Everything is easier in life if we work as an integrated whole. Then, when we decide something we do it, when we tell the mind to focus it focuses, and when we say “no” to an impulse it subsides. When we live like this, no part of us is holding us back, or sabotaging us. We are our best friends.
This state of inner harmony, or self-leadership, is the goal of all personal development. I like to call it self-mastery, or self-discipline. Nobody arrives there accidentally—one must consciously seek it and consistently practice it.
Practice what? The cultivation of the higher mind.
The higher mind is the most evolved part of us—where our values, virtues, and aspirations live. In contrast, the lower mind is the more conditioned part of us, which is driven by impulses, emotions, fears, and reactive thinking.
In the metaphor of the chariot, the horses are the lower mind and the charioteer is the higher mind. The charioteer uses the two reigns (awareness and willpower) to control the horses, keeping them moving forward toward the destination. This is aligned with the concept of self-discipline in my book:
Self-discipline is living life in harmony with your values and aspirations.
The more I explore the chariot metaphor, the more I see how it is a great map for understanding everything in personal growth. In this article I’ll unpack what it can teach us about the different ways of taming our wild horses (the lower mind).
Awareness or Willpower?
Suppose that your lower mind is engaging in feelings of self-doubt, fear of failure, resentment, or any other self-defeating emotional pattern. Or perhaps it is operating out of a limiting belief, feeling attracted to the wrong things, procrastinating, getting lazy, or falling into a blackhole of confusion.
Do you overcome this state, and bring your horses back on track, by using the power of awareness or the power of your will?
Some schools of thought in therapy and personal development are all about awareness. They believe that willpower doesn’t work, and tend consider any expression of willpower toward oneself as an act of self-violence.
Other schools of thought are all about willpower. They believe that it’s the only thing that works, and that an awareness-based approach would be too soft to be effective, leaving one at the mercy of the whims of one’s horses.
Both are partially right, but too extremist in their approach. As it’s often the case, the answer is in the synthesis. We need to cultivate awareness and willpower, as they are both key aspects of our higher mind.
Feed your horse as a friend, mount him as an enemy.
— Croatian Proverb
So when should we use a gentle approach (awareness), and when should we use a tough-love approach (willpower) for taming our mind?
It depends on the nature of your horses.
Are your horses generally cooperative, or wild like an unruly child? If they are left to their own devices, will they just mildly go astray, or get into a lot of trouble and cause you pain? Will they prevent you from achieving your higher goals, or perhaps even break the chariot (body)?
The Four Types of Horses
In the book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki tells us the tale of four types of horses, as a metaphor for four types of students.
- The best horse moves as soon as he sees the shadow of the whip
- The second-best horse moves when he hears the crack of the whip mid-air
- The third-best horse moves when the whip gently touches his skin
- The worst horse only moves when the whip hits him hard
Likewise with our minds.
Maybe your lower mind just needs a gentle moment of awareness for it to align itself to your higher goals and values. Or perhaps it is so stubborn that it needs to be guided in a stronger way, repeatedly, until it learns.
The right choice may also vary from moment to moment, depending on what is going on in your inner world. But one thing is certain: if you are always only applying one of these core tools, something is likely missing.
The important thing to keep in mind, here, is that it is never about self-violence. It is never about beating oneself up. Whether you are using a gentler approach (awareness only) or a stronger approach (a spurt of willpower), the intention is always one of self-love.
You want your horses to be their best self, and your whole being to be moving to a wholesome direction. If you choose to be hard on yourself, it is because you care about your goals, and are committed to your values. Otherwise—to stretch the metaphor—it is just animal cruelty.
The Willpower-First Approach
In an willpower approach, you produce a strong intention about what you want your mind to do, and communicate it clearly. Here are some examples:
- “Mind, don’t go there…” (when your mind has been emotionally triggered)
- “Mind, it’s now time for meditation. You should remain completely focused, moment after moment. Don’t think of anything else.”
- “Mind, I know you don’t want to do this, but it will be good for us. Do it.”
- “Yes, this is painful, but I can do it!”
- “I’m not afraid, I’m excited.”
- These thoughts are not true. Let them go.”
The famous quote by Van Gogh exemplifies a willpower approach to dealing with self-doubt:
“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint’, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”
— Vincent van Gogh
His horses wanted him to go left, but his higher mind wanted to go right, and that was stronger. He painted.
Willpower is our capacity to coach ourselves, to shift our state so that we are more aligned to our values and long-term goals. It is the power that we have to do what will be most beneficial, even when there is competing stimuli pulling us the other way. Most techniques of Mindful Self-Discipline involve a dose of willpower.
It’s not that you will need to use willpower always. Once you have tamed the wild horses of your mind toward a particular behavior, they will be your friend and cooperate—so treat them with love and respect. This reminds me of the movie scene from Frozen 2, where Elza successfully tames the wild water horse, and after that they were friends and the water horse would help her whenever she called.
The Awareness-First Approach
A gentler approach is to first earn the friendship and trust of the lower mind, through loving inner dialog. This approach is useful especially when the horses are more powerful than you, or when they readily cooperate and don’t need a heavy hand.
“A horse doesn’t care how much you know, until he knows how much you care.”
— Pat Parelli
I once heard a story from Swami Niranjanananda that well illustrates this point.
A king was gifted four strong horses. They were beautiful but wild, and nobody was able to control them. Many expert tamers had come, failed as soon as they tried, and left defeated. Eventually, one man came to the king and said that if he gave him one year of time, he would tame the horses. The king agreed.
This man lived together with the horses, paying close attention to them, and doing everything together with the horses. In a few days he tried touching them but they didn’t allow him. He walked back and didn’t try anymore.
Every day he would place food close to the horses, without trying to get too close or do anything to them. Gradually he began placing the food closer and closer, as they were getting used to his presence and began trusting him.
After some time he tried again gently placing his hand on the horses. They didn’t like it, but eventually allowed it. Then he tried putting a saddle on them; they didn’t like it, but eventually got used to it. Finally he tried to sit on them; they made some noises in protest, but didn’t stop him. After some time they got used to that too. Eventually, he was able to ride them, and they also enjoyed that.
Like this he gradually gained the trust of the horses. They got to know him as someone who would care for them, play fair, and ride them respectfully.
Feed the wild horses of your mind, and give them space to be. Fulfill their healthy needs. Earn their trust, by showing you have their best interests at heart. Then they will let you guide them, and everyone will be happy.
The Integrative Approach
In the willpower-first approach, you start with power, and later get to love.
In the awareness-first approach, you start with love and service, then later gain power.
They are both useful and effective, depending on the nature of your horses. In the end, we want the lower mind to act in perfect harmony with the higher mind—and to do that because they are part of the same team.
When the charioteer has the horses’ best interests in mind, it earns the right to control them, for the benefit of the whole system.
The concept of cultivating the higher mind underpins all my work—even though I have only recently started using this term.
For a deep dive into this methodology, you can read my books:
- Mindful Self-Discipline for learning many techniques to strengthen your higher mind in the process of pursuing and achieving your life goals
- Wise Confidence for the path of self-transformation in which your higher mind creates a vision for the person you want to be, and transforms the lower mind accordingly
Whether you are focused on achieving a particular goal, transforming yourself, or growing spiritually, the process will always involve the cultivation of your higher mind. Then your horses will be your best friend, rather than your worst enemy.