“You can be whatever you want!” Really?
The messages we have been given about the importance of taking control of our lives are not always accurate or helpful. After all much of the external world is beyond our control: national and global economic conditions and resulting job losses; the weather; the mood of our boss/colleagues; who our teenage children hang out with… It’s the same with your personal world: when/if you/your partner will fall pregnant; health/illness; genetic predispositions… Sure, we can take steps to influence the impact of some of these things on our life, but often the outcome is beyond our control. Most of us know well qualified, hard-working people retrenched from their jobs, who have found it difficult finding new employment since the global economic crisis.
The social messages to take control are reinforced by our fear of the unknown (think of all those legends with warnings about what is behind the locked door). On the whole, human beings are not so keen on uncertainty and change (that is, unless we feel in control of the change). To deal with stressful situations one coping mechanism is to try and control as much of our environment as possible.
If we rely on control to feel secure and at ease in this fast paced, ever-changing, stressful world, it is at best a short-term solution. Ultimately, it can only end in tears. Sooner or later we will come up against situations which we cannot control. So it makes sense to start developing a sense of security and ease without the need to control. Our capacity to feel calm amidst uncertainty benefits those we are in relationship with. I think my partner appreciates my efforts to refrain from attempting to control his life. It has taken more time for me to ease off the need to control work situations. In my work collaborating with others, it is unpleasant for all concerned when I am attached to controlling the outcome. Letting go of this attachment is a work in progress. The benefits I experience keep me working at it.
How might mindfulness support us to be comfortable with less control?
An important component of mindfulness is the recognition of the ever changing nature of experience and the world. Through mindfulness meditation, we become aware of the changing nature of body sensations, thoughts and emotions. We observe, acknowledge and allow the experiences that come and go. We don’t seek to control them. This supports us develop an easier relationship with the changing nature of the external world… relationships that come and go; bodies that age; fashion that is fickle; and of course technology that never stays the same. During mindfulness meditation, we learn to relax into the inevitable change that comes with having a body and mind. The alternative, resistance to the natural ebb and flow of experience, is a major drain on our energy.
The mindfulness principle of letting go is also helpful as we learn to loosen our need to control. A lot of our planning is an attempt to have some control over what will unfold in the future. Clearly some planning is necessary but if I think of all the planning I did in my 20s, most of it was time wasted. I planned a future with a man I am no longer married to, a career (law) I have since left and anticipated the presence of friends and family, some of whom have died or moved away. When the planning is accompanied by compulsion, letting go comes into its own.
You might notice that the mind can fixate on the past as well. A lot of our rehashing of the past is an attempt to retrospectively fix up history. In mindfulness meditation, when thoughts of the past or the future arise, we practice letting them go. And the same applies for the emotions that arise. Rather than trying to control our emotions, it is skilful to develop the capacity to acknowledge them and let them be, knowing that these too will pass.
Are there any benefits that you might experience through increasing your tolerance of change and decreasing the need to control? It is worth pondering.
Nothing in this blog is intended to suggest that we stop engaging in our lives actively. What makes the difference is the attitude that we bring with that engagement. If we need to control the outcome, we will regularly be bent out of shape causing suffering to ourselves and others. Steve Armstrong has a great way of putting it: Do your best and let that be good enough.
Kathryn Choules (PhD)
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