Self Mastery, not Self Control

The title of this post is a nod at an earlier post, Mastery, not Control, in which I laid out a case for distinguishing between these two terms and showing the consequences related to each. In the end, that post did rely on distinguishing self-mastery from the will-to-control. This is still the case here, but what I’d like to clarify is how self-mastery is distinct from what we know of as self control, not versus any form of control, but the ways in which we expect to be able to – and feel the need that we must – control ourselves or fall into some sort of chaos or evil.

The term master, mastery, has almost as many abuses done in its name as has control or coercion. There have been attempts to lump them all into the same category, often by those who prefer the sound of it and want its aura to reflect well on their nefarious acts. The prime example is a master on a slave plantation. It tickles their vanity to be seen as a master, instead of as a kidnapper and abuser of those he’s managed to steal away from living their own lives. Their usurpation of the term is just one last bit of viciousness carried out against language to help support what is intolerable.

Master, mastery, as I’ve used it refers to the traditions in mostly Eastern practices, but also within arts, crafts and guilds, to designate someone who has a high level of proficiency, a mastery, over a complex and demanding set of activities that amount to a way of life engaged with something of merit. Central to this definition is the way in which a master has found out how to handle themselves as much as how they’ve learned to manipulate things or others.

I would carry the same distinction down into this intra-personal level and say that self mastery exists as an alternative to what we may call self control.

Many of our religious and philosophical traditions and schools put a high store on self-control. To be brief, I liken these to the same set of motivations and assumptions and expectations that lead to the desire to exert force upon others so as to coerce and control them. Within this type of framework there is a profound lack of trust in anything for and of itself. The striving to manipulate and the fulfillment of intention is seen as the only thing between us and a shapeless chaos or an active evil. This urgency is then the rationale of self-justification to use anything and anybody as a means to an end that is held above all question. Carrying on this sort of “War on Everything” within the self as well as outside is just a natural outcome of this way of projecting shadows and reacting to the internal as if it were attacking from the outside. In the end, we don’t so much reach the conclusion that we must control ourselves as we must control others, as it is that since we see, even our internal processes only as they reflect on us unconsciously from outside that there is no boundary, that the battle is everywhere.

At the heart of mastery as opposed to control is the importance of looking for and dealing as directly as possible with manifestations of our own internal shadows as they are, without getting caught up in their projections onto others. This is a process of modifying habits and assumptions and changing attitudes and expectations before looking for answers and acting within the world. This is criticized as being a passive process, and we are urged to strive after power because of the insistence we feel to have answers, to feel certainty, and hold these demands to be of greater importance than having a sense of what is, what is true, what is necessary, even what is useful. We are urged to keep striving as so-called unintended consequences to ill-considered and misplaced action pile up around us. This downward spiral of going from bad to worse is then turned on its head and presented to us as Progress!

Any level of proficiency at an art, a craft or practice shows us how futile such an approach is and shows us glimpses and glimmers of another way to proceed. What we recognize in someone who has truly mastered an art, a craft, or practice is the way they are centered and only act when there is direct utility in an action. Their ways may appear mysterious and often go counter to the kind of rote copying that is so highly valued today under the magical spell of technology. We may not be able to grasp what they do or understand how they do it, but there is something there that cannot be mistaken for anything else.

While the qualities we admire in a master may lead us to desire mastery, we are met at every step with resistance to our wills. Our intentions, our desires are repeatedly shown to be worthless, less than nothing in the face of what we attempt. In any form of mastery the first and hardest step is coming to grips with frustration and the depth of the illusions of ease and control we otherwise find so flattering to our egos. The entire path seems constructed so as to thwart ego and push us to confront our vulnerability when we would prefer to flatter ourselves and feel cocooned in an unearned exceptionalism.

Through this all, as we undergo a profound and joyful disillusionment, we find that there is a flow into and out of what we have seen as our self that puts a lie to any concept of ownership over our accomplishments or justification for any extrinsic rewards. We discover that it is only through an acceptance of and trust in precisely that which is beyond any illusion of intentional control that we make any sort of progress towards our goals. As we proceed even the idea of having goals, of thinking of means and ends instead of immersion and interpenetration loses its appeal. Arriving at mastery one probably loses any ambition to achieve it! At that point we are probably close to what it was we saw in the masters we first saw and admired.

Everything about self mastery is different from what we are doing when we attempt self control. From within a situation in which we are beginning to break away from the heavy burdens of abuse and the coercion of others, it may be difficult to tell the difference between an injunction to work on practices that lead to self mastery, and see these as some trick to maintain power and keep it away from us. When we suffer a lack of power, especially as a result of having been dominated in some way, or damaged, or both; it is so hard to accept that the answer to all our problems doesn’t lie in amassing as much power as we can possibly grab. This churning of the abused into the next round of abusers happens at every level from the personal to the global stage. This is what we call History.

A side note: the word history doesn’t really have anything to do with what belongs to some him. It is a form of the word story, the h and i sounds are there in the latinate as part of the word story, not as an attempt to give it a masculine ownership. There is a certain ironic poetic justice in making it seem that it refers to “his” story, but that only creates an added layer of confusion. It’s not the maleness of history that is the root of its troubles, but that it is this churning of domination – by whoever achieves it – and the cycling of yesterday’s abused into tomorrow’s abusers.

What we miss when we rush to gain what we’ve felt we’ve lacked in power is that gaining in power does not bring relief. The more we rely on power the more we are fearful and the more we feel convinced that our lack can only be met by gaining yet more power. Power corrupts in this way. It makes us weak and makes us susceptible to its wiles and willing to do anything to increase our share. While we are caught in this maelstrom, we are getting progressively weaker and progressively removed from any connection with the reality of our situation. This is the drama playing itself out all around us.

The road to mastery leads to self mastery. But it does not lead through increasing violence and distrust against our selves. Within self mastery is tremendous restraint, but it is not coerced, by anyone. In mastery we chose to let go of things, like anger, and ownership, and ego, not so as to punish ourselves, to coerce or control ourselves in the way the powerful would have us respond.

We let go out of trust. We let go of false notions of responsibility, of the ways intention and ego-drive lead us to feel that the world revolves around us and what we want. We let go so that we can be, and in being we have the only viable chance of acting in ways that are useful and not merely futile and fraught with unintended consequence.

Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

5 thoughts on “Self Mastery, not Self Control

  1. Now I have time again to pursue one lead to another through your writings. There’s so much here. Now that I have time again I’m going back this afternoon to Shoal Hope.


    1. Jeff,

      That’s great! The posts do all inter-relate. So much happens in the space between what’s actually written.

      I’ve got all of Book One up at Shoal Hope now!



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