Wishing for something to be different from what it is can be a strong motivator for planning and making decisions in your life. And yet it is incredibly fruitless to try to control the outcome. As much as you try to orchestrate a certain outcome, it doesn’t always come out the way you want. That doesn’t mean you never make choices. You make choices all the time. The key to less agonizing over a decision is to realize that even if you think you are making the right choice, it won’t always come out the way you expected. It doesn’t make the choice wrong and the outcome bad. It is just the outcome you got.
It can feel really scary to accept that we have no control. We hang on to the illusion that if we try hard enough we can control our situation. But we can’t control the outcome no matter how much we try. And a perhaps counter intuitive fact is that our suffering is due less to the outcome itself and due more to our trying to control those outcomes. According to Buddhism, we suffer because of our constant attempts to try to get and hold on to what we like and avoid and eliminate what we don’t like. If we loosen the reins of control and allow the outcomes to just be, we suffer less. Letting go of the illusion that we have control is very freeing, but it takes patience and practice to get to that place of ease.
For instance, it seems rather crazy to think we can control the weather, yet we get frustrated that the weather isn’t the way we want it to be. There really isn’t anything you can do on a day-to-day basis to control the weather (global warming long-term influences not withstanding). You can put on more clothes to keep warm, wear lighter clothes to keep cool or turn on the heat or AC. But you don’t have control of the day being sunny and clear or rainy and dark. And yet most of us are very impacted by the weather and wish it to be other than it is. And wishing it to be other than it is rather than accepting what the weather is causes us to suffer. When you think about it so concretely it sounds pretty silly of us to think that we can control the weather. Giving in to the lack of control sounds scary, but with practice it is actually very freeing.
You can practice acceptance with simple things like weather before you tackle harder stuff. I tend to feel cold much of the time so when the weather isn’t warm enough for me I get to practice acceptance. And that doesn’t mean that I have no ability to help myself. It is cold for May so I am doing what I need to do to stay warm by turning on the heat, taking hot bubble baths, drinking hot tea and wearing more layers. But there is no use in getting mad at Mother Nature that is it rainy and cold outside. It feels dreary to me but that is more of my mindset than the truth that it is merely rainy and dark. In fact a friend of mine prefers the dark and cool to what she considers the jarring sun and heat. The weather is the weather. You can’t control that. You can take responsibility for how you deal with it. Acceptance is a peaceful balm.
We want so much in life all the time from small things to big things. Wanting is a tough habit to break. You want to be happier, you want to be thinner, you want to be stronger, and you want a house, car, or some other object. Often when you finally get that thing, it isn’t as wonderful as you thought it would be. That is a sign that wanting isn’t very helpful to enjoying life. Accepting with gratitude what you have right now is so much less fraught with discomfort than wishing for more. Realizing that you can’t control much in life and you can’t always get what you want (cue Mick Jagger) will take away much of your disappointment and suffering.
When you are confronted with big and important life decisions, you can easily get paralyzed because you are concerned that you make the right choice. And then after you make the decision you find yourself second-guessing your choice and that causes even more suffering. The problem is your belief that you can control the outcome. For instance, perhaps you are deciding where to live or deciding whether to take a new job or deciding whether to have kids. It is easy to get tripped up by what you expect the outcome to be. You might imagine how it will be if you move to that new city, take that new job or raise a child. But how it plays out is an unknown.
It feels scary to make a big decision because what if it doesn’t turn out the way you expected? Well, it probably won’t ever be like you imagined. I mean, who can really anticipate what your new boss or colleagues will be like, who can anticipate how it will be to raise a child, and who can anticipate who you will meet in a new city and what it feels like to live there? No one can predict the outcome so why bother beating yourself up for making the wrong decision if the outcome isn’t as you expected. That just piles on more suffering. You learn along the way and then make new decisions that perhaps move you in a different direction. Throughout this process you are learning and growing and creating your life as it unfolds. It is much less disappointing if you recognize that there are no bad outcomes, just unexpected adventures. You can’t control life, but you can find gratitude for what life reveals to you.