“Rule your mind or it will rule you”

I recently found this quote, “Rule your mind or it will rule you,” in a note I’d made to myself over five years ago. (How time flies!) It was posted by a woman I used to follow on the now-defunct (and for me, much-lamented) social media site Google+.

The quote isn’t at all in the style of the Buddhist scriptures, which made me suspicious. Actually I was more than suspicious; I was certain it wasn’t from the Buddha. The style is far too polished and literary, while the Buddhist scriptures tend to be rather clunky.

It only took a few minutes on Google to discover that the true author was (more or less) the Roman poet, Horace, or, to give him his full name, Quintus Horatius Flaccus. It’s derived from a letter he wrote to a friend called Lollius Maximus.

In Latin (and in context) it’s

Ira furor brevis est; animum rege, qui, nisi paret, imperat; hunc frenis, hunc tu compesce catena.

In an 1870  translation by R.M. Millington the quote takes the following form:

Rage is brief madness; so, then, for it is or the slave or lord. Restrain the mind with bridle and with chain.

That “or … or …” construction (presumably corresponding to “either … or …”) sounds very archaic and strange to the modern ear. The title of that book is “The Epistles of Horace in Rhythmic Prose, for the Student.”

H. P. Haughton’s translation (in “The Classical Student’s Translation of Horace,” from 1844), is also rather archaic:

Ire is a brief fury; rule you your mind; which unless it obeys, commands. This do you restrain with curbs, this do you restrain with a chain.

Interestingly, the style there (especially the final sentence) is much closer to what you’ll find in the early Buddhist scriptures.

A more modern translation of the same passage (from David Ferry’s 2001 “The Epistles of Horace”) has:

…A fit of rage
Is a fit of honest-to-goodness genuine madness.
Keep control of your passions. If you don’t,
Your passions are sure to get control of you.
Keep control of them, bridle them, keep them in chains.

I believe the origin of the version we’re discussing here is a 1926 edition of “Putnam’s Complete Book of Quotations, Proverbs and Household Words,” edited by William Gurney Benham. There the quote is given, on page 490, as

Animum rege, qui, nisi paret,
Rule your mind, which, unless it is your servant, is your master.
Horace, Ep., 2, Part 1

Now that’s not the same as the quote in question, which is actually from the index of the book, where references to the actual quotes are arranged by theme. “Rule your mind or it will rule you” is found twice, under “Inclination” and also under “Mind.” The wording given is not meant to be a translation of Horace, but rather a summary of what Horace was saying. In fact the index suggests that this paraphrase also applies to another quote, on page 559, but unfortunately the version of Putnam that I consulted had that page missing (!) so I don’t yet know what other author had expressed the same thought. So “Rule your mind or it will rule you” is a summary or paraphrase of Horace, rather than a direct translation.

Over the next few decades, however, the paraphrase in the index has often been presented as a quote from Horace.

I can’t think of anything the Buddha said that’s a direct parallel to this paraphrase, although he did sometimes compare spiritual training to training an animal. For example in two verses of the Dhammapada he says:

322. Excellent are well-trained mules, thoroughbred Sindhu horses and noble tusker elephants. But better still is the man who has subdued himself.

323. Not by these mounts, however, would one go to the Untrodden Land (Nibbana), as one who is self-tamed goes by his own tamed and well-controlled mind.

In the Anguttara Nikaya he says,

Monks, I know not of any other single thing so conducive to great loss as the untamed mind. The untamed mind indeed conduces to great loss.

Monks, I know not of any other single thing so conducive to great profit as the tamed mind. The tamed mind indeed conduces to great profit.

Another verse from the Dhammapada has:

42. Whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, or a hater to a hater, an ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm.

So the Buddha seems to have had in mind an understanding not that different from Horace’s, but he doesn’t seem to have expressed it in the same way.

In an extended metaphor, the Buddha said that six wild animals tied together would try to go off in different directions, the overall direction of the six depending on the competing desires and relative strengths of the different beasts. This represents the mind, divided and pulled hither and thither by competing urges arising in the various senses.

Mindfulness acts like a stake to which the six are tied:

“Just as if a person, catching six animals of different ranges, of different habitats, were to bind them with a strong rope. Catching a snake, he would bind it with a strong rope. Catching a crocodile… a bird… a dog… a hyena… a monkey, he would bind it with a strong rope. Binding them all with a strong rope, he would tether them to a strong post or stake.

“Then those six animals, of different ranges, of different habitats, would each pull toward its own range & habitat. The snake would pull, thinking, ‘I’ll go into the anthill.’ The crocodile would pull, thinking, ‘I’ll go into the water.’ The bird would pull, thinking, ‘I’ll fly up into the air.’ The dog would pull, thinking, ‘I’ll go into the village.’ The hyena would pull, thinking, ‘I’ll go into the charnel ground.’ The monkey would pull, thinking, ‘I’ll go into the forest.’ And when these six animals became internally exhausted, they would stand, sit, or lie down right there next to the post or stake. In the same way, when a monk whose mindfulness immersed in the body is developed & pursued, the eye does not pull toward pleasing forms, and unpleasing forms are not repellent. The ear does not pull toward pleasing sounds… The nose does not pull toward pleasing aromas… The tongue does not pull toward pleasing flavors… The body does not pull toward pleasing tactile sensations… The intellect does not pull toward pleasing ideas, and unpleasing ideas are not repellent. This, monks, is restraint.”

If you watch your mind for any length of time in meditation, you’ll notice that it does in fact dart here and there. Staying with the object of the meditation (e.g. the sensations of the breathing) is exceedingly difficult! Mindfulness allows us to notice when the mind has gone this way or that, and to bring it back to the breathing. Since many of the thoughts to which the mind would turn, if unrestrained, would reinforce anxiety, anger, self-doubt, etc., we find ourselves calmer and happier. A mind compassionately and mindfully restrained is a happy mind.

3 thoughts on ““Rule your mind or it will rule you””

  1. This seems to have a new life recently in a mash-up with William Thackeray:

    “The world is a looking glass. It gives back to every man a true reflection of his own thoughts. Rule your mind or it will rule you.”
    — Buddha

    1. Interesting. The Thackeray quote in full, from Vanity Fair, is “The world is a looking glass and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face [NOT “thoughts”]. Frown at it and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it and it is a jolly kind companion.” I’ll certainly write this one up! Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.