Deconstructing Control

On multiple occasions I’ve heard teachers refer to “controlling” the mind. Control is a word and concept that I struggle with. It rubs me against me and feels coarse. So, when it came up in my meditation, I welcomed the opportunity to examine my relationship with issues of control more closely.

Encarta Dictionary defines control as: to exercise power or authority over something; to operate something; to restrain or limit somebody or something. And, there it is: the idea that relates to restrain, limit, and power-over. I find authoritative behavior distasteful, so it’s no surprise that I resist what feels like control. When projected externally, an attempt to power-over and control can easily create abusive behaviors. Inwardly, we can become our own tyrants through self-mortification and bullying ourselves into believing that our doubts, fears, and insecurities are reality.

ships dial
Image by stevendepolo

If so many respected teachers are suggesting that we control our mind states, then there must be some redemptive quality to control that I missed. I think the confusion comes from blending controlling behaviors with an attempt to operate or regulate something. The image of a volume dial came to mind. Instead of seeing control as an absolute that implies force and disempowerment (like a power on/off switch), maybe it’s simply an option to quiet or amplify what’s going on in the mind. There may even be other choices like how much bass or treble we use to fine tune the sound. For that matter, we can even change the station!

Underneath the notion that we can learn to control our minds is the reminder that we always have choice. For me, the idea of controlling behavior suggests that I have no choice, or at minimum that my choices are limited based on an imbalance of power. Externally, another being may be trying to manipulate me or vice versa. Internally, some aspect of my ego or neuroses may be attempting to trick me into thinking that I am weak and unworthy.

When I open to control as it relates to operating something, I create space for a broader view. The issue of impending threat and disempowerment become transformed with empowering options. The blinders come off, my vision expands, and new opportunities are allowed into my awareness. If I feel backed into a corner, I can find a way out. I can escape the illusion that comes with narrow vision and open the doors to what else is present.

There is another underlying aspect to control. It relates to responsibility. Even if I let go of all the preconceived notions and conditioning that relate to power and control, I am still faced with the reality that I – and only I – have the ability to respond appropriately. Yikes, it’s so much easier to deflect responsibility when being powered-over. It may be unpleasant, but hey, maybe it’s not really my fault. Delusion can be downright entertaining if we maintain humor. None the less, it can be daunting to embrace the idea that we have the ability to control our mind states given the consequences of that reality.

That leads me to what started this reflection: Trust. Do I trust myself? What does that mean and how does that affect my self-confidence? Realizing that I am responsible for my mind states, moods, and thoughts is nothing new to me. Having it reinforced that I can teach myself how to control my mind is somehow different. I guess the reality lies in understanding that I can learn to operate the vehicle in a more precise and skillful manner.

I think that our bodies, lives, and incarnations are a vehicle to express our soul, divine, all that is, or whatever you choose to call it. So, it makes sense to me that learning how to operate the machinery is attainable, teachable, and desirable. I feel fortunate to have found resources that provide instructions. For that, I am grateful to the Buddha and his teachings that show us how. I am appreciative to so many teachers that bring the Dhamma to life, and to the community that supports the everyday reality that we can ease our suffering.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what term I use. We choose whether to restrict or feed thought, feelings, energy, and mind states. For me, the important thing is to stay open. When I remind myself that I am simply learning to drive, I can focus on the process which I call my practice. I can lessen the pressure that motivates me to slam on the brakes, make a wrong turn, or floor it. I silence the honking horns and ease away from congestion and traffic towards the calm of a quiet country road.


© Sallie Odenthal 2013


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