David Pincus

David Pincus Ph.D.

The Chaotic Life

Life 101: Control and Chaos in Everyday Life

On rivers, as in lives, there are joys and perils.

Posted May 04, 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-made and rapids 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 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 American Behaviorists to develop technologies of behavior modification that have lessoned so many areas of human suffering, from bed wetting to panic attacks. Primary control is the mentality of the American Frontier, where people grab their bulls by their 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, and go where you want so long as you keep heading downstream.

In the turbulence of rapids, life demands a different strategy. What would happen if you actually grabbed a bull by its horns? Not such a good idea after all. Here one is better served by "secondary control" strategies. Secondary control is embraced by indigenous and Eastern cultures. This is the control of the Tao, where a river becomes stronger than rock, as the former flows around the latter. When approaching whitewater, one opens 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 a "stopper." A stopper is a rigid washing machine-like dynamic that can capsize you and hold you against the bottom of the river for hours or even days (or so told the British training videos we showed our campers before we took on the mighty Peshtigo!).

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 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. Rather - one stays balanced and poised for action, aware and connected with the rushing water, neither dominant over it, nor fused with it. One's evaluations also stay 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 usual instincts alive and to willfully release from ourselves our agendas in times of great chaos. Nowhere is this truer than when one 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 depletes oxygen and pulls one down. If one relaxes, a stopper is more likely to spit you back out into the water. When it does, it also pays to remember to keep one's head upstream - feet make better springboards than heads do.

Secondary control has been reformulated by the New American Behaviorists as "acceptance-based" and "mindfulness" strategies in psychotherapy, all the trend lately. Yet anyone who has ever been down a river, or enjoyed any of the other countless adventures of life, will already know on a deep and implicit level how life may best be lived.




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