Restraint as Presence: How it Positions us to Lead

The Battle Within

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The Roman philosopher Seneca[1] tells us that “fear keeps pace with hope.” He adds that this should not surprise us because “each belongs to a mind in suspense, a mind hanging on what the future might bring.” Thus, our greatest advantage as a species, our foresight, “is turned to a disadvantage.” 

Moderation in all things is a theme in Stoic philosophy. It’s a calming attitude. It’s attuned to the unease aroused by anxiety and unconscious desires. It operates in the background of our mind. It’s awakened by a somatic awareness of tension and mental-emotional feelings of distress or confusion.   

Sixteen hundred years later, Spinoza, in early modernity, rekindles the Stoic interest in emotions. He cautions us in his ethics about preoccupations (worries, fears, desires) that pull us into the future, dulling us to the living now. It disrupts our capacities to know what is true, good, right.

A Universal Theme

In the East, Buddha, like his Western counterpart, Socrates, was seeking to discover what is real, good, and true in human experience. Buddha’s insights and instructional guidance were captured in cannons and taught by a “priesthood”, whereas Socrates’ legacy was a dialogical moral philosophy. 

Neither was black-and-white in their teachings (although Buddhism became a more doctrinal tradition). Both believed that enlightenment and living a good life is an experiential journey. Socrates emphasized rigorous rational-ethical inquiry, while for Buddha a discipline of meditation was central. 

For both there was a social context. It was a sangha (spiritual community) for Buddha and the polis for Socrates. Equanimity (Buddha) and an attitude of not-knowing[2] (Socrates) were the mind states they encouraged. My point: Both cultural traditions encouraged moderation, restraint. 

Cultural Differences and Pathways

Arguably, the Western tradition is the more active of the two. But both believe mere activity is fruitless. It is through calming our passions and clear, considered judgment that we’re able to see and understand what is really happening. In this situation the True, Good, and Right become manifest. 

In this state of mind, with manifest truths before us, we are much more likely to be en-couraged to act in accordance with the truth. We are more likely, too, to see how the True, Good, and Right converge to inform our conduct, to help us see what we owe to one another, and how we must live.

In psychotherapy and group dynamics, we learn that we must trust the process, not try to force the agenda. It is similar in these traditions of reflective restraint. If we simply trust the power of a clear, calm, open mind to see, and to be properly moved by what is seen, things usually work out.


[1] Seneca was a Stoic philosopher, born in 5 BC and died in 65 AD. Stoic philosophy emphasized balance as a virtue, and sought, in the Socratic tradition, to live a life of moderation that also to live in peace with Nature.

[2] For Socrates it was our capacity for openness and our readiness to accept our ignorance (not-knowing) that was critical to the search for truth, especially concerning how to live the good life.