The Strategy of Illusory Control.

November 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

Impasto Spring 1933

The Buddhist teaching of Dependent Origination states that no being or phenomena exist independently of other beings and phenomena. You would not be where you are today if it were not for the society that supports you with food, transportation, jobs and goods. The oxygen you breath is made by plants. The sun warms the oceans that give rise to clouds that provide drinking water. Change one part of your society or environment and all of it will eventually be affected; sometimes subtly, sometimes greatly.

You may easily accept the idea of dependent origination but have you inquired into what it means to you emotionally? If dependent origination has your life depending on outer conditions, does this not mean you are not in control of your life? A piece of contaminated lettuce may put you in the hospital. So can a driver distracted by a cell. Your work place can be downsized leaving you without a job. Your partner may leave. The list of things that can change your life is endless because life’s possibilities are endless. And isn’t that just a bit scary?

Most people deal with this fundamental fear by acknowledging only what they can control and ignoring or pushing away what they can’t. In simple Buddhist terms, they attach to the desirable and feel aversion to the undesirable. This provides a sense of control over life but that control is only an illusion.

The strategy of illusory control, if I may call it that, can be seen on both an individual and global level. While I write this, the world is reacting with fear to the recent attack in Paris by calling for an end to refugees entering their countries. They believe that by controlling the flow of people, they will regain control of their lives and once again be safe. Yet authorities tell us that none of the Paris attackers were refugees, so the idea of being safe by stemming the flow of refugees is nothing more than illusion.

The trouble with illusion is that it easily crumbles when given a jolt from reality. Such a jolt, however, provides us with an opportunity to discover the strategies we use to avoid facing our fears. In Zen koan study those strategies are described as barriers. In simple terms a barrier is a conditioned response that deflects attention away from fear.

There are many strategies to avoid fear. Attempting to control your surroundings is one; as is chasing after success, popularity or love. Seeking pleasure or making oneself a victim so others will take care of you are others. No matter what strategy you use to feel safe, it will eventually fail because it is based upon the illusion that you can isolate yourself in a universe that operates on a principle of dependent origination.

We may ask ourselves what we can do in a world where there is only the illusion of control and safety. After all, can’t we all be happy? Can’t our children be safe?

If the only answer that we will accept demands that all danger be eliminated, then we will be sadly disappointed with the answer to these questions. But Buddhism asks we accept that answer and take up life’s problems as part of our path. When something bad happens, use it to examine the strategies that give you the illusion of safety. When fear arises, stay with the fear and teach yourself not to be overwhelmed by it or to suppress it.

You do not have to wait for a major crisis to do this. You need only examine your mind right now to find the barriers you’ve constructed that limit awareness. Examine your moods, what irritates you, what you push away and gravitate toward. Whenever you are uncomfortable or fearful use this as a sign that one of your strategies isn’t working and look within to see what it is. By learning to be with small fears, you prepare yourself for life’s major catastrophes.

Even when meeting darkness and fear, by just learning to stay with it we engender a feeling of lightness and an open heart to all that comes across our path and to whom all we meet. Fears that made us lash out, run or freeze will become workable. And we will no longer cut ourselves off from life or from others that seek to enter our lives.


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