Skip to main content

Moving Beyond Control

| Nirmala | Suffering

Moving Beyond Control

Published on
03 June 2010

Someone wrote me:

I think that control is bad and that wanting to control everything in one's life is bad. Wanting to make things happen a certain way is cause for suffering and is an attachment. I got this from my dad who is a control freak and wants everything to work his way and he is constantly fighting for it and efforting his way at whatever endeavor he takes up. And he makes a lot of headway but at the end of it, things get screwed up and I guess I always saw his need to control the conditions in his life as cause for suffering.

However, I want to control things in my life. I want to control myself and break my bad habits. I want to make certain things happen a certain way. but there is resistance as I don't want to have to go through the suffering that comes with that need to control that I saw in my dad. I guess I feel that loss and suffering always follows that drive to make things happen and to control one's conditions in life.

I was hoping that you could help me reconcile one's ability to make things happen and to be the cause and effect of one's life without being afraid of the potential loss and suffering that may come from that.

And I responded:

Your question is a good one. It would be easier if there were a simple answer to the whole question of control. If trying to control was really just a bad thing, then we all would have given it up a long time ago!

But trying to control is a natural impulse because it works sometimes. It turns out that something only has to work sometimes in order for a behavior to be reinforced. In psychology, they call this an intermittent reward, and it is a more powerful reinforcement than a constant reward. So it is natural that we try to control things, even though it only occasionally works and therefore more often leads to wasted effort and even suffering.

The whole truth of control includes both the times it works and the times it doesn't. It includes the experiences of relative success and failure. We are both in control and out of control. That is the nature of duality on this level of reality. However, that is still not the whole truth about the experience of control.

If we are not completely in control, then what is? Is life really just a bunch of random events including the random interactions of a bunch of apparent beings with some free will all trying to control things, but only succeeding sometimes? Or is there also a bigger, wiser Presence that affects what happens? What if there is a Divine Intelligence that is unfolding life? Are we in control or out of control then?

There is a deeper wisdom that is behind all of the events of life. It knows what really needs to happen, and mostly manages to succeed. I say mostly because it is an aspect of our infinite, eternal nature and so it is not really in a hurry to get anywhere. It likes the surprises and twists and turns that apparent egos bring to the drama of life, so it lets them interfere to a degree. This is because it knows that no harm can really be done and also because it eventually finds a way to get where it is going anyways.

A friend of mine had one of those navigation systems in his car that spoke out loud and told you where to turn. I asked him what happens if you don't turn when it tells you to. He said that for a while it would try to get you to turn around and then turn where you should have. However, he also said that if you don't even do that, it would then calculate a whole new route to where you were headed and start giving you directions based on your having not turned. This deeper intelligence is like that. It lets you succeed or fail at trying to control things, and then it picks up from there and makes what really needs to happen happen.

So there is a dynamic interplay between the capacity of our ego to control things and the capacity of Being to control things. What a formula for surprises and mystery and drama! And then there are all of the other apparent people trying to control things also! What a crazy dance!

In seeing the bigger truth of our efforts to control, there can be a natural loosening of our grip on the steering wheel of life. Why try so hard to control everything when there are so many forces at play? You may not give up entirely, but it can put your efforts in perspective. They are natural, but they are not that important. You still can steer to the best of your ability, but then you let go of the results. Sometimes you get where you wanted to go and sometimes you don't. Sometimes you even end up somewhere better than where you wanted to go!

There is one more level to this question of control. In efforting, we sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, but we always develop our capacity for effort. If you think about it, weight lifters always ultimately fail: the weights always end up back where they started. But in lifting the weights up only to have gravity return them to the starting position again and again, they develop their muscle's capacity to lift weight.

Maybe the ego and all of its efforts at control are just a necessary developmental stage. Once it has gone as far as it can with its own efforts, it reaches a point where it can only go further by surrendering. And yet that is not something it can do. The ego can only experience the dilemma of its impulse to effort and its seeing of the futility of effort until something else moves that we call surrender. The development of our capacity to effort does not cause the surrender to happen, but it can allow us to stay with the experience until surrender happens.

When we effort to control things, we may not succeed and yet our inner capacity to focus and effort has been developed. As some point when we start to see the whole truth about control, then we may stop trying so hard to change what happens. But we can still use the capacity we have developed to be very present and profoundly aware of what is happening, including the moments when surrender arises. We can use our capacity to effort to be more present to what is. At first, it can seem odd to try to have things just the way they already are, but there is a richness that can be revealed when we actively engage our experience without trying to change it.

What is here beyond your own effort? What is here right now that does not need to be controlled? How is it to hold these questions with the same amount of effort you might have used to control things? Not necessarily to get an answer, but just because the questions are here. In just holding the questions without trying for an answer, another dimension of experience can sometimes be revealed that is full of peace, joy and love. This is not a place of no control or a place of control. it is something that opens up beyond the whole experience of control.

It is here that the suffering from our efforts to control is truly resolved into an enjoyment of the whole dance of our life. Loss is just one more twist and turn in the dance. Effort is just done for the sake of moving and dancing. There is nowhere to go and nowhere to not go, nothing to do and nothing to not do.

I hope this helps.


Related Wisdom