Inspiration, Expiration and the Illusion of Control: Why We Don’t Need to Try So Hard
I looked over in stop-and-go traffic a few years ago and saw it. Perched in his car seat behind his mother at the wheel, the little boy was firmly intent on the simulated kiddie dashboard hanging from his mom’s headrest in front of him. His pudgy fingers were white-knuckled on the steering wheel and shift lever, formerly smooth brow furrowed as if the weight of the world (or at least this car) were on his shoulders. I could just tell that he felt that every twitch and turn of the car was a direct result of his actions at the PlaySkool wheel. Never mind that if he lost interest and dropped the wheel that nothing different would happen, no veering into other lanes or crazy pinwheeling down the I-5 would transpire as a result.
And it struck me that we are often like this, clutching the levers and pressing the buttons of our own lives with all our might, carefully trying to coax a desired course out of the chaos of unrushing life, but who are we really kidding? How much control do we really have, and how much energy do we invest in trying to control and contrive outcomes that we are convinced are right, or good or imperative? And while we certainly can chart our course and connect with an intention to move in certain desired directions, there are often circumstances (more often than not) that are beyond our control and all we can do is navigate them like Class One rapids, clinging tenuously to our intentions and keeping our eyes on the prize.
Have you ever awoken in the morning with the firm intention to “have a good day no matter what” and found that along with your intended purpose you have had to contend with a stopped-up sink, burning toast or traffic on the freeway? I know I have, and the options are few: you can give up and resolve to try again tomorrow; you can get angry and label it a bad day; or you can see these arising phenomena as part of life that are admittedly unpleasant but don’t determine whether a day can be good or bad (tell yourself “into each life some burned toast must fall”). All are possible, but the former two options arise from clinging too tightly (like that young driver above) to needing things to be a certain way. To be specific, “My Way.”
Take breathing as a great example. It is wonderfully analogous to life. Sometimes people in our mindfulness classes will say something like “What’s the big deal about the breath, anyway?” The smart aleck in me can’t resist saying something like “Well, aside from the fact that it’s a worthwhile endeavor to engage in on a regular basis, not much!” But think about it for a moment. Breathing is a singular activity to which we can tune in whenever we wish, and the opportunity exists to actually control it for awhile. We can very dutifully make our bodies breathe out of our own intentions for a stretch of time. But by the same token, if we were left to be totally, consciously responsible for breathing for the balance of our lives, my sense is that we would frequently botch it up and end up gasping for breath and keeling over blue-faced on a regular basis. We just can’t keep up that kind of control while going about our lives, and fortunately we don’t need to! Life is like that too. We can exert control over certain aspects of our life, but things tend to turn out best when we don’t cling too tightly to that control. We can hold life lightly, remain clear on our intention and then see what unfolds. Or we can cling with a death-grip to our idea of what needs to happen and see how well THAT works out!
When it comes to meditation, we can try to breathe in certain ways, but that just gets us tangled up in trying to control a wonderful, amazing and life-giving process that actually works best when we get out of our own way. See if you can simply observe the breath moving in and out of the body without having to breathe in any particular way. Simply let the breath breathe itself and see what can come of that soft attitude and gentle kindness of attention. If you find yourself wondering what’s so special about the breath, do your own scientific experiment and just pay careful attention to its flow in and out, the inspiration and the expiration, without any preconceived notions or theoretical framework. Just ride the tide of the breath in and out of the body and see what you notice.
Oh, and that experiment you just tried? It was meditation. Pure and simple. No bells, no whistles, no steering wheels or shift levers. Pretty cool, huh? I highly recommend it.