Illuminations 25 – By Slow Degrees

In past newsletters I have spoken a lot about goals. In this newsletter we look at one important reason you and I may not achieve all our goals – or even attempt them in the first place.

Sometimes when a goal is very large or appears difficult or impossible to achieve, our minds shut down and we either give up or don’t even begin.

There is a way around this. And it works like magic. Lord Brahma revealed it at the beginning of creation. What is it? It is called “Slow Degrees.” Read on and you’ll find out how this wonderful process works.

May you always think of Krsna,

Mahatma Das


 By Slow Degrees

The highest devotion is attained by slow degrees by the method of constant endeavor for self-realization with the help of scriptural evidence, theistic conduct, and perseverance in practice. (Brahma-samhita 5.59)

As I mentioned, we often give up on a goal when we find it difficult to achieve. Or if the goal is great, we may not even attempt it in the first place.

This is common. We have a tendency to want quick results with little effort. When the results don’t come how and when we want them, we often become discouraged. And this discouragement may even cause us to give up some of our devotional practices. Many times devotees expressed this kind of impatience to Srila Prabhupada. Prabhupada would often site the example of a pregnant woman.

Young Bride“Sometimes the example of a young bride is given. From the day of her marriage, a woman wonders, ‘When will I beget child?’ And time passes, and no child comes, but because she is married, we can rest assured that there will be a child. That is a gross example. So, you are initiated and take to the bhakti-yoga process, and you wonder, ‘When will that day come when Krishna consciousness will fully awaken in my heart?’ And many days pass, and you worry and are perhaps discouraged, but because you have been inducted into the process, you should know that someday you will see Krishna, that someday you will be fully established in Krishna consciousness and will be completely happy.”

I Want It and I Want It Now

We live in a culture that is making things easier to get than ever before. But this lifestyle tends to make us more impatient and demanding.

“Patience is required for the successful discharge of Krsna conscious duties. Krsna is pleased to award benediction upon the aspiring devotee engaged in His service with patience determination and regularity.”

Is there something you’d like to achieve that you haven’t even started working on because you feel it would just take too long or would be too difficult to attain? If so, you are certainly not alone. It is likely that there is enough impatience or fear around this goal that you just don’t do anything. Or you might simply be so overwhelmed by the goal that you don’t even know where to start.

In order to show you how “slow degrees” can work for you, I’d like you to write a few goals down that fit in the above category. Think of something you haven’t started because you think you could never reach the goal or because it would take too long to achieve.

Pick one and find a small thing you could easily do that would get you one step closer to that goal (remember when you take one step towards Krsna, He takes ten towards you). Something you can easily do means you are not afraid of doing it and it will take little time and effort.

Write down what that action would be.

Let me give you an example that might help you with this. In the early days of the movement one devotee was smoking. When Prabhupada found out he asked the devotee if he could smoke one less cigarette a day. The devotee thought, “Yeah, I can manage that.” If Prabhupada asked him to stop smoking immediately, he wouldn’t have been able to do it. But by smoking one less cigarette a day the devotee eventually stopped smoking.

Let’s say you want to reduce your eating. You can start with something as simple as eating one less spoonful of rice, one fraction less of sweets, one quarter piece less of bread – nothing drastic.

Here’s another example. You really want to get up early every morning, but since you have never been an early riser you think it is impossible. Maybe you even tried it before and you did it for a few days and then you just gave up. Or maybe you used to get up early when you lived in an asrama but you think you can’t do that anymore. At the same time you know it would be nice to get up earlier so you could do more chanting, puja or reading before your start your day.

So let’s put “slow degrees” into practice in this last situation to give you an idea of how it would work. Get up five minutes earlier for the next week. Then get up five minutes earlier the week after that (or each day after or month after, whatever works best for you). Continue getting up five minutes earlier at your chosen interval until you are now waking up at your desired time. Five minutes earlier is easy; one or two hours earlier is less likely to happen.

Once you are up an hour earlier, let’s say you use that time to read the Srimad Bhagavatam. If you do that you will finish the entire Bhagavatam in less than two years.

Developing New Habits

What happens when you work in “slow degrees” is that you begin to develop new habits. In the example of getting up five minutes early, you would slowly be developing the habit of getting up earlier. As the habit became stronger, you would find it easier and easier to get up five minutes earlier than the week before.

So if you’d love to get up at say 4:00 am when you normally get up at 6:30, it might seem impossible. And if it seems impossible, guess what? You won’t even try. But getting up at 6:25, is possible (unless you are an incarnation of a bear).

The principle of “slow degrees”is to make small consistent improvements that are easy for you to achieve.

After writing down some goal you haven’t attempted and one small thing you could do to get closer to that goal, let’s look at something you were once doing that you have not maintained. Write down something you used to do that you would again like to take up. Now write down one simple thing you could easily do every day that would move you closer to doing that again. Let’s say you used to read Srila Prabhupada’s books for an hour everyday, but now you only read once in a while. So start with something you can easily do everyday, like reading one minute – or even reading one sentence. It is important that whatever goal you set for yourself is so easy to do that you can and will do it every day. Then after a week or two read one paragraph a day. Then move up to two paragraphs. Keep slowly increasing until you are back up to reading an hour a day.

With “small degrees” you will develop good habits that will stay with you for life.

Ask Small Questions

You can also use “small degrees” by asking small questions. For example, you could ask, “How could I incorporate a few more minutes a day of devotional practices into my life?” Or you could ask, “If I really wanted to love Krsna, what would I be doing differently today? Again, think of one small thing you could easily do. The point is the same – find something you can easily and steadily do to improve – and then gradually increase.

Your brain loves questions, and if you ask questions of yourself , your brain will dwell on the questions and come up with the answers. Of course, this can also work against you when you ask negative questions like, “Why am I such a jerk?” Your brain will then find all the reasons you are a jerk and you will become totally miserable and discouraged. So ask empowering questions.

One of the great things about “slow degrees” is that you can use it to help others by asking similar small questions of them. You can ask, “What is one small thing you can do today to improve your……………………..?”

Small degrees also works well with a group. You can ask, “What is one small thing we can easily do to improve our project, department, etc.?” This fights the tendency for things to stagnant. It also is an alternative to doing something “big” that may fall apart as quickly as it was built up. I suggest you ask a question like this at your next meeting and see how it works.

If you have a regular service, you can ask yourself, “What is one small thing I can do to improve.” Then follow through on that and later ask yourself that question again. If you continue this process throughout your life, you will notice great improvements in your service over time. Just keep improving in small ways that are easy for you to do.

So if you are dreaming of doing something that you are afraid to do, are putting off doing something because you feel it’s too difficult, or have given up on something you once started, “slow degrees” is your key to getting started on achieving those goals, one small and easy step at a time.

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.