Why Mindfulness Isn’t About Control

Ubiquitous though it is, the effort to always control the situations and people in our lives doesn’t serve us. Here’s why you may want to lose it.

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At this time of the pandemic, I hear many psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health practitioners recommending that people “focus on what they can control.” “We need to control this virus.” “Doctors are working hard to control the coronavirus.”

This advice irks me, and the word “control” rubs me the wrong way. Has anyone ever controlled a virus? No. While we do our best to prevent infection, illness and death, to treat infection, and to prevent spread of the virus, we cannot control it, any more than we can control birth or death or falling in love.

It’s not about control. Life is better without it, on the individual and collective levels. Let’s retire the word “control.” As the late Maya Angelou said: “Words are things. You must be careful about the words you use. They get into your rugs, in your upholstery, in your clothes, and finally into you.”

Control is a Popular Illusion

The word “control” means the power to restrain something, especially one’s own emotions or action. Respecting, accepting, and relating with our emotions is crucial for health and relationships; control is not. Control also means the restriction of an activity, tendency, or phenomenon, to maintain influence or authority OVER someone or something.

A popular word with the first known use in 1523, its use has increased dramatically since the early 1800s. It is found in the top 20% of frequently-used English words—for example, searching “control” on mindful.org brings up 658 hits!

I hear the word most days in my psychotherapy practice, many times per day, as well as in the media and in the mindfulness arena. Phrases we say or hear every day include: Learn to control your mind, (that is, thoughts and emotions), or your body. Control your anxiety and stress. You’re a control freak. Don’t lose control. He’s out of control. Self-control, in control, out of control, under control, take control of (someone or something), locus of control, social control… It may be scary to admit we don’t have total control, or any real control.

Letting Go of the Struggle to Control

Certainly, there is a need for somebody to take charge at times, such as during a cardiac arrest or a pandemic. However, while leadership is crucial, control is optional. Real leadership doesn’t consist in a controlling boss or partner, micromanaging, or pushing one’s own agenda without consulting others.

We can recognize that push for control in politics, or our jobs, but also much closer to home. As Dorothy Woodend has observed in The Tyee, “Most humans are trained from an early age to control our bodies—to work when we’re tired, to find extra energy from coffee, to ignore the ache in our shoulders after sitting at a desk for eight hours. Not to pee when we really have to pee.” A sense of struggle to control the breath is also common in meditation practice. What if, instead, we let the body breathe itself? And what if we tuned in to the breath, became the breath. Synchronized mind and body with the breath.

While leadership is crucial, control is optional.

Plato thought insatiable desire was controlled by reason, that the universe was a machine to get under rational control. Much more recently, Elizabeth Gilbert writes: “You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day. that’s a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That’s the only thing you should be trying to control.” Their words reflect the long-standing control paradigm, the tradition of believing we need to strive for ever greater control over self and others, ever more certainty about everything.

I wholeheartedly disagree. We cannot control what comes into our mind, including thoughts and emotions; we can learn how to handle them by acknowledging them and letting go of unhelpful ones. We cannot control out bodily sensations; we CAN learn and train ourselves to respond to them in ways beneficial to ourselves and others.

How We Loosen Our Grip

The mindfulness paradigm is an alternative to the control paradigm. Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. Not controlling. The primatologist Jane Goodall exemplifies this attitude in a direct, truthful way: “It’s not about ruling the world, rather being in the world, caring for the world and all its inhabitants, people, animals and the earth, the environment.”

This doesn’t mean that the steep imbalance of power in society is okay, or that we shouldn’t address it. People who are marginalized, discounted or abused experience a loss of control. While healing may logically appear to come from regaining control, it’s more helpful to see this in a different light: What they need is safety and resources, as well as respect, agency, freedom, support, and choice. They need to recover autonomy and self-worth, which are not the same as control.

“Suffering is suffering. We can’t always explain it, let alone control it. But we can meet it with compassion. We can meet it with presence, look at it directly, understand it, and perhaps find meaning in our relationship to it.”

Mindfulness teacher Frank Ostaseski writes,“Suffering is suffering. We can’t always explain it, let alone control it. But we can meet it with compassion. We can meet it with presence, look at it directly, understand it, and perhaps find meaning in our relationship to it.”

Giving up the intention to control one’s body or mind or to control others, does not mean that the alternative is passivity and helplessness. Alternate paradigms to control include collaboration, self-agency, self-efficacy, strength, and choice. Not control over anyone or anything. Being with and working with. Adapting to. Mindful awareness naturally strengthens self-compassion and compassion for others, an opposing paradigm to that of control. Mindfulness is loving awareness, a deep source of strength and perspective. No need for control over anything.

If you’re up for a challenge, I suggest that you try to go for 30 days without using the word “control” and just notice how often you encounter it. Despite the concept showing up just about everywhere in our lives, control is an illusion and an obstacle. Control is merely a key on the keyboard, just as “normal” is a setting on the dryer.

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  • Jeremy Hunter
  • July 27, 2020