Letting Go of the Illusion of Control

“That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and impermanent, is the first mark of existence. It is the ordinary state of affairs. Everything is in process. Everything—every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate—is always changing, moment to moment.”
  Pema Chodron
Some years ago I had the privilege of observing the progress of a group of Tibetan monks creating a mandala sand painting at the Asia Society in NYC where I lived.  As I watched their progress; the incredible attention to detail done with remarkable patience and cheerfulness, I started to think about how I do things – but most important how I think about the doing of them.
In the rich tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, millions of grains of sand are painstakingly laid into place on a flat platform over a period of days or weeks.  When finished, the colored sands are swept up and poured into a nearby river or stream where the waters are thought to carry healing energies throughout the world.  The “purpose” is to symbolize the impermanence of all that exists.
This amazing practice is often met by questions of “Why bother?” and exclamations of “What a waste.” My experience with the monks left me with questions I still ponder.
In the case of the monk’s painting, can we create something of beauty and admiration if it is not lasting? What is its value if it is only temporary? Are the time, patience and dedication to the creation worth less because it was destroyed? If the paintings were displayed in a museum or owned by someone, would the monk’s work be more important?
Thinking about the impermanence of all things is something most of us would rather ignore. That’s understandable – it isn’t easy. But denial doesn’t change reality.  Looking through the lens of impermanence can have a powerful effect on the choices and decisions we make, even if it is simply to change how we want to think.
Ultimately, the questions posed by the symbol of the monk’s work – questions about the nature of impermanence are deeply philosophical and not within the realm of this article.  But they speak to important questions about the ways in which we do our work, engage in relationships and make the momentary choices that make up our lives.

Letting Go of Stopping the Flow – Non-Resistance

We spend a considerable amount of our precious time trying to control what is outside of our control. Clearly, the most important step we can take to assess how we use our energies is to define what we mean by control and understand the beliefs that compel us.
Even though intellectually we may acknowledge the limits of our control, a closer examination of how we feel and act implies we believe we have greater control than we admit.
Little escapes our desire for control; with other people’s actions often topping the list. Wanting other’s to think, feel and behave differently isn’t always manipulative or negative in intention. We can intend for other’s to be happier, healthier or successful, but ultimately our attempt to control is to satisfy our own inner needs.
Not understanding those drives and needs can leave us in a repetitive state of dissatisfaction and frustration. This is the common plight of many managers who are faced with employees who do not conform to their behavioral style.
Many spiritual traditions practice forms of non-resistance. The Eastern discipline of Tai Chi is built on the principle of non-resistance or “action without action.” The concept of effortless doing is behind the principle that you don’t resist or work against energies (internal or external) but you actually work with them.
In practice, your non-resistance aligns with the flow of the energy rather than exerting power (wasted) on trying to suppress the momentum of the energy of “what is.”
Eastern philosophies liken the nature of non-resistance to the flow of water. Water flows around its obstacles – its nature is strong yet yielding. When we resist anything, the force we create is tight, tense and always reactive.  Loving What Is author Byron Katie’s point outs, “I am a lover of what is, not because I’m a spiritual person, but because it hurts when I argue with reality.”  
When you resist “what is” you’re often unconsciously triggering old unresolved feelings and memories. Resistance feeds on repetitive thinking – and repetitive thought continues to “fire” neurons that activate the limbic emotional responses for fear, anger and frustration. This creates an emotional loop that’s difficult to undo. Unfortunately, too many people stay stuck in these chronic states of frustration.
As this negative loop re-triggers old neural habits, we often complicate our experience by trying to suppress the emotions that arise.  Studies show that emotional suppression doesn’t work and that the “kickback” from resistance is often stronger than the initial feeling. In many ways, our own internal emotional system mirrors the similar dynamic of what happens when we try to resist what is happening outside of us.

Letting Go of Resistance

When we begin the process of letting go of resistance, the only place to start and the only place to be is the present. In the 60,000 or so thoughts we humans have each day; many or most are focused on the past or the future.  The reality of existence is that we only have this moment – the present – to live.  So paying attention to what we’ve resisted in the past may be interesting, even informative, but noticing what we are resisting right now (feelings, the weather, a colleague’s attitude, bad news, a computer glitch, etc) is what is in our control.
Being non-resistant to what is doesn’t mean that you lower your standards, stop caring about external events or become a doormat for others.  It means that as we act as conscious and motivated individuals we do so without harboring the belief that we can manipulate or arrange outside events.  We care and we act without attachment.
Non-Attachment, a term often used in Buddhism, refers to the art of being engaged (present, attentive, involved, curious, aware) without trying to control the outcome of a situation.  This is the essence of non-resistance. I may have a point of view, even a strong one, about how I would like to see a situation turn out, but I am not cognitively or emotionally trying to manipulate the outcome.
What I expect when I practice non-resistance is very different from what I expect when I am actively (whether unconsciously or consciously) trying to control an outcome. This can be tricky because once you begin to actively pursue being non-resistant you will experience how often you were operating from your “agenda” previously.  While non-attachment can result in an exhilarating sense of freedom, there can also be a feeling of detachment or discomfort, especially in the experimental stages.
Judgment is another way we resist what is. We can have preferences and values about what is important to us, but judging others produces a very different effect. You know you’re judging when the accompanying feelings are anger, resentment and disdain.
When I judge I am essentially saying, “I’m right,” and “You’re wrong.” This is challenging and often murky territory because of what we consider to be moral reasoning. Moral judgment is complex and highly personal. Groups and societies must make collective decisions about moral reasoning if they are to live harmoniously and attend effectively to pluralistic needs.
Judgment and control are frequent companions. Judgment can often feel satisfying because it reinforces our self-esteem and provides the veneer of safety. More often it restricts choice and limits our freedom especially in relationships where judgment is perceived through body language and the unconscious emotional messaging we cannot not communicate.
Resistance is mental, emotional and physical struggle.  The discomfort, pain and suffering we create from small attempts to control (“the line starts here, not there”) to trying to change the feelings or behavior of others, especially loved ones, is exhausting. It is also futile.  Writer and teacher Eckhart Tolle asks a powerful question,What would you do if you surrendered to your life, just as it is, in this moment?

Writer David Robert Ord offers a vision of nonresistance in the work world, In the take-charge, aggressive approach of much of modern business, to be in a surrendered state of mind would be viewed as capitulating to the forces of the world around us. There are so many factors involved in modern business—so many things to consider, so many balls to juggle—that people are often mentally stressed and physically tense from all that has to be accomplished.”
Yet Eckhart Tolle writes in Stillness Speaks:
“Doing one thing at a time means to be total in what you do, to give it your complete attention. This is surrendered action—empowered action. Surrendered action has no resistance in it. We don’t fight our circumstances, don’t focus on all the things that are coming at us, don’t tell ourselves a story about “how much we have to do.”
This surrendered state, which is free of all resistance, allows us to become present with whatever is asking for our attention at this moment, now. We bring our full attention to it, instead of part of us thinking about what else we need to be doing.
Plus, we aren’t emotionally flustered by all the demands on us, but can focus our attention in a calm way. This frees up a lot of energy that’s otherwise frittered away in emotional turmoil.
We won’t break free of the habits of resistance – the tendencies towards attachment and the natural reactivity to judge easily. This idea can defeat us even before we begin. But what is doable is for us to remember the next time  we feel the urge to resist what is – we let go – even for only an instant. In that moment, we’ve broken new ground for what is possible. 
Thich Nhat Hahn wrote, We have to nourish our insight into impermanence every day. If we do, we will love more deeply, suffer less and enjoy life much more.”

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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  1. Sangeeta says:

    Pema Chodron and Mandalas have made a huge impact on my life as well 🙂
    Thought you would enjoy this teaching from Ajahn Chah:
    “You say, “Don’t break my glass!” Can you prevent something that’s breakable from breaking? If it doesn’t break now it will break later on. If you don’t break it, someone else will. If someone else doesn’t break it, one of the chickens will! The Buddha says to accept this. He penetrated the truth of these things, seeing that this glass is already broken. Whenever you use this glass you should reflect that it’s already broken. Do you understand this? The Buddha’s understanding was like this. He saw the broken glass within the unbroken one. Whenever its time is up it will break. Develop this kind of understanding. Use the glass, look after it, until when, one day, it slips out of your hand… “Smash!” … no problem. Why is there no problem? Because you saw its brokenness before it broke!
    But usually people say, “I love this glass so much, may it never break.” Later on the dog breaks it…”I’ll kill that damn dog!” You hate the dog for breaking your glass. If one of your children breaks it you’ll hate them too. Why is this? Because you’ve dammed yourself up, the water can’t flow. You’ve made a dam without a spillway. The only thing the dam can do is burst, right? When you make a dam you must make a spillway also. When the water rises up too high, the water can flow off safely. When it’s full to the brim you open your spillway. You have to have a safety valve like this. Impermanence is the safety valve of the Noble Ones. If you have this “safety valve” you will be at peace.”
    Thanks for another great article Louise 🙂
    Warm Regards,

    • Dear Sangeeta,
      Thanks so much for contributing to this post and discussion – it’s a powerful one. From the first time I dabbled in Buddhist thought I was struck with
      the simplicity and practicality of it. I’ve had some wonderful experiences with monks over the years and at times of great stress I can feel myself in their
      presence, patient and cheerful as I said in the post. As for Pema Chodron, she is simply a wise, relevant and wonderful teacher. What I love about the
      teachings are their applicability to anyone despite their religious, spiritual or non-spiritual leanings. We can all agree on wanting peace and ending suffering.
      Lovely to hear from you and
      thanks again,

  2. I always love your thoughtful and substantive posts, Louise. This one is, once again, fascinating….and does a great job of connecting the dots between our “work life” and our sacred existence. Thank you and I hope all is well.

    • Hi Terry,
      Good to hear from you. Thanks so much for appreciating the work. Though it is mighty hard to hang onto, I believe our work life
      is part of our sacred existence. Our experience here is fleeting and precious and I do believe that we if can remind ourselves of this with
      more regularity, life takes on a different sense of urgency – and non-urgency.
      All the best and I’m grateful for your consistent support,

  3. John Wenger says:

    Louise, love this article. Absolutely relevant to leaders, to work, to life. How much more satisfying life is when I am in the moment, unattached (in the Buddhist sense), awake to what is. When I warm up to my spontaneity state and can respond in a fresh and life-giving way to what is in front of me, I feel that I am really living and really creating something new.

    • Hi John,
      Glad you liked the post! Actually it’s been evolving for some time. Looking around and seeing actions that feel like the countering of a perceived loss of power.
      Thinking about systems and realizing that distributive power can’t take hold till people and organizations loosen their grip on power. Thus – the surge in enforcing
      centralized, hierarchical power. Love what you say here about when we respond with spontaneity we are able able to create something new. I think that goes for the personal
      and for the collective.
      Thanks again,

  4. akismet-1911d3f0fb1230e97c62611703290be4 says:

    Louise, I am so glad I found your web site because we share so many sentiments about the importance (and benefits) of letting go of control, which you express so eloquently. I have found that to be in the moment and break free of resistance, we almost always need to face and embrace our fears–and the work place is a hot bed for our fears.
    When we are able to let go of control at work, it frees work’s “natural currents” and provides us with the opportunity to engage those currents in an intuitive and expansive manner, often resulting in new opportunities and unexpected rewards.
    If you send me your mailing address, I would like to send you a complimentary copy of my book, Losing Control, Finding Serenity: How the Need to Control Hurts Us and How to Let It Go, which has a section on relinquishing control at work.

    • Thanks Danny!
      Appreciate the comment!
      I love the concept of the natural currents – intuitive and expansive.
      Letting go of control (and first and foremost each one of us needs to define what control means for us) in general is challenging – very difficult in most
      work settings because control is embedded in the system. This is a much larger process – and awakening.
      Very kind of you to offer the book. Email me and I will send you the address.

  5. drlyndaklau says:

    this is a wise and beautiful post. i love the title: the illusion of control.
    thank you,

  6. Karen Hirsch says:

    Dear Louise and all who have shared your wise and compelling comments, just a few thoughts: First, I am so thankful to know that there are growing numbers of us who are bringing universal wisdom into our – and hopefully others’ – lives in “user-friendly” ways. Also, I love the metaphor of difference between holding something (hopes, beliefs, feelings, thoughts, etc.) in an open palm rather than a closed fist. Also, I’m finding it enormously helpful on this journey toward being genuinely curious about whatever is arising within me without self-censorship, to have as a North Star and bring to this when I can a quality of gentle, loving awareness to whatever I’m experiencing. Of course, this is especially challenging when I’m strongly triggered so, as Louise so eloquently writes, even a moment of this kind of quality is cause for gratitude and a quiet, deep joy at the experience of deep learning. Also, kind irreverence and humor (though never at the expense of others) are very, very helpful to me! Wow, Louise, your writing sure does inspire me!!

    • Hi Karen,
      Thanks for your wonderful comment. I find your points about curiosity and it’s role in curbing self-censorship very helpful. Not only is even a moment of
      this conscious “allowing” a cause for gratitude but I think the evidence is clearly there that it’s rearranging neural patterns in the process. Heuristics, or “cognitive habits,” are constantly being mitigated by our conscious minds. These mental shortcuts are desirable at one level, but also limit the opportunities for spontaneous experience.
      I do believe that seeking control can be the product of these mental habits.
      And a good laugh helps too!
      Much appreciated,

  7. kunami7 says:

    Hello Louise,
    Engage in the present BUT let go of controlling its outcome! Wow! Thanks!

    • Pleased you appreciated the post.
      The line between control (manipulating) and having an intention that keeps us engaged is fine. Takes a deep level of self-awareness and sensitivity to who and what is around us.
      Thx for commenting,

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