Yes, I know that many of your will scratch your heads at this title. Most people, including most Buddhists, do not feel that they have much control over their lives, over the challenges they face in most areas of their lives. Likewise, when they are swept away by emotions they feel like they have no control.
And it is in fact the case that most people have little control over the external things in their life. Those are either dependent on the actions of other people or they are a function of the way our culture/society functions. We can make plans, we can make efforts to achieve things, but ultimately we do not have control. And this is hugely frustrating for most people and the cause of much samsara. But we do have control over how we react to things.
The serenity prayer says, Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. That wisdom is critically important. The way the world is, the way people are, the decisions they make, the way our life is right now at this moment, fall into the first category. They are things we cannot change; it’s just the way it is. But see below.
What can we change then? We can change the way we relate to ourselves and others … the thoughts we have, the words we speak, and the actions we take. The central point here is an internal point. We can change the mental environment in which we live and thus whether we are at peace or suffer by changing the thoughts we have, the words we speak, and the actions we take. Never forget, the Buddha taught that the cause of suffering is not what is happening out there or to you, the cause is how you react to it. It is basically a question of attitude that is the difference between experiencing nirvana or suffering. (See my post, “Nirvana - It’s Right Before Your Eyes.”)
The path may be quite straightforward, but as we’ve all experienced, the path is certainly not easy. The ego-mind, our habit energies, are so strong, are so deeply rooted within us, that even if we have a disciplined, daily meditation practice, the challenges are constant and the progress slow. Don’t through up your hands at these challenges; keep the faith. As you walk the path, your suffering will certainly become less just as you increasingly experience peace and happiness.
And sometimes, the changes we make in the words we speak or the actions we take can affect a favorable reaction or change in others, can even change the way the world is. For example, occasionally we are able affect a change through our participation in large social movements like civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights which have not just resulted in a change in the laws but have ultimately resulted in a substantial change in the attitudes of a large share of the population. Also, by doing good work in our job, we can make a raise or promotion more likely.
But note that if we do work towards such a goal, it is very important that we not get attached to it, otherwise it becomes a craving and we suffer. (See my post, “How to Desire Yet Not Crave.”) And we must always remember and accept that we are not in a position of control as to the outcome of these efforts.
So take heart. With belief in the Buddha dharma, clarity through meditation, and discipline, you can free yourself from suffering, from the control of your ego-mind.