It’s the second day of a workshop I’m teaching, called “The Art of Letting Go.” I’ve planned a brief discussion on the yogic practice of releasing our tendency to over-control. The intention is that people will recognize how much pain they create when they try to control every little thing in their lives. I write two phrases on the whiteboard: “In control” and “Out of control,” and ask the participants to hold both phrases in mind, one after the other, and then to notice the feeling-state that arises around each one.
It’s no surprise when two thirds of the people in the room report that they prefer feeling ‘in control’ to feeling ‘out of control.’
But then, a woman stands up and describes an evening when her husband answered the phone, talked for a few minutes, then hung up and said to her, “Tom says the two of you are having an affair.
‘Of course, it was exactly what I’d been trying to avoid, she said. “But instead of being upset, I realize that it’s a total relief that I don’t have to try and control things anymore.”
I have a moment of contraction – are we opening a Pandora’s box here? Should I point out that the yoga texts do not really support extra-marital affairs? But now, as if the confession has opened a door into a new level of mutual intimacy, five or six hands shoot up. They all want to talk about their positive experiences of having life go out of control.
A man speaks about being out in a sailboat during a storm, when the sails came loose from their tack and the boat was driven before the gale-force wind. Another guy tells us about losing a big chunk of change on the stock market and how, after the initial shock, his first thought was “I’m free!”
By now, I’ve stopped trying to guide the conversation, having entered the zone familiar to workshop leaders whose plan has been superseded by the spirit moving through a group. It feels as if a volcanic recognition is pushing its way into the room, something Dionysian and ecstatic. Finally, someone says, “So, it’s scary to feel out of control, but scary as it is, it’s going to happen. So sometimes, can’t it be a way we break through into a deeper level of experience?” And everyone, in unison, nods.
Afterwards, a friend who is attending the workshop whispers in my ear, “I’d still rather be in control.”
Contemplating all this afterwards, it occurs to me that we had tapped into one of the central dichotomies of human life. Put simply, it looks like this. You do your best to control reality, to make your life function smoothly and efficiently. You strive also to keep your own mind and emotions under control. At the same time, a part of you longs for flow. A crisis or a meltdown can serve to push you over the psychic barriers we erect against the unpredictable, and remind ‘you of the roller-coaster-ride sense of freedom ‘ that can arise when, suddenly, your plans are overturned and all bets are off.
Meet your Control Freak
Consciously or unconsciously, we are all engaged in a ‘pas de deux ‘ between our desire to keep things under control and our longing to ride with the unpredictable. On the one hand, control is essential – without it, you’d never mature, never accomplish your goals, never be able to transform bad habits. Our safety and productivity – indeed, the social contract itself – all depend on our collective ability to control our impulses, check our tempers, make plans, and keep our commitments. When we say that someone is out of control – unless we’re talking about a rocker going into fourth gear onstage – we usually mean that this person is dangerous to themselves and others.
At the heart of our issues with control is the issue of personal power, because essentially, we measure our empowerment by how well we’re able to control our inner and outer environment. We express our power by how much control we’re able to exercise over our work, our public reputation, our time, the respect given to our work and ideas, over our finances, and (admit it!) the other people in our lives. Internally, we take power by controlling our bodies (how long can ‘you ‘ hold Headstand?), our thoughts and emotions (what do you do with the swell of rage that wells up when a co-worker disses your idea?), our appetites. Obviously, control can be good, necessary, and admirable.
But then there’s the other side of the story. That useful, necessary control mechanism has a tendency to turn tyrannical. Too much control deadens the life force, in us. And the line between too much and too little can be hairline fine. The shadow side of our mature and sensible inner controller is the control freak – the one who frets endlessly about the to-do list, cuts off any relationship that threatens to turn unpredictable, and tightens up when the inner music gets wild. The control-freak part of us is convinced that she holds the reins to our sanity, and she is sure that without her constant intervention, we’d be living in chaos, eating junk food, neglecting our asana practice, and possibly risking death. (After all, at her primal core, the inn er controller equates control with survival). She might be like my friend Sarah, who dreads family parties because she knows that her brother will drink too much and spill things on the clean linen tablecloth, or like my neighbor Frank who knocks on my door every week or so to tell me that my rear fender is intruding into his back-up space. But your inner control freak can just as easily manifest as a refusal to be tied down by plans, commitments, or anyone else’s agendas. I recently heard a husband accuse his wife of trying to control him because she insisted that he tell her what time he would be home. She countered by saying that his refusal to specify when he was coming home was his way of controlling her. He was trying to protect his freedom, she was attempting to protect her security. Both of them were convinced that they were right, and both of them were speaking from their inner control freak.
When Thunder is in Charge
However you slice it, the control freak has two big problems. The first is that when you let your inner control freak dominate, she’ll try to eliminate everything unpredictable from your life and everyone else’s. The second – and even more serious – problem is that since life is basically out of control, your attempts to control outcomes will inevitably, at least part of the time, end in frustration. At that point, if you don’t know how to let go of your need to control, you’re going to be at the mercy of your stress hormones. As I write this, I’m sitting in a retreat center in Santa Fe, happy to have a free hour to do some quiet work. It’s monsoon season, a thunderstorm is raging outside, and a few minutes ago I was enjoying the sound of the pounding rain. Then I looked up to see a growing stream of muddy water oozing, then pouring under my door. As I scrambled for towels and moved the power-cords away from what quickly became a small flood, I realized that instead of spending a quiet afternoon at the computer, I’m going to be mopping up flood waters. Granted, this is a more dramatic interruption than I’m used to, but in general it’s a good bet that whenever I’m racing for a deadline, something beyond my control will arise to interrupt me.
It’s not only other people and weather patterns that are ultimately uncontrollable. Our own bodies operate largely beyond our control – yogic lore notwithstanding, few of us can control our heart beat or the rate of blood circulation, much less the probability of picking up a virus on the plane or suffering the crazed mutation of a set of cancer cells. When you’re in your controller-self – that is, when you’re in denial of these simple facts of life – it’s no wonder you’re often irritated, scared, or tense. Yes, we all need a measure of control over our lives – it’s a fact that the most stressed-out workers are those who can’t control the flow of their hours and workload. But the deeper truth is that there are circumstances when control is simply not possible, where the only way out of suffering is to give up the need to control. It’s no wonder that every culture in history has discovered or manufactured substances designed to help us let go of control! Nor is it an accident that all yogic and mystical traditions are, at their heart, methodologies for entering that subtle inner zone where the ability to take control and the ability to let go can operate in fine and subtle balance.
The Dance of Yoga
What is it, after all, that marks a truly accomplished yogi? Isn’t it the ability to dance in the space between control and letting go? Yoga and mindfulness practice can teach us to detach from being so victimized by our controller-self, and meditation helps us find the center of calm that makes it safe to relax into the unpredictability of life.
It’s that dichotomy again. On the one-hand, control is at the very heart of yoga, as it is of all transformational practice. “Yoga is controlling the movements of the mind,” says the definitional Sutra of the definitional text of classical yoga, the ‘Yoga Sutra ‘ of Patanjali. No matter how we re-interpret that Sutra to fit our laissez-faire notions, that’s basically what the man said. And at least half of the eight limbs of classical yoga are specifically focused on control. Serious yogis have always practiced control of speech, discipline in eating, sexual restraint, and even total celibacy, not to mention the infinitely more difficult process of restraining their anger and jealousy. Yogis do this because without disciplines and restraints, we have no container, no energy for transformation. I trained in the Siddha Yoga tradition where we heard endless tales of yoga masters who could sit unmoving in Lotus Pose for weeks on end, eating nothing, mind poised in contemplation. Of course, we – children of the indulgent modern West – weren’t expected to take things to that extreme. But we certainly imbibed the basic message: Without control, you can’t even get in the game.
Pickled in Ecstasy
However, side-by-side with the ideal of yogic control, is the equally significant ideal of yogic ecstasy, as exemplified by the advanced practitioner who has moved ‘beyond ‘ control. My teachers offered us the paradigm of the Siddha, the perfected yogi, so deeply pickled in ecstasy that he might spend his life lying on a street corner, or in the case of one of my teacher’s mentors, sitting on a heap of trash. Such a Siddha would have long ago given up yogic discipline. He’d simply exist in a state of boundless non-dual joy, as my teacher once said, “laughing with joy one moment, and in the next moment, feeling a new throb of ecstasy and laughing again.” By that definition, yogic attainment ends up being all about losing yourself – losing control, in essence – whether you do it by giving yourself up to meditation, by hurling your body through 100 sun salutations until your bones turn to water, or by surrendering to the great wash of devotional love that rises up when you chant the names of God. “Get out of control!” one teacher of mantra used to call out to his students. “Get ecstatic!” For a yogi in the depths of intense practice, the two states flow into one.
Open to the Unknown
In short, the sages tell us that controlling the emotions, controlling the sexual impulses, controlling your movements and your appetite are basically ‘means ‘, not goals. You shut the doors of the senses not because you’re anti-fun, but so that another door will open: so you’ll gather the energy to enter the vastness that lies beyond the senses. But the paradox of that opening is that more often than not, it occurs when we let go of discipline and take a chance on the unknown – in other words, when we’re willing to be out of control.
There’s a little known piece of Buddha’s enlightenment story that describes this. Buddha had left his wife and family and spent years doing intense austerities – fasting, living outdoors, practicing complex and painful spiritual exercises. He became the master of yogic self-control, yet found himself no closer to freedom and enlightenment. One day, realizing that he had hit the wall, he asked himself, ‘Was there ever a time when I knew perfect joy?’ Suddenly, he remembered an afternoon in his tenth year, when he’d sat for hours under a rose-apple tree while his father supervised the harvest of their crops. He’d gazed across the rice paddies for hours, perfectly quiet, and perfectly content. That was when he hit upon his famous resolve – to sit still under a tree, perfectly relaxed, and not to get up until enlightenment dawned.
I like this story because it mirrors my own experience. For years, my true entrances into meditation came at the end of a long period of sitting, when I’d give up concentrating, relax any attempt to control my body or mind, draw my knees up close to my chest, and just sit. So often, that would be the moment when my heart would soften, my mind would expand, and I’d feel open to the universe, caught in the heart of the Big Love.
But here’s that paradox again: Yes, the truth might emerge in the moment I let go, but the quality of mind that allowed me to enter it, and eventually to stay in it, came from the discipline I’d practiced, the control I’d exercised up to that point.
Yoga as Observation
So the question is, how do we balance between the two poles of the control/out of control dichotomy? How do we dance on the edge of control – knowing when to channel an impulse or when to rein in our desires and impulses? When should we check our speech or our anger? When do we let go of control and let the flow take over?
One of the most worthwhile things that yoga practice can teach us is how to tell the difference between appropriate control and the control freak’s fear of letting go. Once, in a class with yoga teacher Desiree Rumbaugh, she gave us an exercise for discovering core stability in Tree Pose. As we stood balancing with one foot up on the other thigh, she asked us to focus on the belly and then to make circles with our upper body, letting it sway into and out of balance. Almost immediately, my body began losing balance. I noticed the surge of fear, and the immediate counter move towards control – firming my thigh muscles, and above all, bringing my upper body back to stillness. My inner control freak would not allow me to perform the experiment – she was too afraid of risking a fall.
I solved the problem by finding a handy wall, but more importantly I got to see two things about the way I exercise control. I saw that I use control as a way of staying safe. I also noticed that when there is fear behind my attempts at control, my use of techniques quickly becomes rigid. It’s been useful for me to recognize the ‘feeling ‘ state that comes up when the inner control freak has taken over. I can see how she clings to techniques, to the known, to the plan. If I can notice how I feel when I’m afraid to lose control, there’s a possibility that I can coach myself a bit and remind myself that it won’t be the end of the world if I miss my plane connection, so there’s no need to elbow people out of the way as I manoeuver myself and my roller bag down the aisle. I can remind myself that it won’t kill me if someone doesn’t get into meditation during one of my classes, or enjoy themselves at my party. Each time I can observe and release my inner control freak, it gets a little bit easier to feel the flow and the situations. I find myself a little more forgiving, a bit more present.
By dancing with the koan of control/out-of-control in meditation and yoga, you learn how to do it in life. You learn when its time to work through lunch, and when its more important to take a walk. You figure out when to surrender to a passionate feeling for a lover or a friend, and when it’s more appropriate to exercise restraint. You discover how to maintain appropriate boundaries with your difficult relatives, yet give them permission to be themselves. After awhile your skills and control become so finely honed through practice and life experience that you can confidently relinquish control, knowing that whatever happens, you will be able to find your way back to center. Those are moments when you recognize, “Ah, I’ve mastered this aspect of life!”
Out of Control
The relationship between control and letting go is beautifully taught in martial arts. Until the form is embedded in your muscles and neurons, you play by the rules. Only when you’ve achieved some degree of mastery can you let go. That’s why the classic test of skill in karate and aikido are built around that question: Are you skilled enough to let yourself go out of control?
An American Aikido master relates his experience of the classic ‘test’ that determines whether a martial warrior deserves a Black Belt. Five senior students ‘attacked’ him, and as they sparred, he gradually felt his strength ebbing. There came a moment when he had no choice but to give up using his muscles and his will, and let his body do what it could do, on its own. Moving without thought, he bested four of the ‘attackers’, before finally being laid on the floor by the fifth. He was sure he’d flunked the test – until he heard the other students cheering. He had passed with flying colors.
The point of the exercise had been to give him the opportunity, faced with unbeatable odds, to recognize that his personal strength was insufficient, and to let go, trusting the power he’d accumulated through practice to uphold him. It had. His body, moving on its own, had executed the forms with perfect, spontaneous flow. He had surrendered to the control of no-control [and found the?]. The perfect balance.
Practice: Sweet Release
Do you notice yourself obsessing about the dust bunnies under the couch, or terrified that your brother-in-law will disgrace you by getting drunk at Christmas dinner? Try looking mindfully into the ‘feeling-state ‘ you experience of that part of you who wants to control reality. Get to know the way your inner control freak feels. Notice her energy.
Notice the inner dialogue that starts up. What does your inner control-freak say to you? What is she afraid will happen if she loses control of the situation? Is her primary emotion fear? Is it anger?
Where in your body do you feel tension or tightening when the control freak is in operation?
When you find the energy in your body, focus your awareness there, letting go as much as possible of the inner dialogue.
Breathe into the area of tightness.
Now find a word or phrase that can help the control freak chill out a bit. It could be a teaching like, “Let go,” or “Trust”, or it could be a practical reminder like, “It won’t be the end of the world if the house isn’t clean,” or “You don’t have to be responsible for everyone’s good behavior” or “Everything will work out if I just take one step at a time.”
Once you’ve found the relaxing phrase, notice the feeling state, the energetic experience of dwelling on a thought like “Trust,” or “Let go.” Where do you feel it in your body? Focus your awareness there, and breathe.
Notice how this practice shifts the energy around the situation you’re trying to control. It may shift a little, or a lot. Any release helps free you from the need to control!