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Society of Mind

4.6 self-control

Those who really seek the path to Enlightenment dicate terms to their mind. Then they proceed with strong determination. —Buddha

The episode of Professor Challenger showed just one way we can control ourselves: by exploiting an emotional aversion in order to accomplish an intellectual purpose. Consider all the other kinds of tricks we use to try to force ourselves to work when we're tired or distracted.

WILLPOWER: Tell yourself, Don't give in to that, or, Keep on trying.

Such self-injunctions can work at first — but finally they always fail, as though some engine in the mind runs out of fuel. Another style of self-control involves more physical activity:

ACTIVITY: Move around. Exercise. Inhale. Shout.

Certain physical acts are peculiarly effective, especially the facial expressions involved in social communication: they affect the sender as much as the recipient.

EXPRESSION: Set jaw. Stiffen upper lip. Furrow brow.

Another kind of stimulating act is moving to a stimulating place. And we often perform actions that directly change the brain's chemical environment.

CHEMISTRY: Take coffee, amphetamines, or other brain-affecting drugs.

Then there are actions in the mind with which we set up thoughts and fantasies that move our own emotions, arousing hopes and fears through self-directed offers, bribes, and even threats.

EMOTION: If I win, there's much to gain, but more to lose if I fail!

Perhaps most powerful of all are those actions that promise gain or loss of the regard of certain special persons.

ATTACHMENT: Imagine admiration if you succeed — or disapproval if you fail — especially from those to whom you are attached.

So many schemes for self-control! How do we choose which ones to use? There isn't any easy way. Self-discipline takes years to learn; it grows inside us stage by stage.