Striving and self-discipline don’t come easily to everyone – but if you hope to launch and sustain internal change, you’ll need enough self-discipline to stick to your goals.
For example: most of us can’t wake up one day and, upon deciding that we want more patience in our lives, become patient at the drop of a hat. To develop a new inner quality requires time and work, and even less deeply-rooted habits require many attempts. Deciding that you want to work out every day, for example, requires a number of lifestyle changes to create a sustainable habit.
The Baha’i teachings encourage us to strive for a high level of excellence in our internal thoughts and our external behaviors, with the goal of putting the Baha’i teachings of peace, unity and love “into common practice:”
It is the ardent desire of the Baha’is to put these teachings into common practice: and they will strive with soul and heart to give up their lives for this purpose, until the heavenly light brightens the whole world of humanity. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 30.
To reach a goal like adapting a noble character trait, adding a regular workout routine to our daily schedule, or becoming a more honest person, you also need to assess your social surroundings. If you decide you want to be honest, but have a number of friends who consistently bend the truth, you probably need to create some space between yourself and those who encourage dishonest habits. The Baha’i writings emphasize that the environment around them impacts each individual:
Beware! Walk not with the ungodly and seek not fellowship with him, for such companionship turneth the radiance of the heart into infernal fire. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 42.
One thing that keeps me from changing my habits is that once I fail or fall short, I sometimes give up until I come to a new wave of inspiration. The key, I’ve found, is to jump back on the bandwagon of change right after I fall out of it. The trick is to not give up.
If I have to continually recreate goals, it can become exhausting and I can lose faith in my own ability to stick to them. Rather than viewing each time I relapse as a hard reset, I try to recognize that growth is not linear. We are all imperfect and will continue to be so, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve.
As I work to kick old unhealthy habits, I often find it easier to just focus on the new habits I can form to replace the old ones. If I try, for example, to open my heart to more joy and be less critical of those around me, rather than scolding myself every time a judgmental thought crosses my mind, I can actively try to state the good I see in others:
Be vigilant against temptation, but do not allow it to claim too great a share of our attention. You should concentrate, rather, on the virtues that you should develop, the services you should strive to render, and, above all, on God and His attributes … – The Universal House of Justice, from a letter to an individual Baha’i, March 8, 1981.
When we focus too much on what we’ve done wrong it can feel impossible to return to the goals we set for our betterment. We can beat ourselves up and get caught in a cycle of guilt. When we feel guilty about something, we tend to neglect the work it takes to actually make the necessary changes in our behavior. Neglecting our goals has an impact on the world around us, and gets in the way of us becoming better for the people we love:
So too is paralysis engendered by guilt to be avoided; indeed, preoccupation with a particular moral failing can, at times, make it more challenging for it to be overcome. – The Universal House of Justice, 19 April 2013, p. 3.