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Inspiration, Expiration and the Illusion of Control: Why We Don’t Need to Try So Hard

August 5, 2012

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.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Vickie permalink
    August 6, 2012 6:24 am

    Great way to begin the morning.

  2. August 6, 2012 7:35 am

    Such a lovely article and it gave me a smile from ear to ear. I have only began my journey on the path of self-compassion and loving kindness but I can already feel so much of my distress, tensions and self-blame simply melt away. It feels like waking up from a cold hibernation and really seeing life as it is for the first time.

  3. August 9, 2012 7:22 am

    I heartily agree with you! You know meditation and ways to access our higher selves and attune to the universe with harmony. I have written an entire novel, whose main focus is just this goal. It’s called This Moment Is My Home. I have made it entertaining so people will read and learn. Please check out this labor of love, which took me over a decade to write. It’s not what you expect. Namaste!

  4. August 28, 2012 7:17 am

    My colleague M. Lee Freedman posted a comment about this post on a LinkedIn group and gave me permission to share it here as well. Very moving and relevant to the topic I think.

    Steve, I enjoyed this blog article very much, and look forward to reading the other blog articles in Stuck in Meditation, and spreading the word about your blog.

    I have attended many conferences, workshops, courses, MBSR and MBCT training intensives, participated in several Vipassana retreats, read many books and articles, incorporated mindfulness training into my psychotherapy practice with adults, children, parents and families, and taught several MBSR courses. I have a regular daily meditation practice, and strong informal mindfulness practice which has been of tremendous value to me in countless ways, most notably in my relationships with my children and spouse.

    Yet it is not until this past month when I sat with my dying brother Michael day and night for the last few weeks of his life, that I truly understood and experienced what the “big deal” is with the breath in meditation. Meditating on Michael’s breath for hours at a time facilitated my connection with him at a time when he was no longer able to communicate verbally or even with his body. Although I spoke with him and sang to him, for me his eyes and his breath were the only obvious channels to feeling connected with him. He was suffering, and I accepted that neither he nor I had any control over that. Focusing on his breath made it easier for me to sustain a compassionate presence. Although I did not intentionally alter my breathing, it naturally began to synchronize with his, and I experienced a different level of awareness of the vicissitudes of breathing. Each in-breath, each out-breath, each space between the in and out breath was unique and “a big deal”.

    My brother passed on July 20, and I am grateful that he is no longer suffering. I am also grateful for the time I had with him in his last days of life.

    Since that time my experience of the breath during meditation has felt more significant. I am also grateful for a new ease in frequently “dropping into my breath” as I go about living my wakeful moments.

    • August 29, 2012 11:34 pm

      Such a moving account of a personal experience of sharing the end of life of a loved one. It illustrates the true power of mindfulness. Any experience can be a vehicle for transcendence with such a powerful tool of consciousness. I am humbled by the bravery and love of stevepsyd.

  5. December 30, 2014 3:36 pm

    Control really is an illusion. What follows is that free will is also an illusion. Many people get scared or angry at that thought. I actually find it freeing, more than anything else.

    It’s like Alan Watts said: “You are something the whole universe is doing in the same way a wave is something the whole ocean is doing. The real deep down you is the whole universe.”

    And we should rejoice in that, not back away from it.


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