|Artist: Dave Derrett
(used by permission)
At an individual level we notice that feelings and emotions arise. We have no control over them. But we get told to “get your emotions under control” or “why don’t you control your anger?” Growing up, boys may encounter the admonishment of “boys don’t cry” – implying that the emotions that gave rise to the tears should be kept in check.
The problem is not that emotions arise or do not arise, it is how we respond to them. If we respond by grasping onto them then an emotion like anger can become a desire to lash out. Grasping anger is seen everywhere, from bullying to domestic violence, from war to terrorism. Grasping at sadness can lead to a “poor me” or a victim mentality.
The opposite of grasping is aversion. Pushing against anger for example can lead us into fearing our anger. In that fear we bottle our anger up inside us. Fearing it, we may become timid, or overly stoic. But we haven’t controlled it at all. Its still there – hidden, for the time being, but not controlled.
The desire and attempt to control emotion is a dream. We do, however, have some control over our actions in response to emotion. We do not have to resort to violence because of our anger. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness is especially helpful when it comes to working on our emotions. Mindfulness suggests that we notice our emotions, name them, and then just let them pass by. They will, like everything, pass by.
Having control over our actions though is limited to just that. We do not have control over the outcome of our actions, except for those outcomes that exist at that specific moment. The desire to control outcomes is another dream – an unattainable dream. Think about it. Pick an outcome, even a simple one like going to the shop to buy an ice-cream. It seems that you should be able to have complete control over that outcome doesn’t it? But, the world is a lot more complex than that. Maybe you arrive at the shop and find that the ice-cream has run out, or you left your wallet behind and have no money to pay. Perhaps you don’t even get to the shop. A car runs into you as you step off the pavement and you end up in hospital. Or you meet a friend on the way and decide to go to a cafe for a coffee together. We just never know. Control is only a dream.
But when it comes to our collective selves - our neighbourhoods, nations and our global community – the dream of control is further from reality. Indeed, we may have taken our desire for control so far that the dream has become a nightmare.
Western societies have been trying to control nature and other societies for centuries. In doing so we unleashed the nightmare of nuclear weapons. There are many examples of this. Just three will do. We have deforested so much of the planet that many species live with the nightmare of loss of habitat. We have tried to control our urban environment so much that we now live with the nightmare of increasing depression, isolation and anger issues (e.g. road rage, domestic violence).
All because we think that we can control emotions and outcomes. So, if we cannot control emotions nor outcomes, what can we learn?
From realising we cannot control emotions we learn to let go.
From realising we cannot control outcomes we learn to live in the present, the now.
From learning to let go and to living in the present, we discover contentment.