Nate is the Founder of LifeBeyondLogic.com
“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.”
My neck might be my greatest spiritual teacher. I became a disciple of it three years ago after a serious bike accident.
On a warm September day, my wife and I were riding side-by-side down a wide dirt road in central New Jersey. Suddenly, our handlebars tangled. She jumped off her bike, landing on her feet. I wasn’t so lucky. I shot off my bike, somersaulted through the air, and landed on my head.
It wasn’t long before my neck took up its role as spiritual advisor. Soon it tightened like a vice, making it difficult to work, to bike, and to travel.
For the first few months, I went to war against my neck. I did everything I could to gain the upper hand – to control its sensations and tensions. I iced it five times a day, went to physical therapy, and tried to massage away the tension.
Then I discovered something that blew my mind: the more I resisted the tension in my neck, the more painful and tense it became. The more I loved and accepted it, the more I felt the tension and pain dissolve.
You may not have an injured neck. But my guess is that there are other aspects of your body, your emotions, and the world around you that you try very hard to control. It might be your relationships with friends and co-workers, your looks, or your health.
In the face of the uncertainty, change, and the chaos of life, most of us try our best to stay in control. We ride life like a tourist on a mechanical bull, hoping that if we just hold on tight enough, we won’t get tossed off.
The problem is that the more we cling to control, the more we start to lose it. If we really want control, our best bet is to let go of it – to simply love and accept all that we cannot control.
This move sounds paradoxical, counter-intuitive, and downright crazy. But my neck isn’t the only spiritual teacher who advises it. You can find this insight in the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus (quoted above). You can also find it in works like the Tao te Ching, where in Stephen Mitchell’s translation, it states:
Trying to control the future
is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.
When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,
chances are that you’ll cut yourself.
So how do we let go? How do we shift from trying to resist, fight, and control reality to accepting it? Here are three practices that have worked well for me:
- Know Your Limits – Reinhold Niebuhr, one of my favorite theologians, offers a helpful reminder: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” This prayer has become the motto for Alcoholics Aonymous, and it holds an important lesson: know your limits. To a limited extent, you can control your internal reactions to people, emotions, and thoughts. But rarely, if ever, can you control what others do, how they think of you, or even what emotions, sensations, and thoughts arise in you.
- Question Your Thoughts – We try to control our lives because all of us have stories and thoughts about the terrible things that would happen if we were to lose control. “If I let go of control over my career, my appearance, or my finances,” you might think, “I would lose it all.” Byron Katie, one of my favorite spiritual teachers, encourages us to question these stressful stories. “Is that true?” “Can you know for certain that you would lose it all?” she might ask. The more we question our thoughts about control, the more we may find that they often aren’t even true.
- Love Your Resistance – Our attempts to manipulate and control the world around us require tremendous emotional and physical energy. If you’re clinging to control of your finances, for example, chances are that you’re living in a state of resistance. You spend your time and energy living in opposition to the thought that you might lose everything. To let go of control, we need to make peace with this resistance. And the best way to do this is by loving it. So whenever your next stressful control thought arises, see if you can love and accept fully the resistance it creates in your body and mind.
I want to know what you think. What would it look like to let go of control over your mind, body, relationships, and the world? What is keeping you from making this shift?
Nate Klemp earned his PhD at Princeton and is a professor at Pepperdine University. He founded a website dedicated to exploring philosophy as an art of living. You can follow him on Twitter @LifeBeyondLogic and on Facebook. Download a free copy of his new ebook, Finding Reality: Thoreau’s Lessons for Life in the Digital Age.