Say someone says “I want to feel in control” — what are they asking for, really?
Peace of mind.
Peace of mind. Consider that phrase, and what it suggests.
Calm. Safety. The absence of stress, pain and fear. Blessed relaxation. Connection to our selves, to others, to the world. Serenity.
And where does peace of mind come from?
Peace of mind is rare because our minds are usually at war. Mentally we fight everything — each other, ourselves, our environment. “Each of us has our own silent War With Reality,” writes Stephen Cope.
This silent, unconscious war with How It Is unwittingly drives much of our behavior. We reach for the pleasant. We hate the unpleasant. We try to arrange the world so that we have only pleasant mind-states, and not unpleasant ones. We try to get rid of this pervasive sense of unsatisfactoriness in whatever way we can — by changing things ‘”out there.” By changing the world.*
Think about it. How often does the reality you have match the reality you want? How much time do you spend wishing that people, places or things were different? How much energy do you spend fantasizing, plotting or actually trying to make things the way you’d prefer?
Like all addictions, control-seeking is a problem disguised as a solution. It seems to offer a way out of discomfort and unhappiness. It delivers the opposite.
“The life of addiction is one of perpetual longing,” writes William Alexander:
“I want, I want, I want” is the chant of the discontented self. This longing is reckless and insistent. It will never be fulfilled. There is not one thing, one feeling, or one idea that will satisfy it. “I want” is always followed by “more.” It gets worse.**
So that’s control addiction. Is there an alternative?
Actually, there are three.
I call them surrender, responsibility and intimacy:
Surrender is the ability to give up controlling what you can’t control anyway. It grows out of believing that you can let go of control and things will still be okay. Often described with words like “detachment,” “acceptance,” and “faith,” surrender is the spiritual alternative to control.
Responsibility is the ability to respond to a situation honestly and with self-awareness. It grows out of listening to your feelings (instead of hiding or editing them), and trusting that what they tell you is both friendly (not to be feared) and important (not to be ignored). Often described with words like “presence,” “mindfulness” and “authenticity,” responsibility is the emotional alternative to control.
Intimacy is the ability to be yourself with another person and allow them to do the same. It’s actually a combination of the first two alternatives, since it requires that you both (a) abstain from controlling someone (surrender) and (b) share the truth about yourself (responsibility). Intimacy is the interpersonal alternative to control, and represents the high-water mark of emotional development — i.e., it’s about as healthy as we human beings get.
These alternatives do not come naturally to us. Each must be learned, and then practiced. Nor is the practice easy. It requires courage and perseverence, patience and faith.
But the people I know who invest in practicing usually find the investment worthwhile.
Because what the alternatives amount to are three ways of not fighting.
Three ways of declaring peace.
Maybe, in the end, the only ways we have.
*Stephen Cope, The wisdom of yoga (Bantam, 2006).
**William Alexander, Still waters (Hazelden, 2006).