Where do we begin with our need to control. Where does it start and where does it want to take us?
When you start the day, a routine helps you get on your feet, get in the shower maybe or have your coffee and then start going towards what you need to do or want to do. In the times where Coronavirus has inflicted my life, I haven’t had much of a routine or honestly much of a to-do list. Which was scary at first because I didn’t know what to do with myself and for a while, I battled feelings of worthlessness. Now I see that my worth doesn’t come from what I do but the person I am and how I see myself. I am my biggest critic but I am also my biggest fan. Which helps me feel like this phase in my life where I don’t have a routine is a good thing and something I can build on in the future. It’s something that can prepare me for a life I am yet to live, for experiences that are yet to come on my path and for people I am yet to meet. The kind of experiences I am having now and have had for the past few months are the kinds of experiences that I feel I need and they are seen as works in progress. Where is it all heading? I don’t know and the beautiful thing is I don’t need to know, for if I knew it would honestly take quite a lot of fun out of it.
Why am I telling you about my routine-less days when we are talking about control. Because I feel its relevant to describe this point out the moment where I could have fallen into the trap of trying to control my life when things were going to shit. But it was a global pandemic, I was not alone in this situation and I felt that. I knew no one had the answers or knew what to do or where to go with all this. The uncertainty was overbearing and ever present. It was like being in a theatre and watching a movie and exactly when the plot was building up and the mystery and excitement was at its peak, the electricity went out leaving the whole audience in a kind of darkness that was physically, mentally and emotionally uncertain. I think it was this uncertainty that I embraced because I honestly felt like I had no choice in the matter. If I hadn’t embraced it then I would have sought certainty in an inherently uncertain situation. This would have undoubtedly put me in a state where I would try and control things around me and of course one cannot control everything so it would also lead to frustration about the things I could not control. It would not have been a pretty sight. It would have been like trying grab water in my hand by closing my fist, an exercise in futility.
Control and Power
Now control is something that seeks to give us some sort of security, some sort of predictability in a situation. It seems to give us a plan or a blueprint of how things are going to play out and what are the foreseeable paths we can take. Which may work but we cannot foresee all the paths and anyone who has an affinity for control can confirm that life has interesting ways of surprising us. Where control really takes us is to a known version of reality. In a way it is making order out of the inherent chaos in which we all live and the extent to which we can do that on a regular basis is the extent to which we can say that we ‘have our shit together’.
It’s like a grasping feeling. Feeling that we somehow have power over our circumstance, our situation, our lives. That feeling of power gives us worth and validation, it tells us that we are something, we are someone, we can do stuff and achieve. While all that’s fair and good, where this turns sour is when we get attached to this feeling of power. Not of exercising it but simply of having it. There is also the matter of power holding a deep relationship to responsibility. It is no coincidence that the leaders of our world in different domains are entrusted with power but also with great responsibility. That what should help us in executing our responsibilities is power and there where we hold power, we must realize there we are eventually responsible. This inseparable relationship can often be forgotten when there is an attachment to holding power and a repulsion to fulfilling responsibility. It is often the problem of the human condition that we seek what we lack and hold onto it because we do not wish to do without it. We think it is power that we lack but maybe that’s not quite accurate.
Carl Jung said, in his essays that the opposite of love, psychologically, is not hate or fear. It is will to power. That the seeking for power is the polarity of love and if we have been hurt in the past by a love gone sour then we are twice as careful to even allow ourselves to feel love again. The instant we feel an inkling of that love, we also feel the remembered pain that it had caused and we’re like “Nope, not doing it.”
But then we have a void and that void we fill up with a seeking for power. Because we might assume, deep down, that the seeking for power will give us a reality we can control. And in that reality that we can control, we can finally allow ourselves to feel the love that we so desperately crave. In that situation we won’t be hurt ever again because we will of course be in complete control of the situation so we won’t let it turn sour. Everything will be great and nothing will be bad, even if it will be bad it will be the bad we have chosen and not something randomly inflicted upon us. Pleasure, love and oneness will exist indefinitely and it will be like heaven without hell. It might take an instant or a while to see the absurdity in this but once you do, letting out a good laugh is pretty natural.
Why we want control
For safety? Safety from what? From the unknown, from uncertainty? But what is this unknown, what is this uncertain future or situation. We must ask ourselves these questions to determine, where is this threat and why is it a threat. How safe do we want our lives to be, and how much will it take to make it safe the way we want it? Do we want safety like we had in our parent’s house or do we want safety like we had in our mother’s womb?
One very important thing to realize here is that while, yes there was safety in those situations there was no real living or life, just existence. There was simply a protective environment that ensured our survival. It kept us protected from the pressures of survival of life outside the borders of the home and womb and kept us alive. But alive for what? To eventually enjoy and survive in life outside, right? Life begins outside our comfort zones. We’ve heard this so many times but now it really comes into perspective, we need to let go of the need for these comfort zones if we really want to live. Because existing is no problem. It’s easy, everyone is doing it and in today’s world you can have a pretty nice existence and then you get old and you can leave. But living is tricky, I wouldn’t say it’s hard but it’s not easy. It’s hard at times and the thing with living is that when its hard you can’t soothe it with pleasure or control. You can’t do something like go eat ice cream because the hard times don’t really have reliefs outside of themselves. The only relief in hard times is to go through them and be with them, the more you can be with those hard times, the less they hurt and the more meaningful and valuable they become. A controlled approach to hard times in existence would have multiple solutions and methods of relief, each with their own preferred effects, each designed for a different kind of relief, for different situations and leaving one with a pleasant end state. Imagine, anxiety eating, neuroticism, distractions of all kinds, alcohol and drugs. This end state – for ex. Feeling relaxed, soothed, sugar-rush, full with food (anxiety eating), drunk – is known and practiced several times to make one feel okay with the current circumstance while in some very profound way avoiding the circumstance entirely. Where pleasant circumstance is given our full attention and made to stay for as long as possible, unpleasant circumstance is neglected and ignored and we wait for it to pass and it always passes just a bit too slowly.
We know what to do when we feel this, we know what to do when we feel that, we know what to do when we feel nothing and we know what to do when we don’t want to feel something in particular. It always seems like feelings, except really good ones, are just not welcome. They come knocking ever so often and are turned away at the door.
Looking behind the need
So how do we deal with this need to control and better asked, how can we re-frame it. In all our seeking of controlled and predictable future we lose one key facet that life has to offer and that facet that makes life wonderful and magical – surprise. That something happens and we don’t expect it is a wonder that lights up our eyes and honestly, makes life worth living. In a controlled situation, lets say for example in a laboratory, all the conditions of that lab are controlled and regulated there is no room for surprise and definitely a surprise in the conditions, like bird or an unsanitized human would not be appreciated. It would also be detrimental to what the lab is trying to achieve because they need to controlled environment to get accurate results on their experiments. But we don’t! We don’t need this controlled situation because we’re not gathering data on an experiment. There is room for surprise in our life and we should welcome it.
Alan Watts, a British philosopher, talks about creating the perfect future. He shows that a perfectly imagined future is actually the past. ‘You’ve had it’, he says and points to the fact that when we imagine a future circumstance or situation, we draw upon memories of what we have already experienced. We put these memories together into a new jumble which we call our ideal future, but it is simply another version of the past. And by this way we can see that we are indeed running around in circles.
John Green’s book Looking for Alaska.
“Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.”
Our need for control is also such. The base conditions and requirements of the control that we exercise come from the past. They come from events we have already experienced and felt good or bad about and on this basis, we judge what we like and don’t like and start to put our filters up which guide most, if not all, our future experiences. Like this we seem to be creating more of what we’ve had and are getting nowhere.
A way out…or in
The solution to this might lie in a resting of one’s awareness in the present moment. Like we rest our heads on a pillow before going to sleep at night, we can also rest our awareness in the gentle embrace of the present moment. It is here that we find the love, peace and acceptance we were searching for in our past, the same things we were hoping to get in the future. As an antidote to control, the present is not something we can control. It unfolds instantly and unpredictably. To control it we would need to make an effort and the outcome of that effort, which would be a form of control, would only be perceived or come into effect in the future. Not in the present. And this gives us an insight into the nature of control, that control is always about the future and as we discussed earlier, the base conditions for control arise from the past. So basically, we control based on the past and we see the fruits of our control in the future.
“For unless one is able to live fully in the present, the future is a hoax. There is no point whatever in making plans for a future which you will never be able to enjoy. When your plans mature, you will still be living for some other future beyond.– Alan Watts
You will never, never be able to sit back with full contentment and say, ‘Now, I’ve arrived!’ Your entire education has deprived you of this capacity because it was preparing you for the future, instead of showing you how to be alive now.”
The only way to bypass or re-frame the need for control is in the present. To let go and give in. A form of surrender which involves a sort of faith that can only come when we trust our inter-relatedness with life itself. It’s not the kind of education we’ve had in the way of thinking but its the education we need to gift ourselves. That life and us are not separate entities, that life isn’t out to get us but is secretly conspiring to give us the best experiences we can imagine. And all that we need to do is get out of our own way, to encourage ourselves to practice a trust fall with life each day, in each moment. Control is not something we want; we use it as a strategy when we are not getting what we want. I think what we all want is love, in some form or the other, and a prerequisite for love in any form is attention and awareness. If you love your favourite food, you eat it with this immersed awareness where you enjoy each bite and texture and little flavour that comes up, it is this immersed awareness that allows you to feel the love for that food. The same with a flower or a bird or a loved one, they can only be appreciated and loved when they are given your attention and awareness. This is what we must practice to do with our experiences of life as well and we will see, slowly but surely that we are in fact always getting what we want. We need only recognise it.