The Illusion of Control

Stilling the Mind

In my last post, I offered the concept that choice is all we really have and to choose wisely but after a recent painful event, I pondered, do we really have choices?  I will get to that event but for now, if one considers the philosophic concept of determinism, one abandons free will which in turn points to having no choice whatsoever. The definition of determinism is thus: it is the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. Some philosophers have taken determinism to imply that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.

Take for instance the case of Covid.  If we choose to follow the recommended CDC guidelines, we will greatly reduce our chances of getting or spreading the disease.  Furthermore, it is suggested that we stay home as much as possible to reduce our chances of becoming a vector of transmission.  At this point, we all pretty much know why it’s a good idea to flatten the curve.

And still the pandemic goes on, month after month as hot spots move about the American landscape, this is a fire that has yet to be stamped out. Many people are getting tired and stressed by the length of our vigilance. We are an independent thinking nation of people and while many are embracing the challenge to not become another statistic, others are venturing out. I’ve seen more and more cars on the road as summer progresses and we “quaran-cheat” with parties, gatherings and celebrations.  We’ve needed this social time; humans are social animals.  Some choose to camp out in secret backwoods spots or spend time on a beach if it hasn’t been closed. As an avid backpacker myself, I watched as the Pacific Crest Trail association implored hikers to not attempt thru-hiking the trail this year.  Permits were revoked, trail angels and support faded away and hikers groused about it or applauded the decision depending on their ideas about the pandemic crisis.

In the effort at maintaining good mental health, I continued to hike my local trails as I am blessed to be in a place where I rarely run into other people.  My wilderness plans were focused on more remote locations away from the PCT which has become pretty well trod of late so I am in agreement with the PCTA’s decision regarding Covid-19.

The choice to stay within my comfort zone of risk, as in backpacking and horseback riding was sound as far as I was concerned.  I am very well experienced in both these things and have whittled down all risk as to be non-existent.  I am a safety star, careful my middle name.  Surely these activities will pose no risk to the general public, right?

Yes, and no.  Here’s where personal choice comes into play.  If you eliminate all risks, as much as is humanly possible what else can go wrong?  But it is exactly why we call things that go wrong “an accident” because life is unforeseen and unpredictable even when we do the best we possibly can.

Which is how I came to be in the emergency room of a hospital getting multiple x-rays to determine how many bones I may have broken on a remote national forest trail while riding my 100% safe and trustworthy horse.

Basically, shit happens.  Sometimes even when you use the power of your choices to become as well informed and as well prepared as you can.  Even when you are experienced and conscientious, aware and careful. One cannot factor on everything, and especially those factors you are unaware even exist.

Who knew that on that fated moment a deer would scare my husbands’ horse (they aren’t usually scared by deer) and that he would dump my husband then wheel into my horse and she would  jump in response and at that moment my saddle fittings would fail and dump me onto my shoulder?  Who knew that a second deer would boldly linger in the brush, then leap out, charge at our dogs and further frighten the already unsettled horses? Who knew that my shoulder would tear and I would be left with an unusable left arm to catch a frightened horse sporting a saddle sideways upon her ribs?

No one knew and least of all, me.  The me that not 15 minutes before had checked my girth to make sure it was fastened tight, less I have an accident!  The silver lining was that we hadn’t gone far; the bad part (besides being hurt) was that we had just set up camp for a long anticipated 3-day horse camping trip.  And there we were, just a few hours later, taking it all down and loading up for a drive home with a stop at the emergency room along the way.

Nothing broken, but in a great deal of pain, I took to my bed for days and slept off the pain meds and allowed myself to heal.  My ribs were severely bruised, making it even harder to get up and move about; my arm hung uselessly by my side. In the time between doctor appointments, I pondered all my choices that led up to that point, and wondered what I could have done to change any of the results other than remain safely at home.  And yet, accidents happen at home as well; I’ve personally torn my knee tripping over a wheel barrow.  My friend broke her leg in her back yard and another just spent 7 days in the hospital with complications from gall bladder surgery.  I myself had the same surgery a year ago and then returned with complications as well, both times having to leave the safety of my home with these serious ailments.

So where does choice figure in when sudden emergencies occur?  One can choose to stay home with the hope that they stay out of harms way, but harm can find you at home.  One can choose to live life and venture out as safely as possible and still, harm can find you there as well.

Which leads me to control and the illusion of control.  There are times when we may think we are in control of our destiny, that the choices we make, make a difference. We eat healthy, exercise, reduce our stress, contribute to society, brush our teeth, are kind to others. And then there are times that clearly point out how little control we have; control of our life isn’t always available, we just thought it was ours to choose, but it wasn’t.  It’s in these times of perceived tragedy and accidental injury that we see that control may not be ours to hold. No matter the free will we exercise over ourselves, ultimately, we cannot control everything.  Is this what is meant by faith and trust? Is it not the realm of faith that something, someone, some higher power has control and purpose and that there may be meaning in the chaos of circumstances beyond our control?  Is this the ultimate in trust?

I don’t subscribe to determinism, nor do I believe that we are entirely subjected to free will.  Perhaps it’s a combination of both a higher power and our own free will.  But, and here’s the kicker, one has to be aware of the choice before we are free to choose.  When someone reacts out of anger, triggered by old programs and patterns, they are not choosing if they are unaware there is a choice.  Choices come when one is aware.  It is our sacred mission in this life to awaken enough to see the choices before us, to transcend old habits and programs and find the free will that belongs to us.  Not all of our life is steered by our own free will, sometimes fate steps in and removes that illusion of control over our destinies.

Meditation may just be the easiest, simplest way to awaken to our egoic patterns of mind control that robs us of our free will and choices. In meditation, we exercise our ability to control wayward thoughts and old programing that keeps us from awareness and we bring our attention to the moment at hand. There are many techniques but the goal (if there must be a goal to stilling the mind) is learning how to find space between who you think you are and who you really are.  It’s listening to your inner voice and finding quiet knowing and clarity.  It is that clarity that awakens your mind to the choices in life that are before you.  Choices you never even knew you had.

And when you find your clarity to make awakened choices, you also may find the illusion of control and relax, surrendering yourself to something bigger and more beautiful than your own small self.  And that is a choice I can get behind.

This is NOT about Covid 19

sacred cow

My latest painting: The Sacred Cow

Well, here we are.  We seem to be experiencing a world wide phenomena most have never seen before.  It’s remarkable, amazing, frightening, overwhelming, unprecedented and yet, somewhat predictable as the world has seen pandemics before.

BUT, I’m not here to write about Covid 19 and the Corona Virus. I want to get back to blogging.  After 2 years of sparse contributions I’m ready to return to sharing my art and my thoughts.  If you recall, I said “see ya later” to the blog when I started to write my memoir following my hike down the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.  Well, I finished the book, and several rewrites/edits. I was shopping for a professional (read objective) editor and an agent to help with that when Covid hit my corner of the world. Book on hold, I hunkered down and hung out with the newly retired husband.  We worked on various home improvement projects and considered ourselves fortunate to have property where we can walk and garden and be outside in a gentle way as the rest of the world seemed to explode with a level of angst and anguish and fear.

Now, in the past few years, along with the writing, I began to go on meditation retreats of different kinds.  I went on a yoga retreat, a woman’s medicine circle, a couple of silent vipassana style retreats, a big, splashy new age retreat as well occasional stay-at-home retreats where I meditated in a small yurt on the corner of the property for days at a time. I even hiked another 60 miles solo on the PCT where I realized it just wasn’t the same and there were too many people on the trail to suit my need for solitude.  In the past week, I’ve completed a 2 ½ day on-line retreat via Zoom meetings. What a world we live in now!

All this retreating and self-reflection along with the writing project stirred up deep seated traumas that needed to be witnessed (by ME) and healed. I am stronger and happier for having taken the time to clean out the cobwebs as well as fix the broken parts of my foundation so that my emotional house can be strong and withstand the next thing life had to throw at it.  When Covid hit, I was struck with an initial sense of fear (a normal reaction) but my training and inner work helped me to settle down relatively quickly  and be in a place of peace as I live each day as they come and try not to predict or look too far into the future.  Will we face financial ruin?  I hope not, but I can’t do anything about it, we made our retirement funds as safe as we could. Watching the news is anxiety provoking, so we limit our exposure and between the two of us, we’ve come up with a “safe word” to remind the other when we get worked up about how a global health crisis has become political fodder and other inflammatory issues, the stress of this is not good for our immune systems.  Will we catch the disease and will it be fatal to my asthmatic-over-60-year-old husband?  Maybe, but we are in a quasi-quarantine and do all the surgical-clean procedures if we ever have to go out and bring things home (which we mostly don’t). I’ve done all I can do to make sure he’s protected, as well as protecting myself.  Worrying anymore beyond this won’t help and so I surrendered to the present and that’s pretty much where we live, in the present moment.

But not everyone lives in there and when confronted with a friend’s personal issues that had her flashing her anger onto me, I puzzled over her reaction and knew that there was a lesson to be learned.  Somewhere.  During a meditative moment where I studied a tree outside my window in depth, the lesson emerged and I’d like to share what I wrote in my journal.  There is a lesson here for all of us and it’s not just about navigating difficult times but about accepting what is right in front of us all the time.

April 16, 2020

We were asked (in the online retreat) to observe a natural thing and look at it until we saw more than what could be seen and knew more than we had known.  I stared intently at the willow that holds my bird feeders.  I took stock of its obvious qualities, length, shape, color, various dimensions. I looked at it with my “artists eye” and saw the negative spaces between the branches the way some turned up and down.  I saw the joints of the branches, the knurled look of older fingers, the supple greenness of new growth. I noted lichen growing on elderly parts and flourishing on the deadwood.  I saw where bird feet had worn bark smooth as they perched, taking advantage of my offered seed and suet.

I began to look at the fractal patterns, the new growth was a repeating pattern of the growth that had come before it.  Not yet twisted and tempered by time, the new branches, while straight, still contained the essence of what they would become.

And then I applied the fractal metaphor to my own life.  The bumpy encounter with my friend came to mind.  My usual methodology of “talking it out” had been closed to me so I found myself tracing the issues back in time.   It was there, in those fresh, new, supple branches of early development that I saw the fractal pattern that would now be the hallmarks of our older growth.

If relationships are like trees, then there are many, many varieties and species. Some, bear fruit and are nourishing, while others provide respite from summer heat.  Some age gracefully while other may fall apart, their time on earth a foregone conclusion, serving a purpose that is brief though no less important. All trees have their place, to appreciate the fractal nature of life allows each to be what it is.  Nothing more or less.  And thus, rather than lamenting that my willow-like friend will never be the sturdy oak of my aspirations, strong and reliable, knowing that she is more like the willow, I can relax and allow, finding beauty and peace in all forms of communion with others.

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