Are you a control freak?
I believed I was no longer one. But a few Saturdays ago, while practicing ChiRunning, I discovered a “controller” pulling the strings in my brain: operating in incognito mode, it’d been guiding me.
My ballet instructor, Mademoiselle Alice, tapped her long cane on the floor like a TV-show cliché–un, deux, trois, quatre! Watch those elbows! Long neck, belly in!
Ballet is all about control, and I got used to it. I got accustomed to feeling my belly in, neck long and back arched 24/7. The certainty to be doing everything I had to–that tight grip over myself–was comforting. Recalling Mademoiselle Alice helped, so I embodied her into my bones and muscles.
Inside my brain, she made sure not one hair was out of place, my clothes fit perfectly, my articulation was exact and the words I chose, precise. She brought me calm, but her exaggerated demands made life exhausting. A typo on the workbook I’d prepared for a client, arriving three minutes late, or not having the answer to a question during a lecture made my heart sink.
When in February 2011 I realized the need for control was sabotaging my life and happiness, I set out to break free. I joined a polyphonic choir, picked up dance improvisation, and started to skip the blow-dryer and leave my hair undone. And after a few months, I declared victory.
Alas, that Saturday morning, I sensed it: Mademoiselle Alice was gripping my back, tilting my pelvis forward, contracting my abdominal muscles so tight that breathing was hard.
ChiRunning and the body-mind loop
ChiRunning is all about sensing. By focusing the mind on the sensations and movement of the body, chi-runners achieve alignment and relaxation. They listen to the body and the body shows them how to run with maximum efficiency and minimum effort.
Biased by Mademoiselle Alice, however, I was trying to control my way into alignment and relaxation.
And then, that Saturday morning, running along the shore on Virginia Key, I could finally sense my body without controlling it. I sensed the tight grip holding my back, and released it. In that instant, my pelvis, shoulders, and neck fell into a naturally relaxed and aligned position. Breathing became easy and my legs seemed to float.
For the first time in my life I was letting go. Not only saying it but doing it, and feeling it in my bones. It felt good.
Bits of conversations I’d had with friends, colleagues, or clients rushed through my mind. How frequently, intending to help, had I in fact wanted to control the outcome.
How so many times had I confiscated someone’s natural creativity and resourcefulness by showing them the path I knew was right–the only one possible.
How so often had my tight grip threatened someone else’s agency, pushing them into self-protection, passive-aggressiveness, disengagement.
Busting the Controller
If I’d failed to defeat Mademoiselle Alice before it was because I was leading the battle with my mind, when the answer was in my body.
We, hyper-rational, intelligent people, think we can solve anything through brain power. We think about things, analyze feelings, strategize relationships. And we forget to observe the critical data our bodies collect for us.
As our user interface, the body interacts with the environment, and the brain then decides which feelings to have and actions to take.
If I’m biased toward danger, my brain will find ways to enhance feelings of security. As a result, I’ll take the actions that make me feel safe, despite the risks’ not being real. That’s why I arched my back, pulled my hair so tight, and self-censored my words: the certainty of the tight grip made me feel safe.
These deeply rooted, automatic brain reactions allowed our ancestors to survive. But they limit us, because feeling anxious doesn’t help; clear-headed action does.
Remaining clear-headed in face of challenge
First, be aware of the sensations in the body that triggered the unconscious thoughts of danger–a clenched jaw, a knot in the stomach, a sunk chest.
Then, observe those sensations without judgment and do something with the body that’ll stop the mind from recurring to the habitual thoughts.
Finally, choose a different reaction.
ChiRunning brings my mind to what’s here now: my stride, my breath, my back. Focusing fully on my body allows my mind to intercept the negative thoughts that lead me to feeling bad, which doesn’t help me solve anything.
In that mode of being, I allow ideas to come to me instead of chasing them. I observe and discern instead of judging.
And I let go.