and continue with my efforts …”

The experience above shows how difficult it is to persevere in the endless struggle against some weak point when we feel as though we’re not making much progress. Indeed, some flaws are so deeply ingrained within us that no matter how hard we try, we will never be able to fully eliminate them; they resemble recurrent itches that never leave us in peace. When we start grappling with a given shortcoming, we may fancy for a moment that we are making some visible progress, or that the shortcoming will naturally disappear after a while. Now, assuming that a flaw could eventually disappear, it would require such perseverance for it to do so that if we were to take stock of our progress after a few months, or even a few years, we might be overcome with the unpleasant feeling that we have been stagnating all along, as though we have been climbing an escalator that is moving in the opposite direction—it’s exhausting and we may feel like we are not getting anywhere at all. Expecting quick results from the efforts we make can therefore lead to trouble, because such expectations are inopportune, however legitimate they may be.

If this much is granted, however, there is no reason to lose hope, for no effort is in vain:

“I certainly haven’t become a paragon of altruism and generosity. Yet I do not despair; I persist in my efforts… and they bear fruit, although not in the way I had expected. Previously, I was unaware of my shortcomings until others pointed them out to me, but now I can identify them on my own; or, I used to miss occasions to help others without even realising it, but now I am more aware of these opportunities,, even if I don’t always act on them. It is as if my consciousness has expanded: I can see myself better and analyse my experiences on a deeper level. I believe I have attained some level of maturity, for I am no longer the person I used to be.”

Simply put, then, we do make progress, though we are not always aware of it. There is improvement in our daily behaviour (external self-improvement) and deeper insight into what we are (inner self-improvement). We cannot claim to have eliminated the shortcoming or flaw we have been struggling with; we are not, as yet, liberated, but the way we perceive things both outside and inside of ourselves has decidedly changed.

Now, what state of mind should we adopt to persist in our efforts when the results we attain appear minimal and our goal remains ever distant? Let’s take the example of an accomplished pole-vaulter. What is going on in his mind? Although he is repeatedly applauded for his prowess, his exertion and his effort, we observe that he is never fully satisfied, constantly striving instead to clear a greater height. Why? Because the pole-vaulter has not set a limit for himself; regardless of the records he sets, he continues to aim higher, always striving to achieve the perfect movement and to attain a virtually unattainable model of perfection. By cultivating this idea of perfection, we too can convince ourselves that there is no such thing as a “useless effort” and avoid feelings of subsequent dejection.

But then, this is not the whole picture. The media-covered performance we observe is only the visible part of the athlete’s exertions, who subjects himself to an additional form of strenuous but invisible effort carried out in the privacy of his daily life. Day in and day out, month after month and year after year, he maintains a strict regimen, waking up at set times, adhering to a restricted diet and enduring endless hours of training, all with the aim of increasing his overall strength, agility and physical and mental endurance. He complies with this regimen because he knows it is imperative to do so if he is to stay in top shape and continue improving. He may not ultimately set any records, but daily discipline and repeated efforts will eventually provide him with well-developed muscles and improved cardiovascular and metabolic capacities. Independent of the final performance broadcast on TV, he is already in exceptional form from a physiological standpoint. Through sustained effort, he has managed to attain an optimal level of physical conditioning.

Likewise, in the spiritual domain, effort is paramount. The efforts we make transform us without our being necessarily aware of it, for they affect us on a structural level: they alter our substance, form our character and strengthen our soul. If, like the athlete who does not set limits for himself, we refrain from setting a short-term goal, we will inevitably draw nearer to self-perfection with each passing day. Ironically, we eventually realise that every effort performed without expecting any result other than simply acting as a true human being gives us the energy to make a further effort. Hence, effort results in effort.


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27 comments

  1. Key Mar 03, 2010 8:55 pm 1

    The distinction between “external” self-improvement and “inner” self-improvement is so interesting. I usually don’t think in these clear-cut terms even if I am considering both my behavior and how I’m analyzing it, but I like the idea of separating the two to consider individually. It seems that they are both intertwined, however, and that improvement in one could lead to improvement in the other. Since it’s difficult to really have both well-maintained, I wonder if there’s one that I could start with to enhance both sides. Is there one that’s more important? How are the two related?

  2. nell Mar 03, 2010 10:28 pm 2

    God bless the writer of this article! Every time I fail I feel very disappointed and frustrated; but then this article got me thinking of the results I get from the failed experiences.
    I realized that there is a difference between saying, “I have failed three times,” and “I am a failure.”
    I may have failed at doing something a number of times, but I am not a failure. I got up on my feet again and learned from my mistakes to do better next time; which is to say that I kept going, similar to the athlete, and that’s what really counts. My effort wasn’t wasted, which makes me feel motivated to keep going.

  3. Lady Mar 04, 2010 11:08 am 3

    Key, I have learnt that if I start by ‘doing’ something externally, and I repeat it over and over again, that characteristic improves in me ‘internally’. For example, if I want to improve altriusm in myself, I try to be kind to people and help them in whatever way I can, even if I don’t feel any love for them inside. On the other hand, it is important that we just try our best and not look for the result.

  4. neuro Mar 05, 2010 2:03 am 4

    Indeed…all that can be asked of us is to try. The result is secondary to the effort.

    Beautifully written! Thank you

  5. leili Mar 05, 2010 6:16 am 5

    @nell! you mentioned very good point!
    Failure is one of the experiences we face it in our everyday life. It is part of the unpleasant experiences of life.
    First of all we have to learn to accept this fact that failure is part of our being but the point is we should look back and figure out its reason. The reason always comes from the way we approached the issue, not from our capabilities. This point of view helps us to see every single failure as an opportunity to move forward like an experimental scientist who tries many different experiments to find the right answer. Failure in each experiment gives her/his this opportunity to rule out one wrong answer and helps her/him to become closer to the right answer.When S/he feels S/he is closer to her/his goal S/he gets more positive energy and motivation to continue and finally reach the last correct answer.
    Another helpful example would be a weightlifter who tries to lift a heavy sinker. First he can’t overcome the gravity power but after many trainings and lots of failures, he becomes strong enough to lift it however the gravity power is the same as before.

  6. Dara Mar 05, 2010 4:06 pm 6

    The effort is the victory, not the results, full effort is hence full victory. Not eying expectations, leaves us free from result oriented anxiety.

  7. Zulu Mar 05, 2010 8:03 pm 7

    @Key
    My understanding concerning the struggle against the imperious self is that we are not required to fully overcome our imperious self. As we go along and our will power and reasoning enhances we become spiritually more fit and as a result can control some aspects of our imperious self. I think what we are required though is to learn the process of struggling the imperious self. As we “learn” and come to the knowledge of “how” to struggle our imperious self, then we will progress spiritually and our field of perception expands.

  8. G. Mar 06, 2010 5:44 am 8

    During one of my yoga classes the instructor told us “100% efforts equal 100% benefits”. And she is right. I have been practicing this activity for months now, and although I still cannot do all of the postures perfectly, I feel many benefits just by going to the classes and trying my best: I have improved knowledge of my body’s strengths and weaknesses, I have a better insight of my own personality (how competitive I can be, how easily I feel like giving up etc) and most importantly I have noticed that because I have been persevering I feel a general sense of physical well-being.

    My point is not to advertise for yoga :p What I am trying to say is that the same applies to any practice that we seriously want to pursue – working on our weak points to become better human beings included. By persevering in giving 100% efforts we will not necessarily get 100% of the results we set out for ourselves, but as the author has shown we will surely get 100% benefits (internal self improvements and external self-improvements), and this will contribute to a greater sense of personal well being.

  9. Mel Mar 06, 2010 8:30 pm 9

    it reminds me of these sayings ”

    “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

    “Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up.”

  10. Zulu Mar 07, 2010 5:59 am 10

    What I have recently realized is that sometimes you may even see aspects of the imperious self in yourself that you’ve never had before; as though you are struggling against a new imperious self!
    One may argue that such aspects of the imperious self always existed in you, but you weren’t aware of it. True, but another way to analyze this is as you progress spiritually, your imperious self also grows to match your spiritual stamina. This is very interesting because it keeps you on your toes and forces you to work harder and as a result continue the ongoing growth, because there is no limit to spiritual growth.

  11. :) Happi Mar 08, 2010 7:27 am 11

    What I have learned is there is no such thing as a “useless effort.” If it is invisible to us that’s because we are not always aware of it. We do make progress, and it leads to positive transformations. The more we do things we don’t want to do, the more we are able to do.

  12. polo Mar 08, 2010 7:28 pm 12

    @ Zulu:
    You wrote “your imperious self also grows to match your spiritual stamina”. Could you give an example of such an aspect of the imperious self in yourself that you never had seen before and that could be explained in such a way? It would help to understand. Thanks.

  13. Nell Mar 08, 2010 7:41 pm 13

    How do you know you are trying your best?
    I mean, for example compulsive shopping is your weakness, you promised yourself not to do it! You are OK as long as you are not going to the mall, then you are going to the mall and try not to look at sales items or… but at the end, you shop again!
    How do you know you tried enough, but failed?

  14. Ali Tinat(Zoghi). Mar 10, 2010 5:03 pm 14

    1st of all I like to clarify Zulu’s phrase “your imperious self also grows…” the actual saying by Ostad Elahi is: “The higher your spiritual status, the more challenging becomes your imperious self.” In other words, the more advanced you become, the more advanced are the trials you have to face and pass. This is also true of exams that are set for us all through various levels of schools as well as life. Some may call this expectations but regardless of what one may call it, that is the actual case as we grow and mature.

    II. While working in America, land of competition, my supervisor used to say: “Your best is no good unless it leads to best!” To rephrase this, and as Nell mentions up here, how do we know that we are doing our best in any particular situation?
    I believe life is a process, and overcoming various obstacles set by our imperious self, follows the same rules. This means that we have to take one piece at a time, and by focusing our full attention on that single piece, trapping it so to speak, freezing it, examining it carefully and then applying a bit by bit method of dealing with it accordingly.

    III. The compulsive shopper, for instance, rather than not going to the Mall at all, should actually go to the mall, but have a carefully written list of what is necessary plus a list of items that are not necessary at all. He/She should choose max one or couple of items from the latter list, purchase them, go home and congratulate himself/herself. This formula should be repeated, being a process, till the compulsive shopper is strong enough to eliminate the “Not necessary items” altogether.

    IV. Not setting specific goals, imho, does not mean limiting oneself by being just result oriented but also enjoying and appreciating the process. One should avoid just the mathematical linear thinking and apply what Dr Edward De Bono refers to as “Lateral Thinking.” What this means is that one should often not just go for the best solution but have many solutions to a particular problem. The best solution often wears off after continuous usage. Changing one’s tactics toward the same problem, approaching it from different angles, thinking and looking not straight but also from the side, are but a few notions in overcoming the various challenges of the imperious self.

    With much love and affection.

    PS: For more info on “Lateral Thinking,” check the following site: http://www.edwdebono.com/debono/lateral.htm

  15. Mel Mar 10, 2010 6:10 pm 15

    Polo, regarding your question to Zulu “your imperious self also grows to match your spiritual stamina,” he means, growing spiritual stamina (us) controls the wilder horse (our imperious self).

    I think the movie Avatar is a good example: the wild animals could represent our imperious self, whom with our efforts, and as we grow spiritually, we learn to understand and control. The stronger we get, the more we are able to control the wilder animals!

  16. M.S Mar 10, 2010 10:12 pm 16

    In response to G:

    I have practiced yoga for many years, but my understanding and practice of yoga changed dramatically after I was introduced to Ostad Elahi’s philosophy. Although yoga can be a helpful bridge to working on oneself, I have seen many instructors and practitioners who have only focused on the external aspects and have not developed their spiritual characteristics. For me, the best way to really benefit from yoga (or any other discipline) has been to integrate Ostad Elahi’s teachings into my daily practice of yoga.

  17. Ali Tinat(Zoghi). Mar 11, 2010 11:56 am 17

    In response to M.S

    I fully agree with your notion of external matching internal rather than just focusing on one or the other per se. I myself have been practicing and teaching Hatha Yoga to individuals and groups for over 25 years and in no way have seen dramatic inner changes in terms of overcoming unrealistic and purely rebellious demands and attacks of the imperious self. I have also seen the opposite—that is Yogis who have put so much time and energy into meditation and reciting Mantras and chants that they have become totally isolated and can no longer contribute anything nor function as an active member of the society. It is for these reasons that I in turn find integrating Ostad Elahi’s teachings with Yoga to be the best of recipies (this does not mean that Ostad elahi’s teachings is not complete in itself mind you).

    PS: Yoga, be it Hatha, Tantra, Ashtanga, Kundalini, etc. at its core does aim at the notion of Samadhi (balance), but unfortunately the system lacks a pragmatic formula to achieve this without having to go to far away resorts or locations, away from our various troubles and challenges, plus the responsibilities of our daily lives. Responsibilities that formulate the very basis of obstacles we have to face and overcome in order to strengthen our soul.

  18. Emily Mar 11, 2010 6:44 pm 18

    I was very inspired by the athlete analogy of the article. I do think that the process of working on one’s inner self is akin to an athlete training for a sport. Just the other day I was in a gym and picked up a copy of a runner’s magazine with an article that was full of recommendations such as positive mental attitude to use when a runner wants to go for a run but her mind or body does not. Again, I was inspired by the recommendations of the magazine and thought to myself, I can use these strategies for making an effort in my daily inner struggles when I intend to do something but my mind fails me.

  19. Zulu Mar 12, 2010 5:27 am 19

    @polo
    Well here is my explanation:
    We all know that imperious self does not have a creational existence. It comes into existence when celestial soul can’t control the harmful impulses of the terrestrial soul. It is easy for celestial soul to control the harmful desires of the terrestrial soul in sheer isolation, because such desires are more or less dormant in isolation. How could I be jealous, cunning, or aggressive when there is no subject out there to stir such negative emotions in me?
    As we interact in the society and deal with different daily scenarios the imperious self manifests itself in a form of inner imbalances or negative emotions and it is up to the celestial soul to control such inner imbalances. One may argue that the more mature the celestial soul becomes, the easier it controls the imperious self. Sounds reasonable, but only if the imperious self had a definitive and fixed personality. But, this is not the case.
    My understanding is that the interaction of the following variables defines the characteristics and the strength of our imperious self:
    1. Terrestrial soul
    2. The maturity level of the celestial soul
    3. Environmental/external influences (material and spiritual)
    4. Divine system that devises our daily scenarios
    Terrestrial soul provides the ingredients of the imperious self. An immature celestial soul brings the imperious self into existence. The degree the terrestrial soul is fed by the negative environmental forces may bring out a stronger or weaker imperious self. Being the target of negative forces can be the result of immature choices of the celestial soul — such as going to an environment that is spiritually poisonous for us — or designed by the divine system for us. The life scenarios the divine system devises for us always target our weaknesses. I believe it is essential to have an imperious self that matches the stamina of the celestial soul, because without struggling the celestial soul does not mature. Just like weight lifting, in order to develop more muscles you need to lift heavier weights.
    I hope this explanation makes it clearer.

  20. G. Mar 16, 2010 12:14 pm 20

    To M.S:

    Thank you for your comment. I however would like to clarify that I was not trying to advertise yoga as a spiritual practice because I personally only use this activity as a sport to strengthen my body and release physical fatigue.

    The point of my comment was to make an analogy between a bodily practice and a practice of the mind/conscience in the following matter: Although I do not succeed in doing the yoga postures perfectly (which could be seen as my goal – being able to do the postures perfectly in order to master this form of exercise), I still get undeniable physical benefits from trying (for example, by body is becoming stronger). In the same way, if I am working on myself to become a more altruistic person I might not achieve this goal quickly and in a complete manner, but just by trying to be more altruistic I get benefits (better self knowledge, or better interactions with others etc). The harder I try the more benefits I get. For example, if I try to consciously be benevolent towards others only once a month, I will surely acquire less self knowledge then if I were to try it every day. Seeing these benefits can in themselves be motivating to continue the efforts!

  21. Zulu Mar 25, 2010 7:46 am 21

    I think another reason that explains why effort is so important is what I call “God Factor,” meaning we can’t accomplish anything without His approval. Therefore, all we can do is to focus on our effort and leave the final result to Him. It is up to Him to decide whether our effort is good enough to receive a particular result. So the equation would be something like this:
    Effort + God’s approval -> Result
    Since we have no control on God’s decisions we shouldn’t expect to see results just based on our effort.

  22. Tiara Mar 31, 2010 10:59 am 22

    This might be repeating what everybody has been saying so far but I do think we are mainly here on earth to expand our consciousness. Struggling against the imperious self contributes to this end. It is not important whether we accomplish overcoming any shortcomings or faults, just that we try and gain knowledge and as a result expand our consciousness. I was thinking the other day that just the fact of receiving a different terrestrial body each time we are born and and as a result a different imperious self is evidence enough that the main goal is learning. Each different terrestrial body provides different opportunities for learning.
    Actually, it is a blessing being preoccupied with different issues, having our attention on the Source, having a dialogue with Him, and struggling against our domineering self throughout the day.
    What does it matter if we succeed in eradicating a certain fault as long as we are learning and expanding our consciousness?

  23. Mel Apr 02, 2010 12:15 am 23

    To M.S,

    I also have practiced yoga for many years. How do you integrate Ostad Elahi’s teaching into a daily practice of yoga?

  24. Juneone May 01, 2010 5:41 am 24

    @Tiara Thank you for that comment! A hard week has passed, and instead of sleeping… I am here searching for answers. This article gives me hope. There have been moments in my life, when I have been slammed with some major complications—I have taken pride in the way that I ask for help, and manage through. I have even, sadly, tried to set myself up as an example to other people, and as soon as that pride gets validated–WHAM–a tiny, insignificant (related) issue consumes my every thought: the imperious self claims the comfortable domain that I have allowed for it. It’s embarrassing—i feel so weak.
    But reading this, I am encouraged: a chance to have a dialogue, to learn, is far more valuable than what I call success.

  25. MF Dec 17, 2010 3:32 am 25

    Thank you very much for this very very good piece of work. It did help me a lot to see things the right way. But I do have a question, which I openly adress to everyone who reads this!
    Does this mean we should have goals? But we should set them very high such as gaining perfection (spiritually seen) and however the end result we get from it, we should be thankful because it did get us a bit closer to our goal / we became a better person, athlete…
    Or does this mean, we should not set any goals, because goals lead to dissappointments?

  26. NN Jan 04, 2011 1:09 am 26

    @MF
    As individuals trying to take life one step at a time and better ourselves, how can we go through this process without any form of motivation? In answer to your question, I do feel we should have goals. There are different degrees though, since it is ultimately up the the individual how much effort they put into it. If I go through life and “want” to change and “want” to learn something new, how can I do this? By simply saying it will happen one day? This approach is equivalent to wishful thinking. But on the other hand, when I want to learn something for example another language, I set realistic goals, and ultimate goals. I “gradually” do things on a daily basis, and as a result I see some progress has been made. I don’t get discouraged and it motivates me to put in more effort, and set higher standards.

    At the end of the day, bettering ourselves is a “gradual” process, and no one said it’s going to be easy. Patience is also very important because it helps to achieve the goals we want to set.

    This was my thought to the question you asked, a question that I have often asked myself.

  27. SF Jan 07, 2011 8:16 pm 27

    What I take away from this article is the re-emphasis that our aim should be self-improvement and development by using the tools at our disposal to motivate ourselves to action, making every effort we can to fulfill our duties without concern for the end result.

    @MF

    You pose a very interesting question that is actually addressed in the book Malek Jan Nemati (pp. 144-145 in Farsi and p. 116 in French-last paragraph in both). My understanding of Malak Jan’s teachings on this matter is that it is better for us to not concern and occupy ourselves with achieving spiritual goals (paradise/heaven, reaching God are referenced) but rather focus on fulfilling our duties, leaving the outcome to God.

    The first paragraph on p. 153 in Farsi (last paragraph pp.125-126 in French) also addresses how maturation results from either experience or pressure and how misplaced or improper expectations (like thinking that in exchange for our efforts, all of our spir/mat needs will be taken care of) can lead to fatigue on the spiritual path.

    I hope that revisiting these two references will assist in addressing the questions posed.

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