In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) there is a passage that reads: “Ben Zoma said: Who is strong? He who conquers his evil inclination, as it says, ‘. . . he who masters his passions is better than one who conquers a city.’” The message here is clear: dealing with and changing negative behavior is extremely difficult. Why does discipline and self-control need so much strength?

The mystics explain that two forces operate on every one of us—the animal soul and the divine soul. The animal soul is the source of our ego, and encourages hedonism, aggression, laziness and emptiness. The divine soul is the source of moral reasoning and spiritual consciousness. It inspires an awareness of a higher purpose, and gives us the ability to think rationally and objectively, making decisions for ethical behavior and giving appropriate responses to everyday experiences.

The animalistic force is quick . . . the divine soul is intellectualEach soul has its own dominant force. The animal soul is driven by instincts that are highly emotional, whereas the divine soul is dominated by the power of intellect and reason. Both souls fight for control of the person. Both struggle to shape our personality and define our identity.

This is where the challenge of self-control lies. The animalistic force is quick. It is emotional and instinctive, and prompts a very swift response. The divine soul is intellectual. It needs time to cognitively process the appropriate and moral response. So, when we are insulted, or provoked, or presented with temptations and ethical dilemmas, the immediate response will be the feelings generated by the instincts and explosive emotions of the animal soul. We are tempted to get angry or do the wrong thing before we give the moral reason a chance.

Self-control, therefore, needs the incredible strength of restraint. It requires holding back for just a few seconds between the things that happen to us and our response, creating a little space to think and process the point of view of the divine voice. It is what Stephen Covey calls the “pause button between the stimulus and the response.”

We need to train ourselves not to act quickly and instinctively. We need to use the unique ability of the human being to stop and ask ourselves the question: is this wrong or right? It takes amazing strength to wait a few seconds, but those few seconds can be the difference between an animalistic act and a divine one.

Next time you are faced with a challenge, give yourself a few seconds for the voice of the soul to be heard.