Control and other myths

We all crave for control - control over our lives, a control that would give us certainty over what happens to us in our lives. And we want it, and want it, often desperately.

A pity, then, that it does not, and cannot, exist.

Control is a myth. An illusion. A pleasant-seeming illusion, a highly desirable illusion - but an illusion nonetheless.

Control, if it existed, would be a state of absolute certainty, absolute predictability. But no such thing exists: there is no shortage of proof of that as a fact, from the esoteric uncertainties of quantum physics, the bizarre twists of chaos mathematics, or the mundane realities of Murphy's Law. We can often create an illusion of control - control in technology, control in politics, control in our own lives - but we can do so only by narrowing down the range of possibilities in a way that becomes further and further separated from reality. And even if we do manage to build that illusion so well that others believe it as strongly as we'd like to do, there's always some random weirdness that will break it down - more often sooner than later. The semblance of control is rarely more than a belief that we're in control - wishful thinking rather than reality.

Are you truly in control of your life - in the sense that you could and did predict everything that has happened and will happen to you? If not, who is in control?

If you'd say 'others', such as parents or politicians or abstract entities like multinational corporations, look more closely: do the people involved actually have absolute certainty about what will happen? Do they really have control over their lives?

If not, who is in control of anything? Who or what is actually in control?

The feeling that no-one is in control is frightening. The desire for there to be someone who's in control - since clearly we aren't - often leads us to search for certainties in religion. But even this doesn't give us what we crave: we'd be told, for example, that "even the Will of God may be perverted by the machinations of the Adversary in the hearts of men" - which translates into normal language as 'there always will be uncertainties'. According to the Norse tradition, even the gods were subject to the twists and turns of their fate, the results of their choices in the web of wyrd. There's no escaping Fate; there's no escaping uncertainty.

Control is either absolute, or nothing: if it's not absolute, it's not control. But reality is infinitely complex, and infinitely sensitive to its infinite conditions: absolute control would require us to control everything, everywhere and everywhen, past, present and future. So control is impossible: a myth, a joke. To seek for control is to seek for an illusion - an illusion for which most of us, unfortunately, spend most of our lives striving to achieve.

We cannot control: though with awareness we can direct what happens to us - the distinction is subtle, but very important! But before we can reach that way of relating to reality - one that accepts it for what it is - we first have to let go of the desperate need for control. And to do that, we first have to understand why that need is there in the first place.

Fear is a four-letter word

There's a simple, one-word reason: fear. Lots of it. So much fear that we'll often deny it exists at all...

Fear focusses our attention on anywhere, anywhen other than the here-and-now. Fear, in effect, is another form of belief: that something we don't want is at risk of happening. The more we don't want it, and the more uncertainty about the when, the where and the likelihood of its happening, the more afraid we're likely to get. And the more afraid we get, the more we think it's likely to happen - in fact, the more likely it is to happen, because of the self-confirming nature of belief.

That desirable myth of control seems to offer a way out: "I'll damn well make sure that it can't happen!" So we build walls, restrictions, limitations on reality. But since control is only an illusion, we have to build more walls to protect us from seeing that those walls are only illusory, and then walls within walls within walls - until we forget what it was we were afraid of in the first place.

When you find yourself controlling - for example, minutely planning every detail of some future event - what are you afraid is going to happen? What are the controls for?

When you get to that event - if it happened at all - did it happen the way you planned, the way you expected? What was different? How come you hadn't allowed for the difference?

Take a specific example - either your own or, if you don't want to face that, someone else's - and look at the fears that drive the need for control. How far down do you have to go to reach the fear at the root of it all?

All that we're left with is the certainty that we have to control - and we're usually careful never to wonder why, because that might mean that we'd have to face that well-defended original fear all over again.

The core fear will usually turn out to be some central self-doubt, a 'curse' that someone else has taught us to believe, as we saw earlier. And - for all our controlling - until we do face that fear, the fear is controlling us. If we're not aware, everything we do can be driven or distorted by a handful of long-forgotten fears... definitely weird!

In the other extreme, we can use fear as a substitute for control: we can use fear itself as an excuse for avoiding fears, avoiding facing up to real issues in Reality Department. Instead of trying to impose our internal point of view on the world, we hide until the issue finally comes up - is imposed on us by external events - and are then forced into 'panic mode' in order to deal with it. This may get the job done, but it's hardly efficient... And we might spend so much of our energy avoiding the issue - looking again and again at the washing-up we don't want to do, for example - that it can be said to be controlling our lives.

I hated doing my accounts. I'd do anything to avoid them. They'd sit and fester - a puddle of unchecked invoices - for months. Until tax-time came - then all hell broke loose! Panic! Everything stopped: it's gotta be done now! It would have been a whole lot simpler if I'd spent a little effort over the months keeping everything tidy, everything under control. But I didn't: I relied on the vastly magnified fear at the time instead to control me, since I didn't want to 'control' myself. And perhaps also because, ultimately, I was afraid of the metaphor of being 'called to account' for my life as a whole...

What issues do you find yourself dealing with only in panic-mode? Can you identify the core fear behind the evasion in each case?

For a long while I ran my life like that, in a permanent state of panic, and using a vast intake of coffee - 'liquid fear' - to keep me going. Another hard habit to break! In part it can be a peculiar kind of laziness: a colleague, perhaps unkindly but accurately, once commented "You're just a bag of flab held together by fears - the moment you drop control, you collapse in a heap on the floor...". But the root is always fear: fear of failure, even fear of success. And behind those fears will be some kind of curse-belief like those we saw earlier: most of which break down to the belief that "I'm not allowed to be me".

Control comes from the opposite direction: because we're afraid, we want to make sure that others are not allowed to be themselves, or that reality is not allowed to be as it is. We want to disempower them, to create the illusion of being powerful ourselves. We want power over them; if we can't have that, we'll play the power-under game as hard as we can. There's an old saying that "Where there is fear, there is power; where there is power, there is fear": power and control may be what we see at the surface, but fear - a seething morass of fear - is what lies beneath it all. Until we face those fears, no-one can be truly powerful: none of us can reclaim the power of choice with our lives. To move on, we need to re-define our understanding of power.

I want to be powerful

When there's so much fear that we deny it exists at all, we'll usually call it 'power' instead. The drive for power - or rather, the 'disempowerment of others' that we think of as power - is inextricably interwoven with the need for control. To be powerful in this sense, it seems, is to be 'in control' - we feel certain of having our needs met, whatever they might be. Power seems to give us the ability to control, to have power over events: and the more powerful we are, the more we're in control. We're told that power even makes people love us: "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac". To be powerful is to be called a success. If I'm powerful, I can do whatever I want: and woe betide anyone who gets in my way.

And I feel powerful: "Nothing and no-one can stop me now!"

The opposite, to be 'out of control', or subject to someone else's control, is to be powerless. I'm told I'm a failure: I feel I'm a failure; I feel shame, embarrassment, futility - all of which reinforces the feeling of failure. If I'm powerless, I'm at the uncertain mercy of someone else's power: I have no guarantees whatever of having my needs met. And that's frightening. I'll do anything I can to prevent that...

It's not surprising, then, that we all want to be powerful. We'll fight each other - to the death, if necessary - to become powerful. Or we'll manoeuvre, lie, cheat, cajole, manipulate, anything, to prevent others from having power over us. And all because we're so afraid that we've forgotten we're afraid...

For certain 'powerful' people, the fear that drove them is obvious: the dictator whose rivals all met with fatal 'accidents', for example; the politician who surrounded herself with 'yes-men'; the tycoon who lived in morbid seclusion. Think of some other examples. Why is it obvious to us - but almost never to them - that their behaviour is driven by fear rather than true power?

Since the threads of wyrd pass through each of us, somewhere in you will be the same fears (though probably to a lesser degree!). Put yourself in the place of those people; reach inside yourself to look at those fears where they pass through you. Do you recognise them as your own fears? If so, are they hard to face? What kind of behaviour, what kind of 'power', would enable you to avoid having to face those fears yourself?

It's often hard to grasp that this kind of power is an illusion - especially if you're looking at the wrong end of someone else's belief that "power comes out of the barrel of a gun". Yet in the long run, that's all it is: an illusion, based on unacknowledged fear.

The real problem, perhaps, is that this 'power' seems to be a means of dumping our fears on other people: if we're 'powerful', our fears become someone else's problem. We've seen this already as the tyrant/victim game: what happens is that the victim starts looking for someone else to be a tyrant to, on whom to dump their hurt and fear; the new victim goes looking for their victim, and so on. In no time at all, a climate of fear can build up: not one in which people are powerful, but in which all are ultimately powerless - including the original tyrant.

Since what we're afraid of is fear itself, we rationalise the fear. In the same way that love becomes confused with attention, love can become confused with fear. The 'Big Brother' syndrome: we don't fear the tyrant, instead we say "we love our great protector"... And the tyrant, in turn, is convinced that people love him because he is powerful: if he too believed that 'power is the ultimate aphrodisiac', he may well have started out on this road because he felt it was the only way he would find the love he craved. And yet that 'love' is an empty shell, giving nothing: he will always be trapped into wanting more, and more, and more.

Go back to the pick-up-trucks-with-hormone-trouble scenario we saw earlier, with its obsessive mode of display: can you see in there the same confusion of love with power - the notion that power alone can keep people producing 'love on demand'?

Listen to the lyrics of a few popular 'love songs': look at how much they encourage this muddling of love, power and fear. Phrases like "I'm gonna make you love me", or "You're mine, all mine" equate love with ownership; and "Since you've been gone, I can't go on" or "I can't live without you" are paeans of praise to powerlessness - or an attempt to regain power by power-under, by manufacturing guilt.

How often have phrases like these been said to you, in your relationships? And how often have you said something like this yourself? Was this done as a means of control, so that wants - romance! love! schmaltz! - would be met? If so, did it actually satisfy the need?

Power is equated with ownership, the right to exploit without reference to anyone else. Employment is equated with ownership: as your employer, I'm deemed to have the right to have power over you. So if I employ you, it's easy for me to believe that I own you - not merely the use of some of your time, but your body, your mind, your soul - and thus you must surely want to do my every bidding, follow my every whim. My wish is your command: you must satisfy my every need! But as the employee, of course, you might not be too happy about this point of view: so you may well either fight to gain power over me, or seek to destroy my power with every trick of the power-under game.

None of us wants the responsibility - the blame - for what goes on; but all of us want control, the semblance of power. "Round and round in the usual old game - I take the credit and you take the blame"...

Does this sound familiar?

In the midst of that kind of mess, very little gets done: everyone's too busy playing power-games. It almost seems like the definition of power is 'the ability to avoid work' - 'winners' are those who get others to do their work for them, by force, trickery, manipulation or otherwise.

So it comes as a surprise to discover that the formal definition of 'power', from physics, is 'the ability to do work'. In all those power-games with power-over or power-under, no-one is actually being powerful in any real sense. What they are doing is wasting everyone's energy - and disempowering us all in the process.

In the end, that kind of power, like control, is based on illusions. If we're going to get any work done - if we're to reclaim the power of choice with our lives - we're going to need something more realistic than that. We're going to need a very different approach to power.

A different kind of power

In a way power-over and power-under are two sides of the same coin - traditionally the male and female forms of power, in fact. Both of them are rooted in fear; both are concerned more with disempowering others than with empowering ourselves; both make it far harder to get work done; and both are based on an absence of trust.

It's trust that makes the difference. With trust, power becomes empowering. The threads of wyrd pass through us all, and always loop back to where they started: to try to fight someone else through power-over or power-under is ultimately to fight ourselves. So instead of fighting futile battles against the wyrd, against the nature of reality, we let go, and trust. At that point, by letting go of power, we reach a different kind of power - one in which we actually do have 'the ability to do work'.

We let go; but we don't let go so far as to collapse in a heap on the floor. Knowing what we want, we state the direction in which we want to go, provide the energy to get the process started, and then trust the wyrd to bring us to where we want to end up. We may get there by some surprising routes: but we do get there. Whereas if we try to control not only the direction but the route as well - controlling every step of the way - we somehow miss the point we're aiming for: there's always a choice, but there's always a twist. And if we're not clear about what we want... well, we could end up anywhere - which is what happens all too often, of course!

This distinction between controlling and directing, this balance of letting go without letting go, is hard to describe - yet we've all had experience of it. It's like looking for a parking bay in a crowded city: if we don't try for one, we won't get one; if we try hard, forcing our way around, pushing others out of our way, we'll probably end up with a parking ticket rather than a meter; whereas if we're clear about what we want, but let go of defining the form it should take, we find ourselves in a parking place almost without noticing it. Weird - but it works. Trying without trying; 'doing no-thing', as the Taoists would say.

What are some examples of your own? Go back to one of those examples. Can you remember feeling the lack of trust, the fear of uncertainty - and letting go anyway? And the surprise - joy, even! - when things 'worked by themselves'?

The usual approach to power is about being prepared against surprise: we try to control every eventuality, we leave nothing to chance - we hope. But as one engineer commented, "Mother Nature loves to throw a surprise party": reality is full of surprises, always will be full of surprises. Yet surprises can work both ways, to our advantage as well as to our detriment: if we only allow things to happen in expected ways, we're limiting the chances for things to work out on their own. So we'd be far better off instead preparing for surprise - working with the twists of reality rather than against them. And in any case, surprises are where the interest lies, the excitement lies. A life without surprises is a pretty boring one...

True power comes when we face the fear - accept it for what it is - and allow for surprises. The state that the writer Starhawk describes as 'power-with' arrives when we trust others - co-operation leads to an extraordinary power and multiplication of energy, especially when we help each other to work on the fears that would otherwise lead to a pointless power-struggle. And the other state she describes, 'power-from-within', arrives when we finally trust ourselves.

Power-from-within flows from the heart, from the whole core of someone's being - and still leaves room for everyone else, in fact includes everyone else. Someone who has that kind of power seems to glow, seems to radiate light, an ease, a certainty, in everything they do in life. They don't control: instead, they dance with life. People are drawn to them not out of compulsion or fear, but from sheer delight. In that sense, power-from-within probably is 'the ultimate aphrodisiac'...

Compare those four forms of power: power-over, power-under, power-with, power-from-within. Who do you know that epitomises each of those forms of power, that makes that form of power a way of life?

The same threads pass through each of us: so reach into your memories and recall a time when you felt each form of power within yourself. How does each feel within you? Feel the fear that's behind power-over, power-under; feel the power and strength, the fearlessness, from which power-with and power-from-within wells out. And note how power-over and power-under keep your focus and attention 'out there', on the external world; whilst power-with and power-from-within come from and help to reinforce a more definite sense of self.

If that's so, who are you? "Who am I?" Look deeper into these threads for an answer...

A willingness to trust leads to a sense of empowerment, of 'dis-covering' power that lies within, a power that we all share. A power that is powerful because we share it: as another writer put it, this deeper power is 'the ability to empower oneself and others'. Since the threads pass through us all, there's ultimately no difference between 'self' and 'others': empowering others is empowering myself, empowering myself is empowering others.

But we always have a choice; and there's always a twist. If we give in to the all-pervading fears - which always seems easiest - and strive for power-over or power-under others, we pull everyone down, including ourselves. Somehow, it always loops back - if only in that the whole culture becomes more fear-ridden. Yet by looking within, by trusting others, by trusting who we are - "I am what I am!" - something else comes through: something else that makes it easier for everyone to reach that same power-from-within. That seems to be where the true power lies.

Or perhaps only part of that power. For many people, there's also a clear sense of a 'higher power', from whence their power comes. A power so strong that they feel they act simply as a channel, a conduit, like a dancer swept up in the energy of the moment. A power that's not external, but deeper within, somehow intensely personal; and 'higher' not in the sense of an overlord, but rather as greater, wider, wiser. More aware. More connected with totality; more closely connected with the infinite interweavings of the web of wyrd. And as such gives us a sense of certainty, an ability to trust - and to act on that trust, as a way of life.

Do you have a sense of a 'higher power' within you - a Weaver of the wyrd? If so, how do you know when it's there, when it's available to you? Does it happen only in some activities - in your art, or exercise, or some aspect of work? Or only when you're drunk, perhaps!

What do you feel when you 'let it work through you'? In what way are you different when it does so? In what way are you different so as to let it do so?

In principle we all have access to this kind of power within, this link to the threads of wyrd. For some it's a way of life; but for most of us it's more something of which we only get occasional glimpses. Like the dim star at night, that sense of connection is there - and then it's gone, as soon as we try to look at it.

Whatever it may be, our awareness of it is intensely personal. If we try to describe it to someone else, we soon get into tangles of confusion. The term 'higher power' is no more than a metaphor: a personal label such as 'God' or 'my guardian angel' may mean nothing to anyone else, since they may not - cannot - have our personal experience of what it means to us. It's important to recognise, then, that for each of us this power is ours - and ours alone.

Yet the alone-ness itself can bring new fears - of loneliness, of isolation, of responsibility. Which, if we're not careful, brings up new needs to control, to dominate - and brings us right back where we started...

New Age, new illusions?

The old religions resolved these fears by resorting to power-over in a different guise: only one 'higher power' permitted to exist, labelled as God, Allah, Buddha or whatever. "My way is the only way" - the origin of all religious wars. And its root is fear: "if I can convince others that what I believe is true, then perhaps it is true...". Another variant on the old game of "what I tell you three times is true", all mixed in with another infamous fear that "my place in heaven is dependent on the number of souls I can convert to the true faith"...

As the old authorities have faded, the self-styled 'New Age' has come to the fore. Rightly, there is once more a free and open discussion of a personal connection to 'higher power', and of a right - if not duty - to affirm oneself within the world. A new freedom to be ourselves, to be who we truly are.

It's unfortunate, then, that so much New Age material instead re-affirms the same old fears, the same old illusions - in fact encourages them to grow...

All too often there's new aggrandisement of power-over, buried beneath a veneer of novelty: one well-known writer, for example, claims that his book on affirmations "serves as a magnificent and devastating battle-plan whereby you will learn to expand your personal power and win back absolute control of your life." We're told that we should "mould reality to suit our positive ends" - and our personal point of view, of course, is always 'positive'. That others might have a different point of view is to be ignored: for "we are Children of the Light", which presumably means that all others are in Darkness...

It's perhaps too easy to be cynical about it all. Within that mass of 'New Age' material there is undoubtedly much good sense - true gold amongst the dross. But we do need to use a great deal of care - especially since so much of it is little more than a new way to sell old fears in a pretty gift-wrapped package.

So much of religion is centred around fear of death: dealing with perhaps the most total and inevitable of all uncertainties. One well-known New Age solution is to declare that death does not exist: we can, it's claimed, be physically immortal - but only if we deny death's physical reality. This seems a little unrealistic... If denying our fear of death consists of refusing to face it, we in effect spend our lives in service to it by committing ourselves to avoiding it; whereas if we accept that fear, dance with it, we live each moment as it comes. Another twist in the web of wyrd...

It's rarely helpful to become preoccupied with death; but it can be useful to reflect on its reality every now and then. What fears come up for you? How do you face them? In what ways does living with those fears make it easier to live - to be alive?

The New Age provides no more certainties than the old religions did - probably even less, if anything, considering its all-too-casual attitude to discipline and sheer hard work. And I know I'm no guru either: I'm me, with my strengths, my weaknesses, my all-too obvious failings. I don't have all the answers - about all that can be said is that I may sometimes have some useful questions...

Ultimately, the only guru we each have is ourselves. Oh, we can borrow other people for help from time to time: but they can't do the work for us. This section of the wyrd that I call 'me' is mine to deal with as best I can: it's my problem. To find out what I'm supposed to do with it, it's up to me to look inside, to call up that 'power from within' - and to do that I have to trust. Then, somehow, without knowing how, I'll know. And no, it isn't easy... letting go is never easy...

A time to trust

We can't control anything - or we can try, but it doesn't work. What we can do instead is direct what happens: make choices, act on them, see what we get. Make choices; knowing that we can never know, we trust that they are the right choices; and see what we get.

This is the aspect of wyrd that used to be known as 'providence'. Literally, it is 'that which provides' - when we trust it. If we can't trust it, we find ourselves reverting to control: and control, by the usual weird twists, ends up never quite providing us with what we need.

To let go control, we somehow have to let go the fear that underlies it. That's not easy. We never do have 'power over' our fears; we never do conquer fear. But we can learn to live with it; learn to face fear, learn not just to accept it but dance with it. And even use its energy to help us - much as we used the energy of anger to release us from the power-under game - to get us moving, to reclaim our power of choice.

There's a strange inversion, when accepting being scared puts us in touch with the sacred: our own true power from within. But to reach there we have to trust, trust ourselves and the interweavings of the wyrd. It's time to let go: let go of fear, and much else that holds us back from being who we are.