Wednesday 26 October 2016

Breathing space... Sweet surrender

Why do we try to control the uncontrollable

Published 26/05/2015 | 02:30

We can't slow down time or speed up traffic
We can't slow down time or speed up traffic

Is there any feeling more frustrating than being late for an important meeting before being delayed even further by traffic? The minutes march on and the cars inch along as your heart thumps and your breathing quickens.

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You conceive every possible excuse, imagine every possible outcome and hope against hope that the clock on the dashboard is running slow.

We've all been there and we've all experienced the red-faced, white-knuckled panic. Yet rarely do we stop to realise that there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. We can't slow down time or speed up traffic. We'll get there when we get there so we may as well just enjoy the ride.

Worry is a pointless emotion, but it's especially pointless when we worry about the things we cannot change. You can plan your day to the nth degree. You can have a diary entry for every appointment and an app for every eventuality, but still, you never know when you're going to come up against heavy traffic.

Likewise, you can pen your five-year plan and forensically coordinate your budget, but the only thing you can be really sure of is uncertainty. Life is poetically unpredictable.

But still we persist in trying to control the uncontrollable. We fight change even when it's the only constant in life. Or in the words of the Dalai Lama: "Most of our troubles are due to our passionate desire for and attachment to things that we misapprehend as enduring entities."

Plans are, of course, helpful, but they should be considered more rough outlines than exact blueprints. We shouldn't cling to them.

At the very least, we should leave space for the unexpected. Our world is in a constant state of flux and once we accept this, we can begin to embrace the unknown rather than fear it.

Proper planning prevents poor performance, goes the organisational theory, yet setbacks are inevitable and suffering is part of the human condition. Once we accept this, we can begin to understand its value, just as we come to realise that we can only comprehend one polarity through experiencing the other: darkness/light, joy/pain, giving/receiving...

Or as the well-known haiku goes: "Barn's burnt down - now I can see the moon."

Zen practitioners talk about 'letting go' and 'surrendering'. This wisdom is easy to understand when we consider emotions that don't serve us - resentment, anger, guilt - but it becomes rather more prosaic when we try to practise it in our everyday lives.

Let go of what exactly? Surrender to whom? It implies trust in a higher power, but what if you don't believe in one?

Well, you can trust in yourself. You can trust that you are a part of an ecosystem that is governed by billions of intricate cycles and in which there is a time to plant and a time to reap.

You can trust that you are in harmony with the rhythm of nature and, just as a flower knows to grow towards the light, you too are guided by a divine intelligence that will lead you towards the right path.

Some call it surrendering to the process; some describe it as letting go and letting God. I like to think of it as going with the flow, a state of being that Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu described beautifully.

"Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes," he wrote. "Don't resist them - that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like."

I often wonder if those that suffer from anxiety resist this flow. Perhaps they are blinkered by the illusion of control and paddling furiously against the tide. Perhaps they could tap into an inner reserve of calm if they accepted the ebb and flow of life instead of micro-managing every thought that came into their head.

Indeed, we could all benefit from learning to follow the clues rather than the plan, but we can only begin to notice these signs and synchronicities when we stop fearing the unknown. Those that wish to align with the flow must first be in a state of grace, which is the elusive sweet spot where we give thanks for both the good and the bad. The burning barn allegory helps.

Curiosity in the face of adversity helps too. The question isn't 'Why me?!'. It's 'Why now?'. Ask yourself what lesson you can learn from this setback and remember that you don't evolve when everything is going swimmingly.

Learning that you can only lose what you cling to is another invaluable lesson. This philosophy imbues disappointment with excitement and, eventually, even the most traumatic endings are observed as new beginnings.

Remember too that our identities are in a constant state of flux. Learn to let go of the unreliable sense of self that you have constructed from your job title, bank balance and postal address. Who are you without your achievements and acquisitions? More to the point, what could you accomplish if you didn't cling to them?

Surrendering takes practise. One has to learn how to listen without judgement, accept without analysing and desire without attachment/obsession. Perhaps the greatest challenge of all is learning to let your dreams float into the ether (where they have a much better chance of coming true).

If you get stuck, just remember that you already know how to do it. This is the place where instinct and inspiration reside. It's what you do when you laugh, cry, make love and give birth. Surrender is not apathetic or aimless. On the contrary, it's the bedrock of creation and the path to your greatest potential.

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