At the age of 18 I started running at night when I was stressed. I loved it. I loved the pain, the sweat, the heat... My favorite way to run was by sprinting between every other set of light poles. And when I say sprint, I mean run at max speed, like a bear is chasing you, like you're at the Olympics in a 100 meter dash. Do that for a mile and you'll be ready to drop over dead. Other times I would just keep running at a brisk pace and see how far I could go.
That raised the question: how far can I go? Normally I would run til my heart and lungs hurt, or until my leg muscles hurt, one or the other. But when I did decide to stop, I didn't have to stop. I could always do a little more if I wanted to. I was choosing to stop. One day I chose not to stop and just kept going. I started to feel an acute reality, that my mind and body were two distinct things, and my mind was in charge. I could feel my body crying out for me to stop, sending me messages that it was in pain, but it wasn't me feeling the pain, I told it to keep moving and it followed orders with perfect submission. I could see that if I wanted, I had the ability to run myself to death, to the point of system failure. Eventually I did stop, flushed with endorphins.
During this time I was also struggling in my personal life with controlling my attraction to girls and I didn't miss the connection between the lesson in self-control from running and the lack of self-control in hooking up with girls. In high school a few years prior, I had screwed up several good relationships by cheating on girlfriends, and at the time I was avoiding starting a relationship out of fear of ruining it. But it is easier to run yourself to death than it is to reign in an addictive habit once it's been unleashed. I remember often sitting and consciously deciding that I wanted to have self-control and stop getting involved in behavior that I knew was self-destructive. Then all that went to the wayside when confronted with a pretty girl. My instincts took over.
I reflected on what was going on, and decided that I needed steadfastness, so that my conscious decisions during moments of mental clarity could be implemented in moments of stupidity. I memorized the following prayer for steadfastness and said it every day, and still do for the most part,
"O Lord my God! Assist Thy loved ones to be firm in Thy Faith, to walk in Thy ways, to be steadfast in Thy Cause. Give them Thy grace to withstand the onslaught of self and passion, to follow the light of divine guidance. Thou art the Powerful, the Gracious, the Self-Subsisting, the Bestower, the Compassionate, the Almighty, the All-Bountiful."I also ran into a quote in Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah that had a strong affect on me,
"O My servants! There shineth nothing else in Mine heart except the unfading light of the Morn of Divine guidance, and out of My mouth proceedeth naught but the essence of truth, which the Lord your God hath revealed. Follow not, therefore, your earthly desires, and violate not the Covenant of God, nor break your pledge to Him. With firm determination, with the whole affection of your heart, and with the full force of your words, turn ye unto Him, and walk not in the ways of the foolish. The world is but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of reality. Set not your affections upon it. Break not the bond that uniteth you with your Creator, and be not of those that have erred and strayed from His ways. Verily I say, the world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion. It may, moreover, be likened unto the lifeless image of the beloved whom the lover hath sought and found, in the end, after long search and to his utmost regret, to be such as cannot “fatten nor appease his hunger.”When I read this I felt like it was the missing piece in my puzzle. "The world is but a show," like an act on stage, it's false. To be obsessed with worldly things is like being in a play and letting the theater become your reality. These trivial pleasures give the appearance of happiness, but ultimately just release serotonin in the brain while true happiness eludes you. Even still, this is only theory, putting it into practice was not easy. Another quote that resonated with me was a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi,
"...chastity should be strictly practiced by both sexes, not only because it is in itself highly commendable ethically, but also due to its being the only way to a happy and successful marital life."This concept, that being unchaste is sacrificing long term happiness for short term pleasure, gave me a logical approach that also helped me reform. From those teenage days it was quite a long time before I felt totally in control of myself. About four years later, after more struggle, failure, and enlightenment, I finally felt like this particular problem was under control, at least in its outward manifestations. The underlying desire never went away, and maybe never will, but it's locked in the basement.
The mastery and control over our lower nature is an endless struggle.
"The only people who are truly free of the “dross of self” are the Prophets, for to be free of one’s ego is a hall-mark of perfection. We humans are never going to become perfect, for perfection belongs to a realm we are not destined to enter. However, we must constantly mount higher, seek to be more perfect.
"The ego is the animal in us, the heritage of the flesh which is full of selfish desires. By obeying the laws of God, seeking to live the life laid down in our teachings, and prayer and struggle, we can subdue our egos.
"...Life is a constant struggle, not only against forces around us, but above all against our own ego. We can never afford to rest on our own oars, for if we do, we soon see ourselves carried down stream again."
(Shoghi Effendi, Unfolding Destiny)
"...this human reality stands between the higher and the lower in man, between the world of the animal and the world of divinity. When the animal proclivity in man becomes predominant, he sinks even lower than the brute. When the heavenly powers are triumphant in his nature, he becomes the noblest and most superior being in the world of creation. All the imperfections found in the animal are found in man. In him there is antagonism, hatred and selfish struggle for existence; in his nature lurk jealousy, revenge, ferocity, cunning, hypocrisy, greed, injustice and tyranny. So to speak, the reality of man is clad in the outer garment of the animal, the habiliments of the world of nature, the world of darkness, imperfections and unlimited baseness.
"On the other hand, we find in him justice, sincerity, faithfulness, knowledge, wisdom, illumination, mercy and pity coupled with intellect, comprehension, the power to grasp the realities of things and the ability to penetrate the truths of existence. All these great perfections are to be found in man. Therefore we say that man is a reality which stands between light and darkness."
(`Abdu'l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity)
This lesson in discipline and control can be applied to a plethora of other desires. The most common ones are well known: alcohol, food, gambling, and most recently the internet and gaming. I've heard alcoholics tell me that after 20 years of sobriety, they still actively struggle to restrain their desire for liquor. Obesity in America has reached moronic proportions, and college students are failing classes because they spend too much time on Facebook and World of Warcraft. It's one thing to acknowledge the difficulty in overcoming desires, but it seems most people aren't paddling.
Here is where religion comes in to establish moral and spiritual qualities in society. Christianity's fundamental premise of salvation revolves around the struggle over the lower nature, Islam seems to add a focus on the transformation of social forces that shape society, and the Baha'i Faith brings both individual and social transformation to fruition. I envision a future when the forces of society are so oriented towards spiritual growth that many of the stumbling blocks now imposed by media and business will be washed away. Our social reality will be so revolutionized that even the very language we use will encourage self-mastery and human virtue. It will be like George Orwell's 1984, but in a good way.