There Is No Control
Much of the conflict we face in our day-to-day lives is related to our desire to always be in control. What would it be like to relax our need to be in charge of what happens to us and other people? The world continues doing what it does whether we get involved or not. Consider your own body; so much just happens without you doing anything at all: your heart pumps, your digestive system digests, and your mind remembers to come back to the present when it has become distracted.
— Mindfulness Everywhere
There Is No Control
Use this principle of mindfulness to seek balance.
I have a meeting in one hour that I need to prepare for — I’ll need printouts and handwritten notes and I have to send emails to disseminate the documents. It’s an important meeting, because the product being discussed is time sensitive. If we don’t get this done now it may never get done. If I don’t do it now no one will. If it doesn’t go just right everything will fall apart. I need to be in total control of this room. Wait. I need to be in total control of this room?
When I ask myself why I need to be in control, my train of thought goes something like this (a good reminder to focus on The What Over The Why):
Why do I need to be in control?
Because if I’m not the whole meeting will go off the rails.
Why do I need to avoid that?
Because it’ll mess this whole project up.
Why is it so important?
Because that’ll make me look terrible.
Why do you care?
Because my job could be at risk!
Why is that a problem?
Because I could end up homeless and die!!!
I’ve asked a similar sequence of whys to other people who are having trouble giving up control, and it’s fascinating how quickly people can connect their surface-level anxieties to a fear of death. Whether its the kids not feeding the dog, a neglected and icy sidewalk, or a warning light on the car dashboard, the motivating factor behind our anxiety seems to be death. We cling tightly to the illusion of total control in spite of a deep truth about life itself: in the end, There Is No Control.
Ersnt Becker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist, describes this deep truth like this: “the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity...”
We all know that everyone will die, and yet we all struggle to avoid it. In this regard, There Is No Control. But aside from the finality of demise, our lives are filled with uncontrollable unpredictability — the overall course of events is usually outside our direct sphere of influence. Perhaps because of this, the buildup of pressures from living a high-paced modern life can elicit feelings reminiscent of drowning — sinking, heaviness, and a struggle for breath. Hence the phrase, “I’m drowning in deadlines.” Although this visual metaphor may sound severe, it shows us how we can escape these dire situations. For an individual in this position, There Is No Control. The ocean is too vast for you to manipulate its motions. Your body needs oxygen and there’s nothing you can do to change that. Deadlines are deadlines whether you meet them or not. It may sound counter-intuitive, but letting go of our control is the best way to navigate an overwhelming deluge of responsibilities and stressors.
As Alan Watts used to say, “…you were kicked off the edge of a precipice when you were born, and it’s no help to cling to the rocks falling with you… When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.”
Relinquishing a sense of control can be difficult and frightening, and this is especially true when living feels (as Watts described it) like you’ve been kicked off a cliff. But the principle of this week can help us relax and focus on what really matters: the present moment. No matter how much control we believe we have, it’s all an illusion. I can prepare all I want; I can double-, triple-, quadruple-check my notes; I can meticulously proofread my emails. But, when I walk into that meeting, I can’t control what other people say; I can’t control if the power in the building will stay on; I can’t control if I’ll die on the spot. And that’s all perfectly okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. It’s completely freeing!
Most people in the modern world find this sense of freedom — the freedom that arises from relinquishing our sense of control — to be quite alien. Although it can sound like a nihilistic sense of determinism, it really does feel good to accept that our control over the universe is a lie. I leave you with what Alan Watts thought about the matter:
…there really isn’t anything we can do to improve ourselves or to improve the world. [This realization] gives us a breather in the course of which we may simply watch what is going on — watch what happens. Nobody ever does this, you know. It sounds terribly simple. It sounds so simple that it almost looks as if it isn’t worth doing. But have you ever just watched? Watched what’s happening and watched what you are doing by way of reaction to it? Just watch it happen... Well, it’s kind of a relief, isn’t it?
The world won’t end and I won’t die just because I stop doing what I’m doing — everything will be alright. Loosen your grip on the world, allow things to be the way that they are, and let it be a relief that There Is No Control.
Thank you for reading!
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