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Why Mindfulness Isn’t About Control

Why Mindfulness Isn’t About Control



In these uncertain times revolving around this pandemic, I have heard many mental health professionals recommending that people “focus on what they can control”. “We need to control the virus.” “Doctors are working hard to control the coronavirus”.

This kind of advice irritates me, and the word “control” rubs me the wrong way. No one has ever controlled a virus. Whilst we can do our very best to prevent the infection, we cannot control it.

Control is a Popular Illusion

I coach our clients here at 180 Sanctuary @ Puripai Villa that the word “control” means the power to impede something, especially one’s own actions or emotions. Whilst respecting and relating to our emotions is crucial for relationships and health, control is not.

Most of the time I hear the word “control” in the mindfulness arena and also the media. Have you ever heard these phrases before? Or perhaps you have even said them. “Learn to control your anxiety and stress”, “control your mind and body”, “don’t lose control”, “they are way out of control” or “under control”….. To be quite frank it may be scary to admit that we don’t have any real control at all.

Letting Go of the Struggle to Control

I do agree that there is a need for somebody to take charge at times, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, whilst leadership is a must, control is optional. True and meaningful leadership does not consist in a controlling boss or partner, micromanaging or pushing one’s own agenda without consulting others.

We can understand the push for control in a job or perhaps politics. However I want to put it into a mindfulness context and to let you know that mindfulness is not about control.

A sense of struggle to control the breath is common in meditation practice. However what if, instead, I told you to try and let the body breathe by itself? And that you should tune in to the breath and allow your mind and body to become synchronized with your breath.

On top of this you should understand that you cannot control what comes into your mind whilst meditating. This also includes thoughts and emotions. What you can do instead is to learn how to handle them, acknowledge that they are there and then let go of the ones that are unhelpful.

How we loosen Our Grip

When a new client arrives at 180 Sanctuary that is new to mindfulness I like to describe as this: Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present and aware of where they are and what they are doing. Without being overwhelmed with what is going on around them. Basically, not controlling! The primatologist Jane Goodall sums it up beautifully: “It is not about ruling the world, rather being in the world, caring for the world and all its inhabitants, people, animals and the earth, the environment”.

Now it may look logical for those clients that have come to our center that have experienced a loss of control in their lives, that all they need to do is regain control. Instead I prefer to shed a different light on it, I stand firmly on the idea that their healing come from what they need. And what they need is safety, respect and resources, as well as freedom, support and choice. In other words they need to recover self-worth and autonomy, which is not control at all.

Frank Ostaseski, a mindfulness teacher writes that “suffering is suffering. We can’t explain it, let alone control it. But we can meet it with compassion. We can meet it with presence, look at it directly, understand it, and perhaps find meaning on our relationship to it.”

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