Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, “Indeed, Allah loves it when any one of you acts, so let him perfect it” (al-Bayhaqi in Shoua’ab al-Eman). Striving toward perfection in our daily actions is easy for us to talk about, but many find it difficult to to change for the better.
Have you ever tried to lose weight, be more patient, or stop yelling at your kids? These and countless other attempts to improve the quality of our daily lives often come up against a brick wall. We try and try again, over and over—new diet, greater determination to not feel urgent at a slow checkout line at the store, not feeling guilty about how we deal with our children when they are loud-and-annoying-but-just-being-kids. We want so much to find ways that work better, to find solutions to our problems and methods to change bad habits.
Some people who desire to change something in their behavior or character or daily habits of living spend considerable time reading books, attending seminars, and looking for insight from self-help sources of information. They consume endless amounts of information and knowledge and still do not experience any genuine change. Vernon Howard, author and teacher, says “Many of us knock on the door but remain outside, because knocking and entering are entirely different actions. Knocking is necessary, consisting of reading books, attending meetings, asking questions. But entrance requires much bolder action. It requires one to enter into himself, to uncover (his own) hidden motives, to see (his own) contradictions, and to realize his actual power for self-change.”
There is a story about Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, who lived in the 8th century hijrah. He used to travel from village to village, his donkey loaded with the books he proudly collected, evidence, so he thought, of his vast knowledge. One day he was stopped by robbers who stole his donkey and all his books. He was grateful that they had spared his life, but he realized that when his books went, so did his so-called knowledge. He realized that he had never taken to heart the knowledge in the volumes of books he had carried from village to village. He vowed from that moment forward to acquire only one book and when he had mastered and put into practice the knowledge in that one book, only then would he acquire another. This story illustrates the importance of “taking to heart” and putting into practice the knowledge we acquire.
Yet there are too many people who say “I want to lose weight” (or be more patient) (or stop yelling at my kids)”— they read material relating to their goal, think about, dwell on it, dream about it, engage in endless mental chatter about it — but take no action. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, “O Allah, I seek refuge in You from useless knowledge” (Ibn Majah). Useless knowledge is knowledge of the intellect and the tongue, knowledge that is not taken to heart and acted upon.
Then there are people who want to take action, to practice what they have learned and try for a couple of days and then say, “Oh, nothing ever changes. I keep trying and don’t see any change.” One man sought counseling because he had been trying — unsuccessfully — to overcome an anger habit that was damaging his relationship with his wife and children. He had heard that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything and this was very discouraging to him. Upon a little research, we found that the origin of this idea is a book published in 2008, Outliers: The Story of Success. Its author, Malcolm Gladwell, refers to what he calls the “10,000-hour rule.” The idea is that it takes around 10,000 hours of practice to become masterful at something. It’s certainly true that such an enormous amount of time is required to become an NBA superstar or world-class artist. Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, was cut from his high school basketball team. How then did he win six NBA championships? While his skills during his high school years might have been inferior to other players on the team, he had the drive and cultivated in himself the desire for mastery far surpassing the vast majority of others players. He pushed himself harder and practiced more than the others. His hard work, of course, paid off.
We are focusing here, however, on practicing personal skills or new habits of behavior, or techniques that bring about self-improvement. We can look to neuropsychology for a more realistic assessment of how long it takes to institute a new habit of behavior. Habits of behavior create pathways in the brain. These neural pathways are basically connections of neurons that transmit electrochemical messages throughout the body. Every time we learn something new or focus the mind with concentration, neural pathways are being created and this goes on throughout our lives. Learning to tie our shoes or ride a bike as a child, or learning to drive a car or use Microsoft Excel, the brain is establishing neural pathways so that gradually our action becomes “second nature” and easy to execute without conscious effort. At first we feel awkward and inept in the new activity, and progress is likely to be slow and gradual; but with practice, step by step, our ability improves.
We can think of habits of thought and behavior as pathways that become more and more deeply grooved. And it’s like a channel through which water flows. The water will always flow through that channel unless it is blocked by something and then a new channel will be etched out. Researchers have found that new neural pathways can be created in 30-60 days with focused effort. The person who automatically heads for the kitchen whenever feeling moody or anxious or depressed, using food to temporarily ameliorate those feelings, is traveling down a neural pathway that is well-worn and familiar. The effort to create a new pathway, to learn to soothe the self in more productive ways, feels utterly strange and difficult in the beginning. Until one has traveled that new path enough times that it starts to feel “right” and comfortable and enjoyable. We can find great motivation in the fact that the brain is constantly changing and we just have to be willing to act as self-directing individuals, capable of creating new habits of living whenever we decide to improve the quality of our lives. This neuroplasticity of the brain allows us to genuinely choose how to live our lives. The key is to practice, practice, practice. It’s said that “practice makes perfect.” We can say now that practice makes perfectly delineated neural pathways toward mastery!
Part 2 of this article will continue with an example of people who are committed to practice and don’t give up after a short time, but establish a baseline of practice and then continue doing the same repetitive practice over and over again even if they are getting mediocre or no results! It will also present an explanation of “deliberate practice” and how that breaks down the brick walls that stand as obstacles to our success and advancement in self-mastery. With deliberate practice we can create new neural pathways and improved behavioral patterns and habits that vitalize our lives and bring us the greatest enjoyment, insha’Allah.