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Beyond Balance

How the dinstinction between control and connection goes well beyond balancing the two mindsets…

This week, I started a number of small, informal, online discussion groups formed around the ideas of post-happiness, letting go of control and opening up to connection. They’ve been really fun! And certainly make a refreshing change to solitary writing. I’m hoping these group dialogues will be a precursor to a new project I’ll say more about soon…

What I wanted to write briefly about now is an interesting dynamic that has already come up in the groups. In order to explain the overall framework I’m interested in exploring, I began each session speaking about the distinction between our capacities for control on the one hand – for certainty, power over things, manipulation of objects, getting and having – and our capacities for connection on the other hand – for open attention, deeper understanding, responding and adapting to the world. I then asked people to talk about an area in their lives in which they are mostly in the “control mode” and an area in which they are more in the “connection mode.”

The answers to these questions were not surprising, and I could personally relate to most of them. The group participants spoke about how they invested a great deal of time and energy into controlling their work, productivity, romantic relationships, friendships, health and fitness and leisure time. In contrast, the things that made feel more connected were relatively separate activities, such as meditating, spending time in nature, doing exercise and being creative.

These different groups of activities, and their associated mindsets, seemingly reflect the standard dichotomy between work vs play, or practical vs spiritual/aesthetic activities. The assumption this dichotomy implies is that there are many areas of life in which we need to be in the control mode: work and practical stuff. But, if we’re lucky or privileged enough, we can make room for activities that afford the connection mode: play and spiritual/aesthetic pursuits. We can create more of a balance between control and connection, or certainty and uncertainty, in our lives.

I think, however, this would be a mistake. The trade off between control and connection is not as simple as the assumption makes out.

A few of the group participants brought up issues that brings this dichotomy – and the idea of balance – into question. One person asked about meaning and whether our attempts at connection even mattered – are we connecting to a dead, meaningless universe or an alive, meaningful one? Another person asked how they could have more connection in their lives if they were busy doing stuff all the time – other than the odd 10 minutes of spare time they had to meditate or do some yoga, how else could they let go of control and open up to connection?

Both of these questions point towards something I find really interesting and have learned a lot about from John Vervaeke’s online lecture series on “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis”. Vervaeke talks at length about how the Protestant Reformation and Scientific Revolution – especially from Descartes onwards – has created a world view that separates our subjective and objective realities – our (subjective) conscious experiences from (objective) facts about the world. In contrast, ancient and early religious societies had a more participative view of reality. According to this more participative view, we do not merely observe and discover facts about the world, but actually bring new truths into being through our ongoing interactions with reality – in particular, through our relationships with myths, symbols and ritual.

Now, there’s plenty more to say about all Vervaeke’s work, which I can’t do here. The point I want to make is that, when I talk about letting go of control and opening up to connection, I’m talking about a fundamentally different way of seeing, and engaging with, reality. It is not merely as matter of making room for some meditation or spending more time in nature (though these are obviously fine things to do). It is about questioning the very source of value and meaning in our lives. Do we care more about having and getting stuff, or do we care more about being in an ongoing process of realising what really matters? I’m not sure there’s a right answer to this question. But how we answer it has a profound impact on how we live.

To live predominantly in the control mode is to primarily be closed to reality – to assume, for practical purposes and for the sake of efficiency, that we know what’s important and good for us, and that we just need to focus and concentrate on how to get it. The value of our lives, therefore, will be defined by how well we’ve done at attaining the things we care about.

To live predominantly in the connection mode is to primarily be open to reality – to assume, out of a deep sense of humility and uncertainty, that there is always more to know about ourselves, others and the world, and that we can only discover what really matters through an ongoing exploration of what we don’t know. The value of our lives, from this perspective, is not how much we get done or achieve, but instead how well we understand and respond to the challenges and opportunities we are continuously presented with.

Okay, I understand that can all seem a bit abstract and philosophical. And, to be honest, it’s still fairly abstract in my understanding of it too. Which is partly why I’m running these online group discussions to explore how the distinction between control and connection can have concrete implications for our actual lives.

What seems important to me, at this stage, is that our capacities for connection provide us with a very different way of seeing reality and being in the world. It challenges a lot of the assumptions we hold about what makes life worth living; and, indeed, about our own worth as individuals. I’m looking forward to exploring this stuff, in dialogue with others, over the next few coming weeks.

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