Practising Titiksha with marshmallows

In a experiment conducted in the 1970s by a Stanford professor Walter Mischel, children were tested for their ability to resist the temptation to eat a marshmallow (“deferred gratification” as the pros call it).  As the children grew up into adults, Mischel discovered that the children who had successfully resisted the temptation were also the ones who went on to achieve academic and professional success.   Although the study is never cited to be so, it is actually proof of the validity of Titiksha(forbearance), which is a foundational practice in the path of Yoga.

…For there was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently…

(Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing)

In the marshmallow experiment conducted with about 600 children (see the video below), Mischel asked each child to sit alone in a room with a dish containing a marshmallow or some other treat.  The children were told that they were free to eat the marshmallow, but if they waited for fifteen minutes until the instructor returned, they would get another marshmallow.  About a third of the children waited for the full fifteen minutes, while the rest ate the treat before the instructor returned.

In the subsequent years, Mischel noticed that the children who were failing in school were the same ones who had quickly consumed the marshmallow.  After about a decade, he discovered that the children who had waited for the second marshmallow had out-performed by more than 200 points on the SAT test (a standardized test administered for college admissions in the USA).   In subsequent follow-up studies,  it was found that the kids who had waited had become competent professionals with a higher annual income.

Carolyn Weisz and her brother were two of the children who had participated in that experiment.  Carolyn, who had resisted the temptation to eat for the fifteen minutes, is today a Professor of Psychology at University of Puget Sound while her brother Craig, who swallowed the marshmallow immediately, now works in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles.   The New Yorker article “Don’t! The secret of self-control” linked below contains the full story (see [1]).

In a recent article in the Scientific American “How Self-Control Works“, Dan Ariely mentions another study which reached a similar conclusion:

A recent study (see [2]) by colleagues of mine at Duke demonstrates very convincingly the role that self control plays not only in better cognitive and social outcomes in adolescence, but also in many other factors and into adulthood. In this study, the researchers followed 1,000 children for 30 years, examining the effect of early self-control on health, wealth and public safety. Controlling for socioeconomic status and IQ, they show that individuals with lower self-control experienced negative outcomes in all three areas, with greater rates of health issues like sexually transmitted infections, substance dependence, financial problems including poor credit and lack of savings, single-parent child-rearing, and even crime. These results show that self-control can have a deep influence on a wide range of activities.  And there is some good news: if we can find a way to improve self-control, maybe we could do better. [3]

Pop psychology, especially in Western culture, believes that repressed emotions can lead to psychological disorders and consequently, free expression and fulfillment of pleasures is encouraged.   These studies suggests otherwise; they advance the notion that children who are able to withstand temptation could evolve into more mature human beings.  The secret ingredient in the development of wisdom seems to be neither forced repression nor licentious expression but a carefully nurtured self-awareness.

Mainstream scientists are currently speculating on the origin of the self-control capability – “where does it come from” they ask ?  Neuroscientists ascribe it to the brain’s frontal cortex, geneticists attribute it to genetic and environmental influences, while evolutionary psychologists might in all probability trace it to some mysterious tribal ritual which was practiced  thousands of years ago on the African continent.  The venerable Indian yogis averred that self-control derives from the Purusha.  There are two sides to human consciousness – Purusha (immobile spirit) and Prakriti (consciousness in action) and the initial goal of Yoga is to separate these two through various practices.

The kids who participated in the marshmallow experiment were engaged in an elementary form of what is well-known in Yoga as Titiksha(forbearance).  Sri Aurobindo listed Titiksha as the first step in the cultivation of passive equaniminity as part of his spiritual program “Sapta Chatusthaya“.  The following passage from Sri Aurobindo’s Record of Yoga outlines the concept:

Titiksha: The power to bear steadily & calmly all sparshas(contact) without any reaction in the centre of the being, whether they are pleasant or painful. The mind or body may desire or suffer, but the observing Purusha(soul) remains unattracted and unshaken, observing only as Sakshi(witness) and as Ishwara(Divine) holding the system firmly together & calmly willing the passing of the dwandwas(dualities). It does not crave for or demand the pleasure. It does not reject the pain. Even when pleasure or pain are excessive, it wills that the mind and body should not shrink from or repel them, but bear firmly. It deals in the same way with all dwandwas(dualities), hunger & thirst, heat & cold, health & disease, failure & success, honour and obloquy etc. It neither welcomes & rejoices, nor grieves & avoids. It gets rid of all jugupsa(disgust), fear, shrinking, recoil, sorrow, depression etc, i.e. all the means by which Nature (bhutaprakriti) warns us against & tries to protect from all that is hostile. It does not encourage them, nor does it necessarily interfere with such means as may be necessary to get rid of the adverse touches; nor does it reject physically, except as a temporary discipline, the pleasant touches; but inwardly it presents an equal front of endurance to all.  The result is udasinata or indifference. [4]

We end with a couple of delightful videos…

A recent video re-enacting the marshmallow experiment

An unrelated but adorable viral video demonstrating endurance


  1. Lehrer, Jonah (May 18, 2009). “Don’t! The secret of self-control.”. The New Yorker. Retrieved April 23 2011.
  2. Moffitt TE, et al. (2011) A gradient of childhood selfcontrol predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108:2693–2698
  3. Ariely, Dan.  (April, 2011) “How Self-Control Works”  Scientific American.
  4. Sri Aurobindo.  CWSA vol 10-11, Record of Yoga, p 25.

Related Posts

  1. How to increase will-power
  2. How to cultivate the state of witness consciousness (Saksi Bhava)
  3. Cultivating witness consciousness (Saksi Bhava) part 2.
  4. Subtle forms of the ego – (transcending suffocation)
  5. Jnana Yoga : the ego blocks that have to be dissolved
  6. Developing discernment on which actions are spiritual
  7. Conversation : Self-control over speech
  8. Distinguishing between stilling the mind and dynamizing meditation
  9. The foundation of spiritual relationships
  10. How does the Mind change with Yoga?
  11. Four epistemic methods of consciousness


27 thoughts on “Practising Titiksha with marshmallows

  1. Diane

    I think you are drawing a bit of a long bow here Sandeep, to infer this experiment is an example of titiksa. I recommend you check out Alice Miller’s, for your own good, which looks at german child raising practices that encouraged obedience at a great cost. I note that in the case of two of the participants, one went into a controlling patriarcal profession, the other a creative field.
    My understanding of titiksa is that it is part of the movement of passive samata, a movement away from the shrinking and contracting of jugupsa to the forebearance of titiksa finally arriving at udasinata (indifference)

    1. Sandeep Post author

      I agree it’s not completely Titiksha. I did say above “elementary form ….of Titiksha(i.e. forbearance)”. This experiment wasn’t cruel or demanding obedience as such but merely testing if a child had the ability to resist pleasure; the children were free to eat if they wanted to. Isn’t success in such a test indicative of the conscious action of the Purusha?

      I also said above, “The secret ingredient in the development of wisdom seems to be neither forced repression nor licentious expression but a carefully nurtured self-awareness.” Some may exhibit it early on in life while others may develop it later.

      Check out the article “How self-control works” at

    2. Sandeep Post author

      Titiksha in the words of Swami Vivekananda

      Then comes the next preparation (it is a hard task to be a philosopher!), Titikshâ, the most difficult of all. It is nothing less than the ideal forbearance — “Resist not evil.” This requires a little explanation. We may not resist an evil, but at the same time we may feel very miserable. A man may say very harsh things to me, and I may not outwardly hate him for it, may not answer him back, and may restrain myself from apparently getting angry, but anger and hatred may be in my mind, and I may feel very badly towards that man. That is not non-resistance; I should be without any feeling of hatred or anger, without any thought of resistance; my mind must then be as calm as if nothing had happened. And only when I have got to that state, have I attained to non-resistance, and not before. Forbearance of all misery, without even a thought of resisting or driving it out, without even any painful feeling in the mind, or any remorse — this is Titiksha. Suppose I do not resist, and some great evil comes thereby; if I have Titiksha, I should no feel any remorse for not having resisted. When the mind has attained to that state, it has become established in Titiksha. People in India do extraordinary things in order to practice this Titiksha. They bear tremendous heat and cold without caring, they do not even care for snow, because they take no thought for the body; it is left to itself, as if it were a foreign thing.

      source: Complete Works, Vol 1, Lectures and Discourse, Steps to realisation

    3. Sandeep Post author

      Diane: I note that in the case of two of the participants, one went into a controlling patriarcal profession, the other a creative field.

      On the surface, yes, it seems Craig is creative and the Carolyn is controlling, but the following excerpts from the New Yorker article sheds more light on Carolyn and Craig’s personalities.

      “I’ve always been really good at waiting,” Carolyn told me. “If you give me a challenge or a task, then I’m going to find a way to do it, even if it means not eating my favorite food.” Her mother, Karen Sortino, is still more certain: “Even as a young kid, Carolyn was very patient. I’m sure she would have waited.” But her brother Craig, who also took part in the experiment, displayed less fortitude. Craig, a year older than Carolyn, still remembers the torment of trying to wait. “At a certain point, it must have occurred to me that I was all by myself,” he recalls. “And so I just started taking all the candy.” According to Craig, he was also tested with little plastic toys—he could have a second one if he held out—and he broke into the desk, where he figured there would be additional toys. “I took everything I could,” he says. “I cleaned them out. After that, I noticed the teachers encouraged me to not go into the experiment room anymore.
      Carolyn Weisz is a textbook example of a high delayer. She attended Stanford as an undergraduate, and got her Ph.D. in social psychology at Princeton. She’s now an associate psychology professor at the University of Puget Sound Craig, meanwhile, moved to Los Angeles and has spent his career doing “all kinds of things” in the entertainment industry, mostly in production. He’s currently helping to write and produce a film. “Sure, I wish I had been a more patient person,” Craig says. “Looking back, there are definitely moments when it would have helped me make better career choices and stuff.”


  2. manipadma

    one more video where a professor in a funny way says this with his videos on children during the test.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Thanks for the link which demonstrates a second experiment conducted with other children.

      I think there is a danger that this test may become too popular and then standardized, in which case overambitious parents and teachers might start using such tests to pressurize and discriminate amongst innocent little children. Hopefully, such testing remains informal in the future.

  3. Jyotsna

    I’m glad to see your website Sandeep.
    You have a very balanced and mature viewpoint on Psychology and Indian traditions of Spirituality. Which is much rare to find as far as my experience goes, since I am involved in both. Nowadays a lot of mainstream research and practice in Psychology, even in west, are looking at similar concepts as were suggested by spiritual traditions. As one of my child psychotherapy teacher says, Anna Freud used to see repressed, guilt ridden, anxious, neurotic kids. While nowadays the kids who enter therapy in the west are often on the opposite end of the spectrum, full of sense of entitlement, angry, who have never learned how to be grateful for what they have and say Thank You! Nowadays psychotherapists rarely follow old Freudian kind of therapy, but these ideas have become part of urban mythology and pop literature.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Thanks for the compliment, Jyotsna and glad to hear that mainstream psychology is evolving! I have no formal training in psychology and much of my knowledge comes from sporadic interaction with one psychologist coupled with independent reading.

      It would be wonderful if you could contribute your professional insights on some of the other blog posts as well.

    2. Sandeep Post author

      Jyostna: While nowadays the kids who enter therapy in the west are often on the opposite end of the spectrum, full of sense of entitlement, angry, who have never learned how to be grateful for what they have and say Thank You! Nowadays psychotherapists rarely follow old Freudian kind of therapy, but these ideas have become part of urban mythology and pop literature.

      A recent article in Time magazine discusses how well-behaved French kids are when compared with American kids. The article was written with reference to Pamela Druckerman’s new book Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting

      Why American Kids are Brats – by Judith Warner

      1. Jyotsna

        Regarding culture, in large Indian middle class the focus on self expression is not so deeply engrained yet, so we are still bent upon good education, expect basic obedience, and ability to maintain family and social harmony. Although in turn we often indulge our kids with loads of affection (almost PDA :), food and help with their daily self-care.

      2. Sandeep Post author

        True. You might be aware of American psychologist Alan Roland’s book “In Search of Self in India and Japan“, in which he examine cultural differences between Indian, Japanese and American cultures. He observes that Western psycho-analytic models such as the Oedipus complex may not apply to other cultures. One Japanese psychologist defined other variations which were more prevalent in his culture.

        I might post a summary of the book later.

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  6. Jyotsna

    It seems American parents are increasingly worrying about parenting cultures (reminds me of the drama around another book a year back, whose author was recently invited to lit. fest in India
    In my one year experience in US, the normal kids often came across nice and polite, making them endearing to me. In comparison Indian parents may seem indulgent and their kids as unruly. However, the underlying value system which dominates these cultures might have different outcomes, especially reflected in teen and adult behavior… (one study in India even found higher levels of empathy in school going kids from low-income families, as compared to that reported in Western studies). I do feel, the focus on self-expression in America has to be balanced with another equally important one- focus on basic oneness, otherwise it leads to high levels of ego and selfishness, where other people are seen as either facilitating or blocking ones progress towards ones goals. You might appreciate there are some practical issues associated with these value systems/ world views too (as the discussion goes in BD).
    [Sandeep: “BD” above is an abbreviation for “Being Different“, a recent book by Rajiv Malhotra on cultural differences]

    And one interesting study indirectly commenting on parent’s role in helping children bear a stress is given here

    (BTW, French mental health professionals predominantly go for Psychoanalytical approach. Though this article suggests the book is mainly collection of cultural observations).

    1. Sandeep Post author

      A funny comment from Amal Kiran‘s book Our Light and Delight”, in chapter on “Some Spiritual Aspirants from the West”:

      (While discussing Pavitra aka Philippe Barbier St. Hilaire)…The true spiritual child in him was evident in the way he took the Mother’s scolding now and again. Such gentle humility is scarce indeed — and it is thrown into striking relief all the more in a Westerner hailing from a psychological environment in which the stress on individuality is very prominent.

      I remember the Mother’s comment on an American sadhika(disciple)’s plea about her little son that he was finding adjustment o the education at the Ashram’s International Centre difficult because of the “more active vital and highly developed individuality” of the Western child. The Mother wrote to me: ” ‘Highly developed individuality’ means a magnified ego trying to rule the being.”

      In Pavitra this product of the West helped only to place at the disposal of the psychically illumined servitor of the Mother a highly talented and finely trained external mind and life-force.

  7. ipi

    Other articles on the subject

    Why 70s Parents Are Superior to French Parents

    I think my main gripe about this whole French-mothers-are-better-than-you idea is that nothing about this seems particularly French to me. Our American parents raised us exactly the same way, 40 years ago. We didn’t snack all day because we were outside playing. They let us cry it out because they were 23 years old, and didn’t feel like getting up. If our fathers gave us the “big eyes,” we were extra-good for a week. And they did this all without experts, or peer groups, or stories in major newspapers purporting to show them the light. And so I say: 70s Parents Are Superior. Even to the French. Our parents were laissez-faire when Carla Bruni-Sarkozy was en couches-culottes. Or like our mothers called them: Pampers.


    Are The French Really Better Parents? A Different View From Paris

    So, before we abandon American parenting practices in favor of the French, we must ask ourselves what end we hope to achieve and what supports we’re willing to put in place to help parents achieve it. Do we truly want to change the culture of American parenting? Then we must first be willing to change American culture itself.


  8. Jyotsna

    Yes Sandeep ‘In search of self…’ book makes a really interesting read. However there should be a newer edition to it post-globalisation, since it ‘happened’ to India after the book was published.

    This is the crux of the entire issue… ‘In Pavitra this product of the West helped only to place at the disposal of the psychically illumined servitor of the Mother a highly talented and finely trained external mind and life-force’.
    I’m not sure since how long the decrease of intellectual rigour was happening in India. I read somewhere that Mother once complained to Sri Aurobindo about something like this in Ashram school kids. Rajiv Malhotra still complains about the lack of discipline and aesthetic sense 🙂

    Just imagine how wonderful it would get if more Indians can have a ‘finely trained external mind and life-force’ without ‘selling their soul to the devil’ (of market forces 😉 And also more of such ‘finely trained external minds and life-forces’ of west can really learn to offer their best, to the highest 🙂

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Jyotsna : I read somewhere that Mother once complained to Sri Aurobindo about something like this in Ashram school kids

      The latest issue (Jan 2012) of Auroville Today carries an article on the Isai Ambalam School, one of Auroville’s outreach schools for village children. The article states:

      “This problem (of a large uneducated rural population) was already articulated by The Mother herself. In a conversation she had with some teachers of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram School in 1967, she had wondered ‘how to prepare the children who have no way of learning at home, whose parents are ignorant, who have no possibility of having any means to learn, nothing, nothing, nothing but the raw material, like that – how can we teach them to live?’ And she had added, ‘That will be an interesting problem.’”

      The Auroville outreach schools have developed innovative and flexible educational methods to replace the rote learning strategies which have plagued India in the past. See

      On a comparative note, in the 19th century, American students who wanted advanced training had to go Germany because American universities emphasized rote learning whereas German professors taught students how to analyze texts and work in laboratories. Over time, American universities adopted German methods and improved. See this 1878 memoir by an American student James Hart of his German educational experience “German Universities: a narrative of personal experience

  9. Jyotsna

    Thanks Sandeep, this is an interesting information.

    I was unable to find the exact comment but somewhere I had read Mother complained about lack of intellectual training in Ashram kids. I think it was somewhere with respect to humour, or possibly another anecdote about SA’s fine sense of humour was on the same page.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      The incident you are referring to is probably the one where a student got confused by Sri Aurobindo’s aphorism: “When I read a wearisome book through and with pleasure, yet perceived all the perfection of its wearisomeness, then I knew that my mind was conquered” and asked the Mother “How is it possible to read a wearisome book with pleasure? ”

      After the Mother explained the paradox, she told Satprem, “More small talk! … Speaking of which, I looked at T’s most recent questions on the Aphorisms again. All these children haven’t the least sense of humor, so Sri Aurobindo’s paradoxes throw them into a kind of despair! … The last aphorism went something like this: ‘When I could read a wearisome book from one end to the other with pleasure, then I knew I had conquered my mind.’# So T asked me ‘How can you read a wearisome book with pleasure?’!! I had to explain it to her. And on top of that, I have to take on a rather serious tone, for were I to reply in the same ironic fashion, they would be totally drowned! It throws them into a terrible confusion!

      It’s a lack of plasticity in the mind, and they are bound by the expression of things; for them, words are rigid. Sri Aurobindo explained it so well in The Secret of the Veda, he shows how language evolves and how, before, it was very supple and evocative. For example, one could at once think of a river and of inspiration.”

      See Agenda Nov 12, 1960

  10. ipi

    No matter what your parenting style, she writes, “Other parents are better. They are better than you in all ways. They are better at disciplining their kids, motivating their kids, and keeping their kids out of harm’s way. Their children will have more friends in school, lead more fulfilling lives, and never need therapy. Their kids will rule. And it will all be because other parents were much better parents than you can ever hope to be. Sorry.”

    Yes, she is joking.


  11. Sandeep Post author

    Building Self-Control, the American Way
    by Sandra Aamodt, a former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, and Sam Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton,

    In any culture, the development of self-control is crucial. This ability, which depends on the prefrontal cortex, provides the basis for mental flexibility, social skills and discipline. It predicts success in education, career and marriage. Indeed, childhood self-control is twice as important as intelligence in predicting academic achievement. Conversely, poor self-control in elementary school increases the risk of adult financial difficulties, criminal behavior, single parenthood and drug dependence.

    Traditionally, Asian students succeed in part because they show good self-control from an early age. In one study, Chinese preschoolers were six months ahead of American children in developing mental control, like the ability to look to the left when shown a face pointing to the right. Another study found that Korean 3-year-olds did as well on such tasks as British children who were 17 months older.


    Americans could take one tip from Asian and French parents: abandon the idea that they must support self-esteem at all costs. Children do not benefit from routine empty praise, like the cries of “Good job!” that ring out over American playgrounds. Chinese and French parents are sparing in their praise, yet children from those cultures do not have noticeably lower self-esteem.

    An internally motivated approach to building self-control plays to traditional American strengths. Being self-motivated may lead to other positive long-term consequences as well, like independence of thought and willingness to speak out.

    Read full article @

  12. Jyotsna

    The idea of ‘mastery’ as a means to self-fulfillment is very prevalent in adult Psychology, wonder why it lags behind in child Psychology literature.
    Further, not only the Asian cultures teach more self-control because they value it in itself, but there are also ‘actual limitations’ in some of these contexts from financial to psycho-social which doesn’t allow life-long unhindered ‘pursuit of happiness’.

  13. ipi

    Culture Affects Your Attention to Emotional Information

    These results are fascinating, because they suggest that culture can affect your more general mood by affecting what you pay attention to in the world. If your culture leads you to look at positive things, then that will help to lift your mood. If your culture leads you to look at negative things, then that will tend to depress your mood.

    How can culture have an effect like this? One of the most powerful ways that cultures affect our thinking is through communication. If everyone around you is focused on sad things and they talk about sad things, you will start to do the same thing. In general, you want to be able to talk with the people around you. If you know that they are going to be thinking about the sad aspects of life, you are going to start to look for that sadness in order to be a part of the conversation. In the end, that affects the way you think, even when you are not in a situation where you have to communicate with others.


  14. arya

    In one place, Sri Aurobindo says lower impulses must be rejected, but he also adds somewhere that anything rejected will still be there (maybe in subconscient etc.).

    So what exactly is the solution? Do we keep on rejecting, then?

    In Buddhist or tantra, they say suppression is a problem. But then not suppressing is also a problem. So how does mastery come about?

    Say a person is tormented by certain thought patterns or vital desires. Is he supposed to keep on rejecting those thoughts or desires?

    1. Sandeep Post author

      One has to differentiate between “rejection” and “suppression”. The latter is more problematic. “Rejection” here means “standing back” from the surface part of your personality which wants to do something.

      Problems dissipate when you have built a reservoir of “mental silence” inside you, because that prevents the play of thoughts and desires.

      Mastery comes in stages.

      1) First you begin to develop will power by staying still.
      2) then you refrain after some partial indulgence (like stopping oneself after succumbing to anger)
      3) then you are able to observe anger arising and can prevent yourself from succumbing to it.

      Discussed more over here

      The Mother recommends developing willpower from “outside-in”

      The same problem has to be rejected at every layer. If you conquer a mental thought pattern for a few months, later you will find its vital residue will start troubling you. After you solve that, you will find the same problem resides in the subconscious and can arise from there in moments of weakness. Complete transformation takes tremendous persistence.


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