Routine and the Illusion of Control

I was talking to one of my Great Students this past weekend. The topic was change.

I explained that the reason why people are so unnerved by a change in their life (births, deaths, divorces, job losses, friends walking away from them, hospitalization, etc.) is because up to that point, they’ve enjoyed what I call an illusion of control. The element introduced to that equation – the life-change event – reveals they are not in control.

What they don’t realize is they never were.

Furthermore, what they deem as a return to control (health from ill health, the restoration of a relationship, the re-uniting with departed friends, etc.) is really just a return to routine. Even time passing accomplishes that. Even though nothing may actually return to the way it was, the passing of time restores the illusion of control so that things seem better. They once again become calm, content, and happy.

But it’s not control. It’s just routine. Sameness. Normalcy.

As I waxed eloquent, talking about the gap between the changing event and the routine-as-illusion, and how that space between the two causes people to live as if on a teeter-totter (up one day, down the next…happy, sad, happy, sad), my student interrupted me to say this:

“Then it seems it would be wise of us to be comfortable living within that space.”


Very wise. Keenly insightful.

My student rocks.

But there’s even more to it than that. Another layer.

Zen is asking, “What is it? Don’t know” moment after moment after moment. That’s our practice. (That particular phrase comes from the late Korean Zen master Seung Sahn.)

If we do that, we are awake to what arises – and aware that we are in control of nothing.

Consequently, we are less apt to be surprised by a life-change event…and therefore less apt to live as if on a teeter-totter. When a life-change event arises, it doesn’t catch us sleeping, believing we are in control. We note it for what it is, grieve or feel joy, laugh or cry, and continue on.

What we don’t do is live our lives like an EKG graph – upticks and downticks. Rising and falling. One emotional extreme to another.

Casting off the illusion of control enables us to live more healthy, more productive lives. Why? Because we no longer suffer from trying to recover from life-change events, plaintively asking ourselves, “Why me?” or angrily declaring “I can’t believe he/she/it [fill in the blank]!” Expending that kind of time and energy saps us from doing other things.

So, the first step would be to become comfortable with living in that space, that gap, of uncertainty. That would help equalize the emotional peaks and valleys of life.

But, even better than that, to avoid that space to begin with…

Wake up!

One Comment

  1. Rev. Jachong

    This is/was a fabulous teaching. I am grateful, and I aspire to this now. Thank you, Great Teacher!

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