As I explain in my book I co-wrote with Robert Thurman, Love Your Enemies, one of the reasons we judge ourselves harshly is our belief that we ought to have far greater control over outcomes in life than we do. We tend to label as “enemy” what we cannot control, whether externally—people or situations—or internally, namely our thoughts and emotions. Only when we begin to question the assumption that what lies outside our control is our adversary can we stop making enemies of others and ourselves.
The key to exploding the myth of control is recognizing the truths of interconnection and impermanence. The Buddha taught that nothing exists independently of the causes and conditions that bring it about. If certain conversations, interactions, and events had not occurred, you would not be sitting here at this moment reading these words. As parts of a greater whole, we do not orchestrate the grand motion of the universe. We have a measure of control over our own behavior on a good day, but beyond that our powers are pretty limited. To a self-preoccupied eye, we are fundamentally isolated and alone, seeking connection only out of a futile reach for control. But to an eye attuned to interdependence, everything exists in a web or network of relationships.
And because of conditionality, nothing is rigid, impermeable, or fixed. We can let go of our divisive strategies, contrivances, and obsessive efforts to control and recognize how fluid life is. Seasons change. Things move. People transform. Situations shift. We live in a world where no matter what, that’s going to be the reality. Every aspect of life—including healing—has its own rhythm, its own flow, and its own movement, and we cannot dictate the rate of that change. We can respond to this truth with resistance or with wisdom. Perceiving ourselves as part of an immense reality of change connects us to all of life. Once we dispel the illusion of being separate and static, we work with change instead of against it, and we no longer feel the need to brandish a closed fist at the world.
There are many things we can know, and many things we cannot. It is in the place between the known and the unknown that we find these essential truths. We can’t know how something will end, or whether someone will recover from an illness, or when or how we will die, but we can know that we all will die. We can’t know what thought will arise next in our minds, but we can know it will be impermanent, evanescent. We can’t know if a relationship will last, but we
can’t know what thought will arise next in our minds, but we can know it will be impermanent, evanescent. We can’t know if a relationship will last, but we can know that vengefulness brings suffering and loving kindness brings happiness. We can’t know the result of an action, but we can know that our actions have consequences, because we are all interconnected.
We can’t even know what the next breath will feel like, but we know that our life hangs upon this delicate movement of air. We can’t necessarily know the outcome of a job interview, but we can know that everything in this universe that has the nature to arise also has the nature to pass away. We can’t know what will happen tomorrow, but we can know that one thing leads to the next.
We may not comprehend why there is so much suffering in this world, why some people behave so badly toward others; but we can know, as the Buddha said, that hatred will never cease by hatred—it will only cease by love. We can’t know what the future holds; but we can know where happiness, strength, and wisdom are to be found. We can feel the rhythm of these truths underneath the ordinary flow of events as surely as we can feel the rhythm of the surf when we’re sitting on the shore. Even in this world of constant change and uncertainty that we cannot control, we can be free of enmity and fear.
Sharon Salzberg is co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. She has been a student of Buddhism since 1971, guiding meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. Sharon’s latest book is The Kindness Handbook (Sounds True, 2008). She is also the author of The Force of Kindness (Sounds True, 2005), Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (Riverhead, 2002) and Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Shambhala, 2002). For more information about Sharon, please visit her website.