Essentials for the Spiritual Journey: Self-Mastery (Part Two)

What is truth?
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Mick Turner

(cont. from Part One)

As we have seen, establishing and maintaining self-discipline has many rewards, the chief of which is an internal sense of strength and confidence. Rather than some willy-nilly, unfocused, and nebulous sort of confidence, the confidence that comes from being a master of oneself is a practical, concrete and highly efficient trait that serves as an anchor in life’s sometimes turbulent seas. Allen concludes:

 With the practice of self-discipline a man begins to live, for he then commences to rise above the inward confusion and to adjust his conduct to a steadfast centre within himself. He ceases to follow where inclination leads him, reins in the steed of his desires, and lives in accordance with the dictates of reason and wisdom.

 We all seek a North Star, a point of reference to which we can align ourselves and thereby judge our position. Without such a point of reference, we waste valuable time and energy, flitting here and wandering there and ending up nowhere. John Wesley wisely taught that when seeking such an anchor for our lives, we can turn to four sources: tradition, scripture, reason, and experience. During the course of my life, there have been occasions where I have used any one or combination of these sources to make proper judgments and reach vital decisions. Yet more than any other source, I have found greatest value in that “inner light” which God deposited in me. Known by many names, this is indeed the “light which lights every man that comes into the world” as John so aptly put it in the famous Prologue to his gospel. It is this same inner luminous core that George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement, spoke of as the radiant wellspring of Christian revelation.

 If we are to  reach any degree of mastery over our lower self, we must establish, deepen, and maintain steadfast contact with this inner light. James Allen, speaking in context of establishing an anchor for our lives, describes the process in very succinct terms:

 A man does not commence to truly live until he finds an immovable center within himself on which to regulate his life, and from which to draw his peace. If he trusts to that which fluctuates, he also will fluctuate; if he leans upon that which may be withdrawn he will fall and be bruised; if he looks for satisfaction in perishable accumulations he will starve for happiness in the midst of plenty…Be contented that others shall manage or mismanage their own little kingdom, and see to it that you reign strongly over your own. Your entire well-being and the well-being of the whole world lies there. You have a conscience, follow it; you have a mind, clarify it; you have a judgment, use and improve it; you have a will, employ and strengthen it; you have knowledge, increase it; there is a light within your soul, watch it, tend it, encourage it, shield it from the winds of passion, and help it to burn with a steadier and ever steadier radiance. Leave the world and come back to yourself. Think as a man, live as a man. Be rich in yourself, be complete in yourself. Find the abiding center within you and obey it.

 Often the Holy Spirit brings to our attention areas of our thought, feeling, action, or belief that are either inaccurate or no longer serve a useful purpose. It then is incumbent upon us that we cast aside these aspects of our being. Paul speaks to this theme repeatedly when he tells us to take off the old and to put on the new. James Allen tells us:

 He who would be clothed in new garments must first cast away the old, and   who would find the True must sacrifice the false. The gardener digs in the weeds in order that they may feed, with their decay, the plants that are good for food; and the Tree of Wisdom can only flourish on the compost of uprooted follies.

 At first glance, it would seem this process of personal mastery and changing problematic behaviors would be simple. We just identify those behaviors and make up our minds not to engage in them anymore. However, as anyone who has ever tried to change deeply ingrained behaviors will attest, this process is far more difficult that it seems. Further, we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to this sort of personal mastery.

  From the time I was five years old I have been an avid baseball fan. I played the sport throughout my school years and, once I became an adult, played competitive softball for many years.

 I normally played middle infield, either second base or shortstop. For many years I used the same softball glove. In fact, I used it so long that the strings kept breaking, all the padding was gone out of the pocket and the leather was cracked in several strategic places. Nevertheless I refused to buy a new glove, in spite of the frequent protestations of my teammates.

 The reason was simple. I was comfortable with this old glove. It molded to my hand perfectly over the years and it felt reassuring to put in on before I took the field. All too often, however, I would catch a hard line drive right in the pocket and my hand would sting, then remain numb for several minutes. Still, I wanted no part of a new glove.

 A new glove, as anyone who has played the sport knows, is a real pain for awhile. It feels funny, awkward and stiff. It is easy to make errors with a new glove, at least until it is broken in properly. No, my old glove was find thank you very much.

 One day our third baseman wasn’t able to make the game and I played the so-called “hot corner.” Things went okay for the first two innings. Then, in the third inning the batter hit a hard liner right at me. I responded quickly and raised my glove, only to have the ball break right through the ancient webbing an hit me square in the forehead, knocking me out cold.

Two days later I bought a new glove.

 My experience with my old softball glove is not unlike my experience with the behaviors that flow from my old self. No matter how much I try to take off the old and put on the new, the old keeps rearing its head and biting me. I suspect that I am not alone in this predicament.

Many of my old behaviors, like my old softball glove, may hurt me time and time again. But, they are comfortable in the sense that they are familiar and predictable. My old self resists change and it is here that we are vulnerable to our habitual responses to life, however unhealthy and painful they may be.

 There is no need to complicate this issue of self-mastery beyond what it is. On a very practical level, mastery of self involves nothing more complex or arcane than saying no to self. Granted, this is often easier said than done, but let’s not kid ourselves by inserting all sorts of esoteric metaphysics or psychoanalytic mumbo jumbo into the equation. Like James Allen, let’s cut right to the chase:

 By his personal indulgences a man demeans himself, forfeits self-respect to the extent and frequency of his indulgence, and deprives himself of exemplary influence and power to accomplish lasting good in his work in the world.

 Perhaps one of the most vital areas where we must gain self-mastery is our tongues. Jesus, when he was being questioned by Pilate, chose to remain silent. Likewise, there are many occasions where our best recourse is to be still and say nothing. This is especially hard when we feel we have been wronged in some way or perceive some sort of encroachment has been committed. Still, learning to hold our tongue in such situations will eventually reap great dividends both in terms of self-control and relations with others.

 Think about it for a moment. If you desire to be more balanced in your emotions and harmonious in your relationships, it is often best to maintain silence. Our world if filled with those who engage in excessive talk and empty diatribes. Even those who are moderately discerning can tell when a person is speaking weak, empty words. The control of the tongue is essential if we want to achieve success in any endeavor. Most often, it is better to not talk about what you are doing, but instead, just devote yourself to doing it. That way, when you are finished, your work speaks for itself.

 The Book of James clearly warns us about the potential dangers of the unbridled tongue and the necessity of getting it under control:

 For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way. We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes is praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. (James 3: 2-10)

 Personally, I have found that if I can gain a good degree of mastery over my tongue, then other areas of life will fall into line more easily. In addition, I have also discovered that one of the best ways to gain awareness of those areas of my life that the Master wants to deal with is to observe what rolls out of my mouth during those times when I am stressed, irritated, or in the grasp of some sort of crisis.

………..to be continued

(c) L.D. Turner 2011/All Rights Reserved

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