• Dave Burns

Beyond Self-Control

Updated: Oct 12


My college years consisted of alternating periods of multi-month manic drug binges and determined attempts to get my life in order.


The drugs included, at different times: amphetamines, cocaine, oxycodone, cannabis, ecstasy, ketamine, recreational psychedelics, handfuls of prescription medications, “bath salts” (remember those?), and, of course, plenty of alcohol and cigarettes to smooth things out.


Every time I tried re-committing to sobriety, I’d grab onto some specific modality to try to fix my brain and life. Mindfulness, powerlifting, herbal medicine, religion, cold exposure, chakra meditations, philosophy, counseling…each of these pursuits dominated a different period of attempted abstinence, as a kind of replacement for whatever drug I’d been hooked on previously.


Those periods of abstinence did not last long. None of the modalities was, for me, sufficient to hold my life together. And the sisyphean experience of committing to living well, immersing in a method to help do so, and then rapidly slipping back into an even worse addictive spiral felt like it didn’t portend too positively for the years of life that lay ahead.


The story of how drug addiction eventually evaporated from my life I will save for another day. But the experience described above is what first caused me to become fascinated with the question of why humans suck at abstaining from what they know is terrible for them, and at doing what they know is best; and, more importantly, the question of what to do about it.


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At some point in our lives we will experience competing inclinations. One will be pointed towards a healthy behavior, the other not so much.


Ideally we can choose correctly when this happens. Ancient Greeks called the ability to do so enkrateia—the capacity to choose the good over the pleasant.


But what would be far nicer than possessing enkrateia would be not experiencing competing inclinations in the first place. If the conscious mind were as free as possible from trying to govern problematic impulses, it could devote itself to proactively beautiful things: service, or contemplation, or thinking of kind things to say to our loved ones.


So while the capacity for some degree of enkrateia—the ability to follow through on our principles and commitments when we don’t feel like it—is clearly important, it’s also a touch compensatory for the state of being in full and effortless alignment.


And besides possessing this inherently compensatory quality, enkrateia (when leaned on heavily) tends to provoke a plethora of nasty downstream consequences.


One is that we begin to fetishize struggle. If we access greater self-control through the most common approach—developing pride in our identity as someone who can do difficult things—then we will start seeking out unnecessarily difficult paths to accomplish our aims in order to maintain that identity.


Another consequence of solely practicing enkrateia is that we never get to the root of the reason for the disconnect between our intentions and inclinations, and so miss the opportunity to bridge that disconnect and move towards living beautifully without effort.


And finally, most famously, techniques for self-control that work in the short term can cause a springback proportional to the difficulty of the action. The binge/starve cycle with eating is the best-known version of this. Many people can successfully restrict their eating for a week; very few can do so without then snapping back into even greater voracity.


That said—the experience of not practicing enkrateia is generally not too positive either. On a theoretical level that’s self-evident, since its definition is doing the better thing instead of the more pleasant one. But most of us have plenty of experiential evidence as well—such as the cascading effects on productivity, sleep quality, and eventually mental health that result from Netflix marathons.


So if practicing enkrateia is problematic, and its absence is even more problematic… what exactly are we supposed to do?


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The Ancient Greek word for the ideal alternative to enkrateia—namely, not requiring self-control in the first place—is sophrosyne.


It’s often translated as “soundness of mind,” “moderation,” or sanity.” In its purest sense it means harmony of body and soul.


Total sophrosyne would entail enjoying only what was good for you, or effortlessly choosing the best actions always. Assuming you’re committed to living well, it would entail complete alignment between commitments and cravings.


Some people seem to naturally possess more of this capacity. They’re simply uninterested in smoking cigarettes, and if they do try smoking they find it gross.


But for those of us who aren’t blessed with an innately sensible disposition—how exactly are we supposed to move towards having one? Or are we permanently stuck choosing between self-destructive downward spirals and white-knuckled deprivation?


Building new habits through the temporary employment of skillful enkrateia seems like the most obvious method for moving towards sophrosyne, since habits and desires are intrinsically linked.


But even if employing enkrateia skillfully weren’t extremely tricky (as discussed above), you only have to talk to one of the many, many chronic relapsers in addiction recovery programs to realize that dishabituation alone is a flimsy structure. When exposed to the wrong combination of emotions and environment, the structure of mere habits can collapse immediately—and no one is in complete control of either emotions or environment. Developing the resiliency associated with genuine sophrosyne requires more than rehabituation. It requires somehow changing what we’re attracted to in the first place.


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During one of my periods of attempted sobriety in college, I began to research healthy eating. This period didn’t last long, but some of the nutritional opinions I absorbed stuck with me.

They stuck with me, however, only as opinions. Any time I tried to adhere to a strict set of dietary guidelines, I would last a week or two at most before breaking down into a pile of pastries and pizza.


This was the case, at various levels of intensity, until the year after I graduated.


That year my relationship to eating completely changed. I started to eat cleanly and moderately, consistently, with almost zero choice in the matter.


This was not an experience I was used to—with anything, really. I’d had an addictive and undisciplined personality since I was 6. Being able to trust myself to reliably make the “right choice,” if only in this one small domain, shook my entire sense of how life worked.

The shift occurred more or less exclusively through a specific 6-month practice I took on.


The practice was this:


I could eat whatever I wanted, so long as I paid attention to how I felt. That was it. There was no rule that if I felt bad after eating something, I should no longer eat that food.


All I had to do was notice. As you might expect, I initially devoured a good amount of delicious garbage, having finally freed myself of the various rules for healthy eating I’d absorbed previously.


Then after eating, say, an entire pizza, I would have an initial wave of guilt, followed by a wave of relief as I remembered that the decision to do so had been sanctioned by a level-headed “past Dave,” rather than merely resulting from present Dave’s momentary weakness.


I would then—undistracted by the usual post-binge shame spirals—proceed to feel the immediate physical experience that generally follows consuming an entire pizza.


Many people have some specific food they happened to get food poisoning from as a child, and to this day they can’t stand the taste. This is not a conscious lesson that they learned. They don’t think “oh, this mac and cheese reminds me of the time I got food poisoning at age 7 from a similar dish, and as a result I’m going to deliberately summon the feeling of repugnance.” They just don’t want mac and cheese.


The problem with this type of scenario is that the change in cravings is only accidentally connected to the food itself. But it would be pretty phenomenal if this type of conditioning could happen not accidentally, but in direct correlation with the relative health of specific foods.


And, it turns out... it can. All that’s required is opening the gate of awareness to sensory information.


In the case of childhood food poisoning, the experience we had was so intense that we were unable to filter it out with inattention. (And, it’s likely that the “gating” quality of attention develops more with age, so children are more susceptible to learning through mere exposure.)


But adults can tap into the exact same mechanism, using the subtler but directly causal effects of specific foods—from the foggy micro-irritation of full-body inflammation after eating refined sugar, to the smooth and clear pervasive warmth after drinking bone broth—with the simple application of conscious attention.


Our bodies are constantly telling us how they feel. If we listen to them after eating terribly, we stop wanting to eat terribly.


After six months of eating whatever I wanted, with no restrictions, just paying attention to how I felt afterwards, and making no conscious decisions based on that data—pizza cravings became non-existent.


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The reason this approach worked seems to be the same reason that I have no idea what the opening lyrics of my phone alarm song say.


It’s been the same song for over two years. The song is “Mul Mantra,” by Snatam Kaur. I made it my alarm because my wife liked it, and had been gently hinting that deadmau5 was not her favorite way to start the day.


Recently we haven’t been using an alarm, but prior to this phase I heard the song’s opening lines over seven hundred times. When I say I don’t know what the lyrics are, I don’t just mean that I don’t know their meaning. I mean I’m unable to sing the sounds of the words after the first five syllables.

Repeated exposure does not produce learning. One of the incredible defining features of the human mind is its capacity to filter information. This allows for many benefits, one of the most important being the ability to learn from specific things rapidly rather than from all of existence slowly.

The flip side of this benefit is that if we treat a certain repetitive sliver of experience as unimportant, and don’t actively open up the gate of our awareness, it’s very possible to never learn from that experience no matter how many times it happens.


This means that in a way, our chief responsibility as adults is choosing what parts of experience we’d like to learn from. In action this means choosing where to place our attention.


The ripening of a soul from enkrateia towards sophrosyne is nothing more than a particular type of learning. It doesn’t occur inevitably through experience, because we ignore most of our experience.

What it requires, more than anything else, is one specific type of discipline—a kind of foundational enkrateia. Namely: the commitment to place attention on what counts.


With this one simple mode of discipline—the discipline of deliberate awareness—the need for harsh and dubious lifelong attempts at self-control gradually, and naturally, melts away.


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When it comes to eating food—behavior that has an immediate, or near-immediate, impact on sensations in the body—ripening towards sophrosyne can occur primarily through the awareness of physical sensations.


But there are other “problem activities” that have a fairly mild impact on physiology in the short term. These include anything involving a screen.


Your body doesn’t feel that different after scrolling through social media—at least not as different as it feels after eating a Crunchwrap Supreme from Taco Bell.


This means that physiological awareness is not usually sufficient for sophrosynic evolution in such domains. A different type of awareness is needed.

For behaviors whose impact is primarily temporal, like social media consumption or Netflix use, this would be awareness of time spent, developed by tracking minutes devoted to different activities throughout the day.


For financial behavior, this would be awareness of income and expenditures, developed by rhythmically tracking both.

It’s possible to get incredibly detailed and technological with these types of awareness practices. Biometric tracking devices like WHOOP and Biostrap allow you to see the impact on sleep quality of different behaviors, such as alcohol consumption and meal timing. Apps like Tiller automatically generate categorized spending reports. You can develop intensive daily review procedures where you track mood, test cognitive function, and correlate the information to different behaviors. Some people like that level of detail. And, none of that complexity or tech is needed for the soul to move towards sophrosyne. Simply feeling sensations and journaling on the day can produce breathtaking changes over time in the ability to choose well without force. The body and mind want desperately to learn what’s best for them. The only reason they don’t is that we block their access to the information they need for that learning to happen.

The key to shifting asymptotically from a life of inner warfare to one of natural right action is to remove these cognitive blocks to the information that matters. So long as we are alive, good intention is already present. All it needs to express itself is clarity.

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The greatest obstacle to behavioral awareness has, for me, always been the same thing that’s gotten in the way of apologizing gracefully to people who are angry at me. When someone shares critical feedback with you, and you either defend yourself or collapse in shame, you’re extremely unlikely to absorb any of their feedback’s wisdom. To be truly present with someone, and to feel in your heart the impact of your mistakes, is initially more frightening than inhabiting the well-worn grooves of either excuses or self-abuse. But it’s the only thing that results in the clean subconscious absorption of the emotional information at hand, which is the simplest possible path towards refining the extremely challenging art form of relational behavior.


All of this is equally true when it comes to your relationship with your own body and mind.


It is initially less comfortable to feel your post-cheesecake physiology than to hide from those sensations in either shame or internal justification. And of course you will feel a wave of shock, disappointment, or guilt when you take your first honest look at the number of minutes logged on social media weekly.


But truly learning from something requires being fully present with it, and presence is impossible if you lose yourself in either inflationary or diminishing thoughts about a behavior’s significance.

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If you’ve avoided smoking a single cigarette in your life up till now, that is wonderful. I would not encourage you to start smoking while feeling your physical sensations in the hopes that your soul will thus become ripened towards greater sophrosyne. There are some pleasures that, if given the option, it’s better to never experience in the first place. But if you’re like me, and at some point do find yourself chain smoking despite knowing that it’s killing you, it’s good to know that cultivating awareness around the experience is literally twice as effective as the current gold standard treatment for quitting. (Dr. Judson Brewer is the scientist leading the charge on this research. His team built this app incorporating their methods, grounded primarily in the deliberate practice of sensorial and emotional awareness.) Trusting the bodymind to improve its accuracy without active coercion, through the simple application of awareness, is not initially intuitive—particularly when we’ve watched ourselves fail to meet our ideals again and again, with each failure driving deeper the idea that our souls are untrustworthy and must be carefully managed in order to avoid starting a domino chain of degeneracy.

But over time, watching your soul progressively and effortlessly refine its visceral discernment through nothing more than eyes-open clarity begins to dissolve that cynicism. Trust grows. Hypervigilance softens. Truly nourishing foods begin to taste delicious. Bedtimes become more regular. The bone-deep satisfaction of good books becomes more compelling than the cloying novelty of Netflix. And fresh clean air starts to smell infinitely better than cigarettes.


The discipline of deliberate awareness is not in itself easier than other forms of discipline. Monks who hold it as their central aim are some of the most hardcore and warrior-spirited badasses on the planet. But it’s the form of discipline that, over time, begins to make the need for discipline obsolete—and so it is the type of enkrateia that most simultaneously honors the wisdom of enjoyment and the wisdom of excellence. We can all intuit that living well means both savoring life fully as well as doing difficult things. The discipline of awareness brings the two together. And, perhaps best of all: Every night, we get to binge on its opposite.