The Art of Accomplishment: Six Principles from Vedanta

Prasad Kaipa, Ph. D., The Mithya Institute for Learning

The essence of Vedanta is self-knowledge. In my work with organizations, I found six principles derived from Vedanta to be quite helpful in coaching executives to become successful and fulfill their dreams. These six principles are interdependent and describe a cycle. When you follow this cycle, you develop new competencies and achieve higher levels of success. Also, the more you practice the six principles, the more you begin to know yourself.

1) Clarity of Intention: Many of us have some idea of what we are after when we take on a project. More often, though, we may not have clarity about our goal, let alone know how to measure success if we do achieve it.

Intention is critical to achieving success. For example, in India, when we perform a special religious ceremony like 'Sri Satya Narayana Puja,' we start with 'Sankalpam,' a Sanskrit word for 'Intention.' We pray for our wishes (purusharthas) like dharma, money (artha), desires (kama), and spiritual freedom (Moksha) to be fulfilled. We also pray for the benefit of society/world (loka kalyana praptyartham).

When the intention is not clear, attention shifts from one thing (one desire) to another and leads to confusion (vikalpa). In such circumstances, we often end up compromising our own efforts and receive less than what we desired or even deserved. Without a crystal clear intention, we rarely experience a sense of accomplishment.

So, how do you increase the clarity of your intention? Ask yourself:

  • What is it that I want?
  • What evokes passion and joy in my heart?
  • What am I willing to give up (sacrifice) to achieve the desired goal?
  • If I have more than one intention, which one should I first attempt?

These questions bring to the surface some of our assumptions and passion and help us prioritize our intentions (and hence our actions).

2) Awareness: To succeed, intention alone is not enough. The message of Swami Vivekananda is: 'arise (Utthistatha), be awake and aware (Jagritha) and stop not till you reach your goal' (prapthavaran nibhodhata). Awareness is of two kinds: Self awareness and the awareness of the world around us. When we develop true awareness of self, we begin to understand the true nature of world also and that we are manifestation of Brahman-ultimate reality. There are four special sentences in Upanishads that reveal the nature of Atman (self) and Brahman and those are called 'maha vakyas' or 'great sentences:' Each approach Brahman from a different perspective while addressing the non-differentiation of Atman and Brahman.

  • The first sentence or Maha Vakya, from an Upanishad related to Rig Veda, tells us that Consciousness is the Brahman (Pragnanam Brahma). It is called a 'Lakshana vakya' meaning 'defining sentence' because it defines Brahman in terms of Consciousness.

  • The second Mahavakya, from an Upanishad related to Yajur Veda, tells us that each of us are Brahman (Aham Brahmasmi). It is called 'Anubhava vakya' as only through experience that we can gain understanding of our true nature.

  • The third Maha Vakya, from an Upanishad (Chandogya) connected with Sama Veda, is 'Tat-tvam-asi.’ It is not just that I am Brahman, you are Brahman and the entire substratum of this world is also Brahman. This is called 'Upadesha Vakya' or sentence that is taught by teachers (Gurus) to their disciples to prevent arrogance and develop respect and compassion for others.

  • Finally, the fourth Maha Vakya, from an Upanishad (Mundaka) related to Atharva Veda, is 'Ayamatma Brahma' meaning ‘This Atman is Brahman.’ Since this sentence reveals the non-dualistic nature of atman and Brahman and keeps us connected with the larger reality, it is called 'Anusandhana Vakya.'

What blocks our awareness? Patanjali (exponent of Yoga Sutras in addition to Grammar and Ayurveda) said that there are five mental processes that act as enemies to awareness. They are:

  • Our own expectations and standards (pramana),
  • Our mis-identified and wrong knowledge (viparyaya),
  • Our imagination (vikalpa),
  • Sleep (nidra) and
  • Memory (smruthi).

While sleep and old memory are easy to understand as blocks to awareness, Patanjali warns us that we have to watch out that our own standards, incomplete and false knowledge, and imagination don't take over our mind and make us either proud or sloppy or negligent. Indeed, we must be aware and vigilant against our complacence (Jagriti). Know that we shape the world through our actions and the world shapes us through its reactions. And we need to continually and dynamically re-assess where we've been, where we are, and where we want to go.

How do you develop more awareness? Reflection/contemplative practices, writing a journal regularly to become aware of our own thought processes and continual reassessment of our intentions are helpful. Most awareness is tacit. Learning to pay attention to body signals, pains and pleasures and energy shifts in the body is key to developing higher awareness and acute sensitivity to one's own body and mind. The more aware you are of yourself, the sharper your senses are to observe your surroundings!

3) Empathy for one another: While clarity of intention and awareness gets us onto the path to success, empathy and compassion helps us to gain support of others. Both in Bhagavad Geeta as well as Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, friendliness (maitri) and kindness/compassion (karuna) are two attitudes that are encouraged in working with others. When you begin to see yourself in others and feel for others genuinely, you will find that others reciprocate those feelings. Time and again, I have found that affection (vatsalyata bhava) and warmth towards to new people always brought positive results. When the situation had conflicts and divisive, these attitudes of maitri and karuna were able to diffuse that tension and create some 'openness' to an amicable solution.

What is empathy? It is like "walking in another's shoes." It implies the imaginative act of being the other person. Empathy is the foundation for emotional intelligence. By being kind and empathetic when you could be harsh, you can build lasting relationships with your colleagues, employees and customers.

The practice of empathy really requires demonstrating openness, mutual respect and trust in relationships. Deep listening, not just to the words but the meaning behind the words, is the foundation for an empathetic relationship. Sharing from the heart and feeling the pain of the other nurtures relationships. Empathy begets more empathy and is the source of a creative partnership.

4) Appreciation for each other and what you receive: While empathy opens the door, appreciation welcomes you in. Vedanta tells us to tell the truth that is pleasing to others and withhold what is disliked even if it is the truth. (satyam bhuyat, priyam bhuyat, na bhuyat satyam-apriyam) It does not mean that we should lie to please others, but it maybe better for people to find such truth themselves. Appreciation is not flattery but genuine acknowledgment of another's contribution. By letting you know that I appreciate what you have done for me, genuinely and specifically, I let you know that I honor and respect who you are. Appreciating a person and their work boosts morale and amplifies what brought that appreciation in the first place.

However, one can only appreciate others to the extent that one appreciates oneself. So appreciation is also about self acceptance. How does one practice self acceptance? Make it a ritual every day to find something positive that you have done or some contribution that you have made to others. Even if the work did not yet produce the desired result, appreciate the steps you have taken so far. Similarly appreciate what others have done, even if the results are not produced the first time they try it. Be authentic when you give such feedback and only then discuss how to improve future efforts and results.

5) Stretching beyond your own limits: We operate mostly on autopilot (under the influence of Maya). We become comfortable with 'karma theory' and when we fail, we say that it is our fate. While our fate might have something to do with our circumstances, if we don't learn from those failures and take actions that stretch us beyond our comfort zone, we are not using our free will (sveccha) to break out of our karma. Sveccha came from two words 'Sva' and 'iccha' meaning my desire. This is where we make choices and the clarity of our intention helps us immensely. When we are stretched, we gain access to our creativity and passion.

People are naturally uncomfortable taking risks and failing because we focus only on the end result. We don't accept or appreciate failure very well in our culture. Each 'failure' could create a mental block in us and create boundaries around us. Most such boundaries are self-imposed, though we like to blame others for their contribution. By learning to stretch even though we don't want to, we begin to break those mental barriers and discover untapped potential. Aspiration and desperation are two good motivators for stretching beyond our limits. And curiosity, genuine inquiry (not inquisition), empathy, and appreciation provide the impetus and support for people stretching beyond their limits and discovering new possibilities.

To practice this principle, find opportunities to learn and be vulnerable. Be willing to fail and look stupid and ask questions instead of making assumptions. Practice telling the truth when you are not sure what the implications are. Interestingly, you will find out that you are modeling a behavior that leads to 'stretching the limits.' You are creating an environment of nurturing and caring in which other people let their guards down and discover themselves to be bigger than their own imagination!

6) Letting go of what does not work and old mindsets: Practice (abhyaasa) and detachment (vairaagya) are two recommendations that Lord Krishna gives Arjuna in Geeta to gain control of his mind. While the first five principles could get you to the edge of success, success eludes those who are not able to know when to let go and move on. Letting go does not mean giving up. It means not to be attached to the result while continuing to perform the action.

Habits are difficult to change because we continue to do what we have always done by default and expect different results. By learning to let go of our old mindsets, we can begin to discover new possibilities and new approaches. Krishna advises Arjuna to do his best and to let go of his attachment to the fruits of his action. Such letting go gives us freedom to act and takes care of our nervousness. Many top athletes set themselves high goals and then let go of the attachment to those goals making them free to play their natural game bringing out the best in them.

Letting go is also about flexibility and good judgment. When I know what to let go of and when to do so, I can take responsibility for what I can hold onto and for how long. I can only take responsibilities for what I have freedom to let go. I cannot take accountability for any of my actions that I do not have such freedom.

The Cycle of Six Principles

Intention provides the direction and focus for our actions. Awareness gives us the capacity and intelligence to go after our goal. Empathy helps us build partnerships with others and appreciation is the key to motivation and productivity. Stretching beyond the perceived limits helps us to grow and meet the challenges presented and letting go of our attachment assures not only success but accomplishment. Together, these six principles convey the essence of Vedanta. Practicing them with self awareness leads not only to success but to self-discovery!

Prasad Kaipa researches the nature of learning and knowledge in organizations and consults with business on leadership, intellectual capital and strategy. You can send your feedback and dialogue with him by reaching him at 408/871-0462 or sending an email to Prasad.

This article was written for and first published in a souvenir released by Siva Vishnu Temple in Livermore, CA in July 1998.

Prasad is grateful for the comments and suggestions received from Venkateswaran, Michael Miley, V.S. Mahesh, Sudhansu Palsule, G.S. Satya and my father Kaipa Lakshmi Narayana.

Another article with a title 'The Art of Accomplishment' can be found in this Learning section of the website. It attempts to take the six principles and apply it in business context and also elaborates on accomplishment cycle. Please check it out and let us know what you think!


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