Live simply: don’t try to control the uncontrollable and don’t ignore the controllable

Life really is so simple. It is a whole of two parts: one that is beyond your control and the other that is within your control.

This is the truth of Life. Intelligent Living is about knowing this truth and practicing it, knowing what is beyond and what is within your control. When you try to control what is uncontrollable or when you don’t act on things that are within your control, in both these instances, you experience suffering.

Epictetus, the Greek sage and philosopher who lived between 55 AD and 135 AD, was a great champion of this thinking. His life epitomized this perspective too. Born a slave (something beyond his control), he was able to convince (something within his control) his Master to allow himself education while staying bonded to slavery and loyal to his Master. According to Epictetus, all external events are determined by fate, and are thus beyond our control, but we can accept whatever happens to us calmly and dispassionately. Individuals, however, are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline. Suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power. As Universal beings, each of us has a duty to care for all fellow humans, he taught. The person who follows these tenets, preached Epictetus, would achieve happiness and peace of mind. It is said that Epictetus’ Master broke his leg deliberately (something which he couldn’t control) but Epictetus responded with forgiveness and labored on, working and sharing his learnings (something that he could control), perhaps, earning his freedom that way. Epictetus says knowing, understanding and living this truth is the key to success in this lifetime: “If you seek truth you will not seek victory by dishonorable means, and if you find truth you will become invincible.”


Soak in this simple philosophy. Don’t try to control Life. But you can choose to respond by living intelligently though__accepting whatever happens, calmly, dispassionately!
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In uncontrollable situations, practise patience

Cultivate patience – especially in situations where you have no control over what’s going on!
Two evenings ago, I was riding in an auto-rickshaw through rush hour traffic. We got stuck in a massive traffic jam that last over 30 minutes. The heat and humidity was maddening. People were impatient in their vehicles and kept honking in vain, adding to the chaos. Not a vehicle budged. The fumes from the exhaust of the vehicles made the already sweltering heat even more difficult to bear. In such times, I have learnt to focus my attention on something other than what causes me concern or what remains out of my control. So, I kept chatting with my wife or checking cricket scores on my phone or simply watched my breathing. A couple of times that my mind strayed to complain about the heat, din and mess we found ourselves in, I brought it back to attend on my breathing. Not everyone around was so forgiving. People were complaining, honking or were trying to elbow other vehicles in the hope that some vehicle ahead would make way and we could move.
Chennai moves a Heart: Picture Courtesy/Times of India
The next morning’s papers had this moving story on how Chennai halted traffic that evening to save a Life! In a beautiful example of precision and coordination between surgeons of two hospitals and the city traffic police, a medical team transported a heart from the Government General Hospital near Chennai Central to Fortis Malar Hospitals in Adayar, about 12 kms away, in less than 14 minutes by creating a “green corridor” – that is, red-light free access. For those unfamiliar with Chennai, it’s important to know that the road connecting the two hospitals is a key arterial road, usually carrying heavy traffic. That the police, doctors and the people of Chennai (unwittingly) cooperated to free up that arterial road, which lead the other roads feeding it getting choked and me and my wife getting into the traffic jam we were caught in, for saving a Life is obviously a great feat.
When I reflected on the background to that insane traffic jam we were stuck in, I realized how insignificant our 30-minute wait really was. And I sure all those who honked and complained, fretted and fumed, may have felt that way too.

This reflection led to a reiteration of a learning I have had. There will be times when people, events, situations, will be beyond your control. Trying to control that which is uncontrollable is a sure prescription for anxiety and stress. What can you do if you are stuck in a traffic jam and nothing’s moving – actually, when nothing’s movable? What can you do if you miss a flight? What can you do if you have lost your home keys and are locked out for the night? What can you do when you can’t do something about a thing, person, event or situation? Instead of boiling over, focus on your breathing. Use the event or situation as an opportunity to practise patience. When you are patient with someone or a situation, you are peaceful. When you are at peace, you are happy. It is as simple as that! Try practising patience in a stress-filled, pressure-cooker situation the next time you encounter one. Believe me, you will feel lighter and more cheerful!