Do you believe that you can control most things? If so, then you’re wrong. While you may think that you’re in control in reality you aren’t. In this post I’ll explore why control is an illusion. Why we spend a huge amount of time in a quest to gain control, security and comfort. This is one of the main activity of our lives. Unfortunately, we never grasp the control we think is possible , so we keep trying, and trying and trying.
Suffering and Control
We suffer because we fail to understand what is in our control and what is not. Things within our control include:
- our judgments,
- our intentions,
- our desires, and
- our aversions.
These are aspects of our internal world, of our minds, which we govern by our own volition. Everything else about us depends on factors beyond our control. Confusing the internal world with the external world causes suffering. The external world is ever changing and uncontrollable. When we have stability in life, something comes up to remind us that no, we don’t. There is no stability, no matter how much we’d like it.
We don’t like this feeling of instability, of loss of control. So we do things to cope, out of love for ourselves. We rationalise strategies for control, security and comfort.
We can make plans but for one reason or another they never turn out the way we thought they would. As we progress through our lives we are often told to set goals. And then set tasks based on achieving these goals. Think back …. how often have you failed to achieve these goals? How much of this was an inaccurate attempt to control a future that we couldn’t predict?
We don’t know what the future may bring, much less control it. We trick ourselves into thinking that we do. But this never turns out to be true.
But we still like the comfort of the illusion of control. How else can get out of bed and face a chaotic and complex world? If we can let go of this illusion, what do we have left? How can we live with the stresses of day to day life?
This is where Epictetus can help. He understood that the key to well-being is to align what life (the will of the gods) give us with what we want. Consider the opening paragraph of The Enchiridion:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in a word, whatever are not our own actions
But I have never been hindered in my will, nor compelled when I did not will. And how is this possible? I have placed my movements toward action in obedience to God [fate]. Is it His will that I shall have fever? It is my will also. Is it His will that I should move toward anything? It is my will also. Is it His will that I should obtain anything? It is my wish also. Does He not will? I do not wish. Is it His will that I be put to the rack? It is my will than to die; it is my will then to be put to the rack. Who, then, is still able to hinder me contrary to my own judgement, or to compel me? No more than he can hinder or compel Zeus. – The Discourses, Book IV, Chapter 1.
So, back to the question: if life is uncontrollable because we don’t like the feeling of being out of control … what alternative is there?
One of the most powerful answers is to practice mindfulness. We can learn to accept the uncontrollable nature of each moment. Consider this quote:
To control your cow, give it a bigger pasture – Suzuki Ros
This quote is about controlling your mind. The cow and her pasture as a form of allowing things to happen. Instead of controlling something, you’re opening up, giving it more room, a bigger pasture. The cow will be happier, will roam around, will do as she pleases, and yet you’ll also meet your needs too. The same is true of anything else. If you take a step back and allow things to happen means things could take care of themselves. And what’s more your needs will also be met. And you’ve done no work.
It’s a completely different way of living, once we let go of the illusion. For example we stop setting goals and planning, we try our best and just do. We trust our values. These can guide us towards the best course of action, as opposed to demanding a specific outcome. We accept life in general as it is, rather than how we want it to be. We don’t get stressed, upset or annoyed, mad or despair when we fail to change it into what we want it to be. We stop being disappointed with how things turn out. This is because we never expected anything as we accept what comes.
This isn’t a passive way of living. It may seem like this as our aggressive, goal-driven culture. You still have to take action. But the action is not to control the outcome. Set an intention of doing something good, compassionate and helpful. Of course, you won’t know whether things will turn out the way you hope. But by setting this intention, you act,regardless of knowing exactly how things will turn out. And that is perfectly okay as it’s absolutely fine to not know.
You act, and hope that things will turn out well. It’s a choice between trying to control the result or place trust in the moment.
I recommend that you choose trust.
Stoicism is not about always making the perfect decision every time it’s in your control. It’s about trying to. These are two different things.
The inconvenient truth is that if you can’t accept this way of living, then don’t worry. You can keep on living with the illusion of control, You won’t be alone. Most people live their lives in this way. Not understanding what it is that makes them unhappy or frustrated. But if you do choose to learn to live this way, you’ll find a great burden lifted from your shoulders. It’s a choice that is one of the most freeing things in the world.
How do you deal with a desire to maintain control over the uncontrollable? Have I missed an important point? Something else to add? Please leave a comment below: