Fatty meal today and high Cholesterol tomorrow; High calorie filled desserts everyday and diabetes later; High Caffeine drinks everyday and sleeplessness in the long run; Sedentary life today and obesity tomorrow, Hatred, Anger & jealousy today and unhappy relationships for ever, no discipline of savings and poor retired life – the list of such instances of lack of self-control is indeed endless! One common feature in all this is our preference for instant gratification over long-term interests of health or wealth. In the language of economics this is known as deep discounting of future. In layman’s terms it means that we do not value our future as much as our present. This is not surprising since we have merely inherited these traits from our cave dwelling ancestors who had an uncertain future. Clearly, then, if we learn to value our future as much as our present, it should help us develop self-control.

Acting on our urges is the enemy of self-control. This is because urges and self-control are governed by different parts of the human brain. Urges leading to instantaneous gratification arise in our limbic system (which is the centre of emotions) while self-control is controlled by the frontal cortex which is the centre of awareness. In a sense, self-control may be thought of as a tug of war between the limbic system and the frontal cortex of the human brain.

Our understanding of self-control dates back to Greek mythology. It has an interesting reference to what is known as a siren song. The expression Siren Song refers to an attraction which is hard to resist but which, if heeded, will lead to a tragic conclusion.  According to Greek mythology, the  sirens were beautiful yet dangerous creatures, who lured nearby sea sailors to destruction by their sweet song. The sailors, on hearing the intoxicating siren song, would lose control of the ship and cause fatal shipwrecks on the rocky coast.  In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odyssey, escaped the danger of the siren song by plugging the ears of his crew with wax so that they were deaf to the Sirens. Odysseus himself wanted to hear their song but had himself tied to the mast so that he would not be able to steer the ship off its course. Psychologists call this as the Odyssean or Ullyssean technique for self-control.

We may or may not be aware of Odyssean technique but don’t we use it everyday? Of course, we do, when we try to avoid shopping at a departmental store on an empty stomach or when we keep the alarm clock beyond our arms’ reach to avoid turning it off and going back to sleep when it rings or when we conveniently forget to replenish stocks of biscuits or chocolates or any junk food at home to make sure that we do not binge on calorie-rich unhealthy foods.

It’s a paradox that one part of ourselves wants us to keep trim, fit & healthy whereas the other part encourages us to act on our urges and temptations.

New year resolutions people take in public are another attempt at achieving self-control, though with poor results. It’s a way of putting our reputation at stake if we didn’t stick to it. What about signing contracts and submitting ourselves to rules? Interestingly, psychologists have a weird explanation for this.  According to them, these are not tactics to defeat someone else, but tactics to defeat the darker parts of ourselves.

Here is my little story on how I kicked my coffee or tea addiction(almost). I tried this simple mind game. Think of coffee or tea as no more than a sugary liquid devoid of any flavour just when it’s time to drink coffee. To support this thought, bring to your mind the memory of a bad coffee drink you had in the past, like in a train journey for instance. This was supposed to wean the mind away from the thought drinking coffee or tea.  Believe it or not, this technique worked reasonably well. In a sense, this is a way of  cheating the mind! I figured out later psychologists have a jargon for this. This technique is called Cognitive reframing!

Psychologists have discovered a few other techniques for self-control – physical exercise, taking nutritious food, picking up new skills, using non-preferred hand for everyday tasks like brushing teeth etc.

Psychologists keep discovering new techniques. But I think the more lasting solutions are to be found in Gita Chapter 13 which has a detailed discussion on values. The message is: Have values and more importantly have value for those values.



Published in: on June 19, 2016 at 6:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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