When mental energy allowed to follow the line of least resistance, and to fall into easy channels, it is called weakness. When it is gathered, focused, and forced into upward and different directions, it becomes power; and this concentration of energy and acquisition of power is brought about by means of self-control.
In speaking of self-control, one is easily misunderstood. It should not be associated with a destructive repression, but with a constructive expression. The process is not one of death, but of life. It is a divine and masterly transmutation in which the weak is converted into the strong, the coarse into the fine, and the base into the noble; in which virtue takes the place of vice, and dark passion is lost in bright intellectuality.
The man who merely smothers up and hides away his real nature, without any higher object in view than to create a good impression upon others concerning his character, is practicing hypocrisy and not self-control. As the mechanic transmutes coal into gas, and water into steam, and then concentrates and utilizes the finer forces for the comfort and convenience of others, so the man who intellectually practices self-control transmutes his lower inclinations into the finer qualities of intelligence and mortality to the increase of his own and the world's happiness.
A man is happy, wise, and great in the measure that he controls himself; he is wretched, foolish, and mean in the measure that he allows his animal nature to dominate his thoughts and actions.
He who controls himself controls his life, his circumstances, his destiny, and wherever he goes he carries his happiness with him as an abiding possession. He, who does not control himself, is controlled by passions, by his circumstances, and his fate; and if he cannot gratify the desire of the moment, he is disappointed and miserable. He depends for his fitful happiness on external things.
There is no force in the universe which can be annihilated or lost. Energy is transformed, but not destroyed. To shut the door on old and bad habits is to open it to new and better ones. Renunciation precedes regeneration. Every self-indulgence, every forbidden pleasure, every hateful thought renounced is transformed into something more purely and permanently beautiful. Where debilitating excitements are cut off, there spring up rejuvenating joys. The seed dies that the flower may appear; the grub perishes, but the dragonfly comes forth.
Truly, the transformation is not instantaneous; nor is the transition a pleasant and painless process. Nature demands effort and patience as the price of growth. In the march of progress, every victory is contested with struggle and pain; but the victory is achieved, and it abides. The struggle passes; the pain is temporary only. To demolish a firmly fixed habit, to break up a mental tendency that has become automatic with long use, and to force into birth and growth a fine characteristic or lofty virtue—to accomplish this necessitates a painful metamorphosis, a transitional period of darkness, to pass through which patience and endurance are required.
This is where men fail. This is where they slip back into their old, easy, animal ruts, and abandon self-control as too strenuous and severe. Thus they fall short of permanent happiness, and the life of triumph over evil is hidden from their eyes.
The permanent happiness which men seek in dissipation, excitement, and abandonment to unworthy pleasure is found only in the life which reverses all this—the life of self-control. So far as a man deviates from perfect self-command, just so far does he fall short of perfect happiness. He sinks into misery and weakness, the lowest limit of which is madness, entire lack of mental control, the condition of irresponsibility. In so far as a man approximates to perfect self-command, just so near does he approach to perfect happiness, and rise into joy and strength. So glorious are the possibilities of such divine manhood that no limit can be set to its grandeur and bliss.
If a man will understand how intimately, yea, how inseparably, self-control and happiness are associated, he has but to look into his own heart, and upon the world around, to find there the joy destroying effects of uncontrolled tendencies. Looking upon the lives of men and women, he will perceive how the hasty word, the bitter retort, the act of deception, the blind prejudice and foolish resentment bring wretchedness and even ruin in their train. Looking into his own life, what days of consuming remorse, of restless anxiety, and of crushing sorrow rise up before his mind—periods of intense suffering through which he has passed through lack of self-control.
But in the right life, the well-governed life, the victorious life, all these things pass away. New conditions obtain, and purer, more spiritual instruments are employed for the achievements of happy ends. There is no more remorse, because there is no more wrong-doing. There is no more anxiety, because there is no more selfishness. There is no more sorrow, because Truth is the source of action.
The much desired thing which self pursues with breathless and uncontrolled eagerness, yet fails to overtake, comes unbidden, and begs to be admitted, to him who works and waits in perfect self-command. Hatred, impatience, greed, self-indulgence, vain ambitions, and blind desires—the instruments by which self shapes its ill-finished existence, what clumsy tools they are, and how ignorant and unskillful are they who employ them! Love, patience, kindness, self-discipline, transmuted ambitions, and chastened desires—instruments of Truth, by which is shaped a well-finished existence, what perfect tools they are, and how wise and skillful are they who use them!
Whatsoever is gained by feverish haste and selfish desire is attained in fuller measure by quietness and renunciation. Nature will not be hastened. She brings all perfection in due season. Truth will not be commanded. He has his conditions and must be obeyed. Nothing is more superfluous than haste and anger.
A man has to learn he cannot command things, but that he can command himself; that he cannot coerce the wills of others, but that he can mold and master his own will: and things serve him who serve Truth. People seek guidance of him who is master of himself.
It is a little understood, yet simple and profound truth, that the man who cannot command himself under the severest external stress is unfit to guide others or to control affairs. It is the fundamental principle in the moral and political teachings of Confucius that, before attempting to govern affairs, a man should learn to govern himself. Men who habitually give way, under pressure, to hysterical suspicions, outbursts of resentment, and explosions of anger, are unfit for weighty responsibilities and lofty duties, and usually fail, sooner or later, even in the ordinary duties of life, such as the management of their own family or business. Lack of self-control is foolishness, and folly cannot take precedence over wisdom. He who is learning how to subdue and control his turbulent, wandering thoughts is becoming wiser every day. Though for a time the Temple of Joy will not be completed, he will gather strength in laying its foundations and building its walls; and the day will come when, like a wise master-builder, he will rest at peace in the beautiful habitation which he has built. Wisdom inheres in self-control and in wisdom is "pleasantness and peace."
The life of self-control is no barren deprivation, no wilderness of monotony. Renunciation there is, but it is a renunciation of the ephemeral and false in order that the abiding and true may be realized. Enjoyment is not cut off; it is intensified. Enjoyment is life; it is the slavish desire for it that kills. Is there anywhere a more miserable man than he who is always longing for some new sensation? Is there anywhere a more blessed being than he who, by self-control, is satisfied, calm, and enlightened? Who has most of physical life and joy—the glutton, the drunkard, and the sensualist who lives for pleasure only, or the temperate man who holds his body in subjection, considering its needs and obeying its uses?
I was once eating a ripe, juicy apple as it came from the tree, and a man near me said, "I would give anything if I could enjoy an apple like that." I asked, "Why can't you?" His answer was, "I have drunk whiskey and smoked tobacco until I have lost all enjoyment in such things." In pursuit of elusive enjoyments, men lose the abiding joys of life.
And as he who controls his senses has most of physical life, joy, and strength, so he who controls his thoughts has most of spiritual life, bliss, and power. For not only happiness, but knowledge and wisdom also are revealed by self-control. As the avenues of ignorance and selfishness are closed, the open gates of knowledge and enlightenment appear. Virtue attained is knowledge gained. The pure mind is an enlightened mind. He has well-being who controls himself well.
I hear men speak of the "monotony of goodness." If looking for things in the spirit which one has given up in the letter were "goodness," then indeed would it be monotonous. The man of self-control does not merely give up his base pleasures; he abandons all longing for them. He presses forward, and does not look back; and fresh beauties, new glories; sublimer vistas await him at every step.
I am astonished at the revelations which lie hidden in self-control; I am captivated by the infinite variety of Truth, I am filled with joy at the grandeur of the prospect; I am gladdened by its splendor and its peace.
Along the way of self-control there is the joy of victory; the consciousness of expanding and increasing power; the acquisition of the imperishable riches of divine knowledge; and the abiding bliss of service to humankind. Even he who travels only a portion of the way will develop a strength, achieve a success, and experience a joy which the idle and the thoughtless cannot know. And he who goes all the way will become a spiritual conqueror; he will triumph over all evil, and will blot it out. He will gaze with enrapt vision upon the majesty of the Cosmic Order, and will enjoy the immortality of Truth.
More from James Allen
James Allen was a little-known philosophical writer and poet. He is best recognized for his book, As a Man Thinketh. Allen wrote about complex subjects such as faith, destiny, love, patience, and religion but had the unique ability of explaining these subjects clearly and in a way that is easy to understand. He often wrote about cause and effect, sowing and reaping, as well as overcoming sadness, sorrow, and grief. For more information on the life of James Allen, click here.