Getting Control of Our Lives

At our core all of us want to live rich and inspired lives full of happiness, love, and connection to the people around us, as we explore and immerse ourselves in the great possibilities of life.

Yet the gap between where we are, and that life we imagine, can seem unbridgeable.

This may be one of the things that disappoints us the most. Part of us wants that life we dream of so badly. The problem is we are caught in all sorts of old, self-defeating patterns that we may not even know we are caught in, let alone how to get out of them. These patterns sabotage our lives.

Our Self-defeating Patterns

What kind of patterns, specifically?—the ones that cause us to have emotional reactions of fear, anxiety, anger, and depression. Other recurring patterns cause procrastination, relationship conflicts, and addictions of all kinds. Add to that self-defeating thoughts about not being good enough, being “less than,” or imperfect in some way, shape, or form.

Our self-defeating patterns can make our lives feel like hell. When we are in them, it can feel like the whole world is against us, or there is no hope for us, or “everything is too damn confusing and nothing makes sense.” Or we might be tired of trying and failing to change ourselves and envious of others that have the kind of life we want. We may have even “retired” into a phony apathy that says things like “I don’t care anymore.” Or we may be running away from pains that we don’t dare to face.

So that gap between where we are, and what we want, can seem more and more unbridgeable. As we focus on what’s wrong with our life and our own seeming insufficiencies, the world goes dark. The light at the end of the tunnel appears further and further away.

We are not in Control

Something common to all our “dark” situations is that we are not in control of our life. We believe we are, but we aren’t. Consider this: if we were in control, we would’ve changed things by now! When we try to force, and push, and control our life through thinking more positively, “figuring it out,” or applying more effort, things may seem to improve for a little while, but eventually we fall back into the old slump. Or we obtain some measure of success, but it’s not the happiness we thought it would be.

The Warrior’s Effort

Our normal approach to improve our situation—through thinking and efforting (relying on willpower)—is what we might call the “Warrior” approach of controlling and changing our life. It’s a forceful approach, and has the attitude that “I must do it through my effort. If I keep trying, I will get there.”

The Warrior approach is useful in some situations, and even capable of achieving some goals. It depends on the situation, what’s going on inside us, and the other variables involved.

But for deeper change to occur, the kind of change that creates a fulfilling life—which requires getting free of our self-defeating patterns—the Warrior approach is totally inadequate. From a Warrior starting point, no amount of positive or analytical thinking, or vigorous effort, will get us to a fulfilling life, and there are good reasons why…

The Warrior’s Efforts to “think positive” and “figure it out”

On the thinking side of the Warrior, some common strategies are (1) using positive thoughts to change the situation, and (2) analyzing the situation to death, which involves looking at our predicament from an aggressive point of view and missing the bigger picture that will help us.

Here’s the thing about affirmations. Our positive-thinking, well-intentioned affirmations like “I can do this” or “I can create a happy life” will backfire if we don’t actually believe them at a deeper level. Our conscious mind can say “I can do this” but our subconscious mind believes “I can’t do this.” In that case, when we say “I can do this” we will get a subtle negative feeling that indicates we don’t really believe it.

That’s how affirmations can backfire: we don’t really believe the affirmation, so when we say it, our subconscious mind creates a negative feeling because we are, in a way, lying to ourselves. (By the way, changing the subconscious mind’s opinion/belief can be a lengthy process, and not one the Warrior can do, either.)

Excessive analysis has its own traps, too. One of the big problems is we are trying to analyze the situation we are stuck in with a bunch of assumptions obscuring our view. Analysis—the Warrior’s kind of analysis—has the motivation of ‘getting unstuck’ rather than just seeing the situation clearly. This motivation leads to a kind of tunnel vision in which we can’t see the assumptions that are the real hang-ups—the assumptions that trigger our big emotional reactions.

Another problem is that, by engaging the analytic part of our mind so much, we are cutting off the other faculties we have available to us, and narrowing down our experience in a limiting way. If we create a mental model to ‘figure out’ our patterns with, that could be helpful if it’s accurate, but at best it provides a map out of the pattern rather than actually doing the work of getting out. Sometimes the map is inaccurate, though, because it was made in the heat of emotional reaction, denial, and rationalization (again, the motivation is to ‘get unstuck’ or ‘to win’—not necessarily to see clearly).

The Warrior’s Efforts to win through Willpower

On the willing or “efforting” side of the Warrior, the main problem is that our force of willpower is often put into a game that is rigged. We are set up to lose from the very beginning.

Let’s make this very clear with an example of cigarette or nicotine addiction. Once we are hooked on the nicotine, that is, once we have a nicotine addiction in our nervous system, that creates thoughts, emotions, and cravings or impulses in the body, all revolving around that addiction. In a situation where the addiction is substantial, it is quite likely that our willpower, resolve, and affirmations will not be enough to change our circumstances.

In a situation like a nicotine addiction, many different parts of us are involved in the situation of “relapsing” and “trying to quit.” One part of us (the physical part) is creating cravings for tobacco that another part of us does not want to act on (the part that wants to stop smoking). There’s another part of us (the emotional part) that gets an emotional payoff from smoking that could involve relief, pleasure, or familiarity. Also, on the mental level, the mind begins to form ideas about smoking and being a smoker, which become parts of our belief system and affect our sense of identity. For example, ‘being a tobacco smoker’ is something one likes or doesn’t like about themselves, or something that makes one different from others… something like that.

(In other addictions, the emotional payoff can be negative. For example, sometimes in eating disorders or self-cutting the emotional payoff is a kind of negativity that feeds the part of us that likes to suffer.)

So an addiction can have physical, mental, and emotional layers of depth. To clarify what happens when we use willpower to effort our way out of an addictive pattern, let’s say the sum total of these layers— called the addiction’s ‘physical-mental-emotional layers’—has a “power level” of 90. This power level has accumulated and grown over a period of time in which we were feeding the physical, mental, and emotional parts of us with the chemical nicotine (on the physical level), faith in certain ideas (on the mental level), and emotional payoffs (on  the emotional level). Feeding the parts of the addiction for a long time has made it strong; hence the high power level of 90.

Now suppose our willpower has, approximately, a power level of 30. The willpower (level 30) may be able to “hold off” its opponent (level 90) for a little while—which is the time-period where we seem to have success in quitting—but, eventually, the opponent is going to win. Willpower may hold out for a little while, but sooner or later it’s going to lose.

This ‘difference in power levels’ can be the kind of situation we are dealing with in any of our self-defeating patterns. It is a situation that leads to cycle after cycle of “failure” because it is not something the Warrior can get out of (and the Warrior approach is the only one we know, at this point).

Willpower or effort does play a role in getting out of addiction and other self-defeating patterns, but it needs help. A power level of 30 can’t beat a level 90 by itself. Training the willpower to level 40 through discipline may help a little (training willpower like a muscle), but even then, it’s going to need some assistance.

So what’s the real key to helping out the Warrior’s willpower and getting control of our lives?

The Scout’s Mindfulness

There is another archetype character called the Scout. In contrast to the Warrior, who relies on brute force, the Scout is more of an observer and note-taker, having an attitude of interest or curiosity. To ‘become the Scout’ is to just watch and be aware; to observe what’s happening.

Normally, we wouldn’t think that simply watching or observing would have the firepower we need to change our lives. Why do we think that way? I don’t know. Perhaps because observing seems to be such a frictionless activity, as if “nothing is happening” when we are observing. But something IS happening. Something HUGE is happening, because observing turns out to be the key to freedom.

Yes, observing is the secret to getting control in our lives. The great Indian sage Nisargadatta Maharaj summed it up when he said, “Develop the witness attitude and you will find in your own experience that detachment brings control. The state of witnessing is full of power—there is nothing passive about it.”

Saying that “witnessing is full of power” blows our age-old assumption out of the water—our assumption that “nothing much is happening when I am observing.” We also assume that efforting through willpower is the most powerful way to create meaningful change in our lives, but Nisargadatta is saying that it’s actually the opposite. The frictionless activity of witnessing is a very powerful force. It accomplishes all sorts of things that willpower cannot.

(For an explanation of why witnessing is full of power, see a previous post called “The Power of Your LightSight.” It has to do with what is doing the witnessing, namely consciousness.)

So when we become the Scout, or in other words, when we take the witnessing attitude, from there we can look at our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and cravings without an agenda. We are literally just looking at them with a quality of presence or attentiveness, and perhaps curiosity. That by itself is doing wonders, whether it seems that way or not. This is because when we look at what’s going on inside us from the Scout point of view, we are shining our consciousness on all of what’s going on. The observing consciousness turns out to be the greatest agent of change when its “eye” is not clouded by thinking or efforting.

In the process of observing, sooner or later we begin to detach from thoughts, emotions, beliefs, cravings and aversions. We begin to see them not as belonging to us but as arising from the mind, the emotional body, or the physical body—all coming from conditioning. None of it is personal, and we stop saying that any of it is “mine.” (This takes the ego out of the equation.)

This process of detachment happens because we see that attaching to any of these things has consequences we don’t want. Creating attachments leads to suffering. We come to see, from the Scout point of view, that identifying with a thought contracts us; that identifying with an emotion causes us to react negatively or creates more thoughts of confusion. Etc, etc.

So witnessing brings detachment, and “detachment brings control.” As we let go of attachments, as we get our investment out of these things (physical, mental, or emotional), their power begins to wane. In the process of detachment, their power wanes because we—consciousness—were the source of their power all along. Then, the power level of the pattern’s ‘physical-mental-emotional layers,’ which was 90, drops to 80, then 70, then 60… 50, 40, 30, 20…

As we detach, as we withdraw our investment from thoughts, emotions, and cravings back into our true self (back into consciousness), we are involved in a process of reclaiming our power. What we take our power out of begins to fall apart, or die.

All of this folds into a big paradox. In the activity of witnessing we suspend our efforts to control, and instead choose to merely watch. Yet it is this very suspension of controlling that turns out to bring control. Paradoxically, we gain control by not trying to control—by witnessing. Contrary to our assumptions, trying to control with our mind and will, driven by our ego’s agenda, makes us feel powerless because it doesn’t work. As long as we come from the ego-driven mind and will, we will fail to get control.

Things turn out to be different than we thought they were.

The Scout and the Warrior can work together

So let’s return to the situation of a cigarette smoker with the addiction, and suppose this person is practicing the Scout attitude and being the witness. After a while of doing this, they will have taken their investment out of the thoughts about the addiction, out of the emotional payoffs, and out of the body’s cravings. At this point, these things are seen, from the witness or observer point of view, as the mind’s thoughts, the emotional body’s emotions, and the physical body’s cravings. Many of the elements within the addiction now lose their “charge.” The smoker may perhaps reach the detached and accepting point of view that “it is what it is.”

 Now, the smoker’s detachment from what is happening—thus, their acceptance of it—has created a new situation in which willpower is enough to overcome the temptations to smoke. It was not enough before; “success” was not possible before. There had to be witnessing and detachment that created a new situation where the power levels were more equal, and the battle could actually be won. This new situation could be imagined as willpower (30) versus addictive layers (20 (and dying)).


We become aware that both the Scout’s mindfulness and the Warrior’s willpower have their place in making change in our lives. (The Warrior’s affirmations can also be useful, and even powerful, but only once we have changed our subconscious mind, which again requires Scout witnessing.)

Most of the time we are trying to go about things 100% Warrior and 0% Scout, and this is why we do not get the result we want. Too much efforting; not enough watching! That’s why we need to shift our point of view, and be the watchful Scout as much as we can.

This watchfulness will lead us not only to understanding our situation much better, but by neutralizing the charge in our patterns (through detachment), we will actually be able to change them.

Being a Scout takes practice, but it can be done well. So many people in the Mindfulness Movement are having success doing it, already. Practicing mindfulness—taking the witness attitude—changes our relationship with what’s going on inside us, and returns to us the power to create change.

Once we get free of our old patterns, this gives us the real opportunity—perhaps for the first time in our life!—to create the life we really want: the life our heart has been longing for.

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Link: Julia Galef’s TED talk on the Soldier and the Scout

Julia inspired the characters in this essay. In her talk, however, she associates the characters (Soldier and Scout) with different relationships to ideas rather than making behavior changes in one’s life.