11 Ways to Build Mastery (Plus, the Essence of Self-Control)

by Asatar Bair on June 14, 2010

Can you be too disciplined? Can you have too much self-control, too much mastery? If mastery is properly understood, then the answer is no, you can never have too much mastery.

Of course, you can repress your emotions, you can be in denial, you can be controlling and abusive toward others. But that is not real mastery, not self-control at all. Indeed, people tend to do those things when they lack self-control. You do not abuse the weak when you feel strong; you do not manipulate others when you feel in control of yourself.

So how do you gain mastery? Here are eleven ways, in reverse order of importance:

  1. Give up a food you like. Food is a fundamental pleasure of life, but how often we let that pleasure rule us. Giving up one kind of food or drink that you really like is an easy way of building mastery. Here’s a hint: don’t tell anyone you’re doing it. This will make it easier in the long run. It gets tiresome to explain every little thing you’re doing to everyone with a passing interest, and it drains your energy. With giving up a food you like, or with any of these exercises, the key is to be very specific. Decide in advance how long the exercise will last, and be specific about what you’ll be doing. To take a personal example: I will not have a Coke for 30 days, but on the 31st day, I’m going to have a big, frosty Coca Cola with lots of ice. Track your results in a journal or on a calendar!
  2. Wake up early (or go to sleep late). Ah, sleep! Another of life’s great pleasures. Have you ever noticed that you can get too much sleep? I get a kind of “sleep hangover” if I sleep in too long (at least, that is what I dimly recall from before I had two little ones). If waking up early is hard for you, then you should wake up early. Perhaps you’re the kind of person who already wakes up early and goes to sleep early? Well, try staying up late and still waking up early. The point is to take something away that you like or are used to having. Again, be specific about how long the exercise will last and keep to it. If it’s wake up at a certain time one day, or three days, keep to it, even if it doesn’t seem important. Make a molehill into a mountain. It’s very helpful to have the ability to sleep and wake at will, and this exercise helps with that.
  3. Give up a pleasure that you’re addicted to. What are you addicted to? We’ve all got something. Habits creep up on you over time. You know it’s an addiction when you have a tough time breaking it. Maybe it’s a little thing, like having sugar in your tea (that was one of mine that I recently gave up). Maybe it’s driving fast, or listening to the radio at a certain time. Decide what you’re going to change, make it specific, and follow through with it, e.g. “I will not exceed 60 mph for the next week”.
  4. Make finishing things (even very small things) a habit. There’s a knot in a piece of string that you’re trying to untie, then you say, “forget it, it doesn’t matter”. Untie it. Recognize that all of life is a kind of a battle, and that each part of it can be decisive, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Of course, you should try not to take on unimportant tasks, but once they are begun, finish them.
  5. Sit still. Or stand still. Or stand on one foot. Our bodies are made for movement, and to hold still can feel like a torment. Do you see a pattern emerging here? Mastery is like breaking a horse, except it’s the most sensitive, difficult, touchy horse in the world, a horse who wants to throw you off every second, yet at the same time desperately wants to be ridden: your own self. But once you can ride this horse, there is no place it will not take you. Decide how long you will sit still for, e.g. “I will sit still for 5 minutes”. If you fail, try again. A secret technique for being still: pay attention to your breath.
  6. Hold your breath. There is a very specific way of breathing that has a foundational effect on your self-control. It’s called the Square Breath, and it’s an advanced technique in Heart Rhythm Meditation that we teach in Course #101. In a nutshell, the Square Breath is breathe out 8 heartbeats, breathe in 8 beats, and hold for 16 beats. (The number is not important, but the ratio is extremely important: hold for the same length of time as the inhale and exhale combined, and only hold after the inhale.) Practice the exercise for a while first, then decide how many Square Breaths you will do, and try to attain that number. If you miss, try again. Notice the effect this has on you. In my experience, the effect has been quite dramatic, especially if I do 20 or more in a row.
  7. Do something that scares you. What do you fear? When I was a child, I was afraid of heights. So I climbed trees, as high as I could. Fear is a cruel captor. Make your escape! Maybe your fear is more subtle, like you are afraid of being betrayed, abandoned, or disappointed. Maybe you’re afraid to succeed. Confronting these fears may be more difficult, but this means the payoff is also greater. Again, be specific about how you will go about it. If you fear sharing your feelings, then you might say, “I will tell 5 people in my life ‘I love you’”.
  8. Attain a goal that you care about. The key here is to be specific. Do you want to be stronger? Develop a way to measure that, like “deadlift 300 pounds”. Then make a plan for how to attain it. Then do something each day that will bring you closer to your goal. It should be something you care about, because life is short. Choose a goal as an exercise in bringing about what you desire. Be smart about it. Recognize that big accomplishments take time. Choose something you can do in 9 months, give or take 3 months.
  9. Hold your tongue when you really want to speak. Talking is a kind of intoxication, a release of energy and emotion. Control yourself by holding your tongue. There is a nice Buddhist practice that comes to mind here. Before you speak, ask yourself three questions: “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” You can tune this exercise by making it specific. Is there a certain kind of thing you tend to say that you’d rather not? Let’s say it’s being critical of others. Then go on a “criticism fast” for 30 days. Mark on your calendar the days you succeeded.
  10. Control your anger when you’re really upset. Like speech, giving in to anger is a great intoxication, especially for those who are prone to anger, such as myself. Control over anger is an example of emotional control, which is difficult and extremely valuable. The goal is to be able to feel all your emotions, but choose the time and manner of their expression. Turn anger into determination, and use it to do something you couldn’t do without that emotion.
  11. Confront the fear of death by breathing all the way out. There are two secrets to mastery. The first is: control your breath. If you learn to control the most fundamental aspect of your life, then you gain self-control in a fundamental way. The breath can be thought of in three parts: exhalation, inhalation, and holding of the breath. The key part of the breath to control, the part that will yield the biggest payoff in self-mastery and confronting fear, is the exhalation. The reason is that the exhalation brings you closer and closer to the point where there is no air in the lungs, which is much like the moment of death. So breathing all the way out brings you close to death, allowing you to confront the fear of death while you are still alive (and without doing anything crazy or dangerous). This is valuable, because the fear of death is a very real limitation.

The first secret of mastery is to control your breath; the second secret is the Essence of Self Control: Say “I Can”. It may seem simple, but saying “I Can” is the cornerstone of every accomplishment, every act of overcoming, and every breakthrough. The ability to say “I Can” is an energy, which you can gain by a regular practice of energizing your heart.


Siraj al-Haqq July 20, 2010 at 9:27 am

G.I. Gurdjieff taught and practiced what his dying grandmother advised him to do: “Do things differently.” The point is not to be different in the sense of wearing weird cloths, tattoos, piercings or engaging in other unconventional behaviors simply to stand out as different from others.

Instead, this practice is intended to provide opportunities to experience, to learn, to understand, what it is like to do things in a non-habitual manner. And the point of doing that is to create an opportunity to observe one’s self. And the point of this self-observation is to learn more about one’s self – specifically about the usual mechanicallity of one’s behaviors and of the possibility of awakening to one’s true nature, of becoming more conscious, and of attaining Self-Mastery.

You can choose anything to try doing differently. It is really not at all significant whether you view the behavior you are changing from or to as “good” or “bad” or as desirable or undesirable. As suggested above (#1), it is helpful to keep this to yourself – to do this practice on your own and for yourself – rather than sharing the specifics with others. Talking about this (and other practices) often introduces a strong element of ego-based behavior into the mix, which is usually quite counter-productive to gaining self-mastery. But you can certainly share the general nature of this practice with others so they can try it, too.

Go forth and do things differently – differently from your usual way of doing things.

Asatar Bair July 20, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Hi Siraj al-Haqq, thanks for your comment. Though I do think it’s important to take up an exercise that you feel will benefit you in some way, for that helps with the motivation to complete it.

Martin Bortnick July 21, 2010 at 5:25 am

I love this posting on the steps to mastery. I have the book “Mastery through Accomplishment” which is excellent, but I love the way you put these steps. When I get to the library I hope to print them off.

Asatar Bair July 21, 2010 at 11:25 am

Hi Martin, thank you for your comment! I’m glad you found that helpful. Mastery is an interest of mine, so there may be more articles on this topic in the future. Check back with us or subscribe to get weekly updates. -Asatar

Martin Bortnick August 4, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Hello again,
I also wanted to say that you should publish this article in phamplet form and sell it in quantity. That would make it easier to share with others.

Asatar Bair August 4, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Hi Martin, thank you so much for that feedback! Perhaps we will do that. I’m pleased that you like the article; I hope it’s helpful. -Asatar

Patrick Hitches March 24, 2011 at 12:56 pm

I think #4 about finishing the things you start is a solid bullet… But always keeping the mind and heart open to the possibility of changes as they come into our lives daily.

Solid post!

Patrick Hitches

Asatar Bair March 24, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Hi Patrick,
Yes, good point. It is important to recognize that sometimes things change, and then it may not make sense to finish what you have started. But it’s best to be cautious; there is a tendency to say you don’t want something that you actually do want but don’t think you can have, like the old fable of the fox and the grapes.
Thank you for your comment. How did you find us?
p.s. I like your blog.

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