Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Modern Stoic Meditations #3: Stoic advice on how to be more self-controlled

On Monday, we looked at how Stoicism can help us be more compassionate by using negative visualisation to imagine difficult people, then remembering how we are all fallible human beings to help us be more compassionate and less irritable.

Yesterday we cited Epictetus’s dictum “Persist and Resist”, focusing on how Stoicism can help us be more persistent – in modern parlance, show more “grit”. Today’s modern Stoic meditation will look at the other half of Epictetus’s dictum, and help us all to be more self-controlled.

How many of us can honestly say we are very self-controlled? According to research by the Values in Action Institute (VIA), not many, as self-control comes out near the bottom of the 24 mini-virtues (“strengths”) in terms of how much responders say they own it.  Yet, as Walter Mischel’s best-seller The Marshmellow Test, shows, it is a very important virtue – strongly linked with achievement, well-being and health.

So how can Stoicism help us be more self-controlled?

The first important thing to remember, according to the Stoics, is that self-control is within our power.

As Marcus Aurelius reminds us,  “You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” (Meditations). 

So why is it that we so often aren’t self-controlled? Too often we succumb to  thoughts that allow us to make an exception, just this once. We might use that most  non-Stoic saying  of Oscar Wilde “I can resist everything except temptation” to rationalise our action.“

"Nonsense!” reply the Stoics, "You can resist temptation, you are just allowing unhelpful thoughts to rule you. Instead, be ruled by thoughts about the benefits of self-control. Remind yourself of the benefits of self-control and the  problems with the lack of self-control. If you are on a diet, bring to mind the benefits of losing weight.  If you are about to get angry, remember the problems that anger has caused you in the past."
 All this is very good advice. Self-control is within your power. Thoughts that might lead you into temptation can be resisted.  

Seneca has one more helpful piece of advice. "The greatest remedy for anger is delay." Again, modern psychology supports the Stoics. Taking a number of slow breaths is a very useful way to control any impulse – it calms the body down and gives time for reason to convince us to do the right thing.

Let’s put all of this together and imagine being self-controlled like a good Stoic.  So close your eyes and think of an area of life where you would like to be more self-controlled – it could be regarding food, drink or showing irritation. Next imagine that temptation comes your way and practice saying to yourself “Resist, Resist.” If you notice thoughts tempting you not to resist, say to yourself “I have the power to resist.”  Picture vividly in your mind’s eye the worst problems that might be caused by your lack of self-control. Then think of the benefits to you if you are self-controlled. Finally, take a few deep breaths, and imagine yourself over-coming unhelpful desires.  Like an actor learning her lines,  you will eventually learn to perfect your script to  help you be more self-controlled.

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