Lead me not into temptation, for I know the way
Most of us know what we wish to be and do. Yet, we are occasionally tugged away from our path by temptation. It comes to us in many forms. We may be enticed to gossip instead of working, watch TV instead of cleaning the house, or hang out in the pub with friends, instead of studying for an exam. The surest way to be nothing is to do nothing. Conversely, the surest way to be something is to do something.
Temptation is a fork in the road. When it beckons, it says, “Come follow me and I will make you less than what you can be.” But when we decline to follow it, we make ourselves more than what we are; we make ourselves stronger. For as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “We gain the strength of the temptation we resist.” So, temptation is a blessing, for it is an opportunity to grow stronger and practice integrity by being true to ourselves.
Overcoming temptation is possible and worthwhile. When you make it a habit, you are liberating yourself from enslavement by negative behavior. The whole world opens up. You find you can soar like an eagle and accomplish your dreams. So, how do we overcome temptation? The following techniques will help.
1. How can we improve if we are in the habit of acting without thinking? The first step in overcoming any bad habit is to become aware of our thoughts. In this case, when temptation strikes, we need to be aware of it. Once we are aware, we can consciously decide on what action to take. Many of us, however, are not in the habit of being aware of our thoughts. We act as robots, allowing our thoughts to control our actions. But when we are aware of our thoughts and control them, we are free to create the life we want to live. The best way to learn to be aware of your thoughts is to practice meditation. That is, just sit still and consciously observe the thoughts flowing through your mind. Observe them without being judgmental or reacting to them. Just be an observer. If you regularly set aside 20 minutes to practice, you will become skillful at being aware of your thoughts throughout the day.
2. The next time you are aware of the presence of temptation, ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?” If I succumb, how will I benefit? If I cave in, will I later regret it? The mere act of reflecting on the pros and cons will weaken temptation’s grip on you. Once you realize the lure of temptation is harmful, dismiss the thought and get back to what you were doing. The less we focus on a particular thought, the weaker it becomes. So, when temptation comes knocking, be aware of it; question it; dismiss it, and get on with life. Another way to put it is: instead of fighting your thoughts, merely observe them. For example, if you find yourself craving a cigarette, you could say to yourself, “That’s interesting, I’m suddenly craving a cigarette. I wonder what triggered that desire. Is it stress, my body’s desire for a “fix” of nicotine, the time of day, or something I just heard or saw?” Observing and analyzing your thoughts will help neutralize their power over you.
3. Another approach is to immediately replace the negative enticing thought or behavior with a positive thought or action. In a word, think of or do something else, something useful. Craving a cigarette? Get up and do some sit-ups or drink some water instead!
4. Temptation gains its power by linking itself with an emotion. You need to remove the emotional hook. For example, instead of thinking about the temporary pleasure temptation is dangling before you, reflect on the pain you will later experience should you give in to it. That extra piece of cake may be pleasurable now, but how will you feel after gaining weight and entrenching a bad habit?
5. Avoid the trap of promising yourself to act correctly later. Instead of saying, “I know that extra piece of cake isn’t good for me, but it’s just for today. Tomorrow, I will cut out cake altogether.” If you give in to your craving, you are doing more than eating a piece of cake. You are also strengthening a bad habit, which will become even more difficult to break tomorrow.
6. Respect the adage, “An idle brain is the devil’s workshop.” In other words, keep busy. Idle time is an opening for temptation. I’m not suggesting that you should never relax. Not at all. But relaxation or recreation is the reward we give ourselves AFTER we perform our duties. They are not meant to be a substitute for work or responsibilities.
7. Are our jobs and obligations exciting or boring? The answer to that question depends on ourselves. It depends on our attitude and view of life. If we choose to see our responsibilities as thrilling opportunities, how can we be tempted to stray? But should we persist in viewing our duties as tedious, we are inviting temptation to call on us. So, a change of attitude may be called for.
8. A change in our way of thinking may also be necessary. We may have some false beliefs that need to be changed. You have false beliefs if you find yourself saying things like, “I can’t resist temptation. I was born this way and can’t change. It’s too late to change.” When such thoughts occur, immediately challenge them. For example, it should be obvious the statement that you can’t resist temptation is untrue. Of course you can resist it. You may not want to because you are focusing on immediate gratification instead of long-term benefits. Or you may simply find it difficult (not impossible) to resist because you have already established a bad habit. By questioning your assumptions you will have the opportunity to correct the errors in your thinking and make changes for the better. It may not be easy, but you can do it. Remember, it’s not easy to get to work on time every day, but you do, don’t you?
9. Common sense suggests that if we wish to overcome temptation, we need to avoid situations that force us to confront it. If you’re trying to give up smoking, does it make sense to spend the coffee break with your friend who is a smoker? Wouldn’t it be wiser to hang out with nonsmokers?
10. What is it that you want to be and do? What are your goals? If you make it a habit to focus on your aspirations for a few minutes every day, you will find it much easier to resist temptation’s call. Focus on what you want to be instead of what you want to have (which is a few minutes of temporary pleasure).
I’ll close by paraphrasing the early Sufi Master, Abdullah Ansari (1006-1089): If thou canst walk on water, thou art no better than a straw. If thou canst fly in the air, thou art no better than a fly. But if thou canst resist temptation, thou canst conquer the universe.