The illusion of control

“Know yourself as the open, empty sky of awareness, that all clouds will pass, but you remain.”


It’s Christmas, and there’s no better season to let go and forgive than now. What makes this whole schtick better is the fact that the roller coaster ride that we happen to call 2020 is reaching its end, and for better or worse, the many things that have changed.

In hindsight, who in their right mind would have asked for a pandemic at all? Is it better than 2019’s business as usual?

On the bright side, the pandemic has brought out a new creative dimension within humanity; from the heartwarming moments and memes from tireless front-liners that endure in the struggle, to the flexible work-from-home situations, the flourishing of online businesses, the sharp rise in quiet-self-care-time to the odd counter-trend that is the stock market, much has been changed in wonderful ways. On the flip side, countless jobs have been lost, fears of an incoming recession loom over people’s heads, and some of us have had to be separated with loved ones, in some cases permanently. Uncertainty, pure unbridled RNG seems to be the meta this year, and despite a vaccine on the horizon, a world stricken with fear and brimming with anger seems to be ushering in a 2021 that is as good as anyone’s guess.

But then, that’s the whole point of control, right? This abstract concept that when applied to life situations, seems to reduce uncertainty to the point that our minds can just forget that that ever existed. It has worked for us in the past, when we overcame food supply uncertainties with the advent of farming, when we solved our productivity issues with the invention of electricity and the internet. No matter the issue, as long as we apply control measures to the situation, it must mean that we can safely reduce the inherent uncertainties in the situation, or at least that’s what the modern world preaches.

As an engineer by training, I accept that some control is needed in our lives, but then again, through ceaseless pondering as of late I have to question just how much control we really think we have.

For starters, our breathing is an involuntary process. Imagine if we had to make a conscious decision every time we needed to inhale and exhale, the silliest excuses for dying would start with “I forgot to breathe lol” or “you took my breath away”. The same applies to the rest of our bodily functions. Do we put in effort to circulate our blood, to digest our food, to filter our blood, or does that just happen naturally? All these processes keep the body alive, keep us alive, yet we never have any real control over them. Is it by chance that that is the case, or are the only things that we have real control over, our thoughts?

Yes, our thoughts. The very things that we claim to own that somehow give us a sense of being a person and the responsibilities that entail with it? Just how much control do we really have over our own thoughts, lest we be deluding ourselves here? What about the random mental comment on the person that just cut the line in front of you, the kind of thought that happens almost involuntarily, before you remind yourself to be civil in resolving the issue? What about the surge of fear and anxiety from a past trauma that happened decades ago, the block deep within that you were supposed to “have gotten over” even after all this time? What about instinct, the heuristics that stem from subconscious patterns deep within yourself that kick in in specific situations that may be efficient but not always correct? What about your thoughts on the person closest to you, are they dictated by the situation that you find yourselves in, where your relationship goes from love to hate over pineapples on pizza and/or family dynamics? What about the self-image that we so love and cherish deeply, that we may feel proud of ourselves one day to feeling completely ashamed of ourselves the next? Even our own moods aren’t fully within our control, where on some days we don’t feel like ‘ourselves’, as if ‘ourselves’ is some kind of mode that can be switched on and off, as if sadness is a thing that has zero momentum in our minds. For if we have control over our thoughts, shouldn’t we have the mental strength and discipline to choose what thoughts we entertain?

“Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody is going to die. Come watch TV.”

-Morty, from Rick and Morty, Season 1 Episode 8

If that is the case, then what real control do we have over anything at all, or is the notion of control itself a human delusion that the universe can and should be arranged to fit our fleeting whims and fancies, the laws of science and codes of ethic that we deem upright and proper? Or rather, are the rules of science and codes of ethic that we hold dear only appropriate for the range of situations pertaining to human civilization? For if Wall Street crashes over the next two weeks, or if we pass away in our sleep tonight, do we even know when it will happen?

If so, then what about our behavior in treating our fellow humans, are we resigned to just being victims of our emotions, to be at the whim of moods and tantrums that we act out on every single one of them? Are we doomed to be slaves to our desires and passions that we confine our lives solely to the pursuit and fulfilment of them? No. But we must begin by replacing control with acceptance as the basis for approaching these problems, to acknowledge oneself as the background awareness, not the content circus that in the foreground. For if one knows that all things will truly come to pass and sees the transience of all situations, then acceptance is the default mode, then we are able to see things for what they are, without our own judgements and presumptions; and with that comes a great power, because fear is seen for what it is: an illusion. Any action that arises out of a genuine acceptance of the situation, even if it happens to be a control measure of some kind, would be an intelligent one, as opposed to action that arises out of defiance of the present moment that is more often than not dictated by fear. It isn’t easy to say which situations require control measures and which ones don’t, but then again such is the nature of every moment that we find ourselves in if we leave our preconceptions behind: unique and fresh.

To see reality through the lenses of a universal Newtonian model is to be comfortable, to admit the unpredictability and run with it is to be courageous, because it is humbling and downright scary to admit that our lives are at the mercy of so many things that could possibly go wrong. But it makes for an equally opposite and more beautiful human interpretation: that we are incredibly fortunate to exist in this moment, right here and now. That we can be grateful to have a body that still functions, and be alive to taste the present moment, whatever shape or form it may take.

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”

-Meister Eckhart

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