January 22, 2011

Is Your Need for Control Out of Control?

Zen teachings on letting go.

What is your control pattern? Do you strive for perfection with every project you take on? Do you find that you often tell others the “better” way to do something? Or do you try to win the affections of others by constantly trying to please them? We all have our own mix of strategies to get control and hold onto it, and we often apply those strategies without even realizing what we are doing.

Control patterns are common manifestations of our personal shadows. In the depths of our minds, the lingering imprints of difficult past experiences swarm together with present-day fears, triggering unconscious behaviors, often in the form of control patterns.

There was a time when I washed every dish twice and my hands about 30 times a day. Why? I had survived a life-threatening episode of inflammatory bowel disease and I was scared of anything that could possibly make me ill again. My behavior wasn’t rational or even conscious, it just was a pattern my mind came up with to try to keep me safe.

I talked with a therapist regularly and she helped me understand the connection between the traumas I had experienced and my behaviors. But it was my practice of Zen Buddhism that helped me most to bring awareness to my unconscious control pattern and to choose different behaviors. I no longer wash things compulsively.

I realized that my fear was always of something that had not even happened. When I faced difficult circumstances, such as having major abdominal surgery, I actually coped quite well.

Our fear-based images of what could happen and the accompanying mental chatter (“what if I lose…?”) are usually much worse than the reality of our life situations, even when these situations are difficult. Control is just a misguided strategy to squelch our fears and achieve a sense of security.

Darlene Cohen, a Zen teacher and author, gave the following suggestion in her book “Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach to Living with Physical and Emotional Pain:”

A big part of what you must learn if you’re to be less worried about controlling everything is how to let go of your compulsive need to feel in control. You would be better off making the effort it takes to learn when to stop making effort, when to allow things to just happen, to simply let your impulses come forth. This is the art of cultivating faith in your intuition, learning to trust your inherent wisdom.

Cohen stated that training ourselves to hold not-knowing mind is a key support in dealing with a mind that is set on being in control. As Cohen wrote:

We always seem to need to be prepared because we are so fearful of what’s ahead. But knowing is comparatively static; not knowing is the creative space. Not knowing allows an opening, a new event, some notion rising from our own unconscious, some original face. This is learning to respect and enjoy the inherent wisdom we’ve cultivated in our disciplined spiritual practice or we’ve noticed has developed during our examined life. I believe that developing the capacity to tolerate not-knowing mind allows what we call “intuition” to evolve.

Cohen also differentiated unconscious efforts to control life circumstances from mastery, which she defined as a belief that “we can act and produce results by acting.” Her description of mastery corresponds with the psychological concept of self-efficacy, which is something that helps people adaptively cope with chronic pain, illness and other challenging circumstances. She wisely distinguished between unconscious responses to fear and conscious efforts to empower ourselves to be stewards of our health and well-being.

In “Answers from the Heart: Practical Responses to Life’s Burning Questions,” the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:

To “let go” means to let go of something. That something may be an object of our mind, something we’ve created, like an idea, feeling, desire or belief. Getting stuck on that idea could bring a lot of unhappiness and anxiety. We’d like to let it go, but how? It’s not enough just to want to let it go; we have to recognize it first as being something real. We have to look deeply into its nature and where it has come from, because ideas are born from feelings, emotions, and past experiences, from things we’ve seen and heard. With the energy of mindfulness and concentration we can look deeply and discover the roots of the idea, the feeling, the emotion, the desire.

Thich Nhat Hanh also stated that “fear is an element that prevents us from letting go.” But how do we work with fear? Cheri Huber, a Zen teacher and author of “The Fear Book: Facing Fear Once and For All,” suggested that we engage with our fears consciously. She asks us to:

Do something you fear, NOT to conquer the fear, NOT to accomplish a task, but to familiarize yourself with the processes with which fear protects itself, to demystify it.

By consciously doing something that triggers our fears, we can watch ourselves in action and see when our control pattern begins and the forms it takes.

Another Zen teacher and author, Ezra Bayda, wrote about how he worked with fear in the book: “Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life.” At first, he began to become aware of all the ways that his fears surfaced, even in kindness, ambition, depression and anger. Then he tried to confront his fears and transform them.

It wasn’t until Bayda became severely ill that he began to: “stop seeing it as the enemy or obstacle, but to willingly let it in.” Illness is a powerful experience that can force us to let go. Charlotte Joko Beck, Bayda’s Zen teacher, advised him to:

Look at fear as a scientist might, with the curiosity of just wanting to discover what it is. The practice, whenever fear arose, was to ask simply, “What is this?” The answer always lies in the physical experience of the moment.

Bayda watched his fear-based thoughts and went back to his body, allowing himself to experience fear within his stomach, chest, mouth, muscles and elsewhere in his body. He asserted that by relating to fear as an experience rather than as “me,” fear dissipated on its own.

We may be biologically hard-wired to experience fear, but we don’t have to take it so personally!

We have great fear inside ourselves. We are afraid of everything–of our death, of being alone, of change. Fear is born from our concepts regarding life, death, being, and nonbeing. If we are able to get rid of all these concepts by touching the reality within ourselves, then nonfear will be there and the greatest relief will become possible. ~Thich Nhat Hanh

With Zen eyes we can see the concepts that trigger our fears and the fears that trigger our control patterns. With non-judgmental inquisitiveness, we can look deeply into the beliefs and notions that re-trigger our fears and control patterns again and again. And with gentle attention, we can open to the visceral experiences of fear, giving fear the space to transform on its own.

Awareness and insight are powerful antidotes to a fearful mind that is desperate for a sense of security.

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