This perspective on life is totally an illusion. While we do have control over whether we work hard, whether we study hard, how we treat other people, whether we get married, etc., we have absolutely no control over whether those actions bear the desired fruits, which for most people are security, success, money, and as a result ... so we are taught ... happiness.
In truth, all we have control over is the way we relate to ourselves and to others, to the world around us. Whether our actions bring about money or success lies in the control of others or is just a matter of good fortune, happenstance. And we hopefully all know as Buddhists that achieving those goals, feeding those cravings, does not result in happiness; just the opposite.
Everyone will understand when I speak of the control of others. But what about happenstance. In common parlance, the phrase, “being in the right place at the right time,” is an example of that. So many of the breaks that people receive in life, while often in part the result of careful planning, are really a result of everything falling into place, which is a function of happenstance.
For example, let’s say you were talking with several people and you learned of a great job opportunity and made a great contact. Had you been in the same place two days later, the discussion could have produced nothing, either because one person wasn’t there or because an opportunity that was present on one day wasn’t there anymore two days later. This is part of the vicissitudes of life.
Unfortunately, people who have “made it” tend not to be aware of how they have been blessed by circumstance. Their ego tells them that it was all because of their hard work; luck or good fortune had nothing to do with it. And so they lack any compassion for those who haven’t made it, whether they are poor or struggling middle class or a lower level executive who isn’t going anywhere. They’re not aware of the saying, “They’re but for good fortune (or the grace of God) go I.”
And those who haven’t made it are made to feel by our culture that they are at fault. They haven’t tried hard enough. This internalized self-blame is very demoralizing. People may often blame a particular individual for some opportunity not materializing or a venture failing, but they rarely get the larger point that the whole concept of control is an illusion.
Most of the frustration and pain we experience from trying and not succeeding comes from this illusion of control. The lesson to be taken from being aware of the illusion of control is to let the idea of control go, to accept that all one can do is the best one can, but ultimately the result depends on many factors outside your control. And have the attitude, “If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, that’s OK too.” That’s the essence of non-attachment.
And to understand that what we are taught to seek through this control is itself an illusion. We can be as successful and rich as one can imagine, but that does not bring with it peace and happiness, it does not end our samsara. On the contrary striving for what we don’t have, or more of what we do have, only feeds our samsara and thus increases our suffering.
If we really want to experience peace and happiness, the only answer is to walk the path of the Buddha and not be pulled into the vortex of our ego thinking-mind. For an outline of this process, see my post, “The End of Suffering Cheat Sheet.”