What Is Self Control? (And How To Attain It)

by Asatar Bair on July 19, 2011

The Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote, “The control of the self means control of everything.”

So what is self control? And how much control should we seek?

The question of what is the self lies at the heart of spiritual attainment. The self, or ego, has many levels; moving from the material to the subtle, these are: body, mind, heart, soul, and spirit. Self control means something different at each of these levels, and control is exercised by the level above, or perhaps by many levels above, if all these levels are functioning properly.

Part 1: Physical Self Control

Physical self control is very simple: it is control over your body, and it is done by using the power of your mind, ideally in conjunction with your heart, soul, and spirit. Your body has its own desires, habits, and inclinations, and you show your self control by gently denying these. I say ‘gently’ because what your body wants — food, comfort, stimulation, activity, sleep, sex, etc. — comes from a good place, but control is needed to keep things from getting unruly; when your body’s desires run you, life becomes very difficult. Developing physical self control is much like pruning a garden: the aim is not to cut everything down, but rather to make a beautiful, harmonious environment.

Ways to gain physical self control include: holding your body still for a period of time, laying down to rest when you are not tired, getting up from sleep early, when you are tired, giving up a food that you like, exercising when you don’t feel like it. (I have some other pointers in my essay, 11 Ways To Gain Mastery (Plus, the Essence of Self Control).

But what about being free, being natural? Shouldn’t one just eat when hungry, sleep when tired, etc.?

You will feel more free and more natural with physical self control than without it, because the most natural and harmonious state is for your mind to be in control of your body. Think of the ways of gaining physical self control as exercises, like, say, sit-ups. The point of doing sit-ups is not to do sit-ups, it is to gain strength in your core, strength that can be used in many different situations. The exercises used to gain physical self control are the same; the point is not denial per se, it is the strength you gain from completing the exercise, which is very, very liberating.

A great way of gaining physical self control is to practice Heart Rhythm Meditation, which involves sitting still and feeling your heartbeat and breath. Paying attention to your breath makes the act of being still so much easier that it’s like a secret technique. Heart Rhythm Meditation is a great way to multi-task, because in gaining self control, you are also coming into a much deeper awareness of your emotions, which eventually become so big that you feel All.

Part 2: Mental Self Control (And Three Secrets For Gaining It)

Mental self control means to be able to hold a thought in mind, and to be able to release it when you wish. This is harder than physical self control, which is why I recommend building a foundation by controlling your body first. The practice of holding your mind on one point is called concentration, and is the first of five states of consciousness in meditation (described in wonderful detail in Living from the Heart, pp 34-59).

Many of us have gotten good at concentration, because American culture teaches and values skill at concentration. But many also struggle with it, because concentration is difficult. Your mind wants to move when you concentrate, just like your body wants to move when you hold still.

The release of concentration is also very important in mental self control, just like the ability to contract a muscle, but also to be able to relax a muscle is important in physical self control. To be able to not think of something which is disturbing, or to be able to forget what you wish to forget also shows control of your mind.

Here are three secrets to mental self control:

  1. Attitude. You must believe that you can do it.
  2. Tap into your emotions. Concentration is hard when you don’t want to do it. So choose to concentrate on something you enjoy, or feel is important, or really want to be better at. As the Sufis say, “the lover never needs to be reminded of the face of the beloved.”
  3. Use your breath. Didn’t I say use your breath to control the body? Yes; the miracle of the breath is that breath is the thread that connects all the levels of your being: body, mind, heart, soul, and spirit. Your breath is a tool that you can use to explore every level of being that exists. The key is to be aware of your breath as you concentrate, then to develop your breath further, to use it to go more deeply into what you are doing.

By practicing Heart Rhythm Meditation, you have the chance to work on all three of these: you can learn about (and change) your attitude; you can tap into your emotions; and you learn to breathe fully, rhythmically, deeply, and to direct your breath through your heart, and to different parts of your body. (We teach these skills in our more advanced courses.)

Part 3: Emotional Self Control

“Here you go, sweetheart,” I said, as I passed my 3-year-old daughter a plate of egg whites, or “white eggs”, as she calls them.

“Nooooo!”, she screamed. “I want the horsey plate! Not that one! Not that one!”

My daughter is just learning about her emotions, and it’s pretty overwhelming for her to feel her emotions, understand them, and express them. (Especially if she is hungry or tired.) So we get a lot of emotional volatility. This is appropriate for a child, though of course we work with her on it a great deal, saying things like, “please talk nicely, sweetheart!” and “take a deep breath” and “ok, stop crying, then tell me what’s wrong”.

What is appropriate for a small child becomes tiresome in an adult, where emotional self control becomes very important. So emotional self control — what exactly does it mean?

It means:

  1. You’re aware of your feelings;
  2. You feel your emotions deeply in your heart; and
  3. You can transform the power of your emotion, for example by choosing the time and manner in which your feelings are expressed, or choosing to direct your emotions toward a certain end.

Emotional self control is much more subtle and difficult than physical or mental self control. There are two great dangers: repression and thoughtless expression.

Some people keep a lid on their feelings, so much that the voice of their heart grows quieter and quieter, until it can scarcely be heard at all. Thus what should be a river of feeling slows to a trickle, and the heart grows increasingly desperate, resorting to dramatic messages to get your attention: nightmares, intense emotions, depression, anxiety, or even physical ailments.

The other tendency comes when a person is in touch with their emotions, but expresses them thoughtlessly, not considering the consequences. All actions have consequences. The emotional energy of your heart is a precious resource, not to be spent lightly. Consider that next time you feel yourself losing your temper, sobbing uncontrollably, or being overwhelmed with joy.  Developing the ability to hold emotion within your heart makes your heart powerful.

Again, this is a very subtle harmony. In striving for control, we don’t want too much repression.

Heart Rhythm Meditation is an ideal practice for developing emotional self control. On the one side, meditating on your heart brings you in touch with your deepest emotion, so you can truly know your feelings, and truly inhabit your ‘emotional body’. At the same time, while you are meditating you do not express the emotion that you bring up, you simply hold it, which makes your heart strong energetically. (Practices which involve holding the breath are particularly good for this.)

Amazingly, you can see the effects of emotional repression and uncontrolled emotional expression on your heart using the emWave Heart Rate Variability software, as shown in Puran and Susanna’s book Energize Your Heart, pp 24-25, and 84-92. Isn’t that amazing that your physical heart beat encodes so much information about your emotional state?

Part 4: Spiritual Self Control

Spiritual self control is more subtle and difficult by far than the first three, which is why it is best to build a foundation first. Spiritual self control means the ability to focus the light of the soul into your heart powerfully and clearly. I realize this sounds pretty abstract, so let me break it down.

The first part of this is being aware of your soul, which is the highest level of self that can be considered individual, and hence, unique to you. (There is more to the self beyond this, but it is universal, not individual.)

It’s hard to be aware of your soul, because the world is so immediate, and so compelling. But some people have a feel for it. Your soul is infinite, and so it is naturally attracted to that which seem to mirror infinity: vast space, purity, abstraction, and light, as the soul is light. The things that we can perceive point to the subtle world beyond the senses. The soul is without senses, without substance, requiring a vehicle to experience emotion and sensation.

Aha, here we have the perfect thing!

Your heart, your mind, and your body: these form the carriage which transports your soul in the world, allowing it to receive the impression of life on earth.

So, to become aware of your soul, you tune into your heart, diving deep into your emotions. You can start with your thoughts: consider that there is a feeling beneath that thought, and an even deeper emotion behind that feeling. Follow your feelings, using your breath, until you arrive at a place of pure emotion, where there is no differentiation between feelings, and where what you feel is far deeper than any emotion you can even connect to yourself. Here there is joy beyond reason, and sorrow beyond comprehension, mingled together with a thousand other feelings in a river of light. Experience the purity of this river of emotion within you, and you will come into your soul.

This is an incredible experience, both liberating and purifying. To make it real, consider, why did your soul choose to come to earth? There is a reason, a purpose to your existence. There is a reason you chose to become a ray of light, temporarily separate (at least in appearance) from God, the Great Sun of Being. To come into awareness of your soul, then to consider why you are here, and to begin to consciously re-make your life around your purpose is intensely beautiful work, which is best done in the sacred container of a retreat.

I hope you will share with me in the comments your experiences with each level of self control. And if you enjoyed this article, please share on Facebook, Twitter, or Stumbleupon! Thank you for reading.


Julie Geigle November 3, 2011 at 11:42 am

Excellent article. Thank you for posting!

Asatar Bair January 6, 2012 at 11:25 am

Hi Julie,
Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed that one.
take care,

James o'Connell January 6, 2012 at 9:10 am

I am planning now to read this daily. I really have spent so much time unconsciously repressing my raw emotions and after reading this I know I have the courage to just let things flow. Like you say it’s a breathing thing and with practice maybe I can come into my soul and experience the purity of it.

Asatar Bair January 6, 2012 at 11:24 am

Hi James,
I feel you. For many of us, repressing our feelings has become subconscious. We need to do it sometimes in order to have some self control, but when it becomes a habit, it is dangerous, as we can lose touch with our emotional life. Practicing breathing through your heart (especially deeply and rhythmically) will work magic on this.
Thanks for your comment.

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