Why Do We Feel The Need To Control Everything?

Notes & Transcript

Guided Meditation
Mindfulness of Feelings. This satipaṭṭhāna focuses on the contemplation of “feelings” or “feeling tones” (vedanā), which mainly refers to how one perceives feelings as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

Talk
Last week we were talking about worry and anxiety and we came to a conclusion that we tend to worry mostly about those day to day things we can’t control. And we talked about letting go of that notion of control. The question naturally came up, ‘why is it we feel the need to control things so strongly in the first place?’ I’ll share some of my thoughts on that this week, and then I’m looking forward to seeing what insights others have to share.

Firstly, I think if we go right back to the basics of human nature, the monkey brain, the survival brain. At one point in our evolutionary history, our ability to manipulate our external environment was very closely related to our chances of survival and procreation. 

Insofar as you were able to keep your tribe sweet, your home safe, secure, have access to supplies of food and water, you were good. If any of these were out of balance, you were in trouble, and so worry and uncertainty and anxiety are natural psychological and physiological responses and very healthy, insofar as they push us in the direction of action. They’re good when there is indeed something that needs to be done or changed and serves as that push to do that.

Nowadays, the monkey brain can be activated for all sorts of reasons that are not helpful, because our survival is not hanging in the balance, and we have a habit of overanalysing, perpetuating and embellishing that worry into something big.

So this brings me to a second point that we see from Buddhist psychology. If you don’t have control of your external world, then anything can go wrong, and if anything can go wrong, then you’re left open to experiencing anxiety, frustration, disappointment, stress, uncertainty, distress of all kinds. And as we know, no sentient being wants to experience those things. We want to be free of all that, free of any type of distress.

Because somewhere at our core we really do believe that distress is caused by the external world only, then when faced with a world that is so changing and turbulent, then grasping arises, a desire to control, a desire to hold on to, to fear change, to avoid difficulty, all of this arises. An internalised fear of that which we cannot control. Which manifests as a need and a desire to control. And so we worry. We worry because we don’t want to experience distress. But chronic worrying is a form of distress in itself.

This belief that I must have perfect external circumstances to be happy; that if I experience the things I don’t want to I’ll be unhappy. This belief that if I don’t have control over my external world I’ll be unhappy. This is a belief we need to challenge again and again and again.

If we cultivate genuine wellbeing, inner peace, inner contentment and fulfilment, that can carry us through when things go wrong. We can cultivate newer ways of thinking and approaching things that do go wrong. New perspectives. Which are more based in reality and which are healthier and more constructive.

We have the inner resilience to get through difficulties, we’ve gotten through every one so far. We feel like difficulties are permanent, big, scary, and suffering and distress are an inherent part, or non-optional. In reality, they are changing, fleeting and completely up to our subjective interpretation of them. They can be seen as big and scary and something we can’t handle, which makes them bigger and scarier and more difficult, or, if we’re in touch with our true calm inner nature, they can be seen as something else, an opportunity to practice patience and forbearance perhaps, or an opportunity to increase our resilience, so that we can deal with bigger difficulties in life.

Or, just not that big a deal because it’s fleeting. It’s a brushstroke, on the painting of our day. An even smaller brush stroke on the painting of our life. Like Anna was saying last week, take the bigger picture, the wider view. Will this matter in one week, perhaps, what about one month, a year, 5 years, and so on. The heart and mind can hold it all. We’re stronger than we think.

And so those are my thoughts on why do we feel the need to control. I welcome anyone to share their thoughts.

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