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Freedom and control

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“To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control it.”
– Shunryu Suzuki

If we understand Zen Master Suzuki’s words intuitively, we get the meaning of his message. If we pen an animal in closely, watch it react. If we put it in a large field, it will be content to stay where it is, or not far from where it is, free to roam at its leisure. Suzuki is talking about our inner nature. He is pointing to the natural way to inner peace, which arises not through effort and control, but paradoxically, through the relaxation of effort and control. But how can freedom be a form of control? This is contrary to many spiritual disciplines and to many people’s views of what spirituality is. It is the wrong way around – control and effort lead to freedom; freedom does not lead to control but to chaos.

Suzuki’s message beautifully highlights one of the difficulties of any spiritual path: How can I accept my inner nature and, at the same time, become the ideal of the spiritual person that I wish to be? I don’t accept my inner nature now, otherwise I would have no need to become this ideal. Yet I can’t accept that I am fully spiritual now either. I am still selfish at times. I still get angry, irritable, jealous, sad, disillusioned and, dare I admit it, scornful of others. How do I accept these aspects of myself that I don’t like? How can I call myself spiritual if I display these aspects I am told I must overcome in order to feel I am accepted as a spiritual person? If I let go of control, what will I become?

It seems to be taboo in our society to not be in control, especially to be out of control. You may get drunk and lose a bit of control, that is permissible, but don’t lose too much control. We can say that this is a part of the bargain of being a member of society. We can even justify it as a ‘social control’. You display a type of behaviour considered reasonable and within the norm and you are then considered an acceptable person, a ‘fit member of society’. But let’s not get too political.

The downside consequence of the social expectation to be in control is pressure, the pressure to conform, to be accepted. From physics we know that pressure is related to temperature. Heat something under pressure, and it is quick to boil. Yet we are under this social pressure, and so a consequence is that we fear losing control, disgracing ourselves in other people’s eyes. We may ‘boil over’ at some point. To many people this is our worst nightmare because we fear we may be rejected by people we love or by our work colleagues. In order to appear acceptable, then, we repress aspects of our nature that we think would be unacceptable to them. We hide thoughts considered ‘bad’, emotions considered ‘negative’ such as anger, jealousy, and behaviour considered antisocial. As Freud rediscovered, we present an image of ourselves to others as a way to gain acceptability. Our social pressure is to control these ‘undesirable’ thoughts, emotions and behaviours. So can you or I, as individuals, control these aspects of ourselves and still attain an inner freedom? To put it another way, can we give free reign to these aspects of ourselves, and still be acceptable members of society? And become inwardly free and content, as in our ideal picture of what we are searching for spiritually?

As most of us know from experience, our attempts to control life are ultimately futile as life has a way of turning the tables on us. All of the original texts of the main religions, including the words of Jesus in the Bible, say to look within. This is the starting point we may feel we have some control over. The process we employ in picturing our spiritual ideal and then setting out to attain it is the same way we tend to approach happiness in life. “Things are okay now, bearable. I am not fulfilled or happy, but I will be when…” What happens here? We decide what we want, then work backwards. This is what I want, this is where I am now, this is what I have to do to get there. A plan! We have our goal, so we can now formulate our plan—simple strategic planning common in the corporate world. We decide what we want and structure (or restructure) our view of life and even our outer circumstance accordingly. What do we have here? We have a picture of a future ideal, a structure to help us get there, and the situation where we stand now: the present. We are happy enough in that we have focus, and are working towards our goal. We are in control. Or so it seems.

Our goal, our picture ideal of ultimate spiritual fulfilment, is in the future. It is what we are working towards. This means that we are not ultimately fulfilled now, this moment, otherwise we would not need to work towards it. This is okay, we may say, but what are our options?

One option is to accept things as they are now, but we do not want this, because we are not fulfilled now and dream of our spiritual ideal. Another option is to search externally, outside of ourselves, to acquire something or some practice in order to make us happy. Or to change groups or teachers, like shopping in a spiritual supermarket. We can change ‘products’ so to speak. However, there is a simple flaw in this belief in searching externally. If I have to add something to myself to make me happy or fulfilled, then when that something is taken away or ceases, I am unhappy, and I am back to where I started, with my original problem. It can create a kind of spiritual dependency. This is not to say that what is external cannot bring some fulfilment to us, but reliance on something external creates a basic anxiety in us that things may change. We may lose what is adding fulfillment to us. And so, from this basic anxiety, we must then assert some control in order to keep what we have. This doesn’t have to be an insidious form of control. It can be as simple as following expectations in order to remain a member a spiritual group or maintain a relationship to a teacher or teaching. However, this then sets up a dilemma within ourselves: asserting control in order to have what we want. If having what we want requires control, then we are not free, because we have to deny doing what we want to, which we tend to equate with freedom. So we are stuck. We exert control to maintain our ideal, yet we are not free – so it is not ideal.

The hidden value in searching externally is to exhaust this search, which then leaves no other option but to turn and search within – the inner path to contentment. You may be familiar with various Eastern and Western sayings or ideas about spirituality that are easier said than done. “Enlightenment is not something you can achieve, it’s a state of being.” “Find God and you shall be saved.” “The Way that can be spoken of is not the Way.” How about the famous Zen koan (a riddle concerning your mind and your inner nature): “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” You can think about these sayings until the cows come home. You can play with them in your mind, turn them over and over, and maybe have some success. For a while you have found an answer, and fix this in your mind as the path and a way to act or believe, but then this becomes heavy, a burden, and you fight to reassert it by more thinking or more practice or more faith, or you control it from outside influences by making excuses, rationalising away anything that does not fit. Eventually this struggle becomes tiring and you drop it or replace it with a new teaching, only to continually repeat this same process.

Whether we focus on inner or outer change, the results tend to be the same. We find we have initial bursts of great enthusiasm that taper off over time. We try and try, spinning our wheels but going nowhere. Whether we seek spiritual fulfilment externally through groups or practices or internally through ideas and teachings, this tapering effect usually occurs. So? Change groups or practices? Learn more teachings! Try harder! This is fine if we are deeply happy to do this, but it can be very frustrating if our enthusiasm continually wanes back to unhappiness in our current situation or to boredom. The problem is still there. It is as if changing the label on a bottle of wine will make it taste better. Something more fundamental is ‘off’. We tend to approach the inner path as some kind of goal to be achieved, looking for signposts along the way, thus setting it up as something external. Yet just as I cannot add happiness to myself, I cannot throw out something in myself that I don’t like. No matter how much I try, I just can’t get rid of this something. If I want to add something to myself or to throw out something in myself, herein becomes the struggle for spiritual improvement. I am controlling in order to be free. However, I am not free of the struggle to control. Hence I am not free. Is there another way?

Darren Harris is currently writing an eight-part series concerning Eastern philosophy, psychotherapy and change. He is studying a Graduate Diploma in Counselling at the Australian College of Applied Psychology (Brisbane) and has always had a long interest in Eastern philosophy and psychology.

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