• Life 101: Control and Chaos in Everyday Life

  • On rivers, as in lives, there are joys and perils. (originally posted on Psychology Today Blogs, May 4, 2009)

    I started attending Camp Minikani in Huburtus Wisconsin when I was in 7th grade. I ended up working there as a camp counselor until I was 22 years old. I learned a lot at camp, foundational lessons that formed who I am – particularly my professional identity as a psychologist. Some of the best lessons were learned in leading our older campers in canoeing trips down the “Mighty Peshtigo” (in truth – the rapids of the Peshtigo were very tiny, but great counselors live on hyperbole). The lessons learned in river boating apply throughout life. One of life’s greatest lessons lies in the way in which we cope with periods of relative calm and turbulence, with simplicity and with chaos.

    On a river, as in life, there are joys and perils. The greatest joys are built through connection with oneself and ones boating companions, all within the broader context of the journey downstream. These invisible threads will sew the value of one’s adventure, a tapestry of patterns – memories of merry that was made and rapids that were run.

    In calm water, one may feel the power of ones paddle, propelling a boat from bank to bank, under low shady trees and over shallow rocks where tadpoles nest. When life is calm, one feels in control. This type of control is known in the field of psychology as “primary control.” This type of control is embraced most strongly by Western values. These are the same values that drove Watson, Skinner and the other pioneering American Behaviorists to develop technologies of behavior modification that have reduced so many areas of human suffering, from bed smoking to panic attacks. Primary control is the mentality of the American Frontier, where people grab the bull by the horns. Of course this is the best way to enjoy the doldrums of a calm river, in between rapids. Put your paddle in the water, engage your will and attention (otherwise known as mindfulness), and go exactly where you want to go, so long as you keep heading downstream.

    In the turbulence of rapids, things work differently; life demands a different strategy. Consider what would happen if you actually grabbed a raging bull by its horns? Not such a good idea after all. In chaotic situations, one is better served by “secondary control” strategies. Secondary control is most embraced by indigenous and Eastern cultures. This is the control of the Tao, where water acquires its relative strength as it is able to flow around even the strongest rock.

    When approaching whitewater, it is best to open ones awareness, gazing downstream, and building a holistic map of the various possible paths ahead. An open and flexible gaze is key. If one’s gaze is too fixed, opportunities may be missed. If one plunges ahead too quickly, then one may run smack into what boaters call a “stopper” or a “hole.” A stopper is a rigid washing machine-like dynamic that can capsize you and hold you underwater long enough to drown – hours or even days.

    Just as important as an open and flexible gaze is an open and flexible connection to the river. When entering rapids, one should maintain contact between ones paddle and the river. If you pull your paddle completely out of the water, you may lose your balance and tip. If you dig too deeply into the water, your paddle may hit a rock and launch you into the rapids. Network engineers call this type of contact a soft assembly, which allows for system dynamics to be poised between the extremes of over- and under-regulation. With a nice loose connection to the whitewater, one stays balanced and poised for action, aware of and connected with the rushing water, neither avoiding it, nor fused with it. One’s evaluations should also remain flexible. If you miss a path, you flow with it, into the next path. It is rarely an efficient strategy to fight against the current. In turbulence – the best strategy is to maintain light contact and awareness, to seek “oneness” with the river and its complex flows.

    This great paradox is one of the most difficult for humans to grasp and live by, to put our biologically primed survival instincts (i.e., fight or flight) aside and to willfully release from ourselves our typical coping mechanisms in times of chaos and uncertainty. Furthermore, there is nowhere where this principle is more true than when one has been capsized and is in the grip of the dreaded “stopper,” which holds us down in our most dire of circumstances. The only way out of a stopper is to give ones self over to it. Struggle only depletes oxygen and pulls one further down, like quicksand. If one relaxes, a stopper is more likely to spit you back out into the water. And when it does, a final tip to remember is to keep your head upstream, and your feet downstream. Feet make better bumpers than heads do.