6. Control (well, the illusion of control!)

In one of my mindfulness group lessons, our instructor very gently but firmly introduced the topic for the week: ‘How much control do you have?’ Most of us laughed at the absurdity of the topic. WE ALL HAVE CONTROL…

Maybe. But perhaps most of us have much less control than we think.

As you continue reading, consider that your mind enables you to shape the world around you and to make it conform to your wishes by providing shelter, warmth, food, water and protection. The controls you have are normally over external, environmental factors but what about your internal world? What about the world of thoughts, emotions, memories, urges and sensations?

Our instructor got us ready for our first meditation and gave us our normal instructions but with a couple of ‘extras’. Our first meditation was along the following lines:

I would like you to stop yourself from thinking for two minutes. For the next two minutes prevent any thoughts whatsoever from coming into your mind – especially any thoughts about a flower or a shooting star!

Well needless to say, we all laughed as we inevitably thought about flowers and shooting stars.

As you continue reading, I want you to avoid thinking about your favourite chocolate or ice cream. Don’t think about the texture, the colour or how it tastes as you take a bite. Whatever you do don’t think about how good it feels as it melts in your mouth…

How are you doing? Have you gone to get a snack? Perhaps like me you just got lost in a memory of a summer day enjoying an ice cream or being snuggled on the sofa with a chocolate dessert.

Last one. Take a moment to think about a lemon.

How did you go? What did you experience? Did you sense any physical reactions such as your mouth watering, your heartbeat changing, screwing up your face, experiencing a sense of bitterness, sweating, repulsion…?

Are you really able to control what you think and feel? The truth is we all have much less control over our thoughts, feelings and sometimes physical reactions than we’d like. What we can control is our actions and it’s through taking action that we can create a rich, full and meaningful life.

As I continue on my journey, I know I have had times when I just wanted to run and hide. I just didn’t want to be in any social environment with any form of interaction. When I started my first steps into mindfulness, in a class with other people, I was struggling with myself to control emotional turmoil caused by family illness, excessive workloads and work restructuring. I was experiencing panic, anxiety, self-judgment, failure and low self-esteem.

I just could not cope with the sensory overload with competing deadlines and long-distance calls at odd hours. One day I returned from the course and couldn’t even remember driving home except for the extreme fog on the motorway, long tendrils winding across the road, then no fog, then moving back into deep patches that obscured other cars completely. I realised that was exactly like my mind and my emotions rolling in and out, swirling around, receding and then completing blanketing any thoughts or emotions I was having. I was confused and very numb. Depression was rolling back in and I really didn’t want that again. All I could think was, ‘oh, the vicious circle is back’.

A few days after that drive home I realised I had forgotten the homework and reading we had to complete. I worked myself up so much that I went into a BLUE FUNK. I was ranting and raving at myself: how can I do this? “I can’t even concentrate! I can’t even remember what I had to drink ten minutes ago so how am I supposed to do reading, take notes, comprehend what is being said? I need to lie down, I haven’t ironed my clothes, I haven’t cleaned the house, I’m not even dressed…” the list continued on and on.

As I calmed down, I started judging myself and all I could think was that I had failed. Mindfulness is about non-judgment, compassion, acceptance and kindness to oneself, none of which I was managing to achieve. So, what was that homework I had to do? It was asking me what I do to try to avoid emotions and feelings! Urghhhh! Well, everything! I put on a brave face; I smiled and said everything was fine; I indulged in comfort eating; I drank alcohol; I hid and avoided seeing anyone, including really compassionate, loving friends; sleeping didn’t sleep; I wouldn’t get dressed in the morning; I wouldn’t talk about my problems but contemplated that life would be better without me in it. I did so many things to avoid feeling the emotions and the dark negative thoughts I was having. I was avoiding at all costs acknowledging my fear, guilt at not being home in Australia to help with my ill family, hurt, exhaustion, and stress and bullying at work. All of this accumulated into an intense unhappiness.

Did I do the reading for homework? Yes, eventually, and it took time. I was really struggling with the concepts as I really still couldn’t hold in the information which was so foreign to me. 

I discovered I was employing some of the most common control strategies to avoid, get rid of, or escape from my very unpleasant emotions and feelings.

Russ Harris, in the Happiness Trap (2008), divided a number of control measures into our Flight or Fight responses. From the following, what control measures have you used or do you put in place?

Flight Strategies Fight Strategies
Hiding/Escaping: You hide away or escape from people, places, situations, or activities that tend to give rise to uncomfortable thoughts or
feelings. For example, you dropout of a course or cancel a social event in order to avoid feelings of anxiety.
Suppression: You try to directly suppress
unwanted thoughts and feelings. You forcefully push unwanted thoughts from your mind, or
you push your feelings ‘deep down inside’.
Distraction: You distract yourself from
unwanted thoughts and feelings by focussing
on something else. For example, you’re bored or anxious, so you smoke a cigarette or eat some ice -cream or go shopping. Or you’re worried about some important issue at work, so you spend all night watching TV to try to keep your mind
off it.
Arguing: You argue with your own
thoughts. For example, if your mind says, ‘you’re a failure,’ you may argue back, ‘oh, no I’m not – just look at everything I’ve achieved in my work.’ Alternatively, you may argue against reality, protesting ‘it shouldn’t be like this!’
Zoning Out/Numbing: You try to cut off from
your thoughts and feelings by ‘zoning out’ or making yourself numb, most commonly through
the use of medication, drugs, or alcohol. Some
people do their zoning out by sleeping
excessively or simply by ‘staring at walls.’
Taking Charge: You try to take charge of your
thoughts and feelings. For example, you may
tell yourself things like, ‘snap out of it!’ ‘stay
calm!’ or ‘Cheer up!’ Or you try to force yourself to be happy when you’re not.
Self Bullying: You try to bully yourself into
feeling differently. You call yourself names like
‘loser’ or ‘idiot’. Or you criticize and blame
yourself: ‘Don’t be so pathetic! You can handle
this. Why are you being such a coward?!’

How many did you use? All, some or just a few? I used a number of them depending on what was occurring and how robust I felt at the time. These control strategies are normal responses and healthy if you:

  • Use in moderation
  • Use them in situations where they work
  • Using them doesn’t stop you from doing the things you love. 

They become an issue when: used excessively, in situations where they can’t work, using them stops you from doing the things you truly value.

The reading and homework prompted me to realised that I was ‘zoning out’ using alcohol more and more excessively. I was using alcohol to escape from marking drudgery (I‘m a Lecturer), my intake increased the larger the class and thus the workload. It was my crutch to gain a little laughter and to switch off from unrealistic marking targets, constant preparation, losing a work/life balance. I realised I was no longer enjoying the ‘hit’ or getting the ‘hit’ from a glass but needed more and more to get the same buzz. The alcohol also become a great depressor for me, the day after crash was more pronounced and I was even more down, frustrated and felt more guilty than before. I was losing my sparkle and joy fast. I was also gaining weight exponentially – not walking or moving as fast as before, struggling with stairs etc. All signs that I was overusing my ‘zone out’.

Time to have a go!

We all have urges and most urges don’t last for very long. However, if the urge to keep snacking, eating or having more to drink continues we normally give in to it and this can have long term effects on our health. The following mindful exercise is asking you to experience change and impermanence of urges. By using mindfulness, we stay exposed to the thought, feeling and urges for their natural duration without feeding or repressing them.  In fact, if we just let an urge be, non-judgmentally, without feeding or fighting it then it will crest, subside and pass.

Experiencing the Changing Nature and Impermanence of Urges

Get yourself into a comfortable meditation position (sitting or lying) and you can close your eyes or leave them open.

Start with concentrating on your breath.

As you continue your breathing start to notice or sense any discomfort e.g. restlessness, an itch, pressure point

Note the desire to relieve the (your) discomfort by moving and resist it!

Notice the thoughts that arise e.g. ‘I wish this itch would go’; ‘it is driving me crazy’; ‘this pressure point is so uncomfortable!’

Now say calmly to yourself: ‘this too will pass’

Now say irritably to yourself: ‘this too will pass’

Notice the thought that arise e.g. ‘this is not bloody well passing!’ ‘I really would love to have a scratch right now!’ ‘I want to adjust the way I am sitting to relieve the pressure on….’

These are just thoughts passing through. So gently bring your attention back to your breath and bodily sensations. Notice the changing position, shape and quality of the discomfort over time. Being interested in the feeling as precisely as you can. Just notice how the shape and intensity changes with the cycle of your breath. Is it more intense on the in breath or the out breath?

Have your thoughts spontaneously gone to other matters e.g. planning a holiday, shopping lists, to-do lists, school runs, football game, a fight with your partner? Again these are just thoughts and if you have strayed gently bring your attention back to your breath and body sensations. Have these changed? Probably. They will be different again.

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