Why Self Transformation Strategies Fail!

Blogosphere is full of wisdom for a better YOU, with catchy titles to get your attention (like this post). These essentially help you construct a new make-believe world, usually with the help of some cleverly constructed phrases (or wordplay as Wittgenstein the famous Austrian philosopher would call them).

However, we all know how these pan out. We live a week or two of in this new make-believe world. Gradually, thought by thought and act by act, we slip back into our familiar world. I have had a fair share of these attempts. 

Nassim Taleb captures the heart of the issue here succinctly in The Bed of Procrustes: “The tragedy of virtue is that the more obvious, boring, unoriginal and sermonising, the proverb, the harder it is to implement.”

In other words, the theory is simple. Practice sucks. And without practice nerve circuits in your brain do not rewire or establish new patterns and without this happening you will remain the YOU that you are. All the trickery in wordplay won’t help.

Yoga, unlike many Western philosophies, is not content with mere reasoning. It delves into psychology of human mind and offers tips to put theory into practice based on this psychology. The core concept of Yoga psychology is that the mind is not a logic machine in action. Evidently, if your mind works “unreasonably” it is difficult to think your way out of problems.

Human brain is always looking to automate stuff into habit patterns to make life easier by saving computational time and energy. We are a walking bag of habits. These habits come in the way of thinking our way out of problems by taking us back to the established patterns of behaviour. If a strategy for change does not take into account this mechanics, it is unlikely to be effective. I talk about how Yoga tackles it here.

Building on top of the psychological mechanics, Yoga offers a template for a plan of action aimed at self transformation.

(Sūtra 2.1) tapaḥ svādhyāya īśvara pranidhānāni kriya yogaḥ

A successful action plan for transformation comprises Tapas (austerities), Svādhyāya (self-study) and Iśvara Pranidhāna (a type of meditation).

Austerities by definition create inconveniences. They upset your usual routine i.e. the habit patterns that make up your current existence. The aim here is two fold: to create new habit patterns that are helpful to your objective and to avoid creating new habit patterns that are NOT helpful to your objective. Both are important in changing the contents of your habit bag. There is no point in adding a good habit if you also pick up another bad habit.

Modern Yoga landscape is littered with many blown out knees, torn hamstrings and rotator cuffs. Thousands of people set about every year to find that elusive method that will reveal them the ultimate truth, after which, their lives will magically transform. Modern gurus charge a bomb, so this shopping experience is not exactly friendly to your wallet. Self-study brings about clarity and conviction in what you do and why you do what you do. It is the theory, without which practice falls apart and could even inflict harm. The investment in self-study also protects your wallet by saving you from having to go Yoga shopping. This post has more to say on this.

The third category is considered an important part of the Yoga toolbox and deserves its own essay. In short, it is a visualisation tool, where one visualises a mind that is full of knowledge, without any limitations and always established in discernment. For mundane objectives, one can choose a person of interest, constantly meditate on that person’s mind and think and act as if that mind were to think and act through one’s body. For example, a young tennis player wanting to improve his forehand may choose Roger Federer. The player studies Roger’s stroke mechanics, pattern of plays and training methods intensely and meditates on his mind and plays from this perspectives. This could be a useful tool at workplace as well.

An effective, long lasting transformation strategy has all these components. Your new 5 step plan at the minimum should cause inconvenience of some sort. Otherwise, you can be rest assured that the existing YOU will be safe!


2 responses

  1. I really loved this post. Because I have been grappling with ‘self-transformation’ and societal validation issues. Is there anything as self-transformation or am I just seeking external validation?

    I agree transformation requires Austerities, Self-study, and Meditation. Could you help with links or material on each of the three components? How does one plan one’s self-transformation?

    At a broader level, does doing these help in overcoming inherent mental flaws as outlined by Daniel Kahneman in his book?

    With respect to power of visualization, Guy Spier has often spoken about imitating Warren Buffett, and this has helped him improve. That is what he says in his book ‘The education of a value investor’.

    Is there any evidence showing causal link between yoga+visualization and improvement in one’s cognitive ability?




  2. Hi Alay –

    Transformation strategies founded solely on external validation invariably fail.
    Yoga is an introspective practice and transformation in this system, while founded on clear understanding of the world around us, is not founded on external validation. The ideas behind the Yoga system of philosophy form a logically consistent system based upon the working of our minds and the world around us. Yoga has no room for blind faith or beliefs, so the Yogi could not care less about the opinion of world at large. That could be one of the reason why Yoga fell out of popularity.

    Transformation through Yoga is founded upon how our minds work. It takes repetition to strengthen synaptic connections in the brain (equivalently repetition establishes habit). Purpose of austerities is two fold: create new habits that are helpful and avoid creating, reinforcing habits that are not helpful. Precisely why these are called austerities. Their purpose is not to create discomfort for the sake of it (that is why unnecessary practices such as cold showers and frequent fasting are frowned upon in Yoga).

    Self study helps us to get a clear understanding of what we do, why we do what we do and how we do what we do. Yoga places a lot of emphasis on critical reasoning. In fact, most of the meditation referred to in Yoga Philosophy is a form of meditative analysis to get this clarity (and not emptying the mind to keep it blank!).

    The purpose of Yoga is to help you be in discernment and clarity at all times. Therefore, its practices are meant to aid it and as a natural consequence rooting out the cognitive biases you refer to (Kahneman’s book) is essential. Yoga calls these Kleshas.

    Being in discernment and clarity means one makes decisions optimally. So in that sense the connection is logical. Check my post on Yoga and Autism Part 2 about effect of some of Yoga’s practices in general cognitive ability. There are some isolated studies. You can find them in Pubmed.

    Hope it helps.


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