Saturday, 10 August 2013

Control is an illusion

Reactions plunge us into confusion, and we, quite literally, don't know what we are doing or why we are doing it.

There isn't an on-off switch for confusion, but there are degrees.

Perhaps you think that meditation practice will give you the ability to control your reactions?

Even in reading this note, you don't know what is going to happen moment to moment. You don't know what the next sentence will say. Nor do you know how you will react to it. It may make you cry. It may make you laugh. It may leave you confused.

Control is an illusion.

What happens when a colleague teases you in front of your coworkers? Right now, imagine that happening. Are you able to control the reactions in your body as you imagine everyone laughing at you? What would happen in the actual situation. Are you able to control what emotions arise? Are you able to control the thoughts, the stories, that start to run?

What happens when an attractive woman or man approaches you and places a hand on your arm? What happens when a person you admire greatly compliments you or asks you for your opinion? What happens when you see a homeless person sleeping in an alley on a cold rainy night? What happens when he asks you for change?

Reactions just happen. Everyone in every culture reacts the same way to certain stimuli. Many of these reactions are biologically conditioned. Current research on micro-expressions reveals that facial expressions across cultures are remarkably consistent. What is different is the duration of the expression, which is measured in microseconds. You don't control the actual reaction.

If you are practiced, when reactions arise you don't act on them. You don't fall into confusion, and you are able to decide what to do on the merits of the moment.

How does this work?

Ordinarily, a reaction, say anger, comes up and it takes you over. In other words, you fall into confusion right away. You don't even notice it coming. You are suddenly yelling or seething or stomping out of the room.

When you have practiced a bit, that same reaction comes up, you recognize you are reacting, but it keeps running. Your head may be above water, but you are still deep enough in confusion to be swept along by the current.

When you have practiced a bit more, when that reaction comes up, you recognize it, you can even stay in the experience of your body tensing, but you don't know what to do or say. You don't express your anger, but you feel a bit stupid, tongue-tied as it were. You aren't completely lost, but the confusion of anger still trips you up.

After you have practiced quite a bit, when anger comes up, you recognize it, experience it and are able to respond, rather than react. You don't fall into confusion because it isn't there.

What do you control here -- the reaction, the recognition, not being able to respond, or being able to respond? You don't control any of those! But the confusion has dissolved.

What dissolves confusion is the momentum and energy that have built up through your practice; it is your path that dissolves confusion, not you.

We practice, not to be able to control reactions, but to create other possibilities in our lives.

Creative Commons LicenseThis article by Ken McLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.