We’re all at the helm of something with an impressive amount of horsepower—this body, with its heart, ego, and genitalia, each full of their own passions, motivations, preferences, desires, aversions. The ego wants fame, attention, power, immortality, runs on a sense of tit for tat and quid pro quo at best and exploitativeness at worst, wants to receive rather than give, does not want to die or suffer losses of any kind, and is afraid of feeling inferior, ashamed, inadequate. This body, instinctively seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, wanting adventure, exercise sometimes and comfort at other times; plus it needs to fed and given rest and water regularly, and most of all wants to survive, wants to go on breathing. And then there’s the “heart,” this heart that wants passion, emotion—to be loved, to feel a sense of belonging, connectedness, to be appreciated. And it’s no great secret what the genitals want. And, in general, we as human beings want to laugh, feel alive, have our way, have things go our way, not be forced to change too much nor too quickly.
All that horsepower—all those powerful engines with a lot of horsepower—competing to drive and steer us.
And not a lot of braking and steering power.
That’s what reason is and where it comes in. Reasoning, critical thinking, wisdom, discernment, learning, conscience, principles—these are our braking and steering systems. These are the last to develop, and often don’t develop very fully, because our emotions and ego and genitals are running the show and not willing to give up their time at the controls.
Unless something stops us dead in our tracks—a massive betrayal, a near-death experience or cancer scare or heart attack, or a moment of clarity (like the Buddha had, or like the author of Ecclesiastes must have had) where we see very clearly how fleeting life is, how vain all of our strivings and schemings are.
Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against passion and your appetite.
Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody.
But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements?
Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.
If either your sails or our rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.
For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.
Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion; that it may sing;
And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.
I would have you consider your judgment and your appetite even as you would two loved guests in your house.
Surely you would not honour one guest above the other; for he who is more mindful of one loses the love and the faith of both.
Among the hills, when you sit in the cool shade of the white poplars, sharing the peace and serenity of distant fields and meadows—then let your heart say in silence, “God rests in reason.”
And when the storm comes, and the mighty wind shakes the forest, and thunder and lightning proclaim the majesty of the sky—then let your heart say in awe, “God moves in passion.”
And since you are a breath In God’s sphere, and a leaf in God’s forest, you too should rest in reason and move in passion.
– Kahlil Gibran, “The Prophet”
“Appetitus Rationi Pareat”—”Let your desires be ruled by reason.” – Cicero
“Self-respect is the fruit of discipline; the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.” – Rabbi Abraham Heschel
Passion is feeling of great depth. The fact that a feeling is uncontrolled is no indication whatsoever that it is any deeper than a feeling that is disciplined. To the contrary, psychiatrists know well the truth that ‘Shallow brooks are noisy’ and ‘Still waters run deep.’ We must not assume that someone whose feelings are modulated and controlled is not a passionate person.
And while one should not be slave to one’s feelings, self discipline does not mean the squashing of one’s feelings into nonexistence. I frequently tell my patients that their feelings are their slaves and that the art of self discipline is like the art of slaving owning. First of all, one’s feelings are the source of one’s energy; they provide the horsepower, or slave power, that makes it possible for us to accomplish the task of living. Since they work for us, we should treat them with respect.
“One type of slave-owner does not discipline his slaves, gives them no structure, sets them no limits, provides them with no direction and does not make it clear who is the boss. What happens, of course, is that in due time his slaves stop working and begin moving into the mansion, raiding the liquor cabinet and breaking the furniture, and soon the slave-owner finds he is the slave of his slaves, living in chaos.
The opposite style of slave-ownership, which the guilt-ridden neurotic so often exerts over his or her feelings, is equally self-destructive. In this style the slave-owner is so obsessed with control and fear that his slaves (feelings) might get out of control and so determined that they should cause him no trouble that he routinely beats them into submission and punishes them severely at the first sign of any potency. The result is that in relatively short order the slaves become less and less productive as their will is sapped by the harsh treatment they receive. Or else their will turns more and more toward covert rebellion. And if the process is carried out long enough, one night the owner’s prediction finally comes true and the slaves (feelings) rise up and burn down the mansion, frequently with the owner inside. Such is the genesis of certain psychoses and overwhelming neuroses.
The proper management of one’s feelings clearly lies along a complex (and therefore not simple or easy) balanced middle path, requiring constant judgment and continuing adjustment. Here the owner treats his feelings (slaves) with respect, nurturing them with good food, shelter and medical care, listening and responding to their voices, encouraging them, inquiring as to their health, yet also organizing them, limiting them, deciding clearly between them, redirecting them and teaching them, all the while leaving no doubt as to who is the boss.
This is the path of healthy self-discipline.
Among the feelings that must be so disciplined is the feeling of love. As I have indicated, the feeling of love is not genuine love. It is to be respected and nurtured for the creative energy it brings, but if it is allowed to run rampant, the result will not be genuine love but confusion and unproductivity.
(M. Scott Peck, “The Road Less Traveled,” my abridgement of pp. 156-8)
Whether the above illustrations are indeed correct or not, it does help make a similar point to the excerpts and quotes above: that the good life (our best self) will require a wise (i.e. disciplined) mix of both head and heart, feelings and thinking.
Our capacity to balance out and manage our passions and emotions with our reasoning will depend in large part on the quality of our thinking and reasoning—how asleep (disconnected from reality, lost in a world of fantasy) or awake (clear-headed and adjusted to reality) we are, how lost or not lost we are, and what sorts of books we’re reading.
Make no mistake about it, the quality of our relationship with reality, the quality of our thinking, and the amount of perspective we have, how aware and mindful we are, depends in large part on the quality of the thinking and the amount of perspective and self-awareness of those we surround ourselves with, *as well as* the quality (wisdom) of the books we and they choose to read.