Chassidic Approach to Self Control

Chana Man, Montreal, Canada
Essays 2018

MyLife Essay Contest 2018

Contemporary Issue: Lacking Limits

Looking at the wedding Viennese table, scanning the extravagant delicacies, and watching everyone enjoy themselves. You can’t seem to decide whether you should take the chocolate fudge ice cream or the delicious chocolate and cream bar. You decide to try both.

Nowadays, many people are unable to control the quantity and quality of the food they ingest. They feel helpless that they do not have decent self control to restrain their desires. Others suffer physically from the excessive weight that result, and its effect on their health and figures.

Though this is partially caused due to the abundance of food which is available, it is really caused by a person’s own lack of self control. It is extremely difficult to restrain oneself from giving in to one’s desires, in this case, the desire for tasteful food.

Is it even possible to control one’s desires?

The Alter Rebbe in Tanya lays(1) ground for the fundamental principle with which one can learn to have complete control over his desires.

Applying the Chassidic term of “the mind governs the heart” allows everyone to physically apply what they intellectually understand they should do.

In our society, the way we often control strong desires that surface at the wrong times is through opposing them. For example, one may have a very strong desire to sleep late in the morning. However, he will force himself to ignore this desire, and get out of bed, because he does not want to be late to work.

We tend to use a similar logic when attempting to control our eating. We try to force our body to ignore its desire for sugar, carbs, sodium, etc. However, this method does not achieve effective results. One’s diet does not last for a long time in such a way.

The reason for this is because desires are very powerful. When one’s desires are not satiated, they turn into needs. When one’s needs aren’t met, a person develops a strong thirst for them.(2) This thirst will not be quenched until the person will succumb to his desires and fulfill them. Chassidus acknowledges the futility in this method of self-control and suggests a different approach as to how one should control his desires.(3)

The Methodology for Self-control According to Chassidus

Chassidus teaches us that the only way to fully control one’s unwanted desires is through redirecting them into wanted ones.

The Rebbe Rashab, in his famous, most lengthy Chassidic discourse that began on Shavuot 5674, 4 offers an explanation as to how one’s mind can direct his desires. The mind doesn’t force the person to act against his desires. The mind simply changes them.

The Rebbe(5) elaborates on how this is accomplished. The brain dominates over the entire body(6), including the heart and its desires, it has the power to produce desires which are intellectually based, and the heart will accept them. As it is known, desires are the motivations(7) for a person’s actions.(8) Chassidus suggests that we capture this force of motivation, and gear it to fulfill what the mind understands should be done.

Dominance. Not prominence.

Firstly, chassidus explains why the brain is the most dominant force in the human body. At times, it seems that our emotions and desires are more prominent since when they kick in; all intellectual reasoning is met with a brick wall. One tends to act instinctively, according to those emotions and desires.

The novelty that the Alter Rebbe introduces in Tanya(9) is that the brain is the ultimate authority over the body, even over the emotions. The brain has intrinsic power to control the entire body, just by virtue of being a human brain. It can rationalize and act accordingly, unlike the animal brain which processes and causes instinctive reactions. For example, animals will instinctively run away from fire or predators.

However, the human brain has the power to restrain its instinct.(10) A person may decide to fight back an attacker when he realizes that fleeing will not solve the problem, since the predator might chase him until he becomes weak. This quality of rational calculation causes the brain to dominate over the entire body, including the heart and its emotions.

Based on this, the Rashab(11) explains that the mind has the capacity to generate and control emotions. As mentioned above, the typical method of self-control is based on the fact that the heart decides one’s emotions and desires. The brain receives transmissions of these messages from the heart and cannot resist them for long.

While this is partially true, Chassidus takes this idea a step further. When the brain receives emotional transmissions from the heart, it has the capacity to decide what to do with them. The emotions become part of the brain, and can therefore be rationalized and evaluated.(12) For example, a person might have a strong desire to eat an entire pack of wafers. The brain will disapprove of this desire, because it understands that this is unhealthy and might cause harm to the body. This understanding creates a strong physical repulsion from eating it.

Realize what is happening here- the mind (intellect) generated a desire (emotion). In other words, the mind governed the heart. With this method a person can redirect any desires from being emotionally oriented into being intellectually oriented.

Practical Practice

With this understanding, every person has a clear directive how to restrain himself from overeating and indulging even when he has a very strong desire. It can be accomplished by applying the following steps:

a. He first understands the damage that overeating causes the body and, the benefits of being healthy.
b. This understanding produces a strong repulsion to overeating.
c. The dominant desire now becomes wanting to stay safe and healthy, and not overeat.
d. The act of controlling the desire for overeating is no longer a restraint of a basic need; rather it is the fulfillment of the new desire to stay safe.
e. The rationale is double fold, both negative and positive. The person realizes the harm in eating too much food, as well as how good and beneficial a healthy diet is. A person will not only eat healthy foods because he has to, but over time he will develop a taste for them and actually enjoy eating it.

To conclude, Chassidus is an extraordinary intellectual and life tool. It teaches us how to live a purposeful, controlled, and rational life. Through studying the teachings of the inner dimension of the Torah that G-d gave us, as explained in Chabad philosophy by our seven Rebbeim, we gain a clear understanding and a new perspective of how to face life’s challenges.

As seen above, by applying the Chassidic definition of “controlling one’s heart” to the struggle of overeating, it becomes very clear that controlling one’s desires is not a remote and difficult goal to attain, rather a process that everyone can undertake and accomplish.

Take a moment to consider the following. If just a couple of sources in chassidus explain this one small point, imagine the treasures that must lie in the many books of Chassidus. It could very well be that Chassidus holds the secrets with which man can overcome all of life’s challenges. It could very well be.

1) Tanya, ch.12
2) Toras Menachem 5716, 12 Tammuz, “Korah Shochav K’Ari, no. 3”
3) A well known Psychology practice suggests an approach similar to chassidus, called CBT-cognitive behavioral therapy in which one learns to understand his behavior hence changing the emotions that cause the behavior
4) Hemshech ayin beis, 5672, ch.2
5) Likutei Sichos, vol. 4, parshas shoftim.
6) Tanya, ch, 51
7) Thomas Hobbes
8) Hemshech ayin beis, ch. 51
9) Tanya. Ch. 51.
10) Igros Kodesh, Rebbe Rayatz, vol. 4, page.314
11) Hemshech ayin beis, ch.51
12) This is schel hashayach lemiddos