You Are Not In Control. Enjoy It.
The art of going with the flow.
There’s an old Taoist story about a monk who falls into a powerful river which has huge waterfall downstream. A crowd looks on in despair, certain that the monk has no hope of survival. Yet to their surprise, they find him alive and well at the bottom of the waterfall. “How did you manage to survive?” they asked as they helped him out of the water. “What did you do?” The monk smiled, “I didn’t do anything,” he replied. “The flow of the river was much stronger than I am, so I just allowed myself to go where it took me.”
Survival is sometimes really about recognising that we don’t have control. In a crash, for example, an adult will tense their muscles, as if there were anything their efforts might do against the impact. A young child on the other hand, who hasn’t learned such foolishness yet, goes limp. It doesn’t try to exert any control over the situation and greatly increases its chances of survival.
It’s not just life and death situations where this principle holds true though. Fighting against the current of everyday life is just as counterproductive. If you think about it, it’s amazing how many things we have no control over. Even within our own bodies, our hearts beat without our permission and our nervous systems tell us that we’re cold or hungry or sleepy without the slightest consideration for whether we want to feel these things. What we find funny, the things that move us to tears, enjoying the taste of our favourite food. Even now, you can’t choose to stop understanding these words. So long as you’re able to read English, there’s not a thing you can do about the fact that you’ll interpret these squiggles and understand what they say. We don’t have control over any of this stuff. You can’t choose to stop doing any of them or force them to happen if they suddenly don’t.
So much of life is like this. In many ways, life is just kind of…happening. It’s like a TV show that we watch so religiously we begin to feel as if we’re one of the characters. Only we’re not the ones writing the script. Whether the next thing that happens next is what we hoped or not isn’t up to us. And it’s a good thing too, because the people who write the script are the only ones for whom the story has no drama. It’s only when you aren’t in control of what happens next, that life is truly interesting.
Think about it, how many of the best moments of your life were things that happened exactly as you planned? Did you decide to fall in love with whoever you ended up falling in love with? Did you design your moments of greatest happiness? Or did they arrive out of the blue when you were least expecting them? Life happens when we allow it to, not when we force it. At the opposite end of the spectrum, how many of the worst moments did you have the power to stop? Or even to change? How many of the moments you spent days weeks or months worrying about were as bad as you feared? And how instrumental was your worrying in preventing them?
This might all sound a bit depressing, but it’s not meant to be. The suffering and unhappiness we experience is really just a refusal to accept this fact. An attempt to swim against a current that’s too powerful for us. If most of what happens in life is out of our control, be it the way other people see us, the good or bad luck we encounter, or who comes into our lives, the only thing that makes sense is for us to focus on accepting what. In a car with no steering wheel, there’s no sense in trying to hold onto the space where the steering wheel should be.
Accepting that we don’t have control doesn’t mean giving up though. It means becoming more alert to the flow of life. We give the attention that we used to give to wishing things were different to being conscious of what it is. We’re able to stop worrying about what it just did or where it’s about to take us because we’re too focused on what it’s doing right now. We don’t stop caring, we just stop worrying.
This is the true insight that comes with abandoning the illusion of control; that it’s possible to care about what happens next without worrying about it. The two aren’t opposite sides of the same coin as we’ve been lead to believe. Worrying is just an extra layer that we place on top of caring. It doesn’t make us care more, or make us any more likely to succeed. In fact, if worrying does anything at all, it makes us less likely to succeed.
There are many things that we care about that we have no control over at all. We care about the future of our children and the decisions of our friends but trying to influence these things directly rarely, if ever, actually helps. Most of the time, the best we can do is stay alert and allow life to take its course. This can be difficult to accept, especially if things don’t work out as we hoped, but even in these cases, at least we can respond to what has happened, not what we feared was going to.