If You’re Not In Control, Who Is?

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘control’? The word ‘control’ can be very ambiguous and slippery. For example, in an English class about ten years ago, a student asked me what I thought was most important to learn. I asked if she meant in school or in life in general. She said both. I replied that there could be several answers to that question. The first thoughts that came to mind were how to love, and then how to pay attention and learn from my own experiences. Then I thought of being able to control or be the master of my self. I asked her what she thought. Instead of answering directly, she responded to my answers. She liked the first but disliked the second.

 

I asked her, “When you hear ‘master of the self,’ what did you hear?”

 

She replied something like: “I hear the word ‘control.’ I hear someone telling me to ‘be in control’ or ‘get yourself together, be more acceptable, fit in. Put up a front. Not let the real me out.’”

 

Another student added, “Being in control is manipulation. My parents do that.’”

 

Another added, “It is fake. So why be in control?”

 

This surprised me and shook me a bit. “If you’re not in control,” I asked, “who is? Or who would you want in control?”

 

One response was “Why be in control?” These students did not want to be the “master” or even in control. “Master” sounded too much like a movie—pompous, or too S&M, joked one student.

 

I can understand not liking the connotation of control as in “control freak” or manipulating, falsifying, or oppressing others. But someone in control is someone who is an authority. An ‘author’ is an originator, the source, the creator of one’s own actions. One student stated that being in control meant speaking and acting their own truth. Many of us agreed with this perspective.

 

In a similar conversation in a Psych class, some students argued against “controlling” the expression of anger. They said to not express anger was oppressive and made it worse. I then asked how they felt when someone got angry at them.

 

“I felt awful.”

 

“Did you feel oppressed,“ I asked?

 

“I felt assaulted, actually. The anger frightened me.”

 

“It inflamed my own anger,” added another student.

 

“So how successful was directly expressing anger in diminishing it?”

 

“Not very.”

 

After a moment of silence, I went on. “Anger can be useful at times, however. But is there a choice other than unconstrained expression of anger and repression?” Students said there was, which we then talked about. To decide what action to take, you do one thing and not another and, thus, you exercise control.

 

There are strains in our culture that mistakenly link throwing off oppression and opposing falsity, with unchecked expression of emotion. That believes freedom is the same as unrestrained action, and the quantity of choices one has is more important than the quality. This view of freedom undermines the sense that each of us has the right and responsibility not only to act when necessary, for our own safety and principles, but to do our best to make our actions appropriate, and serve the well-being, not only of ourselves but others.

 

“Would you be free if you acted on every thought you had? What would happen if you openly acted on every emotion you experienced?” Some joked it would be a relief, different—until they thought about bullying, assaults, road rage, etc. It became clear to students how oppressive the situation would be if they acted on every thought—and how dangerous

 

Even though the testing culture in many schools is making such meaningful discussions more difficult, I think it needs to be done in whatever way teachers can do it, especially after the election. The President models one result of not exercising self-control, and being thoughtless or not caring of how one’s actions affect others. (These discussions might also reveal students who need one-on-one attention.)

 

We all bear a great responsibility to figure out, as best we can, how we, together, shape the fate of the planet and future generations. To do that, we need to study our self and others, to learn how to hear our own interior dialogues, feelings, and sensations, and be a conscious author of who we are. Who do you want in control, a conscious, aware you, or someone else?

 

**Photo by Kathy Morris.

Honoring Differences

In 1969, I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, teaching in a village in the bush. One day, I left the village and went to visit a fellow Peace Corps volunteer. At that time, there was little public transport. If you wanted to go somewhere and couldn’t walk, you flagged down a lorry and rode in the back with other people and goats, chickens, and who knows what else.

 

On this day, we stopped at a crossroad and people got out to buy food. I was surprised to see a middle aged man standing at the edge of a group of people, looking out at a field. He had on a tie, and nothing else but a loincloth. I walked up to him, greeted him in Krio, a sort of universal language in the country, a combination of English, Portuguese and several African languages from the country. The greeting was leisurely and took about 5 or 10 minutes.

 

I then asked him as best I could, in Krio: “Why are you wearing a tie?”

 

He responded: “Don’t white men wear ties for dignity and power?’

 

I answered: “Yes, but they usually wear shirts to go with it.”

 

He continued: “White men’s shirts stink.”

 

And in Sierra Leone, which sits on the equator, the artificial fabrics manufactured in the west, at that time anyway, did not do well in the heat of the jungle.

 

I was reminded of this incident in school last week, when I noticed a male staff member, who years ago never wore a tie, was wearing one. Almost no one wore a tie in our school. He said students treated him differently, with more respect, since he started wearing a tie and a more formal shirt. Even in the supermarket, he said, people address him now as “Sir.” Most of the people who called him “Sir” would, if you asked them, say that wearing a tie, or any formal clothing, was just a superficial act, a remnant of classist symbolism, or something like that. But their behavior was still affected by the symbol.

 

The man in Sierra Leone was living life in his own way, telling the world with his tie and naked dignity that “I matter.” He was adapting social symbols to speak his own unique speech. And in his society, at that time, political speech was even more restrictive, and more dangerous, than the US was. He had to find his own voice. Our own country, which prides it self on free speech, or maybe did so until recently, and whose predominant religion speaks of “loving your neighbor as yourself,” is often intolerant of differences.

 

I hope we all find our own voice and learn to speak clearly in defense of honest, free speech⏤and the right to be different, or to be ourselves.

 

**Thank you, Cindy Nofziger, for the photo.

To Write Well, Write Truthfully

**This blog was also published by the Swenson Book Development website.

 

How do you write well? Probably thousands have written about this. On the surface, it seems writing is about language, which to a large extent it is. It seems it is about which words to use, or how to find a unique story or approach. But from my point of view, it really is about the mind and body that writes. It is about being truthful and real. If you fake it, your readers will know it. You will know it. The plot or argument won’t hold together. When it’s truthful to you, it will engage others.

 

And you don’t merely know a truth intellectually—you feel it. A word of beauty is really a path for feeling to follow, or it reveals the path feeling took to get to meaning. Without feeling, words are empty code. Dead. When a sentence feels off or incomplete or like it’s struggling for breath, it is wrong, no matter how attractive it looks. Don’t get distracted by good looks. It is the heart that counts.

 

Feelings arise before words and memories do. They arise with the first hint of awareness. You probably have experienced not knowing what you want to write until you put something down on paper, or in your computer. The act of writing opens up the conscious to the depths normally unconscious. It is creating and thinking. It is revelation.

 

So the first step in writing and creating is being aware of feeling. I do that by meditating, exercising and reading. Meditation clears my mind and increases awareness and focus. Exercise energizes me and clears away blocks and obsessions. Reading provides imagery, insights, and intellectual challenges.

 

The philosopher, psychologist, and writer Dr. Jean Huston said in a workshop I attended, that immersing yourself in poetry makes beauty readily available to you. Beauty will then percolate through the unconscious and emerge in one’s speech and writing. The same with reading stories, psychology, philosophy, history and such. Reading reveals doors which meditation unlocks.

 

One meditation is to focus attention on the tip of the nose and count breaths. This develops a focused attention which is also peripherally aware of what is going on inside you. All you have to do is count to ten. Listen to the count. The directions for meditation or mindfulness might sound simple. It is the mind which adds the complexities.

 

In school, on hard plastic chairs, we sit near the edge of the chair so we’re neither slouched nor rigid. Close your eyes partly or fully, rest your hands on your lap, and put your attention, continuously, at the tip of the nose and feel the sensations of breathing. Feel the moving air, its temperature, consistency as you breathe in—and out. Inhale. Then exhale and say “onnnnne” to yourself. Continue to be aware throughout the breath. When the exhalation completes itself, allow the in-breath to happen on its own. Then exhale with “twoooo.” Just count. Gently maintain your awareness without trying to change the rhythm of the breath. Continue in this fashion, counting the exhalations until you get to ten. Then, instead of saying eleven, go back to one. Do this sequence once more until you get to ten, and again.

 

If any feelings arise, be kind to yourself. Notice what’s there and then return to the breath. No internal commenting is necessary. The same if any thoughts arise. Just notice the arising or the whisper of thought. Then let it dissipate as you return your attention to the counting and the feel of air passing in and out. That’s how you start. Two minutes for the first time is good. Your body will ask for more if you don’t force it.

 

If, or when, you get lost, and you lose the count or awareness of the breath, just focus on the fact that you noticed you were lost. This is the prime lesson. Everyone gets lost sometimes. It is the fact that now you are found, and how you respond to it that is important. Enjoy being found.

 

The meditation develops a sense of presence that is inherently creative and curious. Understanding will come more quickly to you. If you look at your ideas or writing in this state, you will readily notice what feels off or incomplete.

 

Another wonderful practice is proprioceptive writing, created by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It is a “method for finding your authentic voice,” and hearing your personal truth. It asks you to use a pen or pencil instead of a computer because when you write with the hand, you actually shape the words and thus have a greater ability to feel and hear what you write. It is especially appropriate for the brainstorm or first draft. Put your pen to the paper and write whatever comes to you. Maybe you have a question or topic in mind you want to explore—respond to that. If you get lost or confused, write down your confusion. “Write what you hear. Hear what you write.” Don’t edit. Just let your self go free. Edit later. Write until what you hear feels real, honest, exciting, and large enough to do justice to the topic.

 

Sometimes, when you don’t know where to begin an essay or can’t figure out how to answer a question, you need to begin with the confusion. Start your brainstorm or the essay or story itself by voicing your confusion. By going directly into it, it unravels.

 

Study yourself. When are you most clear and awake? In college, my best time was late at night, when the world was quiet and my school day complete. Now, it is the morning, when I’m fully awake but still close to dreaming. The morning sun—the freshness of the light—gets to me.

 

Think of writing as a process. To prepare, you immerse yourself in a topic until you are clear on what drives you. Then you brainstorm or do proprioceptive writing, recording initial ideas without care about spelling or craft—with honesty and feeling. Then later you craft. You plot. And then you test it, share it, think about how others will hear it, and re-write it. Actually, you constantly repeat the steps of the creative process. You prepare through immersion. You propose sentences, plot lines, arguments and counterarguments and question them. You then allow yourself to be aware of frustration and feelings. Then you incubate; you step back, take a walk in the woods or meditate or sleep on it. And in the morning, or after the meditation, the answer will be there, or you will have a new perspective. The material will be integrated. Illumination will follow.

 

When you get lost or don’t know what to write, return to the source. Go quiet. Work with your mind and body, not against it. But be diligent and commit. Commit to your work and to the process of writing itself. If you focus on the result, you will force it. Instead of valuing the ends over the means—the celebration, acclaim, the satisfaction of completing a project—love the process itself. To love the process is to turn your whole life into a creative act. It is to value each moment you live.

 

What a beautiful way to live.

 

 

The Central Importance of A United Resistance and Decreasing the Concentration of Wealth and Inequity

Opposing the Republican minority-elected President cannot be simply a Democratic version of “the party of No.” It cannot be concerned just with revealing lies and resisting racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and all sorts of phobias like homophobia, Islamaphobia or xenophobia, etc. To fight racism, etc., we must first unite to resist the destruction of what’s left of democracy, free speech and the freedom of the press. We need more political equity. But to accomplish that, we must also work to improve economic equity and a sense of shared humanity. In a functioning democracy, these three work together.

 

Last week, the Republican administration took things to a new level. The President spoke to Congress about “a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.” He spoke about Black History Month and ending threats to Jewish Community Centers. He spoke as if he cared about supporting “the torch of truth, liberty, and justice.” This was scary because even I wanted to hear such words from his mouth, words calling for real unity and caring. He is seemingly getting coached on how to sound reasonable while his choices and history scream otherwise. This is the same person who appointed Jeff Sessions to be his Attorney General, and Steve Bannon, former head of the alt-right Breitbart News, to be his general adviser. According to an NPR program during the campaign:

 

“The views of the alt-right are widely seen as anti-Semitic and white supremacist…. They see political correctness really as the greatest threat to their liberty,” Nicole Hemmer, University of Virginia professor and author of a forthcoming book Messengers of the Right, explained on Morning Edition. “So, they believe saying racist or anti-Semitic things — it’s is not an act of hate, but an act of freedom.”

 

This is a President who called the media “the enemy of the people.” Who said protestors were not in genuine disagreement with his policies but were being paid to disrupt town hall meetings. Republican governors and legislators have followed this lead by calling for severe punishments for protestors. This administration is not about protecting America or securing jobs for people. It is about ending democracy and increasing their personal wealth. The DNC, as well as those who hate the DNC and are still fighting the Hillary vs Bernie fight, need to remember this or risk being irrelevant or worse. If we don’t unite, our very right to disagree without dire consequences will be taken from us. In fact, the very air that sustains our life might be taken from us.

 

Yet, to resist this administration successfully will mean insisting on increasing economic equity. This is the second concern. We must learn from the Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders movements, which spoke to a great majority of Americans, even to some of those who supported Mr. T. (Listen to Bernie Sander’s response to Mr. T’s address to Congress.) Most Americans desire an economy that works for all and provides jobs for the unemployed and the not satisfactorily employed. Mr. T did speak of jobs. But he did not address working conditions, guaranteed health care, and a pension, as part of a good job. He did not acknowledge the crucial role public schools can play in “leveling the playing field” and in preparing children not only for work but for all of life. All these issues are related. It is not just a job people want, but to be treated as a valuable being, with a right to meaningful work. This I think speaks to most everyone. And we need to add the right to give our children a habitable planet with a climate that readily sustains life, human, animal and insect.

 

The US, according to a report cited in Fortune Magazine in 2015, is the richest nation in the world but the most inequitable of the 55 nations studied (including European nations, China, Japan, South Korea, Columbia and Russia, etc.). If you didn’t know this, read on. If you look at the US economy, the richest 1% own 40% of the wealth. (I will be using many figures from Mathieu Ricard’s book, Altruism, published in 2015. Ricard is a Ph.d. in genetics and Buddhist teacher. His figures are well documented and seem in line with other reliable sources.) Twenty-five years ago, the top 1% owned 13% of the nation’s wealth. In 2015, Oxfam said that by the following year, 1% of the richest people worldwide will control over 50% of the world’s wealth.

 

Ricard points out that in 1880-90, J. P. Morgan said “he would never agree to invest in a company where the directors were paid over 6 times the average wage.” In 2011, the bosses were paid 253 times more. Over the last 30 years, 90% of Americans saw their incomes increase by only 15%. For the wealthiest 1%, the increase was 150%. Between 2002 and 2007, the top 1% scored over “65% of national income gains.”

 

What are the consequences of such inequality and concentration of wealth? According to Ricard and the International Monetary Fund, income inequality “slows growth and triggers financial crises.” Quoting directly from the IMF summary report (See IMF, 2015): “We find that increasing the income share of the poor and the middle class actually increases growth while a rising income share of the top 20 percent results in lower growth—that is, when the rich get richer, benefits do not trickle down…” as opposed to what many Republicans claim. Instead, concentrating wealth undermines the economy. For example, one million people with a decent income will buy more products and stimulate the economy more than one person with a billion dollars—unless he or she gives it all away to public schools or spends it on improving mass transit or such, or starts a worker managed business, for example, where the workers get a fair share of the income created and the climate isn’t undermined by its products.

 

The Citizens United decision, the worsening political situation in the US, as illustrated by 8 years of Republican Congressional refusal to compromise during the Obama administration, and the election by less than 26% of eligible voters of this Republican President (only 52% voted and Mr. T. received less than half of those), are all direct results of increasing the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Mr. T is trying even now to reduce even further the input of Democrats and any who oppose him. When was the last moment in American history that the vast majority of citizens were so excluded from the formal political process? Was it before the 19th amendment was passed granting women’s suffrage? Or was it before the civil war, before the 13th amendment was passed ending slavery? Or was it before the revolution, when the colonies were ruled by a monarch? Is this the time of greatness the Republicans say they yearn for?

 

The price the US pays for this inequality is immense. Ricard provides data from scientific research and several international organizations, including the UN, which show that “for each health care or social indicator (physical health, mental health, school success rates, …obesity, drug addiction…infant mortality, and the well-being of children in general) the results are significantly worse in countries where inequality is highest.”

 

Is it any wonder that there can’t be a democracy if 1% of the people own so much of the wealth? The rich can buy power, occupy the media, and intervene in the judiciary. Just look at Betsy DeVos, who contributed thousands to the coffers of Republican Senators—but did those Senators who were paid by DeVos recuse themselves, or were even asked by fellow Senators to recuse themselves, from voting for her nomination to Education Secretary? Conservatives argue that the rich have the freedom to use their wealth. But what happens when one person’s freedom prohibits that of another, or of many, many others?

 

For too many people, the acquisition of wealth is fast becoming the primary value of life. Other people are no longer thought of as fellow breathing, feeling beings; other species and the world itself⏤all are thusly reduced to being valued only in terms of the wealth they can be used to produce. Compassion, respect—these just interfere with what’s “truly important.” Long term or big picture issues—not important except to the degree they guarantee increased wealth. This is the third area of concern, our sense of a shared humanity and a judiciary that could preserve equity and justice in the law.

 

It is mainly for this reason people feel threatened, Democrat or Republican, Leftist or Conservative. So many of us value family, love, companionship, compassion, fairness, the beauty of the earth, a sense of meaning in life, maybe a sense of a spiritual or religious dimension. The importance of all these values is now threatened. The acquisition of immense wealth is becoming the religion of the rich, turning the rich into a great threat to the lives of the vast majority of Americans, and to the overwhelming majority of people worldwide.

 

**Photo by Kathy Morris.