Article: The Paradox of Control

As a very safety-conscious (aka cowardly) occasional mountain biker, I’ve been learning some things about the paradoxical nature of control. A friend recently described riding along a trail behind someone who was wobbling around looking really unstable. My friend was surprised because he himself was feeling effortlessly ‘in control’ and easily able to follow the natural contours of the path. He then realised that the person in front was sitting heavily on the saddle and holding on tightly, rather than standing (as he was) in a relaxed way on the pedals, and letting the bike move freely beneath him to adapt to the changing terrain. Meanwhile I’ve been noticing that when I’m approaching the kind of obstacle or sharp corner that I’ve had trouble with before, my body starts to contract in anticipation of difficulty and I often end up getting off and pushing to avoid what is starting to feel like inevitable disaster.

This is the paradox. When we try to be in control, we tend to get tense, experience less ‘lightness’ and freedom to respond effectively to change, and feel more stressed. All of which gives rise to a sense of being in danger of losing control, and needing to hold on even more tightly, or else give up altogether. The funny thing is, that when we are feeling relaxed, things seem to work so much better, and we seem to be somehow more ‘in control’. When I knock the expensive ornament off a shelf and instinctively catch it before it breaks, it feels good and there’s a sense of competency. Even if I don’t catch it, and it breaks, there could still be a sense of satisfaction in sweeping up the pieces and recompensing the owner. But if there’s a belief that I should be in control and focused on preventing any accidents or protecting myself from consequences, my muscles are likely to be too held and tensed to allow for quick reflexes, and I’ll probably be too busy berating myself, or looking for someone else to blame, to be able to respond kindly and respectfully to the reality of a broken vase.

Sometimes we might not even notice how a belief in the need to be in control is reflected in our body. It can seem really important to endeavour to be prepared for any eventuality, which given how unpredictable life can be, is ultimately an exhausting and impossible task. This preparation can involve thinking through multiple scenarios, or planning in great detail how we will respond to someone else’s imagined demands or hostilities. Meanwhile our nervous systems are transmitting a message of immediate danger. Just focusing on all these imagined problems triggers our bodies into preparing to deal with them. So our glands start producing chemicals like adrenalin and cortisol, and our muscles get tense in readiness for imminent physical action.

Now if we were actually being confronted by a predator this could be very useful. We might need to call for help, fight to defend ourselves, run away, or possibly freeze if none of the former is possible. All of these actions are governed by the primal, instinctive part of our brain that is completely focused on survival, with no reference to the planning and logical areas of the higher brain.

Most of the time, though, we are not in immediate danger, so all the energy going into preparation for survival responses is completely unnecessary. Well, you might say, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? The reality however, is that all this preparatory tension is not just unnecessary, it also becomes counter-productive. There’s a reason why an experienced boxer, martial artist or mountain biker stays loose and fluid. If their muscles were already tensed and they then wanted to punch someone, or respond to the inconsistencies of a bike trail, those muscles would need to disengage before effective movement was possible, which would slow them down and put them in danger. Likewise our pet cats are capable of basking in the sun one moment and then springing into defensive action the next. They don’t waste energy being all tense just in case something happens. And they don’t seem to suffer with stress in the way humans beings do.

So what can humans do about it? Our evolved capacity to imagine and remember can trigger all sorts of unnecessary reactions which put our bodies out of sync with what’s required in the present moment. The real problem is that we are already ‘doing’ too much. There’s so much focus and energy being applied to things that aren’t actually happening. Instead we can discover how to let the mental focus and accompanying tension soften* and let our awareness widen to the breadth of present experience. Just appreciating breathing, sensations, sounds, sights, whatever is happening, and the spaciousness in which it all arises, allows our systems to sort themselves out, come back to present reality, and respond more appropriately. Gradually we feel calmer, more in control, more able to deal with whatever life presents. The survival parts of the brain can quieten down until they are actually needed, and the higher parts can do a more effective job of tasks like facilitating social interactions, creativity, problem solving and enjoying life. I might still get off my bike (in a relaxed way of course) when it comes to a tricky bit though...

*I know this isn’t always as easy as it sounds! After years of believing (whether consciously or unconsciously) that we need to make an effort or be tense in order to be ok and in control, it isn’t always immediately obvious how this can change. Practices like yoga or mindfulness, or coming for counselling, can help.