I believe that most of us have far more control over our lives than we realize, because we will always have control over our reaction to any given situation. There is great power in that realization.

One who understands others has knowledge; One who understands himself has wisdom. Mastering others requires force; Mastering the self requires strength.

Tao Te Ching

We need to keep our focus on understanding ourselves as opposed to trying to control and understand the actions of others. Using force to try to change the behavior of another is never the best way. So what are we to do when another person acts in a way that distresses us? The answer is always the same: be the master of yourself.

A Personal Lesson in Self Mastery

In our daily lives, there are relatively insignificant ways that others actions can affects us negatively. In most of these circumstances, we’re so much better off when we can waste as little energy on the situation as possible – and just move on with our lives. Unfortunately, even when we know better, we don’t always follow this course of action.

I’m a daily reader of these advice columns in the Newspapers. Most of the contributors seem like pretty decent people, even though their life situations can sometimes defy imagination. Just a few weeks ago, however, I was quite taken aback to read this question:

Why do people write messages such as “Happy Birthday” to dead people in newspapers? To wish someone who has died a happy birthday or anniversary seems ludicrous to me. Will you point this out to your readers and comment?

As usual, the columnist who answers these queries, took the high road in responding to this person, explaining that those who submit such information to newspapers are often quite saddened by the anniversary or the birthday of a deceased loved one. It’s simply their way of commemorating a beloved friend or family member who has passed away. I, on the other hand, did NOT take the high road in response to this person’s letter. My poor hubby, had to endure a little ranting from me that day.

“Ugh! Can you believe that person?” I complained throughout the morning. “I certainly hope I raise a sensitive child, who never asks such insensitive questions.” (Not that I was feeling superior or judgmental, you understand…it was just a rant)

As I was working up a head of steam to begin ranting again, my hubby suddenly stopped me cold. “Zee.” he said calmly. “Why are you so upset? Remember, this person might be living in a very cold, dark place.” (I knew that!)

Let it go, Zee.” he said “Maybe they’ve never lost anyone. They might really NOT understand what it’s like to grieve.

It was a rather humbling experience at that moment to realize that I was indeed in the presence of a very sensitive man – who was at the moment being far more understanding than me (the supposedly cool and calm one!). I thanked him for his input with a hug and decided it was time to stop berating the supposed ‘heartless’ newspaper column question contributor.

Then I had a talk with myself, asking myself why I had allowed a stranger’s opinion to have such a major affect on my emotions in the first place. There was no reason I had to hold on to the anger that letter had prompted, yet I had chosen to do so. Upon making that realization, I decided to take the high road like the columnist had, and to become the master of the situation. First I forgave myself for overreacting. I even ended up saying a silent prayer to wish the column’s question contributor well.

Daily Opportunities For Self Mastery

Dealing with a store clerk with a less than helpful attitude, or that rude driver that refuses to let you into his or her lane can cause similar reactions. I have an enlightened friend who actually gives the peace sign to any rude driver she encounters while driving down the highway, as opposed to the hand gesture many of us might be tempted to share. If you’re unable to share any thoughts of peace for that person, just allow the situation to pass. Remind yourself that your life is too important to be wallowing in negative emotion. Let it go.

The examples above, although very real to us, pale in comparison to the suffering some human beings have been forced to endure throughout history. How do we remain masters of ourselves in the midst of real human suffering? Certain tragedies, even if they only affect us second-hand, are sufficiently heartbreaking that they have a ripple effect that extends throughout humanity.

What was your reaction when you first realized the atrocities of man against his fellow man in Rwanda, Iraq, or Darfur? How are we to react to such tragic events – when the actions of others are so heinous that they deliberately lead to human suffering and death? How do we remain peaceful masters of ourselves even in the midst of such horrific acts?

Here we may wish to study a man who endured first-hand one of the darkest periods in modern history. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist. In 1942 he was literally herded off to die within the system of Nazi concentration camps. Frankl endured the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man, yet even in the midst of the Holocaust, he managed to find hope and meaning in his existence. He excelled in helping his fellow captives encourage one another to find joy in the very simplest things in life—a beam of sunlight or the memory of a loved one—in an environment where death and misery were all around. Frankl even practiced sending out peaceful energy to his captors, realizing that any hatred he manifested would only serve to harm everyone in the vicinity, including himself and his fellow prisoners. His book documenting his Holocaust experiences, Man’s Search for Meaning is a true spiritual classic.

I believe if Viktor Frankl were alive today, this amazing man (who lived until 1997), would advise us to grieve for a time when we hear tragic news, but then to get on with the business of living; to find joy in our day-to-day lives and to share that joy with fellow human beings. Certainly, if we can do something to alleviate tragedy, then by all means, we should do so. But we do no one any good if we allow ourselves to wallow in thoughts of tragic events for long. If we practice this teaching, we—like Viktor Frankl—can remain masters of ourselves.

Living Out Our Self Mastery

Our daily existences often pale in comparison to the atrocities some human beings have been forced to suffer. Yet, life still presents us with challenges. Have you ever been in a situation in your work or in your personal life that continually dragged you down, despite your best efforts to rise above the negativity? It’s true that when we choose to become masters of our own reactions, as opposed to attempting to force or change the behavior of another, relationships or work situations can change for the better.

Consider the following words from Wayne Dyer, from his book Change Your Thoughts – Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao:

As you realize that you are responsible for your reactions in any given moment, others will cease to have power or control over you. Rather than worrying, ‘Why is that person behaving that way & making me feel so upset,’ you can see the situation as an opportunity to view yourself from a new attitude of self-mastery.

“But what if I live with an abusive partner, or I’m involved in an office situation that is continually degrading, despite my efforts to protect myself?” I’ve heard people ask. “Do you think that by telling us to be masters of our reactions it is expected that we should tolerate people who are routinely offensive or even dangerous?”

In short, I believe the answer is No. I don’t think that is what all this means at all. Sometimes the best way to be masters of ourselves is to realize that we don’t wish to be part of a perpetually negative environment any longer. Even though it may be a frightening prospect for us, this may mean finding a way to cut ties with a long-term life partner or a job situation that is not serving our best interests.

This, it seems, is the heart of self-mastery. Consider your choices, and then realize that your reaction to any given situation is truly up to you.