8 Mindful Strategies to Release the Need to Control

Whenever we're facing an unpleasant or alarming situation, we're likely to become anxious and try to figure out what we can do instead of becoming quiet and seeking new ideas or revisiting what worked in the past.
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A woman's outstretched hand gently releases a monarch butterfly into the sky
A woman's outstretched hand gently releases a monarch butterfly into the sky

A few years ago, in my capacity as a mindfulness-based business coach I was brought into a record company to help resolve a crisis that was plaguing the marketing team. I asked to sit in on their strategy meeting and, within minutes, noticed that they were all fighting for control of the situation. What I observed was that the word "no" was used over 75 times in 45 minutes and the word "yes" was only used seven times. All were driven by the same fear: that their current number-one recording artist's latest CD wasn't selling as well as expected. Panic had set in, and the shouting and accusations had begun. I knew they could never reverse this situation with such a negative attitude in the room.

I asked if I could interrupt and work with them for a few minutes. By taking 12 minutes to practice what was once an ancient meditation practice but is now very mainstream we applied the basic principles of intention setting the mind on a positive outcome coupled with focusing on the breath. After about 15 minutes the group entered what I call in my book Wise Mind, Open Mind the practice of mindful meditative inquiry, and it didn't take long for the group to recognize that they were all experiencing similar fears and concerns. They realized that they all saw the core problem and wanted to solve it, whereas before, all they perceived was a power struggle -- each one determined to win. Now the marketing team was able to find common ground and get to the heart of what had worked for this recording artist in the past. This time I noticed "no" was used approximately 16 times and "YES" was the predominate word of choice. They finally worked out a solution that the star agreed to and soon after the new marketing push, the recording shot to the top of the charts.

Whenever we're facing an unpleasant or alarming situation, we're likely to become anxious and try to figure out what we can do instead of becoming quiet and seeking new ideas or revisiting what worked in the past. We quickly make a decision about our course and focus on getting others to agree to go along with the program. This desire to take control can lead to great suffering.

Twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddha understood how to accept the impermanent nature of things, stop clinging and grasping, and let go of the need to control the situation that one can find themselves in. He developed an eightfold path of wise view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration to find balance between acceptance and doing what needs to be done to positively affect your circumstances. Here is a brief synopsis of these strategies from my book, Wise Mind, Open Mind where I give additional practical advice on accepting change.

The Eightfold Path to Letting Go of the Need to Control

First Path: Wise View
In wise view, you recognize that it's not your job, nor is it in your power, to control what happens outside of you. You understand that instead, you can only control what happens within your own mind.

Second Path: Wise Intention
To exercise wise intention, you must be mindful of any propensity toward allowing your fear to rule you. When operating from a primitive, fearful state, everything seems to be a threat to survival, and the mind begins to justify actions it otherwise would recognize as domineering and manipulative.

Third Path: Wise Speech
The greater our facility with language, the more tempting it can be to try to control situations through our words. Insults and sarcasm can intimidate others. Gossip and left-handed compliments are also common weapons in the arsenal of one who doesn't exercise wise speech.

Fourth Path: Wise Action
Wise action means not acting in controlling, manipulative, or coercive ways. It means not being vengeful, regardless of how badly you've been hurt. The thirst for revenge comes from clinging to the past and to the lost opportunity to prevent suffering. People can obsess over what they should've done differently, and sometimes that obsession turns into vengefulness as they try to "right" a wrong.

Fifth Path: Wise Livelihood
Livelihood refers not just to what you do for a living but your purpose, which weaves meaning into every action. Whatever you spend your time doing, whatever it is that gives you a sense of purpose, Buddhist tradition says that you must do it mindfully, giving it the focus and effort it deserves.

Sixth Path: Wise Effort
To exercise wise effort is to focus and discipline your mind to align it with your wise intention. It's very easy to resort to controlling behavior in a difficult situation, even if you intend not to. Wise effort requires letting go of what no longer works and engaging in courageous new actions that leads to transformation.

Seventh Path: Wise Mindfulness
Mindfulness is what grounds you in the present so that when you start to drift off into obsessing about the past, or start making plans to wrest control of a situation, you instead stop and look deeply at your negative and controlling patterns. Being fully focused on what's happening in the moment, experiencing your unwholesome and painful feelings, requires what I call "mindstrength," the ability to very quickly and easily shift out of a reactive mode and become fully present in the moment.

Eighth Path: Wise Concentration
By exercising wise concentration, you remain present in your awareness of a situation exactly as it is, and instead of being reactive, you'll find that you suddenly know how to respond to it in a wholesome, productive way. You'll be able to focus on what's going on inside you instead of what's going on outside of you.

So take a deep breath inhale and exhale, set your mind on what you wish, and await a more positive outcome. Enjoy your day with mindfulness!

For more by Ronald Alexander, Ph.D., click here.

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