The Illusion Of Control – Learning To Detach

Being Breathed

Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking (Daisetz T. Suzuki)

The day of my first ever book signing I was really, really anxious.   I wouldn’t say that I was nervous, because I don’t really get nervous in public speaking situations.  Oddly enough I feel quite comfortable in these circumstances.

However, for some reason I was really anxious on the morning of my signing.  I think it was because I wanted it to go really well.  I wanted to really knock it out of the park, sell a ton of books, open up some networking, maybe even some public speaking opportunities.

So that morning I was up early – I prepped myself, reviewed my book, made sure that I had the right “talking points” ready, etc.  Unfortunately it seemed that, at least that morning, the more prep work that I did, the more that my anxiety grew.

All this last minute review wasn’t making me calm – it was actually stressing me out a little.  It was making me nervous that I wouldn’t get the results that I wanted.

So I decided that I needed to meditate before I left for the signing.

I’ve taken up the practice of meditation over the last couple years to center me.  I’ve found that it helps me to be present more in my life and to focus on being where I am, at the moment that I’m there.  I feel this has made me more productive and effective in my work.  Plus I have a striving personality, so a meditation practice is perfect to help me chill out when my natural “Type A” goal-setting mindset goes on hyperdrive.

On that particular day I used a simple counting technique to focus my breath.  Breathing in through my nose – count 1, breathing out through my mouth – count 2.  I’d count my breath to 20, and then re-start.  I’d do that over and over again until at some point (I’m not sure when it happened) I lost count and found myself fully present in my breathing (which was my goal – if a goal were to exist in the exercise).

Well during the meditation I had a weird, but very impressionable experience.  At some point, shortly after I lost count of where I was in my breathing and basically “flowed” into my breath. I had this strange but real impression:

I wasn’t breathing, I was being breathed. 

Sounds strange doesn’t it?

That’s what I thought as well.  I control my breath right?  I had just counted my breath to 20 over and over again.  But while I was in my head, thinking about my breath a strange thing happened:

I felt myself breathing again

Weird – maybe I was being breathed.  Maybe all this control that I though I had was just an illusion.

If that were the case maybe I could let go and just accept the breath that was happening.  So that’s what I did. I sat back in my meditation and just accepted the breath. It was incredible.  I never appreciated breath more than I did in that meditation.

That little exercise completely changed my mindset for the book signing.  I chilled out.  I decided that I was going to “accept” the moment.  That didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to do my best to sell books and converse with people – no I was still going to do that.  What it meant was that I wasn’t going to stress about the outcome.  I would just “be my best possible self” and accept the result, just like I was accepting the breath.

The day turned into a great success.  I almost sold out my entire stock and ended up with a couple new public speaking gigs – all the while enjoying the process.

I know that we want our goals.  I want mine too.  I have some very precise and clear goals for my life that I think about every day.  I arrange my day so that I am constantly taking action towards them. But sometimes we need to just sit back, and accept the breath, accept the circumstances.

Letting go can be very freeing.  It can be very empowering as well.  We operate under an “illusion of control” – not only that we can control the circumstances of our life, but also that controlling these circumstances is something that we want to do, and something that is an important way to ensure our own success.

I’m not entirely convinced on that one.

I have found that when I detach from outcome, and simply “be” or simply “do” without stress over needing to control every outcome I am more productive, I operate with more courage, I’m a better leader, I’m more agile (mentally) and adaptive. I’m more creative as well.  At least for me, there seems to be an inverse relationship between my attachment to a target and my ability to hit it.

When I played basketball in high school and college I can distinctly remember that the games where I was obsessed about scoring I had a much more difficult time finding my shot – but in the games where I detached, and lost myself in the flow of the game itself, my touch came naturally.  I didn’t have to think about scoring – my body and mind were in a state of flow.  In this state I performed my best, and I also really enjoyed playing.

When I have this type of mindset it seems like I give my best work – and it doesn’t matter what type of work I am undertaking: business, marketing, sales, writing, speaking.  When I’m detached, accepting, present -I’m not tense, I’m not focused on the future, or scared of any potential failure or rejection, I’m just present where I am.  That is when I perform my best.  My logic is that if I can compound these “best performance days” over and over, I’ll have a good shot at hitting my lofty goals.  If not – well at least I enjoyed the ride.  Win-Win either way.


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