When we hear the term self-mastery we envision someone calm, confident, and disciplined. They know what they are doing, they believe in what they are doing, but they are also measured and steady in their approach to it. They are hard to provoke and just as difficult to sway or influence without sufficient evidence and persistence. We picture someone capable of self-mastery as being peacefully forceful who probably meditates a lot.
While meditation practices are always helpful to life in general to pursue mastery of any skill requires time, dedication, and discipline however the one people tend to envision is the discipline. Strict regimens adhered to with unwavering stoicism. While discipline is certainly an essential part of maintaining a dedicated focus it is only one ingredient and its effectiveness depends heavily on our reasons for employing it.
The word mastery can engender an excessive focus on the sense of ownership, thus equating self-mastery with being in commanding control of ourselves at all times. But ownership also brings with it ongoing responsibilities and mastery is not a state or a status it is a process, a never-ending process of developing a skill. And the self is most definitely a skill.
Self-control is a necessary tool for surviving, interacting, and succeeding in any society. Our primal instincts and emotional reactions spawn countless different impulses every moment of our lives. The world and society around us have structure, expectations, and obligations generated by the presence and needs of others which require us to be selective about which impulses we act upon and to what degree.
From the time we are able to walk and communicate on our own we start to learn, with increasing degrees of complexity, that the world around us does not bend to suit our impulses of the moment.
Functioning as part of any group or society means acting in accordance with the agreed upon rules and codes of conduct. At the daily personal level we have traditions and norms of social etiquette guiding our interactions. At the broader societal level we systems of rules and laws aimed at preventing harm by imposing consequences for those who violate them. Whether or not those rules are enforced effectively or fairly in a whole other conversation.
To bring it back round to self-mastery, none of us exists in a vacuum. Some of us are more isolated than others but regardless of how integrated or on the outer edges we are functioning as ourselves within a society requires us to navigate our inner impulses within the structures and requirements of the world around us. To function as a self is a skill and mastery of that skill requires four core ingredients.
We all have an instinctive awareness of ourselves but reaching the point of more thoroughly knowing and understanding ourselves takes time and the raw data which can only be gained through experiences. At that instinctive level we can have some rather strong and clear predictions, or ideals, of how we might respond to certain events or act in certain situations but the blunt truth is we cannot truly know until we actually encounter them.
We cannot know we are able to keep our heads in a crisis until we are faced with one. We cannot know how well or poorly we will handle success until we have achieved some. We cannot know how well or poorly we will handle failure until we experienced some. We cannot know how we will respond if a partner confesses an affair or approaches us about possibly practicing non-monogamy until we are actually in that situation.
The list could go on forever and in many of the cases we might even have an extremely firm prediction we strongly believe in, which may indeed prove true, but the unavoidable truth is we cannot know until we are confronted with the actual experience.
A big part of the paradigm of those who grow up as outsiders becoming powerful and successful later in life is due to the self-reliance we are forced to develop. When the challenges we face are different and unrelatable to those around us we are forced to find our own way forward. We are forced to find strength enough to stand in our own legs, we are forced to find our own answers because no one around us has ever been confronted with our particular questions, and all too often we have had to find acceptance in ourselves because it can be completely absent from the world around us.
Knowing ourselves requires looking inward and not just looking, examining. Knowing ourselves means becoming as familiar and fluent as we can in all possible parts of ourselves. This does not mean we will like everything we see nor does it does mean we will wind up fixed and perfect. Knowing ourselves means truly seeing and accepting ourselves. The strengths, the weaknesses, the talents, the shortcomings, the developed skills, the areas which are lacking and needing work.
Knowing, accepting, and loving ourselves does not mean liking ourselves or liking everything about ourselves. That we might prefer to have straight hair or curly hair, be taller or shorter, have a better singing voice, have greater hand-eye coordination, have been born into a different part of the city or country or world, none of these prevent us from knowing and loving ourselves. In point of fact, they are all part of it.
If we like absolutely every part of ourselves, we almost certainly are not looking honestly enough. If we dislike every part of ourselves, we almost certainly are not looking honestly enough. None of us are completely perfect nor are any of us completely worthless. The most important perspective of us is our own and we cannot hope to do anything with true effectiveness unless that perspective is honest and accepting. We cannot make the most of the cards we have been dealt without first taking a hard and honest look at them.
There is always room for improvement and strengthening. There are countless things we can develop and change. Those things can be harder for some than others depending one where we are starting from and yes there are some things we simply cannot change, things which may make our attempts to pursue our goals more difficult than for someone else. But we cannot aim our efforts, plan our attack, develop and execute our strategies until we have truly examined and accepted the materials we have to work with.
And this work is never finished because with each new experience we change and grow, in ways which are sometimes minute and sometimes enormous. We are not the same self we were a year ago, ten years ago, perhaps even a moment ago.
To cling to a fixed and unchanging image of ourselves blinds us not only to the truth of ourselves but also disconnects us from the world around us. Playing poker the same way every hand without ever looking at our cards might generate an intoxicating rush but is only ever rescued from the jaws of disaster by random luck.
Acknowledging What Is
In a similar way, once we have taken a clear and honest look within ourselves we need to make the same kind of examinations outward. Whether we are satisfied with it, angered by it, inspired by it, or heartbroken by it before we can engage the world around us in any meaningful way we first need to take a hard and honest look at it. We need to see and acknowledge the way it is before we can be effective in trying do anything about it.
We may have very clear and strong visions of how we would like our lives to look, how we would like the lives for our friends and families to look, how we would like the lives of people in general to look and feel. Those visions can hold great meaning for us and can inspires us to expend immense efforts to strive towards them but a crucial and necessary ingredient to planning how to get somewhere is a clear and honest picture of where we currently are.
An important truth to acknowledge and accept when it comes to examining where we currently are is that a great deal of what we are going to see is completely beyond our immediate control. We cannot control the level of wealth, health, or prosperity of the family we are born into. We cannot control the community, country, or part of the world they and we were born into. We cannot control the economic and social forces and paradigms which have preceded us or the current relationship between nations. We cannot control whether or not the population of the entire planet is faced with a global health crisis.
There are aspects of our immediate and farther reaching world we most certainly can have an impact on from the small to the profound. There are also aspects of the world around us we will not be able to affect or change in any demonstrable way. We cannot effectively plan or target our efforts without first identifying which type they are. To return to the poker table we cannot effectively play without taking a hard and honest look at the other cards around the table as well.
This is also work which is never finished. Just as we are constantly growing and changing so too are the people and world around us. They are not the same as last year, ten years ago, or perhaps a moment ago.
Choosing Our Actions
The most powerful muscle in the skill of self-mastery is choice. Not just the ability to choose but the shaping and targeting of our choices. There are a great many things we do in our lives which we do not have much choice about. We need to earn a living, we need to pay taxes, we need to maintain our health. We may not have much choice about whether or not to do these things but we most certainly have choice as to how.
In some instances, and for some people, those choices can be easier than for others. The better the cards we have dealt into our hand the wider range and better quality of choices we have available. But the starting point is not the ultimate factor, effectiveness is.
There is no question starting out with a greater number and higher quality of options makes achieving ultimate success easier but it also then requires less skill which can become a danger should we wind up being tested in a way have never developed muscles for. If our current situation does not provide us with a route to our ultimate goal then the next step is to shift our current goal to one of improving our options. The power to change the focus of our choices is in itself a choice.
The other crucial aspect of our choices is how we frame them. A choice focused on a positive, gainful result is always more powerful than one which results in or avoids a negative one. “I choose to” is more powerful than “I won’t”.
This is where the over obsessing with simple discipline can wind up seeming more empowering than it actually is. “I choose to eat healthy food” is more powerful than “I won’t eat junk food”. “I choose” puts the power in our hands, makes us active, makes us pro-active. “I won’t” places us on the defensive, makes us reactive, and places the power outside of us in the hands of whatever force is going to entice us into action we are wanting to resist.
Even if we are choosing a negative it still places the power in our own hands. “I choose not to smoke”, “I choose not to flirt”, “I choose not to lash out in anger”. They are acknowledgements of the temptation, and even that we may have succumbed to it in the past, but “I choose” not only grants us the power to make a different choice it implies belief in our capability to do so.
It may sound like a gimmick, watered down and oversimplified by the ‘daily affirmation’ phenomenon, but our language shapes our thoughts and thereby guides our efforts and experiences. Even the daily affirmation approach can work if it helps us to shift the tone and focus of our inner language. If we are able to shift from focusing on our weaknesses to focusing on our strengths, if we are able to shift from focusing on the choices we do not have to those we do, that is where true power can be found and cultivated.
Understanding Our Reasons
The other pitfall of fixating on discipline alone is the concept of habitual behavior as a substitute for genuine meaning. Rigid controlling of our behavior is not the same as self-mastery much the same way being ‘well behaved’ is not the same thing as being a good person. Both are ingredients and can serve as partial indicators but they are only ingredients, they are not the whole.
Even if our choices are well informed and well focused, they are only going to be as effective as the reasons behind them. The how of our choices and actions can only be truly effective if we have a clear understanding of the why that is driving them.
The desire to be a ‘good person’ is something we all share, even if our definitions for what that looks like vary immensely. To genuinely strive for that we need both a clear picture of what we envision it to mean as well as clear perception of ourselves in relation to it. Simply being ‘well behaved’ denotes following the prescriptions of our current social surroundings. If we put all the eggs in the behavior basket we can wind up lost at sea. The moment our surroundings change so too can our parameters for what qualifies as ‘good behavior’.
If our model for ‘good behavior’ is based upon a clear vision of what it means to be a ‘good person’ there will come times when our behavior may well not be perceived or received as ‘good behavior’ by those around us. If it is based in an internal goal, an internal reason, there may come times when our efforts come into conflict with the world around us. If our efforts are not based in a solid internal reason, if they are not genuinely our own, they will not have the same strength to endure outside resistance which can lead to simple collapse in the face of adversity or its defensive reactionary cousin, lashing out in frenzied fear driven anger.
The greater the goal, the more important the goal, the more resistance we need to be prepared to withstand. True strength is born not from simple habitual repetition but from having a clear and honest understanding of who we are, where we are, where we are trying to go, and why we are trying to get there.
Self-mastery tends to engender a sense of calm and peaceful determination not because it requires endless hours of meditation and yoga but because it is a process which builds and utilizes skills which enable clarity of vision. Those capable of self-mastery are tough to dislodge or falsely enflame because the very nature of the approach provides the capacity for clear and honest perception both within and without.
We know who we are, where we are, what we are choosing to do, and why. This does not mean we are not open to change. It simply means we will require clear and honest evidence which we will examine, consider, and then make our own choices about.
Simply put we respond to zealous demands to charge forth, from inside ourselves or out, with the question ‘why?’ and the dedication to our personal truth and goals to potentially say ‘no thank you’.