Do you attach a positive or a negative connotation to this word:
Think about it for a moment. I can think of both positive and negative associations, but overall, I’d say the Western society I grew up in generally favors control. Why do I think this? Let me count the ways…
Modern Western Approach
- We try to control our bodies, with diets and creams and cosmetics and Spanx.
- We try to control Nature, with our fracking, our levees, our mountaintop mining.
- We even try to control Death, by using machines for lungs, devices for hearts, and other things that deny when someone is actually dying.
I think it’s safe to say that we like control. A lot.
Well, and what about the other side? Isn’t it good that we can prolong life, extract resources, and make ourselves look younger than we are? And also get a crapload of work done by scheduling blocks of time in a clever and efficient way?
(I think you know where I’m going with this…)
I think what we need is a little more balance.
The opposite of this need to control I will dub the ‘Zen approach,’ since it borrows from some of the tenets of the Zen philosophy: detachment, acceptance, compassion.
When you practice yoga, you have moments where you feel thoughts of other things come up, and you must calmly sweep them away with your yogi mind so that you can be fully present. This is a paradox, since what are you doing if not controlling your mind? And yet what are you doing if not accepting the thought and letting it go?
In popular psychology, we are told that we can’t control what happens to us in life, only how we react to what happens to us. I think this is a good point for debate, but what I’m interested in here is how we perceive control. Do we need to direct actions around us? Or are we satisfied by directing our feelings about what happens around us? Or do we go further and say that we are only feeling and owning what life events bring up in us? Discussion can get boggy here.
Example, Experiment, Evolution
(hat tip to Therese for her E&E concept)
So let me take an example that illustrates both approaches, Modern and Zen. Let’s look at my dating life.
No, no, don’t keel over laughing yet. It has recently evolved in a very interesting way. I was in a serious relationship until 2008, and took some time to recover after that spectacularly crumbled. Then I decided to put some time and effort into dating, since at almost 30 years old, I was very interested in finding a life partner with which to enjoy life. What was my approach?
If you guessed Modern, you’re right. I was on OKCupid, obsessively checking profiles and attempting to send a given number of messages per week. I was responding to messages and attempting to meet with new guys a given number of times per week (oh you better believe I pwned the awkwardness of first dates). I even read through CraigsList listings, looking for that diamond in the rough.
Results were sketchy. One nice guy was a good fit until his ex got to be too much to manage, and the rest were awkward, uninteresting, or plainly incompatible (you drink how much beer in a day?). After a few years of on and off with this system, I decided it wasn’t worth it, ‘it’ being my time on the sites, my expectations for dates, my social time being sucked up by unfortunate escapades at spendy restaurants.
So I gave it up. I tried to adopt the Zen approach. I tried to convince myself that “Que Sera Sera;” the important thing was remaining open-minded about possibilities, and not to worry about it so much. I put work into other parts of my life instead (ahem, BOOK,* ahem). There still remained vestiges of self-doubt and recrimination: ‘not doing enough,’ ‘not trying hard enough,’ ‘too judgmental.’ But I think last summer I finally turned the corner on accepting the Que Sera Sera, and believed it.
My epiphany made me believe that whatever will happen in my love life, will happen. No sense worrying about it before that, it only racks up the head miles and wastes the present moment. I remember specifically the moment when I realized that even with a partner, my life wouldn’t be perfect, so why wait for someone to make it as good as it could be?
Revelation. And it launched me further on the path toward what I’m calling the Zen approach. Not all the way, but somewhere in between. And I feel so much happier about my decisions now. It’s actually a freedom from control.
Balancing Plans and Flexibility
What are we balancing here? Our need to control things in our lives, to a certain extent, and our need to accept events for what they are. Like all the continua in this Balance series, there are benefits to both sides of the coin.
We want to control events in our lives because we want to live a good life; nothing wrong with that. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d summon horses enough for my wishes to ride. But since I can’t, I work to make those wishes come true.
I free myself from assumptions and others’ expectations so that I am sure what I am working for is what I really want, because what is worse than realizing you’ve been slaving away for something that you never really wanted? And I plan. Oh Lord, do I have fun making plans! So then what to do when Life alters the plan?
That’s why I need flexibility: the ability to accept changes, relinquish that inclination to control, and continue the struggle toward those dreams.
I have been walking around with this topic in my head for weeks, ever since it was remarked that I have a thing for feeling in control… and I still don’t have a very firm grasp on it. This post could well turn into a book! So help me out:
Are there areas where you could stand to give up some control? Don’t tell me I’m the only one…
Are there any rituals or techniques that you’ve developed to be more ‘Zen’ and less ‘Modern?’
Do you think there are other helpful approaches?
Add your comments for discussion below!
This was the fourth post in a series of “Balance” posts discussing the subject of balance from a transdisciplinary perspective (for more on this, see the first second and third posts). I hope these discussions help you determine where you need to be on the spectrum to find your own inner truth.
*Please note this is an affiliate link to Amazon.com. This means if you click through and purchase something from Amazon, I receive a tiny percentage. Thanks for supporting those pursuing their dreams in any way possible!