Over a decade ago, when I was a relatively new meditation teacher, a friend told me about a Tibetan Rinpoche who instructed his students to practice “extreme” letting go. He told them to stop whatever they were doing, let their limbs and muscles go limp, and literally fall down wherever they happened to be so they could “taste” the experience of releasing their clinging mind-states. He suggested doing this practice several times a day, and so they would crash to the floor or the earth on sidewalks, in office hallways, and in their kitchens. At the time, I thought it was a ridiculous and maybe even dangerous idea, and I wondered who would be foolish enough to follow such directions. But lately, I’ve grown to understand the usefulness of this teaching, as well as my aversion to it, because I’ve had to recognize and accept the truth about myself: I’m a control freak. And learning to let go—to relax and fall down, literally or metaphorically, into the reality of the present moment—is the only cure for it.
In the past, I didn’t think of myself as a control freak, because I generally don’t try to control what other people do or say, I’m fairly adaptable to new situations, and I can tolerate difficulty as well as anyone else. But even though I don’t fall into the archetype of a demanding or rigid perfectionist, I’ve struggled for a long time to accept my lack of control over the future. For example, I often plan for the worst outcomes, strategize solutions to problems that aren’t happening, and fantasize about preventing unwanted or dangerous events from occurring. And because all of this worrying and planning prevents me from settling into the present moment, it’s difficult for me to fully rest or feel at ease.
This became all too clear at a meditation retreat a few years ago, during the pandemic. Because of social distancing and mandatory mask-wearing, we retreatants spent most of our time in our rooms. I’d brought along a notebook of inspiring Buddhist quotes and was contemplating Ajahn Chah’s advice: “If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. And if you let go completely, you will have complete peace.” As I repeated it silently to myself, I remembered the Rinpoche’s “extreme” letting go instructions and could feel my body relax. I realized that both teachers were right—I felt open, present, and less trepidatious about life. But I didn’t like it—the stillness and quiet in my mind were unfamiliar and unsettling, and I felt unprotected without all the plans and schemes that I thought were keeping me safe. My stomach clenched, my jaw tightened, and my heart closed. Even there, in that quiet, safe, and beautiful environment, I felt too helpless and weak to stop clinging.
A minute later, I thought to myself, “Kim, what’s wrong with feeling helpless and weak?” In response, I felt a wave of sadness and fear, followed by the profound insight that my life was not special. I was subject to aging, sickness, and death just like everyone else, and I deeply understood that being a control freak enabled me to believe that I was immune to this truth. But, of course, every human is fragile and soft, subject to changes and losses that aren’t in our control. We can’t command the weather, other people, or a pandemic. And though there’s nothing wrong with using our actions to help prevent harm and contribute to beneficial and healthy conditions for ourselves and others, the outcomes are not up to us.
I finally saw that I had a choice—I could keep holding on to my painful and traumatic fantasies and continue suffering, or I could let them go and learn to tolerate and embrace my vulnerable and impermanent life. I put my hand on my heart, felt my body breathing, and chose to let my heart open to myself. As these painful feelings arose again, I remembered a practice from Thich Nhat Hanh and said to myself, “I see you, sadness and fear and I’m not going to leave you.” As I repeated these words of kindness, I felt my face, hands, and chest relax and a sense of contentment and ease arise, because I’d finally stopped trying to protect myself from this naked and tender experience of being. Paradoxically, welcoming my sense of vulnerability didn’t mean I was weak—rather, it signified courage, and the profound wisdom of meeting the future when it arrived, and not before. It inspired in me a deep confidence that, whatever happened, I could trust myself to meet it skillfully with compassion.
Meditation is called a practice because it takes time and training to rewire and change old conditioned patterns of behavior. That experience from the retreat doesn’t mean I will never worry or try to control things anymore. But when I do sense a tightening and unease about the future, I know that I can return to my breath, connect to my feelings, and trust in the unfolding of life. It’s possible to be more open, present, and less trepidatious about life, and it’s okay to relax, take a breath, and slowly allow my illusion of control to fade. And, though I don’t think it’s necessary to fall to the pavement in a parking lot to experience the sensation of letting go, it’s a wonderful metaphor and skillful teaching that shows us that it is truly possible to drop everything—all our desires, fears, and delusions—and surrender to the truth of the present moment.
With mindfulness and compassion, all of us can learn to meet our precious lives without aversion or ignorance and instead attend to our sadness and anxiety with love, kindness, and wisdom. If you suspect you’re a control freak like me—and frankly, I think you are because we all are—I hope you’ll practice this lovingkindness meditation that will remind you to relax, let go, and fall into the present moment again, and again, and again.
Lovingkindness for Control Freaks
• Find a quiet place, get still, and take a few deep inhales and exhales. Then put your hand on your heart.
• Establish a connection with yourself. You can visualize yourself—as you look in the mirror or maybe in a moment of your childhood—or just have a sense of your loving presence. Then say these sentences silently to yourself: “May I be easy with the way life unfolds. May I be open-hearted and free.” Repeat each sentence as though you’re giving it as a gift to yourself.
• After a few minutes, include someone else who is struggling. You might imagine this person is sitting with you, or you can just have a sense of them and you together. Then say this silently to you both: “May we be easy with the way life unfolds. May we be open-hearted and free.”
• Finally, you can share your good heart and wisdom by imagining all the people all over the world struggling right now with a crisis, disaster, or unexpected calamity, and say to all: “May we be easy with the way life unfolds. May everyone be open-hearted and free.”
• After a few minutes, you can stop repeating the phrases. Just let yourself stay still, with your eyes closed, and rest here for a few minutes before you get up. Be sure to say “thank you” to yourself for your wisdom and skillful efforts.