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Acceptance: Letting Go Of Control

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In my last piece, I had written about how making today a good day to die also makes today a great day to live while decreasing fear of death. I also mentioned that the two main "ingredients" of this state are gratitude and acceptance: gratitude for the people, things, memories, emotions, and events of your life and acceptance that you really have no control over most of it.

Gratitude is probably easy for most of you. I strongly suspect that the concept is usual and that you do feel grateful for things in your life. Acceptance is much harder, especially in the western mind-set. Another way of describing acceptance is knowing that you have little control in your life. We often perceive that acceptance or acknowledging a lack of control is a sort of failure, whereas in the Zen mind-set (or even the Alcoholics Anonymous mind-set), acceptance is a great strength.

Why do we need to feel like we are in control? It's simple, control, for most, equals safety. In our very basic neuro-physiological, survival based brains, safety means no immediate threats and this allows us to feel at ease. Remember, our brains were created/evolved to help us survive adversity and they do so whether we are conscious of it or not. It is easier to believe that we consciously make choices rather than accept that we are driven by unconscious neuro-physiology and chance occurrences.

The majority of our choices are based on "gut feelings" which are really physiological events. Therefore, it's your physiology that is in control. If you read Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink" you will learn that most of our choices are based on these subconscious events. Is it possible that a "gut feeling" is from a higher power? Yes I believe so, but it still doesn't mean that you are in control. In this case it's the higher power that is in control.

Let's take the simple act of buying a soft drink at a 7-11. You are driving along and you become aware that you are thirsty or hot and want something wet and/or refreshing. Is this a choice or is you body/brain telling you something that finally enters you conscious awareness? I would say it's the latter. So you pull your car (which you probably purchased to feel more powerful, sexy, free or safe - remember power is safety) into the parking lot of a 7-11. Why 7-11? Brand recognition, consistency and past positive experience equals safety.

You walk in, go to the cooler cases and pick out a 7-Up. Why this choice? Safety. You liked 7-Up in the past: it didn't harm you and it met your wet/cooling needs. You may even look at other products like juices, sports drinks, etc, but 9 out of 10 times you will be drawn to a safe choice. You looked at other products, therefore, you feel that you have made a "choice", but you have not. Your need for safety chose 7-Up. This is why, many years ago, the "new" Coke failed and Classic Coke was remarketed. People want safety. Do you really have choice?

Obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) is the extreme version of these survival mechanisms. For a person with OCPD the 'threats' are many, anxiety is significant and solace can be found in repetitive behaviors, which provide routine and a sense of safety. But how many people with OCPD are happy in their lives? Unfortunately, not many. They are ruled by the severe pressure to find safety, and their need for control is high and the anxiety can be overwhelming.

Let me add one larger layer of lack of control. You cannot know the outcome of events in your life. I will paraphrase an old Chinese story, retold by Eckhard Tolle. A man wins a new car in a lottery. All his friends tell him how lucky he is. His only response is "maybe". A few weeks later, he has an accident in the new car and ends up in the hospital. His friends tell him that it is a tragedy. His response is "maybe". While he is in the hospital there is a nighttime electrical fire in his house. If he were there, he surely would have died. His friends tell him how lucky he is. His response is "maybe". This story can go on forever, but the core element is that we really don't know what the long-term outcome of any event or choice will be. We base choices on our projections of outcomes, but we really don't know what will happen. How many "great ideas" in business or life fail? How many love relationships end up in divorce?

Have you been able to control your spouse, your children, your parents or even yourself? Think of failed diet attempts. This can sound dismal to most.

So, how much control do you actually have, especially over the 'big picture'? I would say, very little. This can be either disturbing or liberating. It is disturbing if it makes you feel unsafe. It is liberating if you can be present with this concept and even enjoy the surprise of what actually happens.

For religious individuals, the safety comes from a sense of "God's will". In this mind-set, there is a big picture that the person cannot know the "answer" to. For meditation practitioners, this insight comes from calm observation of the events in their lives. This observation can (not always) lead to a peaceful realization that control is not necessary.

If one accepts this lack of control, one can accept anything that arises and accept that it "may be" good or bad and you won't know for some time to come, if ever. Remember also that "maybe" is a reasonable response to any judgmental projection - this is 'good' or this is 'bad'.

Whether you attribute this acceptance to a higher power or your own neuro-physiology, or both, it doesn't matter (science and religion are both useful ways of understanding this phenomenon).

I am not suggesting an attitude of "screw it, I can't control it anyhow." I am suggesting that even when you are aware that there is no real control, you can still be guided by what socially, morally works for you. In this way, knowing that you tried well, loved well and served well makes every day a good day to live or die. It's just a good day.

Combining this acceptance with gratitude, on a daily basis, liberates us and makes today a good day to live or die. It also makes the 'ride' that life gives us less predictable, and more fun with surprises around every corner. Not bad at all - "maybe"!

I raise this issue, not because I believe that I have magical answers to life's concerns, but because these are intriguing questions to ask and maybe pondering these questions will shift your perception a bit. How much time do we spend, planning, thinking, judging, choosing and being sure of our opinions? Is this time well spent?