Self-control is the most necessary thing to be learned; a person may have great spirituality, illumination and piety, but in the absence of self-control this is nothing. Self-control also is the only way of happiness and peace. Often we hear or read that persons of great repute in the world for their spirituality and mysticism do something that astonishes us very much, or make a quite childish mistake. It is want of self-control that makes them commit a mistake, against which they themselves have spoken and written many times.
The spiritual student learns self-control in three ways: by postures, by tasawwur –visualization - which is concentration, and by aural, which is the highest practice. After this there is samadhi, which is meditation and which is called by the dervishes masti; it means illumination, to halt in illumination. The difference between meditation and concentration is that concentration is done on a form, on an object, and meditation without form or object.
Repose and control of the body are taught by postures and positions. When a person has been still for some time, he will begin to move. There is no need for him to move but he moves his foot or his arm, or he drums on the table with his fingers, or he chews his lips, or blinks his eyes. The activity increases more and more until at last a person jumps in his sleep; when the first sleep comes, he starts and jumps. To control the activity of the body, to sit quiet in the postures and positions is the first lesson.
However, there must not be stillness only. If a person has kept his hands still for a long time and then wishes to play the piano, he will not be able to. He must make his fingers active enough to be able to play the piano well. As much stillness there is, so much activity there must be.
Sleep and do not sleep; eat and do not eat; walk and do not walk; speak and do not speak. This means: if you sleep every night, sometimes do not sleep; if you eat every day, one day in seven do not eat; or if you eat all month long, one or two days in the month do not eat. This gives a mastery that you cannot gain by renunciation alone. It does not mean that you should starve. The body must be given good food, fresh food, and all its needs must be satisfied. This is better than that it should always long for what it sees before it. You must give the body what it needs, but you must control its needs, and not be controlled by them.
After this comes control of the thoughts, which is the second step, control of the body coming first. Thousands of people have found that they can sit in the postures for hours, but cannot keep their mind still. This has to be learned by degrees. A person cannot control his mind by willing to think of nothing; that will never be possible. First let the mind hold whatever thought interests it, any thought of love, of goodwill-whatever interests it. Check its tendency to jump from one thing to another. When you catch the mind jumping from one thing to another, bring it back and hold it. You must say: I am greater than my mind, my will is greater than my mind, and I will make my mind obey my will.
Then comes mastery of the feelings, of the heart. There must be no feeling of revenge, of unkindness, of bitterness against anyone in the heart. When such a feeling comes, one must say: this is rust coming into my heart. When all such feelings are cleared off the heart, it becomes like a mirror. A mirror without rust reflects all that is before it; then everything divine is reflected in the heart, then all inspirations, intuitions, impressions come, and what we call clairvoyance. There is no need to go after such things; they come of themselves.
After this there is only one thing more to be done: to keep from the soul all the thoughts that come from others and all the thoughts and feelings that arise within the self. Keep away even all feelings of love and goodwill whilst you are in this meditation; then, as a matter of course, come ecstasy, rapture, and peace.
Many people ask: How can we control our thoughts? What can we do, if our thoughts do not obey us, if our mind does not obey us, if our body does not obey us? How can we like a thing, if we dislike it, or dislike it, if we do like it? It seems to us impossible! To a person who has gone beyond likes and dislikes this sounds like a child's question, because he does not know of opposites.
The way to gain self-control is first of all to do the reverse of what your inclination would lead you to do. If you feel inclined to eat, sometimes do not eat, control the hunger. If you feel inclined to drink, do not drink, control the thirst. If you are inclined to sleep, do not sleep; at another time, when you are not inclined to sleep, sleep. There are a thousand inclinations, each sense has its inclinations. Do not give way to these inclinations, rule them, that they may not govern you. This is called by the Yogis hatha yoga, and the Sufis call it nafskushi.
I have seen the Nizam of Hyderabad stand for seven or eight hours, if he wished to stand, although he was a king and had all things ready in his house. If he wished not to sleep, he did not sleep for seven, eight, nine and ten days. By this he became such a master that he mastered the secret of curing snake bites. In India there are many snakes; while the Nizam lived he advertised all over India, and if anyone was bitten by a snake, people wired to him. When the Nizam said, "He is well", the person was healed.
When one has learned to control one's inclinations, the second lesson is to govern the inclination in the act. Do not eat whilst you are eating, do not drink whilst you are drinking. When a person has learned this, he is master of the solitude and the crowd. He does not need solitude to be spiritual; he is spiritual in the crowd too.
Question: How to gain self-control?
Answer: By doing the reverse of that which one's inclination would lead one to do. If you are inclined to eat, do not eat; if you are inclined to drink, do not drink; if you are inclined to be active, be still; if you are inclined to be still, be active; if you are inclined to speak, be silent. Eating is not a sin, but if you sometimes try how long you could do without eating, it would be good. Drinking is not a sin, but if you sometimes try how long you could do without drinking, it would be good. Sleeping is not a sin, but if you sometimes try how long you could do without sleeping, it would be good.
Faqirs take the opposite way. They like what they dislike. That is the reason why you may read that Mahadeva, Shiva, drank poison and wore skulls and bones around his neck, because no one would like to be in a grave among the dead. A snake is always pictured around his neck; by this the conceit, the ego, the nafs, is crushed. To every little man, to every boy faqirs say "father", thinking, "He is the father and I am the son". To every little woman they say "mother", thinking, "She is much greater than I am". To all they say, "I am your servant, I am your humble servant, your obedient servant".
Develop the will by slowness of movement, by slowness of speech, by slowness and control of thought, for activity tends to make us move faster and faster.
No thought or feeling should arise without our will. When we have gained mastery over the self, we have mastery over all things. The saints and sages have commanded a withered tree to become green. How was it done? By their mastery over the self.