The Choice of Change: Practical Steps for Self-Transformation (Part 2 of 2)

Practical Steps for Self-Transformation 2

Taking Action, But Giving Up Too Quickly

THEN THERE ARE people who want to take action, to practice what they have learned; they try for a couple of days but 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 behavioral habit. Behavioral habits 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 actions become “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. It’s like a channel through which water flows. The water will always flow through that channel unless it is blocked by something. Then a new channel will be etched out.

Researchers have found that new neural pathways can be created in 30 to 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 path enough times and it starts to feel “right,” 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 could say that practice makes perfectly grooved neural pathways toward mastery!

Practicing the Same and Getting the Same Mediocre Results

Some who are committed to change practice their new skill or behavior and don’t give up after a short time. They establish a baseline of practice and simply continue doing the same repetitive practice even if they are getting mediocre results. They may say: “Something must be wrong with me. There must be some secrets of learning that I don’t know about. I’ve tried hard but it’s just not getting me anywhere.”

One couple came to counseling because the husband, Ahmad, had a habit of blaming his wife for every little (and big) thing, and the wife harbored resentment toward him for the habit of blaming and many other things. (To protect privacy, the case we present is an amalgam of a number of actual counseling cases.) The wife was willing to work on herself and practice techniques to eliminate and avoid building up resentment. The husband acknowledged his tendency to find fault. Yet whenever he had the opportunity to choose a more emotionally intelligent way to convey a complaint or dissatisfaction, he would just restrain his tongue and walk away. But then later that day or the next day he would bring up the incident and launch into his blaming barrage.

He justified his new habit of deferring the blaming until a later time by saying that at least he was trying. And he was “trying”—again and again, the same routine, never advancing beyond that point. It’s like he knew there was a hole in the road and every time he approached the hole, he would see it, walk around it, and then later come back and fall into the hole. Every time!

Think about how routine any activity can become once it’s “second nature.” When we drive a car, we don’t have to consciously think about turning the key in the ignition, backing out of the driveway, accelerating and braking at the appropriate times, and so on. Unfortunately, the same phenomena can take place when we practice something. It can become rote and mechanical, serving little purpose or benefit. For example, when a beginner gymnast learns a balance beam routine, if he has learned it without paying attention to the importance of keeping his body straight and vertical, perpendicular to the level of the beam, even if he goes through the routine one thousand times, he will not improve what needs improvement, namely, the relationship between good form and balance. Our practice of new attitudes and/or behaviors requires the same meticulous attention to specific elements involved in that change, and giving special attention to areas of weakness in the practice regimen.

Practice Must Be “Deliberate Practice”

Professor Ericsson, of Florida State University, corroborates the idea that practice is the most significant factor in attaining to superior performance. However, he asserts that “deliberate practice” (which we’ll define in a moment) is what brings results. He writes about practice as the foundation for acquiring the necessary skills in pursuit of mastery and even shows that this expertise is more the result of practice than special talent.

When experts exhibit their superior performance in public, their behavior looks so effortless and natural that we are tempted to attribute it to special talents. Although a certain amount of knowledge and training seems necessary, the role of acquired skill for the highest levels of achievement has traditionally been minimized. However, when scientists began measuring the experts’ supposedly superior powers of speed, memory, and intelligence with psychometric tests, no general superiority was found—the demonstrated superiority was domain specific. For example, the superiority of the chess expert’s memory was constrained to regular chess positions and did not generalize to other types of materials.

These skills of expertise result from practice that is characterized as being fully focused and concentrated, meaningful (as opposed to rote and mechanical), and working on areas of weakness. That is deliberate practice. In our example of the beginner gymnast, this would involve focusing on what needs improvement rather than performing the routine again and again, which only serves to strengthen the neural pathways of mediocre technique wherever that exists.

Deliberate practice also involves using varying and creative techniques to learn in a way that is “deep and intense.” This kind of practice includes welcoming and even looking for feedback. In the case of someone practicing a sport, that feedback would come from the coach. In the case of someone working on character skills, that feedback would come from those people with whom daily interaction provides opportunity to practice the skill and to see what effects the behavior or attitude modification brings.

To reiterate, deliberate practice includes the following qualities:

  1. Full focus and concentration
  2. Making the practice meaningful
  3. Working on areas of weakness
  4. Using varied and creative techniques to learn in a way that is “deep and intense”
  5. Welcoming, and even looking for, feedback.

There is, however, one very important note here. In fact, it is a paradox of sorts. We are using words like “focus,” “concentration,” “deep,” and “intense.” These words would seem to convey a kind of tenseness, a hard pushing. But deliberate practice, as we mean it, is a keenly aware yet perfectly relaxed—almost elegant— state. The intensity is in the intention and resolute motivation. But the approach is one of ease. There is a keen awareness without harsh or judgmental demands on self, or thoughts that produce anxiety. Practicing a sport, chess, or patience—when performed with simplicity of spirit—has an underlying cognizance of silence, ease, and joy.

With regard to practicing a new character trait, it is in a very real way of striving for freedom from a persona that was conditioned in early life by people and events, fears and anxieties, desire for acceptance, and aversion to harsh judgment or rejection. When there is freedom from these ego concerns, there is simplicity. We come to realize that it’s not enough to understand the routine and outer patterns of our lives. That is nothing but a shadow of the real self. We are aiming deeper, to cultivate the self that thinks, feels, speaks, and acts in harmony with a genuine core of principle and mastery—of a skill or of the self. To this end, pyschotherapist and Zen-master Karlfried Graf Durkheim notes:

(In) all the martial arts … the basic aim is always the same; by tirelessly practicing a given skill, the student finally sheds the ego with its fears, worldly desires, and reliance on objective scrutiny—sheds it so completely that the student becomes the instrument of a deeper power, from which mastery falls instinctively, without further effort, like a ripe fruit.

Staying “In Ease”? —Life’s Too Stressful!

Going back for a moment to the idea of staying “in ease,” some may say: “That’s not realistic. Life is too stressful!” Then consider the following verse:

And We shall smooth your way to perfect ease. [Sûrat Al-A¢la, 87:8].

Sayyid Qutb says about this verse:

This is a glad tiding for the Prophet personally and for the Islamic nation at large. It is furthermore a statement of the nature of Islam, its role in human life, and in the universe. This verse, which is rendered in Arabic in no more than two written words— [wa nu-yassiru-ka   li-al-yusra]—states one of the most fundamental principles of faith and existence. It provides a link between the nature of the Prophet, the nature of Islam, and that of the whole universe. It is a universe created by Allah with ease. It follows its appointed way with ease. And it draws nearer it final objective with ease. Thus it is an inspiration lighting limitless horizons. If Allah smoothes a certain person’s path, he finds ease in everything in life. For he will move along his way to Allah, as does the universe, which is characterized by its harmony of construction, movement, and direction…. Ease will pervade his whole life. It will be evident in his hand, tongue, movement, work, ideas, way of thinking, conducting all affairs, and tackling all matters; ease with himself and with others as well.

We learn to recognize exactly what will and what will not contribute to our ease. So we choose something other than food to soothe our troubled emotions, or resolve to practice tolerance and forgiveness rather than giving in to blaming. If we are tense and tight and twisted again and again, like a tight rubber band, we will defeat our purpose and defeat our attempts to gain greater mastery of self.

A very interesting study was done that has far-reaching implications. Mothers of children diagnosed with ADHD were given mindfulness training. This training included:

  1. Contemplative and concentration exercises.
  2. Practice in having good intentions, such as loving-kindness, compassion, and generosity.
  3. Cognitive strategies, such as reflecting on and remembering the transitory nature of events and circumstances when facing a challenging or provoking situation.
  4. Empathic strategies, such as overcoming the fear of suffering so as to truly enter the world of another in order to relieve their suffering in whatever way possible and facilitate for them an improved stat — be it relief, happiness, or feeling understood and appreciated.

The training provided to mothers brought about improved behavior in the children. When the children were also provided the training, behavioral improvements were even more pronounced. Some of the children could be taken off their medication. This has implications for our efforts to gain greater mastery of self.

The Mind Can Be Like an Unruly Child

On a certain level, the mind can be compared to an unruly child. Unless we discipline our own minds, and do it in the proper way, the mind runs here and there without purpose. We fail to act. We end up feeling discouraged. We practice in ways that get us nowhere.

The study about mindfulness training for mothers of ADHD-diagnosed children supports the idea that three states of consciousness and self-directed mental strategies work best when dealing with difficult children: (1) being entirely present; (2) being profoundly aware of one’s own thoughts, attitudes, intentions, feelings, speech, and actions; and (3) keeping things in perspective with an approach of calm, gentle, and empathic assertiveness. This same mindfulness constitutes the foundation we need to train our minds to engage in deliberate practice.

Here’s a handy list of guidelines that facilitate getting out of the endless loops of thinking, reading, and wishing about some change you want to make, but never taking action to bring about that change; avoiding the vicious cycle of enthusiasm and then discouragement; and making sure you don’t fall into the trap of practicing at a subpar level of behavior over and over again:

  1. Pay attention to your attitude and approach. Be open to change. Cultivate calm assertiveness. Avoid harsh or judgmental demands on yourself or anything that produces anxiety. Don’t worry about feeling or looking foolish as you try out new behaviors. (Baseball Hall of Famer Lou Brock said: “Show me a guy who is afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy I can beat every time.”)
  1. Acquire knowledge related to your objective.
  1. Spend time reflecting on what you have learned and on the consequences of making the change versus staying “unchanged.”
  1. Get creative in how you practice. Think outside the box to find ways that you can use so as to accomplish your goal.
  1. Make your practice a “deliberate practice,” i.e., deep and intense. Studies show you can accomplish more in a deep 10-minute practice than a shallow two-hour practice session.
  1. Keep your practice focused on particulars, reaching for one particular goal—a new aspect in your repertoire of self-directed thoughts, chosen attitudes, or behavioral responses. Don’t worry if you are not perfect during that segment of your practice. The point is not to get it perfect “this time,” but to systematically build toward a success vision of steady and gradual improvement.
  1. Practice, practice, practice—this is sabr, patience and perseverance. Know that change does not happen overnight. Remember that creating a new neural pathway takes 30 to 60 days.
  1. Welcome—and look for—feedback.
  1. Ask Allah, the Exalted and Most High, for help, guidance, and the grace necessary to reach into the depths of your being.

Remember Ahmad, the man mentioned above who used to blame his wife a lot and then got into the habit of “deferred blaming”? Through counseling, he learned to use the above guidelines to address his issue. In an upcoming article, we will, insha’Allah, go into detail about Ahmad’s attempts to apply each of the above points and provide details of his journey of change, including the more nuanced modifications he made in his attitudes –and in his perceptions of himself, of life, and of his family. We will also present details of the positive challenges put to him by his counselor and his wife –challenges that he resisted at first but ultimately embraced wholeheartedly, which produced extraordinary results in his relationships with his wife and children. The detailed descriptions take the reader “inside” his thoughts and feelings, allowing a first-hand understanding of how change takes place.

Allah does not change a people’s condition until they change what is in their souls. [Sûrat Al-Ra¢d, 13:11]

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Leslie Schaffer and Kamal Shaarawy provide counseling for individuals, couples, and families. More information is available at LivingEman.com. They also have a matching website, SalaamHearts.com. Contact info: leslie@salaamhearts.com; kamal@salaamhearts.com.

Written By

Kamal Shaarawy studied a dual major of Electrical Engineering and Islamic Studies at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, and went on to obtain a master’s degree in psychology in the U.S. He is currently working on his doctorate in clinical psychology.

Kamal worked for five years for ISNA (Islamic Society of North America), in charge of their publishing division, American Trust Publications, and later on, their Islamic Book Service.

He worked for six years for the public schools in eastern Pennsylvania as a Behavior Specialist Consultant and as a Mobile Therapist, providing counseling and behavior modification for children and their families.

He is a certified instructor of the parenting approach “Parenting with Love and Logic” and a certified clinical hypnotherapist.

Currently Kamal is the director of the “Family Enhancement Program” in Phoenix, Arizona. He has also provided private counseling for Muslim individuals, couples and families for the past twenty five years, and volunteered in correctional facilities to provide Islamic education and coaching for Muslim inmates. He has extensive experience working with individuals, couples, and families across a broad spectrum of faiths, cultures, and ethnicity.

Kamal is the co-author of a book called Come To Success Through Living Eman, which emphasizes the transformational aspects of Islam in daily living.

In addition, he has authored the newly published book Dwell In Tranquility: An Islamic Roadmap to the Vibrant Marriage which combines the sublime knowledge of Islamic teachings with scientific research, and insightful real life and counseling experiences.

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