I wanted to talk a bit about self-control. It sounds a bit old-fashioned, the kind of thing an over-disciplined parent might demand of their child. But this is a shame, because it’s really very useful.
A better word in the modern age might be self-mastery. That has echoes of the action films, and of martial arts. Control is out of fashion, but mastery sounds better, a bit cooler probably.
I’m going to borrow a term from Eckhart Tolle, the well-known advocate of living with awareness in the present moment. He talks about unconscious action. For instance, when we are angry, we are acting unconsciously. This is to say that our actions emanate from us without us having any conscious purchase on them. Many people will have had the experience of becoming almost animal-like when angry or upset. It is as though one has been taken over against one’s will, and one’s actions are being governed by a kind of animal inside.
In contrast, in lucky moments, we become aware of ourselves. This can even happen while we are angry, for instance. A little piece of us seems to be able to stand aside from all the anger. It might look at us and say ‘what on earth are you doing?’ We may not, at this point, be able to control ourselves, but we can certainly observe ourselves.
This awareness is the basis of meditation – the ability to stand aside of our usual mixed-up nature and observe both ourselves, and the world around us, with some degree of equanimity (that is, an ability to preserve an evenness or calmness of mind). We might still feel angry or upset, but there is a part of us which is able simply to focus and observe.
This is the beginning of self-control, because it is with this ability to observe, or awareness, that we can gain some freedom. Have you ever talked about a problem with a trusted friend, and immediately felt the tangles of anxiety subside? Through the conversation, you are gaining an ability to observe your situation from a little distance.
The distance you achieve by observing, or being mindful, is the basis of your future self-control. We could replace the word distance with non-attachment. Non-attachment can sound cruel, as though we don’t care, but it is the exact opposite.
Have you ever looked at a landscape and realised how beautiful it is? You can only see this with a wide perspective, from a distance. This is the beauty that non-attachment enables you to see. Because you are not wrapped up in the scariness of your animal nature, you can peacefully observe, and decide what to do next.
Just for today, try to develop that little bit inside you that can observe your own actions, and your own situation, as if from a distance.
Instead of fighting your usual fights from micro-distance, get out of the universe’s face, and admire it like a beautiful landscape.
This is the basis of wisdom – the knowledge that all the seeing we do in normal life is partial and incomplete. Nothing exists as you perceive it, especially when you are angry or upset. It is all delusion. With the eyes of peaceful awareness, you can detach yourself from biased perspectives, and accept everything.
In much of our life we act unconsciously – that is to say, we have a kind of animal self which runs us.
If we can learn to observe our own situation from a little distance, we can begin to gain mastery over it.
Why not try to cultivate a kind part of you that can simply observe what is going on, smile, and accept?
This might give you the space and time you need for self-mastery.