Practicing Self-Control:

Estimated time to read: 3 minutes

A New Definition of Self-Control:

Self-control, often defined as restraint exercised over one’s actions, emotions and desires, limits our ability to truly understand how one attains self-control.  Taken at face-value, you’d assume “restraint” is the necessary practice to improve how one acts, emotes or desires but this is simply not the case.  

To better understand the concept of self-control, we must break it down into its two concepts, self and control.  For pedagogical purposes, let’s first discuss control, as self is an illusive advanced concept, unnecessary for the basis of improving self-control.  

Every second, our perception is flooded with sensations with such rapidity, we rarely notice them or understand how they cause our reactions.  This is not just the case for extreme emotions like anger or sadness but concerning everything we do.  For example, we rarely notice the drying of our lips, causing us to feel thirsty and grab a glass of water.  Control is our ability to proactively choose how to respond to all sensations.

The gold-standard to understanding self is often quipped, “if you can perceive it, it isn’t you.”  Meaning, any sensation you observe is not “you”, as “you” would then be the observer and not the sensation itself.  This is a complex subject and practice, not necessary for the basis of self-control.  The only necessary takeaway here is to remember you’re not controlling “yourself”, instead you’re controlling your reaction to sensations.

Practices for Control:

The best way to learn to control your actions is through the noting practice of mindfulness.  Noting is the labeling of sensations occurring within your moment-to-moment awareness.  For example, when sitting in meditation you may note “sitting, sitting, sitting” and if the mind should wander-off you may note “wandering, wandering, wandering”.  A more complex example, when washing your hands you may note, “desiring, desiring, desiring, rubbing, rubbing, rubbing, drying, drying, drying, etc.”  The point being, to note every sensation occurring within your awareness.  At first, this may be a rather difficult practice but with daily effort, one can attain a certain level of mastery within a couple of weeks.

This level of mindfulness is helpful because it helps you become more aware of the sensations occurring within your awareness.  At first, you may be unaware of the physical dryness of your lips prior to your desire and then drinking of water.  This lack of awareness causes one to react without mindfulness; thereby a lack of self-control.  As you further your noting practice, you may begin to notice tens-of-sensations occurring prior to your actions and understanding this causal effect of sensations will allow you to mindfully choose how to respond.  

This level of mindfulness may take days, weeks or even months to attain but can be done with skillful daily-effort.  The key is to be mindful of everything occurring within your awareness and note it properly.  At first, your mind will wander off plenty of times and you’ll forget to note.  Don’t worry, just begin again and the practice will eventually take over.

Practices to Avoid:

There are plenty of tools used to manage “self-control” but one should not confuse productivity with a true understanding of self and ability to be mindfully proactive.  These tools may help you in day-to-day productivity, ensuring one maintains good grades or gainful employment but true self-control comes from serious practice and understanding of one’s self and awareness.  When it comes to tools such as crystals, mantas or other objects-of-meditation, it’s better to remove yourself from this sort of clinging and instead investigate the moment-to-moment passing of sensations within your awareness.

Bringing it all Together:

As you begin to develop a basis for noting, you’ll quickly improve your mindfulness of moment-to-moment awareness.  As this mindfulness develops, you’ll begin to understand the causal relationship between individual sensations, eventually choosing how to react to them.  This is the beginning of mastery concerning self-control.

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David Bowman
David's teaching style is direct, clear, and to the point. With over 8 years of experience in the field of meditation, his work is both accessible as well as pragmatic. Having worked in think tanks, financial institutes, rabbinical and graduate schools, David’s personal philosophy is deeply informed by his eclectic past.

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