Self-Restraint – Vital for Personal Growth?

They say that if you want a favour done, ask a busy person. There are some people who are more willing than others to go out of their way to be helpful even though they have a lot on their plate already. I guess the rest of us are not quite so generous with our time. We like to spend our spare moments indulging our own needs and pleasures. Whether these be bodily comforts, enjoyable projects, going on trips or whatever. If it doesn’t come naturally to one to give up things for others, then a question arises. Do we need to learn to curtail what we want for ourselves? Is self-restraint necessary for personal growth?

The difference between the actual and ideal self

When we think of our ideal-self we soon appreciate how far short we fall of who we would like to become. For example, altruism is often seen as a worthy aspiration: helping others instead of self-serving behaviour. Altruistic people heroically risked their own lives by giving shelter, or otherwise aiding Jews, in Nazi occupied Europe.

Forgiveness is another ideal. Who would disagree with the idea that when someone has been rotten to us and we successfully control the impulse to retaliate, then we become a source of healing rather than pain.

“Life improves by giving, and listening.” (Roger Walsh, Australian scholar in Psychiatry, Philosophy and Anthropology)

But how to become our ideal?

Incongruity between feelings, thoughts and actions

Some writers take the view that personal development simply means gaining self-insight and realising one’s inner potential by getting in touch with one’s true self. There is a problem however with the view that awareness and understanding is sufficient for personal growth. No matter what insights we have and ideals we possess, we continue to notice some sort of contrast between habitual conduct and how we would like to be.

‘It’s hard to sit down and meditate after a day of lying, cheating and hurting people.’ (Jack Kornfield, American teacher in Theravada Buddhism)

Our self-orientated emotions continue to affect what we think and do. No matter how much I tell myself to feel sympathy towards my rival, or show tolerance to my noisy neighbour, I cannot immediately change my negative feelings towards them.

New desires come from new behaviour and thoughts.

When someone makes me cross and upset, I cannot immediately change how I feel. But there is some good news. What I can do is change my thinking and behaviour. Instead of focusing on resentful thoughts, I might bring to mind someone’s good points. And this can help moderate my anger. Likewise, instead of raising my voice and clenching my fists, I could speak more quietly and try to relax my body. In these ways my feelings can be slowly modified.

Self-restraint and dishonesty

Having self-restraint over the things we say can be important. There is an expression, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Telling exaggerated and unhelpful stories about someone not present to defend him or herself is careless speech. Another form of dishonesty is reciting small lies to protect our reputation and then bigger lies to justify the little lies. Better to control our impulse to defend ourselves.

No longer being dishonest can lead to more trust and thus authentic friendships. In other words, self-restraint in the way we conduct ourselves can affect the quality of our lives.

In a similar way, in relation to other ethical issues, we can challenge habitual ways of thinking and instead do what conscience tells us is right. This instead of automatically pursuing our natural impulses.

“The greatest thing is a strong rule, and of the greatest rulers he is best who first can rule himself.” (Apollinius of Tyrana, Greek philosopher)

Gandhi and self-restraint

Mahatma Gandhi witnessed and himself suffered dreadful racial discrimination when living in South Africa. Many would have become embittered and a supporter of violence against this social injustice. Instead, he looked on his abusers as potential friends rather than foes. Rather than slander them, he held fast to the truth.

The Buddha and self-restraint

I would suggest the legend of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) shows that self-restraint is necessary for enlightenment, although it can be taken too far. Siddhartha’s father, the King, surrounded his son with every worldly pleasure and commanded that he be kept ignorant of sickness, decrepitude and death. But when the prince saw evidence of human vulnerability and mortality, he finally resolved to retire from the world in search of nirvana. After six years of extreme ascetic practice that proved futile, tradition says, Siddhartha finally succeeded in his quest by means of various austerities, reflection and inner struggle. It seems that extreme self-restraint does not necessarily work but nevertheless a moderate degree of it can be necessary for spiritual growth.

Christ and self-restraint

According to the biblical description, the developing spiritual life of Jesus Christ, also involved self-control in times of great difficulty. He must have had to restrain various natural emotions. For example impatience when his apostles were slow to understand Him, resentment when the religious leaders wanted to discredit Him, and animosity when people conspired to kill him. Instead he responded with patience, tolerance and forgiveness. And his anguish whilst praying in the Garden of Gethsemane is a vivid example of his inner struggle with his demons.

Self-restraint and inner struggle

To sum up, it seems that self-restraint and inner struggle are an important part of the process of spiritual development. These can occur when we experience an inner conflict between ‘what I want’ and ‘what I want to want’ – that is to say between the natural desires of our self-orientation and what we appreciate is a better way of living.

“The heart of the self-controlled man is always in the Inner Kingdom.” (Lao Tse, ancient Chinese philosopher)