It’s about time I pen an article directly explaining this notion of Self-Mastery: the philosophical roots, its modern application and how we might best implement behaviors that keep us on the path.
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Where does ‘Self-Mastery’ come from?
The notions of self-mastery, discipline, control, etc. all have a fascinating congruence in ancient thought across both Eastern and Western traditions. I will explore this harmony in some detail. This is not an attempt to define the root of the term, but to reveal where it has had considerable attention paid across 3 historic philosophies:
Buddhism: The Middle Way
Confucianism: The Doctrine of the Mean
Ancient Greek Philosophy/Stoicism: The Golden Mean
In Buddhism, self-control is critical. This is especially true in the practice of meditation. Many still regard meditation to be an exercise in relaxation, and one not requiring much effort… you just “turn off.” Quite the contrary. Meditation is a core tenant in Buddhist practice, and it takes tremendous self-control, discipline and consistency.
Central to Zen Buddhism is the notion that you hold your emancipation in your own hands - that through consistent practice of self-control and restraint, you can achieve mastery over yourself.This is the path each individual should strive towards, The Middle Way.
A passage from the ancient Buddhist text of Dhammapada (धर्मपद) reads:
Irrigation engineers lead water where they want to. Fletchers make the arrow straight. Carpenters carve and shape the wood. Likewise, the wise ones control and discipline themselves. By endeavor, diligence, discipline and self-mastery, let the wise man make himself an island that no flood can overwhelm. One may conquer in battle a thousand men; yet the best of conquerors is the one who conquers himself.
So we understand from Buddhist teachings that Self-Mastery is the ‘conquering of oneself’ (also mentioned in Confucianism).
It is the conquering of vice, temptation, foolishness and all the other failings of man that would allow them to achieve true control over their lives & on the middle path towards Self-Mastery.
The ancient Chinese text The Doctrine of the Mean explains that the endeavor to find balance between all things is the highest virtue of man. Confucius goes on to say, however, it is also the least understood or followed.
Confucius stressed how the path of self-mastery and spiritual improvement begins and ends as an individual pursuit. That man needed to focus on himself first - not others - to achieve this harmony. We read in The Doctrine of the Mean:
The superior man is watchful over himself, when he is alone.
Knowing how to cultivate his own character, he knows how to govern other men. Knowing how to govern other men, he knows how to govern the kingdom with all its states and families.
While yes, Confucius explains the importance of effective governance over others - he teaches that governance happens first with the one’s own self. If you cannot govern yourself, how can you expect to tell others how to live?
The universal principles of restraint, balance and discipline are pervasive throughout Confucius teaching. We see in both Buddhism and Confucianism the similar themes on the path towards Self-Mastery.
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Stoicism & Western Philosophy
One of the 4 Virtues of Stoicism is Temperance. The others: Courage, Justice and Wisdom. Seneca tells us:
It is not the man who has little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more.
Diving further into Western philosophical tradition we come across the idea of the Golden Mean. Aristotle explains that virtue falls in the middle of two extremes. He uses Courage as an example. On the one side, an excess of fear leads to cowardice & the absence of fear produces recklessness. In the middle: Courage.
So what’s the meta-virtue here: Temperance. Which is synonymous with prudence or discipline. Never go too far to the extremes, stay within the Golden Mean.
“Nothing to excess” was one of the Delphic Maxims along with the much popularized notion of “know thyself."
Across these teachings we see universal concepts related to restraint and self control.
It is then obvious why Temperance was so highly regarded among the Stoics.
Epictetus tells us:
Curb your desire — don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.
What is Self-Mastery?
Self-Mastery is equal parts doing - and not doing.
Self-Mastery is unwavering commitment to a task - without becoming dogmatic.
Self-Mastery is self-belief - without arrogance.
Self-Mastery is autonomous pursuit - without selfishness.
Self-Mastery is the consistent and balanced application of energy towards improving one’s own self: intellectually, spiritually and physically - always striving towards an introspective, ethical and non-malicious outcome, and not producing any negative consequences for others.
How Can We Achieve Self-Mastery?
I’ve mentioned in previous articles that I do not aspire to be a self-help guru, nor do I want to promote ideologies that restrict thinking into a single domain. As someone currently embracing this notion of Self-Mastery, my main suggestion is to continue to be interested.
Finding interest in ideas and the people that espouse these ideas can have tremendous impact on our daily habits and lifestyle.
You are reading this article and have gotten this far, so you must be interested to a certain extent. My suggestion is to use that incredible search engine and give a ‘goog’ on a topic, idea or historical figure that intrigues you. The world is at our finger tips, don’t take it for granted.
It’s easy for me to say: go do something and be awesome at it every day. Very few people can actually do that. Instead, I’ll simply suggest: try embracing some new ideas & people to get your engine going.
Don’t know where to start? Here are 5 resources (media) to get you going:
1. Follow Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic podcast & newsletter:
https://dailystoic.com/ - receive daily wisdom from the Stoic perspective from renowned author and Stoic, Ryan Holiday.
2. Sign up for Tim Ferris’s 5 Bullet Friday:
https://go.tim.blog/5-bullet-friday-1/ - one of the most enduring/successful newsletters ever; understand the 5 most interesting things the pioneering podcaster, investor and Renaissance man, Tim Ferris, has been researching or learning about every Friday.
3. Watch/listen to The Lex Fridman Podcast:
https://www.youtube.com/c/lexfridman - remarkable guests and amazing insights into everything from engineering, nutrition, comedy, history, philosophy and more - hosted by MIT Researcher turned podcaster, Lex Fridman.
4. Watch/listen to Academy of Ideas:
https://www.youtube.com/c/academyofideas - single voice commentary layered over (usually) beautiful artwork, exploring ideas across the political spectrum, philosophy, mythology, ideology, literature and more.
5. Watch/listen to The Huberman Lab:
https://www.youtube.com/c/AndrewHubermanLab - 2 hour (average) deep dives into mental and physical health-related topics sometimes with guests or without from renowned Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman.
Dale Carnegie said: to become interesting, be interest-ed.
Epictetus said: to become beautiful, we must make beautiful choices.
You are what you do, not what you say.
We therefore, need to make a daily habit of the things we know deep in our core will lead us down the middle path. Perhaps turn on a podcast and take a walk around the block today. Start there.
I believe in the 30/90 rule on habits & lifestyle. It will take roughly 30 days to create a habit & 90 days to create a lifestyle.
I have a personal example I am happy to share…
I’ve stayed away from alcohol for 30 days. I sleep better. I think better. I feel better. I’m going to get to 90 days and report back to you all. Hold me accountable.
I’ve now been writing weekly for 60 days. I am able to converse more fluidly. I am calmer. I have a growing thirst for new ideas and knowledge that keeps me inspired every day. I will get to 90 days and report back.
Self-Mastery is your chosen path in life. Meaning, you can choose to waste each day and drift through life on auto-pilot. Or, you can choose right now to embrace a new idea. Let that idea blossom into a habit. Allow that habit to develop into a lifestyle. That life will now be blessed with meaning.
Show me an individual who has consistently embraced a healthy hobby outside of their day-to-day work & I will show you someone on a path to Self-Mastery. You will see someone who escapes the Existential Vacuum of life.
It starts very small, but can grow into a defining pillar of your existence.
I’ve really enjoyed writing this week’s article. I hope you enjoyed reading it. I hope you took something away. I hope mostly, you might be thinking about something you’d like to pour yourself into and that thing excites you.
Until next week, friend.
A very thought-provoking and helpful article.￼ I signed up for the Daily Stoic. ￼ I appreciate your authenticity.￼ If you have a recommendation for a short book that sums up the wisdom of Confucianism, I would be interested to know about it. ￼