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The Illusion of Control

There is an essential principle of psychology which we are culturally very resistant to seeing, which is the principle that says we cannot change our mental state on purpose. It seems to us very much the case that we can do this – or if for some reason we find that we can’t (if we find that we can’t get out of a particular inner state) then it seems very much to us that we ought to be able to. The suggestion that it is perfectly impossible to change our inner state on purpose, just because we want to, doesn’t seem to make any sense to us at all. What is called ‘positive thinking’ is all about doing just this, and that is why it has such great appeal. This is why there has always been so much talk about it. A lot of so-called ‘therapy’ is also all about changing our mental state on purpose – which means that a lot of what we fondly see as therapy comes down to nothing more than trying to escape from ourselves. What’s more, it comes down to trying to escape from ourselves in an entirely unreal way!



This ought not to come down as too much of a surprise since our culture – to anyone who has any genuine psychological insight – is clearly all about escaping ourselves, i.e. it is all about not being who we really are. This is what Alan Watts calls ‘the taboo against knowing who you are’. Regarding this taboo, Alan Watts says the following:


Our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing — with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.


If were to agree for the moment that this were the case – that we do put all of our energy into trying to be ‘the idea of ourselves’ rather than placing that precious energy at the service of ‘the reality of who we are’ (however mysterious that may be) then it becomes very clear that we would of course be heavily invested in this belief that ‘it ought to be possible to change our mental state at will’. If our allegiance was towards ‘being ourselves’ rather than ‘being who we want to be’ (or ‘who society wants us to be’)then why would there be this tremendous emphasis on changing the way that we are? Why would this be such an important thing to us – why would it even be an issue at all? If I am to be myself then I will be myself both in fine weather and in foul, when times are good and when times are not so good. Anything else would constitute being what we might call a ‘fair-weather friend to myself’, i.e. only being present with myself when it is unchallenging to do so. The thing about this however is that it just doesn’t work – if I can’t be true to myself (or present with myself) when it is challenging to do so, then I can’t be myself at all. If I can’t be true to myself when times are hard then I won’t be able to be ‘true’ to myself any other time, either…



The principle that we can’t change the way we are on purpose is such a simple one, and it makes such profound intuitive sense, and yet we have insurmountable problems with it. To say that we can’t change our mental state on purpose sounds pessimistic or defeatist or hopelessly passive to us, and for this reason we don’t want to go anywhere near the idea – it just isn’t something we’re interested in discussing. This is a very peculiar situation in itself however, if only we could stop to reflect on it. Why would we have this attitude that says it is ‘negative’ or ‘pessimistic or ‘defeatist’ to suggest that it is impossible to change our mental state ‘at will’? We could also ask if it is a healthy attitude to have, this attitude which is in essence a demand to be in control of the way we are the whole time. It isn’t hard to see that there is something suspect about this – something that doesn’t ring true, something that smells a bit fishy. If we consider it to be of the greatest importance that we should be able to change our own state of mind at will then this clearly shows that we are afraid of certain states of mind, and want therefore to be able to escape from them if and when the need arises. This is inarguable.



Now on one level this is of course perfectly understandable – no one wants to feel bad! But if we adopt an attitude of believing that we ought to be able to ‘exit’ a painful mind state whenever such a mind state arises then what has happened is that we have crossed a line – we have passed over into the realm of denial, which is where we live life on the basis of unacknowledged fear. We can no longer face up to what life may bring – we reserve the right to ‘duck out of it’ any time we want, we reserve the right to pull the plug any time we want, we reserve the right to press the fast-forward button on life any time we want and skip the bits that we don’t like. We no longer have any actual integrity, in other words…



Generally speaking, we do tend to ‘get this’ point, but we don’t entirely get it. We don’t get it100%, we don’t get it all the way. Whilst we may agree that it is unhealthy to want to avoid all the difficult bits of life and only have the enjoyable bits most people would argue that where there is a ‘long-standing painful mind-state’ (such as anxiety or depression) then we ought very much to have the power to exit this state. This seems to be just common sense. The thing is however – as we ought to realize – what we call ‘common sense’ just isn’t helpful when we’re talking about psychology. ‘Common sense’ just means ‘muddling on the way we always do and hoping that this will somehow make everything come out right’.  It means using our everyday ‘problem-solving attitude’ for everything that comes up.



This just doesn’t work though, as a experience will testify – what all distressing neurotic states of mind demand from us is that we go deeper than common sense and learn to understand ourselves in radically new way – a way that won’t be understood by our fellows (or by the so-called ‘experts in the field’ for that matter). Working with distressing states of mind isn’t a matter of common sense – it’s a matter of reversing common sense! The only thing that frees us from neurotic suffering such as anxiety and depression is gaining insight into the way that these states are an inevitable result of our normal, everyday way of doing things. When we understand this, then naturally we give up our ‘normal, everyday’ way of doing things.



The point that we find it so hard to understand (the point that we don’t want to understand) is that our usual way of life is in itself neurotic, and that it is for this reason always very likely to tip over into what we might call overt (or ‘undisguised’) neurotic suffering. For some people it does ‘tip over’ into overt symptomology of neurosis, for others it doesn’t, but it’s always on the cards. We could try to clarify this basic point by saying that since it is our constant but unexamined strategy of ‘exiting painful mental states’ that brings about neurotic suffering in the first place, learning somehow to get better at exiting painful states is hardly going to make the situation better! If ‘unacknowledged avoidance’ (which is what neurosis is) is the problem, then avoiding (or somehow ‘doing away with’) the concentrated mass of pain that comes about as a result of this avoiding is hardly going to be the helpful thing to do!



It is our ongoing ‘unconscious commitment’ to escaping from challenging mental states that has provided the fuel for anxiety, the fuel for depression, even though this might be far from obvious to us. In the case of anxiety, we can say that what we are constantly trying to escape from is something that has sometimes been called ‘ontological insecurity’. A simple way of explaining ontological security is to say that it the painfully insecure feeling that comes with being in the world with no way of either ‘safeguarding’ our existence, or really knowing what this existence is all about. It arises out of a ‘perceived need for control’, when actually any form of meaningful control is a total impossibility. I want to be prepared, but what is it that I to be prepared for? I want to safeguard myself, but against what?



Given that our basic ontological situation is one where we can’t second-guess what is going to happen next (unless we create a very ‘over-simplified’ or ‘over-regulated’ environment for ourselves) as soon as we trying to achieve the supposed advantage of ‘being one step ahead of what is going to happen next’, we are going to run into insurmountable anxiety. On the other hand, ‘not knowing what is going to happen before it happens’ is what makes life interesting and delightful and worthwhile, which means that this ‘need to be in control’ never actually had to arise in the first place! It’s just some kind of ‘blind security-seeking reflex’…



If it is true that what anxiety is really about – on the most essential level – is ‘trying to escape ontological insecurity’, then it is clearly going to be ‘getting better at not always trying to exit our mental state’ that is going to help, not learning new tricks, or becoming stronger and more resolved in ourselves that we aren’t going to continue feeling that way that we do, which is our usual tactic. Becoming even more slippery, like some practiced eel of a politician, just isn’t going to do us any good! Getting better at changing our inner state (or our mental state, whichever way we want to put it) has no role to play in recovering our mental health – that’s just feeding our all-encompassing neuroticism, which really doesn’t need any more feeding!  What helps is to be non-neurotic, which means – as Chogyam Trungpa says – learning to take reality just as it comes – straight out of the bottle rather than diluted, unadulterated rather than mixed.



Depression is perhaps harder to understand in this way because when we are depressed there is no longer any possibility of avoidance. This is the crucial point. It is as if when we have fully-blown depression then we have been ‘caught’, and so since we’ve been caught there is no point trying to avoid any more. We no longer have the possibility of engaging in the type of wall-to-wall non-stop ‘busy-ness’, the type of normal constant goal-orientated behaviour that we would have been engaged in – we can’t ‘distract’ ourselves with the familiar routine of our everyday life any more. This isn’t to say that we wouldn’t like to distract ourselves, it just means that when depression lands on us with all its weight this is not a card that we can play any more. In the earlier stages of depression we will of course do our very best to distract ourselves from the ‘depressed’ feeling – we will press the ‘suppress’ button every time we possibly can, naturally. Why wouldn’t we? But what happens in depression is that this button ceases to work and so even though we would have been able to successfully suppress all that stuff in the past, everything has built up now to a stage where that is just no longer possible. For this reason we can see that our ability to ‘escape’ from painful mental states (and stay thereby ‘in control’ of how we feel) is the cause of all our troubles, not the cure.



A big part of the reason why we believe that it is (or should) be possible to change our inner state on purpose is because – in our everyday day experience – it often seems as if we can. We start to feel a certain way, and – usually before we even give it much conscious attention – we manage to ‘divert’ ourselves, we manage to ‘distract’ ourselves in some way. Self-distraction however doesn’t really count as changing an inner state – it’s just a trick! It’s a scam! The thing about distraction strategies is that however successful they might appear to be at the time this so-called ‘success’ is entirely illusory. It happens in our imaginations, not in reality.



If I try to distract myself from fear for example then I may be momentarily successful in that there will be some sort of relief as I allow myself to feel (for whatever brief period of time that I can) that I am going to escape but then as this hope fails me (as it must since no one can run away from fear for very long) I experience a ‘rebound effect’ in which the fear that I had momentarily evaded catches up with me with an additional intensity in it which is the direct result of me pushing it away. The inevitable ‘rebound effect’ that happens with all distraction means therefore that I pay dearly later on for that moment of relief – I don’t just repay the pain have avoided, I repay it with interest. The attempt to run away from fear by trying to figure out how to stay one step ahead of life’s challenges is familiar to us as anxiety – in anxiety we keep looking for that momentary bit of relief from fear that comes when we think we might have found an angle to play, but this just involves us in a rapid cycle of ‘hoping against hope’ that we can solve things (which is the distraction) followed by renewed and intensified fear as we realize that we were only only fooling ourselves…



The thing about distraction is therefore that it is precisely our apparent success in ‘escaping the painful inner state’ that works against us because it hurts all the more when we eventually discover that we can’t escape. Our situation is like that of the typical ‘destined to lose’ character in a cartoon who tears off at great speed only to discover after a moment or two that he is attached to something immovable with a very stretchy elastic cord. The elastic cord reaches its limit and then that’s the end of the escape! There is apparent success to start off with but it is precisely this appearance of success which is the funny thing because we know very well (having seen many such cartoons) what is very shortly going to happen. We know that all his tremendous momentum (his ‘escape velocity’) is going to work against him the very next moment as he comes flying back again like a boomerang, so that the more he succeeds in the first half the more ridiculously he will fail in the second half! This is the joke, and we never tire of seeing it…



What this ‘rebound’ business demonstrates is precisely the point that we started off this discussion with – the point in question being that we can’t change our mental state on purpose. It is the fact that we think we can that would make our situation seem somewhat funny if we could see ourselves as a cartoon character, determinedly making a dash for it and then being brought up short when we reach our limit. Needless to say however we don’t usually see ourselves as cartoon characters (we take ourselves much more seriously than this) and so from our point of view there isn’t really that much humour in it. In fact because we are so very invested in believing that it is possible for us to ‘make an escape’ we don’t appreciate the comedic aspect to this process at all. We experience it as being the exact opposite of funny.



Coming back to our discussion of depression now, we can state that the particular type of culture we live in ‘encourages’ depression precisely because of the way it offers us so many ways of being (apparently) able to escape from painful states of mind. Our modern, distraction-based way of life is the elasticated cord or rubber band that – because it is so fantastically stretchy – allows us to believe (for a while at least) that we are able to quit unwanted states of mind at will, as it suits us. The super-clever, super-controlling, super-rational, super-technical culture that we live in is just like the rubber band that we have been making so much of – although it appears to be giving us something (although it appears to be giving us the leeway to change our mental state as and when it suits us) in reality it is giving us no leeway at all. In reality we are being made fools of: there is no leeway and there never could be. The truth of the matter is that a trick is being played on us. Actually, the truth is that we are playing a trick on ourselves.



There is no confusion whatsoever as to where our priorities lie, where our values lie, in this modern world of ours. We have at this stage developed a tremendous repertory of strategies for being apparently in control of our own states of mind. We don’t have to ‘face ourselves’ at all in the usual run of thing because we’re so effectively cut off from our own interior life, and the reason we’re ‘cut off from our interior life’ is because we have such a complex, multifaceted world on the outside to get involved with. By engaging in whatever aspect of this world suits our mood, it may be said that we experience – in a convincing way – ‘the illusion of being in control of our own mental states’. It may not seem to us that this is the case but actually every time we feel motivated to do this or do that, what we’re really trying to do is obtain a mind state for ourselves that seems more attractive than the one we’re in. We might think that it’s something else we’re after (i.e. success or status or ‘the special thing’) but really it’s ‘the special mental state’ that comes with it.



This is what advertising is all about – advertising isn’t really selling us products, it’s selling us mind-states. It’s selling us ‘the mind-state that goes with the product’! Inasmuch as we conceive the notion of doing this, that or the other because we think (on some level) that it’s going to make us feel better, we are trying to be in control of our own state of mind. That’s what’s so very attractive to us about this whole business of ‘consumerism’! It offers us the chance of control via our ‘purchasing power’, i.e. the idea is that ‘the more affluent we are the more we are in control both of our lives, and how we feel’. As we do know somewhere, at the back of it all, consumerism is all about chasing desired states of mind (and whether they’re illusory or not we don’t care) and running away from the undesired ones…



This technologically and chemically aided ability to divert and distract ourselves from seeing ‘how we really are’ (and therefore ‘who we really are’) has been developed so far, and become so pervasive, that it now constitutes a way of life – it now constitutes the only way of life we know, even. We only know ourselves the way the system defines us as being. In addition to the ‘means’ of running away from painful mind states, we also have the philosophy, the value system to go with it. We firmly (unquestionably, in fact) believe that there is no good in pain, no value in pain, and as a result of this belief we see it as legitimate to do away with this whole side of life by any means we can. The main way in which we do this is by creating very many alternative ‘modes-of-distraction’ for ourselves, very many different shiny and sparkly ‘virtual realities’ for us to get lost in. Essentially, we have become superlatively accomplished in entertaining ourselves with our own constructs, at preoccupying ourselves with our games, at absorbing ourselves in ‘man-made external realities’ where we don’t have to encounter the unwelcome spectre of our inner pain.



What we are actually doing in our modern way of life (no matter what we may say we’re doing!) is escaping into an ‘exteriorized’ (or ‘objectified’) world which we have total control of. We have total control of this world because it was us who designed the parameters! When control is taken to its logical extreme then, needless to say, what this turns into is the creation of an entirely artificial environment. Trapped in this virtual/artificial environment (by our own intention, by our own design) we naturally become the same as it is. We become subject to its rules – we translate ourselves wholesale into an exteriorized or objectified reality, and so we ourselves become exteriorized, objectified. We end up ‘living outside of ourselves’ in a world of concrete objects where all of our ‘relationships’ are that of one ‘one object relating another’. As Colin Wilson says, we become ‘objects trapped in a world of objects’. This is great from the point of view of escaping from our own interiority, which is the world that we’re not in control of, but it’s not so great in any other way since what we have essentially done is to turn everything into a meaningless game which we are – all the same – compelled to take seriously. This in itself is (of course) a form of pain – it just happens to be pain (or suffering) that we can’t necessarily see as such. We have deprived ourselves of the capacity to see just how inimical (or just our sterile) our situation is.



The other ‘prong’ on our attack on pain might be said to be our pain-killing medicines, i.e. the pharmacological technology we use for manipulating our own nervous systems. Whilst there is a place for analgesia in physical medicine, what happens when we apply this pain-killing paradigm to what we call ‘mental illness’ is that we end up in a situation where we have cut ourselves off from our own feelings. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a role for medication in mental health disturbances but simply that when our wholesale response to feelings of sadness, fear, despair, alienation and meaninglessness is to put an ever-increasing proportion of the population with antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication, when a lot of these feelings come about as a direct result of our superficial, pain-avoiding, over-regulated culture in the first place, then we have entered into a ‘loop of control’ which is never going to get better. On the one hand this is fairly obvious, and many of us may agree in principle that ‘controlling mental pain’ is not a good road to go down, collectively speaking we’re totally sold on the idea and we’re rushing down that pain-avoiding road without a single a single solitary thought regarding the wisdom or otherwise of what we’re doing…



Our war on mental pain is ill-considered, just as Ivan Illich says our all-out war on any sort of pain is ill-considered. Mental pain is at root the same thing as difficulty – it is something that challenges us, sometimes very severely. So if we take the position that mental pain is to be gotten rid of, as we inarguably have done, and we pursue this goal with all the means at our disposal, then we eradicate all challenge at the same time that we eradicate all pain. There is no way that this can’t be the case, there is no other way for this to work. If all mental pain is removed then so is life’s essential challenge, which is (whether we realize this or not) a challenge that is to be found on the inside rather than the outside. And without this challenge life has no meaning – without challenge life turns into dull routine and empty entertainment, it turns into a purely ‘mechanical affair’ where external targets are met, but no meaningful inner change ever takes place…



When we unreservedly go along with the urge to be in control, so that we have the security of knowing what is going to happen before it happens, and the security of knowing we can always change the way we feel if we don’t like the way we feel, then we are of course simply becoming divorced from reality. We have become divorced from reality, and we have headed off at full speed, as fast as ever we can go, down a sterile cul-de-sac, for all the world as if there were something good waiting for us there at the end of it! Illusions of ‘being in control’ are our stock in trade – that’s what we do well.



The reason we say that modern culture encourages depression and anxiety therefore (which does tend to sound like a rather outrageous thing to suggest) is precisely because it provides us with the very plausible illusion that we can be in control, that we can know what it going to happen before it happens, that we can ‘snap out’ of any mental states that we don’t like, with perfect impunity. The particular culture we live in is supremely good at providing this illusion; fact Western culture may even be said to be all about providing this particular illusion, as Sogyal Rinpoche says here in the following quote from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying


Sometimes I think that the greatest achievement of modern culture is its brilliant selling of samsara and its barren distractions. Modern society seems to me a celebration of all the things that lead away from the truth, make truth hard to live for, and discourage people from even believing that it exists. And to think that all this springs from a civilization that claims to adore life, but actually starves it of any real meaning; that endlessly speaks of making people “happy,” but in fact blocks their way to the source of real joy.

This modern samsara feeds off an anxiety and depression that it fosters and trains us all in, and carefully nurtures with a consumer machine that needs to keep us greedy to keep going. Samsara is highly organized, versatile, and sophisticated; it assaults us from every angle with its propaganda, and creates an almost impregnable environment of addiction around us. The more we try to escape, the more we seem to fall into the traps it is so ingenious at setting for us. . As the eighteenth century Tibetan master Jikme Lingpa said: “Mesmerized by the sheer variety of perceptions, beings wander endlessly astray in samsara’s vicious cycle.” Obsessed, then, with false hopes, dreams, and ambitions, which promise happiness but lead only to misery, we are like people crawling through an endless desert, dying of thirst. And all that this samsara holds out to us to drink is a cup of salt water, designed to make us even thirstier.


Our culture is supremely accomplished at packaging and promoting the illusion that we can change whatever mental state we happen to be in, just because we want to change it, and we – on the whole – are very keen indeed to believe in it. The combination of these two ingredients however (the means to deceive ourselves and the overwhelmingly strong desire to do so) does not bode well for us, needless to say. On the surface it may look as if we are ‘doing ourselves a favour’, but actually the exact opposite is true. Our attitude to ourselves is (as has been said before) one of complete self-indulgence – the merest trace or flicker of a whim is seen as a divine right, it gets turned into a command that has to be immediately actualized by the tremendous technological means that happen to be at our disposal (if we happen to be one of the wealthy few at the top of the pyramid, that is).



Another way of putting it is to say that we enable ourselves – we are our own enablers! If I am an alcoholic and you are my doting partner and you enable me in my addiction, taking care of me when I am sick, lending me money when I am broke, putting up with my bad behaviour, sorting out any messes I get myself into, then – as we all know – this is doing me no favours. Similarly, the way we ‘look after ourselves’ is doing us no favours – by investing so much in ‘virtual escaping’ and ‘make-believe control’ we are storing up a very unpleasant surprise for ourselves in the future. If we wanted to give ourselves a really hard time, and were extraordinarily ingenious in devising one, we couldn’t have done better than this…









Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.

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