Believe in nothing, no matter who says it, even if I say it, if it does not agree with your own experience and your own common sense ~ Buddha

Man is a masterpiece of creation if for no other reason than that, all the weight of evidence for determinism notwithstanding, he believes he has free will. — Georg C. Lichtenberg

This is probably my favorite concept in BodyTalk: the fallacy of control.

It tends to generate a lot of resistence in people, which I hardly understand, because it doesn’t affect the way you live your life at all, except in a good way.

Take a menu….

You’re in a restaurant. The server hands you the menu. It’s 8  pages full of delicious-sounding food. How do you decide? Well, first things first, you don’t want to spend more than 20 bucks. You don’t want pasta. You don’t want chicken. You don’t want a salad; you’re really hungry. So even with all those choices, you still narrow them really quickly. And of the handful that are left, you choose roast beef and baked potato, because this is a new restaurant to you and you don’t want to risk them screwing up your meal. Who can screw up roast beef and baked potato, right?

You had free will. At least, it looked like you did. You were given the open choice of anythign on the menu, and probably some things that weren’t on the menu, had you had the audacity to ask for them.

But you are also the product of your preferences, your paradigms, your family, your culture, your experiences and your history. And they all conspire to make you pretty damn predictable. In fact, I would go so far as to say that you are completely inable to act in any way that’s not congruent with who you are. Hence, no free will.

And it’s at this point that people say, “Hey, waitaminute! I still chose. That’s free will.” Ok, sure. You’re completely responsible for all your decisions, wrong or right. You’re responsible for outcomes, you’re responsible for reactions and interpretations.

So?

Thought exercise

What if, given this interpretation of the world, you could stop standing in judgement of yourself and others. You would understand completely that, given the tools and resources available, everyone acts as best they can.

You would have compassion.

You would release worry.

It’s made me more trusting of the outcome, but I suppose it’s not required. You could go all fatalistic and refuse to interact at all…that’s fine, too.

I don’t need to convince you (by this argument, a certain percentage of you are incapable of seeing the point), but for myself, I have found it to be tremendously freeing. By now we’ve probably all heard about the paradox of choice, and how the myriad possibilities in our lives can leave us crippled with anxiety, especially as Seth Godin and others exhort us to push the limits of what we think is possible.

Under this premise, whether you do or do not is irrelevent next to the larger, more important question of ‘what do you feel like doing?’ Once controlling the outcome becomes a non-issue, then you just do whatever you want/need to do.

But then you cannot reasonably expect to judge others, either. This part’s the tricky part. It wasn’t too hard for me, at least, to kind of ‘let go’ of the more control-oriented aspects of my life (now when I’m control-oriented, I acknowledge that it’s all for me anyway.) But it’s hard to watch people who are hurting, people who are insensitive, rude, or manipulative or people who you judge don’t understand, and not say, “Well, I would never…”

That might be true. But if you were this person, you would only have the same tools, the same resources, the same outlook as they currently had at their disposal, and your options would probably look a lot different.

Suddenly, Buddhism makes total sense. There is a boddhisatva in everyone. A veil comes down from your eyes and you see that everyone is simply struggling, and you feel immense compassion for them, because they’re simply caught by forces they can’t control. As are you. As are we all.

So, since we are having such a lovely round table discussion this week, I will leave it completely open to you, my pretties: Tell me what you think about all this, please. And talk amongst yourselves; that was certainly a lovely thing to see.

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Comments on: "The Fallacy of Control" (15)

  1. I get what you’re saying, but I think I see it backwards from you– or perhaps I simply ignore its relation to “control.”

    This in particular:

    But if you were this person, you would only have the same tools, the same resources, the same outlook as they currently had at their disposal, and your options would probably look a lot different.

    Basically sums up the reason I say that reality is subjective and why I try my damnedest not to judge. I have done shitty things and made shitty choices because, at the time, that was the relative best I could do. I can’t imagine the process is much different for other people.

    So, yes, I see why you say control is a fallacy. But all the same, a lack of pure objective control is not being helpless; a person can still shape their choices and, in doing so, shape the development of themselves and their lives. In guiding ourselves and our actions, we can switch our focus from, for example, making the most lucrative choice in any given situation to making the choice most likely to lead to happiness, or free time, or whatever. And in that sense, we do have control.

    • Really? I see it as about control because these of the relation to their ideal outcome; everyone complains that things ought to be different, that if people would just do this, that, and the other thing, then there’d be no more problems. They project so much about themselves and their own situation onto others, without looking at how things are already okay.

      They also believe that through their own efforts they can improve the status quo, and often see other people as nothing more than impediments. Even if they’re not involved in the situation whatsoever, they wish to interfere, or to decide what they would do in a similar situation, to guide it to a favorable outcome.

      When you expose the fact that you’re going to do what’s best for you, according to your own lights; it follows that whatever you do is not only the best thing you could have done, but the only thing you could have done. It was the only possible choice on the menu for you, and it reduces regrets and agonizing over choices.

      Choosing the happiest option over the most lucrative option is still choosing what’s best for you, and I think it really helps you relax into your power. I’m not making mistakes, ever. If it wasn’t the best choice, it was the best choice at the time and a learning experience and perhaps an essential step on the road to making ever more ‘healthier’ choices.

      And when you grant yourself this compassion and benefit of the doubt, you extend it to others naturally.

      I hope that was clear. I seem to be having trouble extending the paradigm to the conclusion. :s

  2. […] learned that we make the best choice available to us at any given time, and so does everyone else, based on our unique combination of past experience, overall […]

  3. “everyone complains that things ought to be different, that if people would just do this, that, and the other thing, then there’d be no more problems. They project so much about themselves and their own situation onto others, without looking at how things are already okay.
    They also believe that through their own efforts they can improve the status quo, and often see other people as nothing more than impediments. Even if they’re not involved in the situation whatsoever, they wish to interfere, or to decide what they would do in a similar situation, to guide it to a favorable outcome.”

    This part, to me, rides on the updraft of what we threw around the other day. when happiness or ‘everything going smoothly’ isn’t your be all and end all goal – and while seeking your portion of ‘okayness’ you also develop stamina and sturdyness for however life will twist and turn as it pleases – then the distortions and illusory elements of control tend to loosen a bit on their own. it’s a lot easier to navigate between what you have influence over and what you don’t with more wisdom when you don’t limit your whole journey to being pleased.

    But, I wouldn’t go so far as to blanket people’s choices with the idea that it was never a mistake – at least not for everybody – some people are *served* by feeling their guilt and shame for what it is – there can be an unexpected empowerment found at the point where someone stops running from what they ‘did wrong’ in their own eyes, according to their own standards that can be used to move forward in a way that taking the idea of a mistake just wont.

    I’m really speaking about myself as though I wasn’t. When i’ve been just comforted that I did the best I could with what I had – I relaxed, I eased up, and a certain amount of judgementalness left me. But I also lost a bit of wind from my sails and a bit of the incentive to cultivate that part of me that is impotentia waned.

    i’m careful now not to try to make it ‘okay’ too soon – but not to cross the line into irrational self-criticism either – which is easier to avoid if you’re saying it outloud to someone and watching their facial expressions 🙂

    my psyche likes to hear what is true more than it likes to hear all is well when it isn’t. it can ease off control with a good piece of truth better than it can with a nice shot of comfort.

    I’m with you that compassion is essential – and that seeing how similar my personal struggles are to the ones others are having makes it a lot less satisfying to be judgemental about them – but i’ve improved and grown a lot more strongly when i stopped avoiding ‘fault’ and ‘mistake’ and all the stuff that goes with it – not as pronouncements of self worth, but as truthful parts of assessment.

    • I kinda see what you’re saying as far as not whitewashing mistakes goes, especially if you caused harm to others. It’s been a long time since I did something I really, truly regretted, which is pretty much the only thing I call a ‘mistake’. There have been big things, traumatic things, but I learned so much I can’t say that ‘mistakes were made’ or that I’m sorry I had them. I’ve also noticed that the most traumatic ones really beat a judgemental attitude or two out of me, which is a large part of the reason I’m thankful for them– having first hand-knowledge of how “mistakes” can be made make it much easier to feel compassion for other people in the same place.

      I’m a bit curious about how guilt “serves” you — I’m not sure if I have a handle on quite what you mean — though of course you don’t have to answer. I think I recently told a friend that my morals are these rather annoying wagging fingers that show up to make me miserable when I’ve done wrong; it’s just so uncomfortable to go against them that I don’t even bother anymore. In that way, they serve me, and I suppose they could be seen as extensions of the guilt I’ve felt in times past when I’ve gone against them. Is that sorta it?

      • I think we’re on the same page with the mistakes thing – the way you put it helped me clarify the distinction I was trying to make for myself – if you just look back and say ‘I didn’t make any mistakes because I did the best I could with what I had’ you could still find a loophole or two to keep judging others. but saying you don’t regret the things that in the past had a traumatic element to them because of what you’ve learned is different. I choose to keep the word mistake to describe how I see those things because it’s more effective at keeping me off my high horse. One of the loopholes I have found myself trying to use to get around the ‘i did the best I could but other people aren’t trying hard enough’ is to compare how well I learned my lessons to how well I assume someone else is – which is much harder to do when i’m reminding myself of my own mistakes, regardless of how much I learned.

        and in a way – the gratitude you described feeling for what you learned is what I mean by being served by guilt. I think i might be trying to dip my toe in to the sea of humility here. my clever ego could find a way to use the gratitude for what i learned to float back up to my pedestal and commence the whitewashing – so I like to have my gratitude be inconversation with the regret or the guilt (i’m sure there’s a better word for the exact sense of rue I mean)…..

        For me, the history of things I did that hurt me or hurt other people or were not exactly hurtful but the expressions of me living down to my lowest expectations for myself – those exist as potential in me as much as the brighest glow of my aura. When i was in low places, the pain of being there existed because it was in contrast with what I knew was also possible. Which would make it seem really simple – doing bad things eventually feels bad so don’t do them. Except there was a part of doing them that felt ‘good’ or at least relieving in some way, there was some kind of payoff. Guilt or regret is part of how I could even tell the difference between the immediate reward for the bad choice and that the eventual outcome wouldn’t feel as good. and at first it was really really easy to ignore. I did try moving forward without having to really feel it. but what i ended up with was outright spiritual bypass. ‘guilt’ (being used to describe a whole range of stuff) is part of the sensing system I use to know where I am in myself – in terms of my growth and self-perception being grounded, integrated and genuine. it’s like the trail of breadcrumbs that helps me get real about what’s going on for me when the ever existing lower potential in me and my higher potential can’t get out of each other’s way.

        does that make sense? getting these ideas out in writing feels more cumbersome than I expected. impresses me that you manage to do it so regularly.

      • I am getting the sense that you’re a feeler (as opposed to a thinker (cf Meyers-Briggs)), so it seems you’re navigating by feel as much as anything else. Which is hard to cloak words around (although, really, you’re quite splendid on that front, so do carry on).

        I think very much in terms of analogy and mechanics, so I’m never really at a loss for ways to describe things, only ways to describe things that will make sense to someone other than me.

        Your ego sounds like quite the legal eagle, exploiting all those loopholes! I often have a good time composing long Socratic dialogues in my head, exhaustively plumbing all those ethical rabbit trails. you know, just in case I even need them. 😉 SUCH a nerd. Hearkening back to the Sophists, just because you can make a case for an ethical grey area, doesn’t mean you should practice it. I find that kind of working out all those kinks mentally takes the teeth out of my baser impulses.

  4. Swearing and nerdism – I swoon at your feet.

    I love that i’m coming across as a feeler – feels like I can say ‘suck it’ to every one who ever accused me of thinking too much or being too intense or serious. SUCK IT! 😉

    I like to explore these sorts of topics from my personal point of view and experience before I stretch them out to include the experience of others – it tends to make what I write or say more feeling oriented than idea oriented – but there’s a shit ton of thinking going on all around the words – it just *feels* good to write them for the feel instead of the thought.

    “I find that kind of working out all those kinks mentally takes the teeth out of my baser impulses.”

    Exactly. that’s a much less abstract way to say it – it *feels* a certain way and I can make poetry out of that – but what it comes down to is processing the kinks, being able to look at and think about them in order to make them less bite happy.

    and i think it’s the tendency to look at them, be curious about them, interested in them and willing to keep at it that prompted me to respond in the first place –
    in your personal work or practice with others – how do you combine this teaching of the fallacy of control with the curiosity for the kinks and folds in the psyche?

    It’s natural to find the kinks to be distasteful and go looking for ways to avoid them (including smart and spiritual or logical seeming ways). What I’m learning about this exchange is that I call some parts of my mental process guilt – the thing that interests me about why i did what i did or what the components of those baser impulses really are. I think partly because I know i’m not just thinking about it philosophically – it’s more…layered than that – and when you’re working with someone it’s not just a philosophy class either –

    which makes me wonder what that other part of it is more properly called…

    whatever you would call that – the integrating, grounding force behind all the thinking through the kinks – is what I was describing as being ‘served by guilt’…

    when are you going to write about ideas about things vs. experience of them? 🙂

    • My dear Scribbler once called me a “practical philosopher” which seems as good a term as any for what you’re talking about. I’m only really concerned with philosophy in how it changes our approach to things. Otherwise, it’s just intellectual wanking.

      “It’s natural to find the kinks to be distasteful and go looking for ways to avoid them” This might be our first substantial point of contention. I DON’T actually find kinks distasteful, mine or anyone else’s — I delight in them.

      That’s actually mentioned in my favorite testimonial to date: “She marvels at her discoveries about you in a wonderfully naive, truly curious way.” Apparently I’m known for my child-like mind 🙂 Which is a good thing, even if it sounds puerile. Because children don’t have a natural revulsion for much of anything. Even if they initially say “Ewwww” their fascination and curiosity drives them onward.

      So to explain this to my clients, it’s fun, because you learn so much better when it’s immediately applicable to you and the examples are drawn from your own life. It’s actually harder to write for this blog than it is to explain it to my clients. You can draw some really illuminating parallels one-on-one, and they get it. And my enthusiasm (ahem) is contagious. They can laugh at themselves. And not beat themselves up about it because having identified the dynamic, it can be studied. Being studied, it can be understood. Once understood, it can be changed. So these kinks, as you delightfully call them, are the start of a fascinating adventure into the workings of your mind.

      As for tying in the fallacy of control, for me, that’s were the lack of judgement and the lack of perfectionism comes in. Because the tendency is always to optimize, to control, to get it “right” If you understand the fallacy, it becomes ok to make mistakes because they’re NOT mistakes anymore. They’re empirical data.

      As Edison allegedly said, “I did not fail 1000 times. I found 1000 ways which will not work.” which is a pretty crucial reframe, I think.

      Obviously, this is not our default setting. When I was sexually harassed, I was initially guilty, mortified, ashamed. I thought that, even if it wasn’t my fault, it wouldn’t be worth it to have my character dragged into it to fight it, nor worth the damage to my career. I made the best choice for me, but of course you could make the argument that I simply perpetuated sexism in the workplace, made it harder for the women who came after me, etc., so I think that illustrates my point nicely.

      That incident has come up several times since then, and now it’s become a challenge to see how many layers of lessons actually come out of the experience (three, so far)

      So it’s not like I’m saying anything new. I’m just passionate about the adventure that life is, and I like to share that with anyone who’ll listen

  5. “It’s natural to find the kinks to be distasteful and go looking for ways to avoid them” This might be our first substantial point of contention. I DON’T actually find kinks distasteful, mine or anyone else’s — I delight in them.

    You’re right. it’s not so much that *everyone* finds them distasteful. careless choice of words – especially since i’m in your camp on this – the kinks delight and compel me – which is why i do this work and which is why we’re having this conversation on a friday night instead of all the awesome stuff we could be doing – the delight is very mutual. My struggle isn’t with the kinks themselves – it’s actually with discussing them with the kind of straight foward clarity you’re building the conversation’s platform on. That’s the learning curve i’m bringing into the dialogue which is sort wonkifying it.

    What I was referring to what I hear from the people who come to me, how *they* find them distasteful and they find themselves suffering but also trying to avoid them and aren’t going to just believe me because I say it that the best thing to do is the opposite. *I* want to pull up a chair right next to their kinks and have a tea and chat with them. it’s exhilerating to me – but it’s not to everyone else. the first steps are not always fun – it can become fun – but I remember my own first steps when I’m with someone who doesn’t totally believe me that it’s safe and we have to take it slow. Obviously, your clients feel you do this for them with such a *beautiful* testimony.

    It’s funny that you mention your child-like mind because there was a point I was thinking of earlier where I wanted to liken it to the way children respond to things that don’t add up or things that are strange or new. But I was already long winded so I didn’t. but you bringing up the same metaphor to invoke a similar tone makes me giggle that despite my language coming out so opaque, there’s a kindred quality here that I’m drawn to and appreciate.

    “It’s actually harder to write for this blog than it is to explain it to my clients. You can draw some really illuminating parallels one-on-one, and they get it. And my enthusiasm (ahem) is contagious. They can laugh at themselves. And not beat themselves up about it because having identified the dynamic, it can be studied. Being studied, it can be understood. Once understood, it can be changed. So these kinks, as you delightfully call them, are the start of a fascinating adventure into the workings of your mind.”

    Perfect. The laughing about it, the enthusiasm, the part where it’s not static or formulaic, the part where any version of the story might fit based on the information at hand and the lense you’re wearing when you examine it and that it doesn’t stop being a lesson once you’ve found on – there’s more…and what you uncover is part of an exciting adventure not the end of the world one might expect it to be. you just expressed that very clearly which I’m really taking in – I love to read your passion.

    also, ‘kinks’ was the word you chose earlier in the conversation actually – I liked it better than the one I had been using so I adopted it. but the credit for the charm is all yours. 🙂

    • I actually had to read back to find out where I used that word…I meant it in a different sense. It isn’t very often I use a dirty word without meaning to….;)

      “when are you going to write about ideas about things vs. experience of them? ”

      Missed this one at some point…

      Well, you suggest something I could write about, and I’ll try and keep experience out of it. It’ll be a challenge!

      If you’re asking for advice about ‘first steps’ mine have too much to do with BodyTalk to make them transferable. But I like to hear about processes too, so if you’d like to share…. One thing I do do is lead a lot with my own experiences, if I can, to demonstrate my empathy with what they’re struggling with. It doesn’t have to be a 1:1 conversion as long as the emotions I’m feeling are similar.

      Otherwise, I say that I can’t relate from my own experience, but I would imagine that it feels like…” and then paint a word picture putting myself in that situation” That’s usually when the client jumps in to clarify or expand, and, whoosh! we’re off

    • By the way, there is an invisible link in my comment about harassment, which leads back to a post from last fall you might find interesting. Not sure why it doesn’t show up better

  6. Ah, great post Shanna. What you describe is pretty much how I’ve come to view things, particularly when it comes to judging other people. Though I sometimes get mad at myself for not having control where I think I should, I’ve pretty much given up on the idea that other people are capable of acting how I think they should. If you don’t have the inclination or the will, you can’t do it, and our wills and inclinations are the product of so much that we can’t control — our upbringing, our prejudices, our skillsets, and our personal situations.

    This has released a tremendous weight from me. It is really painful to carry this insane need for things to unfold differently than they are going to, and more and more I’m able to watch it all unfold with total acceptance, even if it’s not happening as I’d like it to.

    I don’t really get wrapped up in the debate over whether we have free will or not, because I feel like I do, and that’s good enough for me. But knowing that my behavior is subject to so much that’s beyond my control, it’s easier to forgive myself for mistakes and just enjoy the show.

    • Thanks, David. That’s a good way to put it: the painful need for things to unfold differently.

      And I agree that the free will question is largely moot, like I said, I don’t really care unless it changes my approach. But it’s good coffee table discussion, if you are so inclined. I really love to hear about how people see things differently.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  7. […] continuation of the excellent discussion begun here and here (don’t forget to read the comments, they are quite interesting) this is a very long post […]

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