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Repression without reflection plays havoc with the soul

By - Nov 30, 2009 - Category Practice - Print Print - Version française

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Repressive policy: no compromise allowed with the imperious self

The process of self-perfection, for Ostad Elahi, consists mainly in practising ethics. If I wish to perfect myself, I must see to it that the way I behave and whatever I do, say, or even think, be ethical. That sounds gigantic; it is, however, what we should be heading for. After all, perfecting oneself means nothing other than striving to achieve such a high goal.

Having actually started practising, very soon we come to realise that ethical work involves, in the first place, battling against oneself. To work means to make efforts. When we talk about making efforts to be ethical, we cannot go on living with our acquired educational habits and natural disposition, we must seek to change what we are, with a view to self-improvement.

So, ethical work, to begin with, consists in pushing back or restraining the impulses emanating from what Ostad Elahi calls the imperious self. It means, for instance, holding back the piece of slander or disparaging comment that comes to my mind about someone I have been wronged by; or holding in check the side glance I’d like to cast at someone else’s mail, the indiscreet question surging upon my lips, or the piece of gossip I’d like to spread in order to attract attention, or to swallow my pride and accept genuinely a justified criticism, and so on.

But ethical work is not confined to holding back from doing wrong; it also calls for doing good whenever we can : helping others materially, psychologically and even spiritually; being positive, courageous, active and useful in our social life, feeling grateful for what we have been given etc., and here again, since it is all about ethical work and going beyond what we are spontaneously inclined to do, we are faced with a new kind of constraint, a reversed repression of some sort: we must bolster our ethical awareness and counter the native sluggishness of our disposition that neutralises most of our positive energy and keeps us from doing what we ought to do: compel ourselves to help others out of a sense of duty, even if we don’t feel like it; assert our rights instead of renouncing them through weakness or cowardice; force ourselves to act and find solutions, even though we feel despondent; stop mulling over black thoughts in our mind, etc.

Anyhow, in those moments when our worst self imperiously asserts itself, making us feel either aggressive or despondent, we should in no way try to argue or reason with it, since the slightest onset of negotiation would prove fatal. Through sheer willpower, we must hold on and concentrate our strength on barring the way to the imperious self, which must be muted, disabled and compelled to retreat, even if we have to do it ruthlessly.

Strategic reflection: a successful complement to repression

At the highest moments of conflict with our imperious self, a repressive attitude is undoubtedly needed, but it is far from being sufficient, or even fully effective, since no matter how hard we try, the impulse will come back, either in the same form or in some other guise. For instance, under the influence of the moral education I have received, I may restrain myself from speaking, or even thinking negatively of a person whom I dislike and whose behaviour jars on me. But repressing a negative feeling is one thing and to get rid of it is quite another. If the same person happens, one day, to behave more jarringly than usual, it would be a safe bet to predict that all the accumulated, pent-up negative feelings will burst out with aggravated intensity. Another example: through sheer willpower, one can force oneself to say positive things always, and never give voice to any complaint. But if one leaves it at that, the imperious self will eventually find another way to assert itself, making you feel depressed, for instance, or discouraged, or crushed by a sense of universal injustice, or conversely, turning you into a fanatic, counting yourself superior to anyone who puts out negative statements. When we work on ourselves, we should not take at their face value the outbursts of the imperious self, but we should regard them as so many signs of some inner malfunctioning that needs to be set right. Constantly complaining and being pessimistic, for example, could be symptoms of a deeper disorder not readily detectable : it may conceal a tendency to entertain unfounded expectations from others, or too high an opinion of one’s merits. Here are some more examples that will help to clear up the point under discussion:

  • I feel like saying nasty things about a particular person; I know it is unethical, so I hold back and successfully repress that negative urge. I then analyze my reaction and, looking for the causes of the impulse, I realise that I have been driven by the desire to reciprocate the sarcastic remarks that person had taunted me with, while I stood silent. At the time, I thought I had been able to bear his sarcasm with great equanimity and I felt I really was above it all. The truth is that I had been injured, but too weak and timorous to answer back, so I occulted the injury and pushed it out of my mind. The realization of this “truth” helped me discover a trait in my character I was not aware of. Now that I have acknowledged this, I can make up for it and eventually improve myself. Whenever I repress the desire to say nasty things about that person, I do it in full consciousness of the situation. I imagine the indignity of holding a grudge against someone and act revengefully afterwards, behind his back, and that helps me to hold back my impulse. Besides, I am working on trying to eliminate the cause of my problem: a lack of self-confidence.
  • I have decided to improve my relationship with my husband, and particularly to stop constantly criticizing him, a fact which in the long run, has introduced a negative element in our conjugal life. After a while, I found myself in an unbearable predicament: I did refrain from voicing any objection, but it didn’t reduce the instances open to criticism and I kept noticing them. So much so that I came to develop a kind of resentment towards my husband, and that, obviously, did not make him change his behaviour, whereas on my side, I was making superhuman efforts to avoid being unpleasant. The solution dawned on me the day I asked myself the right question: how is it that I have this permanent urge to criticise my husband? I realised, then, that in relation to him, I have always had a sense of superiority which made me blind to my own shortcomings. From then on, when I repress the desire to criticise him, I do it with full awareness. I go over the list of my own lapses in my mind – you, who never do this or that yourself, what right do you have to expect such and such effort from him? – that helps me contain myself. I also take pains to eradicate the root of my problem – a native feeling of superiority – and develop the qualities of forbearance and forgiveness.

It is clear, however, that repressing our impulses does not consist in driving them back automatically; rather, they should be neutralised, as in chemistry, when the effect of a substance is counteracted by another substance that modifies its molecular qualities. From such pragmatic struggling, several positive results are to be expected:

  • Our contending with the imperious self is more forceful when we don’t go against it blindly, using sheer repression; we know why we are doing it and to what purpose, and that gives us great strength.
  • We are immune from the damaging side-effects of pure repression such as frustration, depression, etc.
  • It provides us with a new outlook on the various manifestations of the imperious self, which are actually useful symptoms, helping our progress towards self-knowledge. Far from being disabled by feelings of shame and guilt, we may even feel elated when we come to discover, at the root of our irrational urges, some unexpected traits of character that would, otherwise, have remained hidden.
  • The field of our consciousness is further extended, allowing us to perceive actually the dynamic link between ethical practice and self-knowledge.
  • Although it remains a continuous struggle, the struggle is not centered on the destruction of an inner enemy, but on the building up of a more healthy, mature and solid self.


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14 comments

  1. ramin Dec 01, 2009 5:29 am 1

    Thank you for this great article, very palpable as far as the examples are concerned and very well written.

  2. Orlando :) Dec 01, 2009 9:22 pm 2

    As applicable and pragmatic everything on this website is, this specific article has truly stood out. For the first time, I feel like there is a rational approach to suppressing our irrational desires. My biggest problem has been exactly what is mentioned here: the imperious self reintroducing that desire in a clever new way which often involves deceit. But I never thought of sitting down and REFLECTING upon those groundless desires. Maybe it was out of laziness or feeling like repression was sufficient, which it seemingly is at the time, but just the mere thought of contemplating and engaging in full assessment of my imperious self’s impulses makes me understand the process of fully practicing ethics in society.

    Thank You.

  3. Tiara Dec 02, 2009 4:04 am 3

    The other day walking in a sculpture garden and thinking about this article, I came upon the famous statue by Rodin, The Thinker. I can still see it in my mind: a beautiful green lawn, a narrow path and suddenly there it was. an imposing black figure sitting on a stool and thinking with his hand under his chin.
    I found this incident very telling. I realized I don’t analyze my motives, thoughts, actions, words, etc … In other words, I don’t think enough. No I shouldn’t say this. I do think countless hours about various things: planning a vacation, making an investment, what to make for dinner … I just hate to delve within myself. Maybe this is a symptom of our modern times; there is not enough time to devote to introspection. Maybe it is too painful to try and figure out our shortcomings or weaknesses. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
    After encountering “The Thinker” I also realized that I should be a thinker in life, just like the statue. I was also very sorry to have missed all these opportunities to go beyond the surface of events and things and know myself better; all these wasted situations, lessons, efforts.
    Well, hopefully it will be different from now on. It will be hard to be more contemplative and less rushed but then this is also a chance to learn to be patient.

  4. Banoo Dec 10, 2009 12:42 am 4

    Thank you so much for such a clarifying article. I generally feel “satisfied” when I am successful in restraining my imperious desires. As a result, I do not question my behaviour any further until my imperious self catches me off guard, or until it somehow sneaks upon me through other symptoms such as being aggressive toward other people. Your article explains how and why this happens and most importantly it reveals how one can neutralise the never ending impulses of the imperious self.
    I understand now that practicing repression alone is not enough; one must take the process a step further and search for the “real reasons” of one’s unethical behaviour. I found the examples extremely helpful. The concept of neutralisation works very positive for me and I find the expected results very rewarding.

  5. Max Farsh Dec 14, 2009 6:39 pm 5

    Thank you for your wonderful article. I agree with the five summary bullet points, it is explained rationally and is very applicable. However from my own experience, I believe there is an important point that is transparent in these bullets with regards to overcoming the imperious self.

    In order to be victorious in what the author rightfully calls the continuous struggle and overcome a negative quality of our being, my own experience and readings make it clear that the divine favor and grace of God is a necessity. Without it, the imperious self usually wins out. This might be a simple and subtle point, but I believe it has the most weight. Of course the author of the article has elucidated our part in this struggle in a succinct and effective manner.

  6. Juneone Dec 17, 2009 8:38 pm 6

    I truly needed this.

    A question for fellow readers on the subject quoted in section 2 bullet point 1: If, after realizing that they were being negatively impacted by the exposure to this sarcastic person, made a choice to avoid them, would they be shortchanging their developmental process? Would that be akin to letting the imperious self win, even if they were aware of why they were doing it, and aware of the work that needs to be done?

  7. Roxanne Dec 19, 2009 2:06 am 7

    It is amazing how this valuable article helps me understand the origin of my frustration; my encounters with the outside world usually bounce back and forth between two states of mind: either too aggressive or too silent but resentful and pessimistic. I never realized prior reading this article that these are two sides of the same coin (Pride, which is the most poweful tool of imperious self).

  8. Laura Dec 28, 2009 1:39 am 8

    I realized that overcoming the impulses of the imperious self can be much more efficient in the long run, when I have a better understanding of the situation or when I identify the causes of my frustrations. Thanks for this article which opens up another perspective in which reflection is pointed out as a necessary complement to repression.

  9. KV Apr 02, 2010 3:17 pm 9

    I must say that was an excellent article, thank you. The specific and concrete examples provided were very, very helpful. Also, the idea of the various manifestations of the imperious self as useful ‘symptoms’ helping our progress towards self-knowledge has really opened my eyes to another facet of the struggle against the imperious self.

  10. neuro Jun 19, 2010 5:55 pm 10

    This is a wonderful article–extremely relevant.
    It is very hard for me to understand how to neutralize certain aspects of my imperious self other than just using self-suggestion. When it strikes me very hard, I feel powerless to stop it and unfortunately self-suggestion doesnt work in these extreme cases. This article has made me realize that sometimes the root of the problem is not obvious and requires a lot of reflection. Once I realize the source of the problem, it becomes easier to plan how to defend myself against the whims of the imperious self.

  11. Eileen Aug 09, 2011 8:45 pm 11

    Thank you for providing such an indepth analysis. For a great many years and up to the present time, I have had great difficulities understanding the strategies of the/my Imperious Self. I believe I fit into the categories illustrated by the two examples in the two bullet points cited above (in the second section of the article).

    However, for most of my life, I’ve also experienced a lack of self-confidence, feelings of despondence, etc.

    To reiterate a question cited by Neuro, what are the steps to NEUTRALIZE the manifestations of my imperious self? I still don’t know how to approach this. I can understand that doing something good can help—for example, when someone says things against you (see Ostad Elahi’s “100 Maxims”). And, to refresh our memory, quoting from Max Farsh’s commentary: “….The divine favor and grace of God is a necessity. Without it, the imperious self usually wins out…”.

    These points noted, I find myself attempting to repress my Imperious Self. Usually I try to remember to ask for God’s help, have a positive thought or even say prayer at the moment when my Imperious Self tries to ensnare me. Is this the way to neutralize the Imperious Self? If anyone has any ideas on this, I would appreciate their thoughts.

    My gratitude to whomever reads this. Thank you.

  12. k Aug 10, 2011 1:01 am 12

    I am very skeptical about this article (that is I think there are mistakes in it). Another day I have to write a long comment with my arguments for why I think so – by using references. One of my arguments is that I think too much “strategic thinking” is itself imperious self (the imaginative faculty).

    @Eileen: I have not read all the other comments for this post so I am not commenting on your comments on other’s comments.
    But about the imperious self: I think the most important thing is first to understand what the imperious self is! Maybe you should read chapter 37 in The Path of Perfection. This article has also helped me:
    http://www.e-ostadelahi.com/eoe-en/the-imperious-self/

  13. M.M Aug 01, 2012 6:00 am 13

    Very clarifying article. thank you! Having been raised in a society where culture immersed with traditional spirituality, being reminded of the advantages of the use of strategic thinking is always beneficial.

    @Eileen: As I understand, we can never conquer the imperious self without God’s help. So, categorically you are right. But God helps us when he sees we make effort in our own capacity. In other words we have to deserve it.

  14. aadi Aug 11, 2012 1:19 am 14

    Help is overabundant. Yet I don’t even ask for it.

    Why is that ?

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