For about eight years, I worked in the newsroom of a medium-sized newspaper, covering sports and then later politics and then crime. This newsroom started out quiet in the mornings but would usually be thrumming in the late afternoons as the pace of news picked up.
Some days, chaos would break out. A huge disaster, like a plane crash or a storm, would send everyone scrambling, tensions would rise, everything would change. I would be in the middle of this chaos, and I was completely stressed out.
What I realized during one of these chaotic episodes was that my stress came from my natural order being disrupted, plans being thrown out and new information coming at me all at once. The situation wasn’t stable, but constantly changing, and I wanted stability.
So I decided to let go of that ideal of stability and embrace the constant change. Be happy with the flux. I took a breath, smiled, and let the flurry of activity soak into me, and I embraced it. Then I took action, doing a task and focusing on that, not on all the other things I had to do. When something new would come up, I’d embrace the change, let go of the task I was working on, and be entirely with the new task.
I smiled. I’d found Zen in the middle of chaos, without realizing it.
Whenever things get a little crazy, and my stress levels rise, this newsroom episode is the model for how to find peace despite the chaos of change.
I think of myself as a river: constantly flowing, continually changing, with new water and debris (events and information) flowing through it all the time. I could try to bottle it all up and keep things the same, but that wouldn’t work because there’s always new water flowing through. I can hope that my plans stay fixed and try to freeze everything, but the water flows too quickly to freeze.
In other words, all my attempts to control things should be abandoned, and I should just accept the everchanging, everflowing nature of my life as a river.
It turns out that this model can bring me peace no matter where I am, no matter what’s happening. If plans get disrupted, my day gets interrupted by a sudden crisis, information starts coming at me from everywhere, the pace of events starts quickening … I just picture myself as a river, with all of this stuff flowing through me. I don’t try to hold it, control it, freeze it, but I embrace the flow.
I smile, I breathe, and I focus on one thing. Then the next. Not holding tightly to any of them, or wanting the river to be any certain way.
Letting go of control
When we let go of the need to control our everchanging lives, we also let go of the idea that we’ll know how things will turn out, or even that we know how things really are right now.
We have a need to know, but the reality is that we don’t actually know how things will turn out. Plans and goals and ideals are just fantasies, perhaps predictions of the future but not the actuality of the future.
A couple of examples:
- When I go on a trip, I like to plan out as many details as possible, including not only my flight but hotel or apartment where I’ll be staying, a list of restaurants I might eat at, transportation, an itinerary, what I might need to pack, and more. This makes me feel in control, like I know how things will turn out, but the truth is that no trip has ever gone as I’ve planned. Things always come up, things change, the destination is not what I’d imagined, and new opportunities for exploration inevitably present themselves. This can be frustrating if I try to stick to my plans or expectations of how things will go. So instead, I could let go of the illusion of control, and the idea that I know how things will go, and plan as minimally as possible. Be open to what might happen, and be happy with however things turn out. I might even be curious to what this trip will be like, instead of thinking I already know.
- When I have guests over, I do the same kind of planning, imagining how the visit will go, planning out meals in detail and maybe even a plan of what we’ll do, preparing the house and the kids for the visit, and so on. Again, I get a feeling of control, and I think I know how things will go — but again, it never turns out that way. I could end up frustrated by this, or I could let go of these ideas I have of how things will happen and be open to unpredictable events. There’s no way to know how things will turn out when people get together. We simply don’t know.
What I’ve found useful is telling myself I don’t know what will happen. I don’t even know the full nature of reality at this moment — how can I know what will come in the future?
I replace this feeling of not knowing with curiosity: instead of dreading something, complaining about it, being frustrated by it, fearing it … I can be curious about it.
It takes some time to become comfortable with not knowing — it’s not something most of us have learned to be comfortable with. It takes conscious practice.
But once you’re a little more comfortable with this idea of not knowing, you can see that curiosity is a more open stance, one that says, “Hmm, I wonder. I’d like to see what things are like, how they’ll turn out. It could be really interesting!”
And so you approach each moment this way:
- with openness, not fixed plans
- with curiosity, not knowing
- with freedom, not control
- with trust, not fear
- with good intentions, not expectations of outcomes
This is the method for dealing with the constantly changing nature of reality. This is the way to become a master of change.
Building trust that you’ll be OK
Let’s say that you’re going into a meeting, and you’re nervous. You’ve planned and prepared, you have your objectives and goals, you have visualized how this meeting will go, but you are afraid. You think you might fail or are worried about what they’ll think of you.
In this situation, you are afraid and nervous because you want things to go a certain way: you have a vision for what it will be like to succeed at this meeting, including how people should think of you. You have goals, expectations, fixed outcomes. You are trying to control this event.
Instead, try this: let go of this control. Sure, prepare, but don’t think that it will go a certain way. Don’t feel the need for people to think of you in a certain way, because in truth you can’t control how people will think of you. Let go of your need to know how things will turn out.
Be open to what happens in the meeting and curious about how things will turn out. Instead of worrying what people will think of you, be curious about what kind of people they are. Be curious about what conversations will emerge.
If you do this, you’ll deal with the relentlessly changing nature of the situation with calm, because no matter how each moment of this meeting turns out, you’re OK with that. You didn’t need it to be a certain way, and you were curious about how it would go. No matter what happens, you learned something. And that’s a wonderful outcome.
In my life, the need to control still arises in me, but when I become aware of it, I’m much better at letting it go now than I used to be. I’m much better at accepting things as they come, rather than needing them to be under my control.
In this way, we become masters of change. Life will never go as we expect, but we become OK with that, we accept things as they come, we are open to them, we are curious. In the end, we have trust in the moment, which brings calm and peace as we flow through life.
Mission: Practice without control
As you do your habit today, practice mindfulness during the activity, and envision yourself as a river that life is flowing through, not controlling the water but experiencing the flow of it. Practice embracing the change, the chaos, the flow.
Also assess your third Habit Sprint in your journal: How many days in the last week have you done the habit? Did you face any obstacles? What can you do to overcome those obstacles in the next week? Add those obstacles and solutions to your Habit Plan.
A note on your plan: Don’t take this as a fixed plan, but rather a way to reflect on what environment works best for you, and a way to put in writing the adjustments and flows you’re making along the way.