The Yogic Perspective on Striving for Excellence
To ask “Why should I excel?” may sound as ridiculous (and bordering on the insane) as the question, “Why should I be happy?” But waking up to the question of excellence may very well be the beginning of excellence! The possibility of excellence is in all of us, but we remain in deep slumber from which only in certain activities and at certain times we wake up – and soon after revert to the sleep of mediocrity.
“Excellence” generally refers to one’s achievement or successful output. For example, an organization is said to be excellent when it’s making huge profits, and a student is excellent if he or she is getting good grades. The connotation of excellence is thus sourced from outside oneself; and as such, the concept can get vitiated or distorted. The student can get good grades by copying. The company can make or show profits by devious means.
It’s a case of bad logic, fallacious logic, when, from the of premise that p precludes q, we conclude that if one is q they are also p. If you are excellent, you will get good grades. But that you have got good grades need not necessarily mean you are excellent! From merely looking at an individual’s achievements, one cannot ascertain beyond doubt the excellence of the individual.
Additionally, when excellence is based on achievements or performance, we consider only particular aspects of individual’s lives. Pele, Maradona, and the current superstar, Lionel Messi, are all excellent football players; Nijinsky is a ballet dancer par excellence; Salvador Dali and Picasso un-paralleled painters. Are these so-called geniuses also excellent human beings? Does it make sense to talk about excellence as human being per se? Can a man excel in every aspect of his life? Nietzsche, Jack London, Nijinsky and such others were excellent in their fields, but ‘weak’ as human beings, and hence bound to cave in or collapse, leading to insanity or suicide.
So, if “excellence” lies not in the objective sphere, can it be found in the subjective sphere? Is there a quality in you which brings about excellence, or which can itself be termed as excellence?
Excellence is a subjective quality, a mental quality, that you bring to whatever it is you are doing. It is a product of disciplining the mind.
Patanjali says, “The knowledge or absence of knowledge (the degree of knowledge / expertise) of any object is directly proportional to the extent you allow the object to colour your mind”. There is no doubt that to excel at anything you are required to spend more time with the thing or activity. Therefore, the proficiency of an asana practitioner is directly proportional to the time he or she spends on the yoga mat doing the asana.
But just spending more time with the object is not sufficient. It has to be ‘quality’ time. In order to understand that, it is necessary to first understand the uniqueness of the human mind. It has two distinguishing characteristics.
Firstly, it is the nature of the mind to be habitually in the past or the future, as opposed to the sense organs, which are always in the present. This is due to the ‘conditioning’ of the mind. Also, the conditioned mind has a prejudiced or biased view of anything it considers. It does not allow the object to color itself completely, and hence lacks the complete knowledge of, or proficiency with, the object or activity.
Secondly, the mind is capable of operating through more than one sensory organ at the same time. This aspect is both a blessing or a curse in the context of excellence. It is a blessing when the mind simultaneously works through more than one sense organ to fully focus on one object or activity. It then facilitates excellence. For example, when I listen to the lecture while also seeing the lecturer, my grasp or comprehension of what they are saying increases.
However it is a curse if, for example, my mind through my eyes is watching the TV and through my tongue is tasting food at the same time. I consequentially cannot fully enjoy the TV program or the food. In this type of multi-tasking the mind is mutilated, torn into pieces. No excellence is possible here.
Patanjali cuts at the root of multi-tasking when he says that it is impossible for the mind to have two experiences at the same time. An individual who is credited with multi-tasking is actually doing several things serially one after the other rather rapidly, which creates the illusion that he or she is multi-tasking.
Now we get a clue regarding the secret of excellence.
1. Bring the mind completely to the present moment and focus on the task at hand; prevent its habitual wanderings into the past and future
2. Use more sensory organs to focus the mind on the same object at the same time. In fact, your excellence as regards an object or activity is proportional to the number of sense organs you can concentrate on the object or activity.
In order to excel as a human being or make excellence your second nature, you have to adopt the same approach to each and every activity that you do, irrespective of whether you like the object or activity, or not. In fact, ubiquitous excellence requires that, ‘instead of only doing what you like, start liking whatever you are doing’.
When the total mind is focused on the object or activity, the object reveals itself. This is how you attain perfect excellence in that activity.