Monday, March 9, 2009

Importance of control and restraint

The wheel was a path-breaking invention. The wheel, however, might not have been as useful if not for the invention of brakes and gears that help us control movement. The wheel made locomotion plausible but brakes regulated this motion. The defining quality of any system is probably based on the degree of control one can exercise on it. In karate, up to the black belt stage, the discipline and regimen is for strengthening the body and speeding up reflexes. Thereafter, all subsequent degrees are attained by perfecting self-control and restraint. In evolution, life forms have been empowered incrementally as they progress through stages. Human beings have the power of control, of temperance and restraint, and the ability to think beyond the self. Physiologically, higher centres in the brain have been given the responsibility of inhibition to maintain restrictive control on lower centres of the brain and spine. In spinal injuries, when the lower motor neurons are disconnected from the higher centres and they fire without control, it leads to reflex movements of the limbs, spasm of the muscles and so on. Though movement occurs, it is involuntary, uncontrolled and purposeless. The evolved brain can store large amounts of data. The data helps in generating a response transcending reflexive and programmed patterns. The ability to rise above reflex behaviour seems to be the summit of the evolutionary pyramid. Olympian Carl Lewis once explained the reason for his spectacular achievement: "I have mastered the art of self-denial". Behaviour that rises above the primitive reflexes forms the essence of culture and sophistication. All religions have a set of behavioural restrictions like fasting, celibacy and observing silence. These restrictions help the individual increase his will power, temperance, self-control and discipline. Some religions talk about renunciation. But renunciation eliminates choice. So it is probably indulgence in abstinence. The swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction charged with the potential energy to swing back to indulgence. It may also reflect a subconscious fear of lack of self-control. Like the instance of the guru, who was invited for a meal by his disciple. Whilst the other devotees were served on plantain leaves, the guru was served on silverware as a mark of reverence. The guru however was offended and walked off as he was a renunciate. He may as well have eaten in the silverware. If he was no longer in any mundane bondage, there ought to have been no distinction between silver and leaves. In reproductive behaviour, too, human beings have the freedom to choose. Any control is self-imposed. This self-control is the evolutionary upgrade. It is as if the remote control which operates all other animals has been substituted by a sharp discriminatory ability which bestows free will. In Hindu culture, it is called vivek buddhi. The intellect of discrimination. Free will reflects the ability to restrain rather than indulge. If indulgence was the purpose, all actions would have been reflexive, with scarce regard to volition. Exercising restraint requires a higher form of intelligence. Indulgence required neither skill nor intellect. And renunciation relied more on extremism. Ailments like obesity, alcoholism, hypertension and diabetes, when they are lifestyle-related, point to the diminishing self-regulatory process. Affluence has given man the opportunity to indulge like never before. Austerity is facing extinction. Patience, contentment are no longer virtues but are relegated to mere words. All catastrophes like global warming, nuclear threat and poverty are merely a reflection of our ever-increasing inclination for indulgence.

(The writer is a consultant neurosurgeon.) Email:

No comments: