Mastery, Not Control

I put this presentation together last April. I’ve been “sitting” on it, waiting to see how it held up before releasing it. Now seems to be the right time.

This was originally written out as an essay, but after experimenting with different formats, I think it is best suited to the slide show. I use as my inspiration John Boyd (take this site with a grain of salt – stick to what Boyd himself wrote!) not PowerPoint – God Forbid! – recognizing that Boyd has been grievously misunderstood in ways that have led to far worse than Microsoft’s fossilization of his technique.

I see my own goal in this, and these kinds of pieces, to collide Boyd with Ivan Illich and see what comes out. Boyd was the master strategist, Illich the soul. What could happen if they co-pollinated?

Mastery, Not Control

Lessons at the edge of this decade.

The pursuit of control is chimerical and dangerous. Does that leave us anything but bland passivity? This question is central if we are to find a way forward.

What if we carve out a distinction between control and mastery?

Control is the expectation that violence and coercion allow us to bend other actors – humans and others – to our will. We expect benefits that outweigh the costs – we ignore the costs. We aim control at anything and everything, including ourselves.

Control does not work. It is based on a falsehood, the fantasy that Will can drive Reality.
Mastery is an accommodation to reality made through the practice of a self-discipline. Discipline refines one’s ability to discover catalytic moments. Catalytic moments allow relatively small, precise actions to influence the course of events in ways we have reason to believe will be of value.

Control and Mastery arise from our desire to be effective in the face of conditions we want to influence or change.

Then they diverge: Control expects reality to be malleable to our wishes. Mastery gives reality its due. Control escalates to ever greater levels of force as it proves itself impotent. Controllers continually up the ante until they collapse in ultimate failure.

Mastery adapts to reality by understanding that changing ourselves, our outlook, our expectations is more effective than attempting external changes without considering their unintended consequences.

Mastery exerts focused and measured force. Its effects are greater than its expenditures. The more it succeeds, the less apparent its effort.

These characteristics show the two in opposition.

Control does not work. It exhausts itself in the attempt – destroying the self along with all the rest – ultimately the same result.

Mastery works. It’s efficacy approaches the effortlessness of Grace.

Control is easy to fall into.

Mastery is hard. This is why we are surrounded by the noise and fury, the violence and destruction, of control while mastery is rare.

Humans are capable of mastery. We hunger for it; but it requires great personal investment. It takes concerted effort, patience, discipline, and humility expressed over long spans of time. Its practices don’t appear as exciting and enticing as jumping into the illusion of control.

There is a distinction between technique and the practices of mastery. Technique is a set of prescribed actions and processes. Once developed they are applied generally. A condition is labeled a problem. A linear analysis establishes a set of repeatable procedures creating a chain of expectation. It is expected that control will produce a desired outcome by providing answers to problems.

This is the realm of the professional.

The world doesn’t work that way. As a result, great swaths of reality are ignored and pushed aside as externalities. This feeds a self-generated impoverishment of awareness. This supports a self-imposed delusion that only what remains within the realm of technique has value. Eventually this attitude overwhelms its practitioners’ sanity.

Insanity maintains them on their destructive and useless course until there is nothing left.
Mastery avoids this trap. Mastery holds the unique nature of reality inviolate. Awareness reaches out to ever-broader integration while understanding that one will never encompass reality. The primary responsibility is to adapt. Acting on the self is the preferred path. So long as one does not subvert the integrity of the self which is inseparable from the integrity of the whole.

To be clear, the self on a path towards mastery does not see its needs in opposition to the totality of the world. If a lesser necessity, no matter who it appears to serve, is in opposition to a greater one, it is modified or abandoned. This extends to the continuation of one’s own life, the life of the individual self. This choice is never taken lightly; but it is always available. It cannot be assumed by anyone for another. It represents a debt to the world that will ultimately be paid.

No one gets out of this world alive.

Mastery involves unique responses to each situation. The smallest actions that will bring about the possibility of a desired outcome are usually the best course. This economy of action is not only elegant, but effective. No outcome is predictable, therefor no effort should outstrip reasonable expectation.

This recognition is THE source of humility. Humility is not a virtue, an ethical luxury. Neither is it a commandment, externally compelled. Humility is an essential approach to reality. It is the only defense against overreach.

In a whole and integrated world it is clear that no-action is almost always preferable. Left to its own devices, the world will manage itself. If one’s life is aligned with its continuation – through the practice of mastery – then less and less overt action is required to maintain one’s place. When dealing with threats to the world’s existence, the best course is most often to remove human intervention, not replace one kind with another.

This is breathtakingly simple.

The trap of control is that even the most well-intentioned tend to fall into controlling strategies as they work to isolate and fix problems.

This reflex is hard to avoid. Only a careful practice of mastery allows us to sidestep the illusion of control.

* * *

This scaffolding leads to the question of security. The Fallacy of Pragmatism is perhaps the key failure of civilization. It has presided over the institutionalization of control as THE method of interaction with the world. As we attempt to counter its effects, it is essential we not fall into the trap ourselves. This has been the root of the failure of all reform and revolution. This is why we need to question armed resistance; not out of a moral duty to pacific action.

This does not rule out resistance; but we need to break out of the trap of futility.

Control’s power has been, and continues to be, destructive of life at all levels and at all scales.
It has been extremely successful at destroying or co-opting its opposition. Whenever resistance is frustrated it falls into a trap. It is then destroyed or co-opted. This has borne out in every case.

Every failed defense by an indigenous people, every attempted overthrow by some enlightened faction, has failed.

They’ve all failed. Destroyed as a weaker force against a stronger, or co-opted whenever they’ve managed to create a superior force and fought on to victory. They become the next oppressor. This is the history of civilization. Every example of Twentieth Century conflict bears this out.

The question of security, so long as the destruction proceeds at an ever quicker and more thorough pace, the need to make an effective resistance grows. What form should that resistance take? At this point the answer can only be a reluctant and tentative negative: Not with the methods of control.

It is tempting to jump to conclusions; but there are reasons to be wary. Is Gandhian nonviolence and civil-disobedience the answer? This is not clear. Neither is it clear how it would work across scales.

Many think non-violence could never work. Gandhi was able to accomplish incredible feats as did his heirs in South Africa. Even these few supreme efforts have not borne full fruit. Their beneficiaries are still caught up in cycles of oppression.

However, it does provide the only example of a non-controlling strategy based on self-mastery. It’s unfair to lump these efforts in with the failure of hobbyist non-violent protests.

Mastery points to the need to look for difficult actions that can have disproportionate results. Emotionally satisfying Pyrrhic action with no chance of success only provokes oppressors.

We need masterful responses.

Mastery is humble. It does not fall into the trap of the illusion of control. It recognizes that tactical, even strategic failure, may be the best outcome possible at any given time. It will accept that outcome if need be. This is not a question of martyrdom or fetishized victim-hood.
It is a profound realization that we do not know the mysteries of the world and cannot presume to take control.

Even when others, acting in a controlling manner, are destroying everything we care about.

This is where the trap of control bites the hardest. This impasse breeds exceptionalism. Exceptionalism brings us all too quickly to demanding that, “The ends justify the means!”

If there is no better argument against resisting exceptionalism than frustration one has not escaped the illusion of control. One is rushing down a path which will ultimately and irrevocably lead to becoming the next oppressor. Look at every revolution, every resistance that has ever succeeded.

This is why our predicament is so daunting. Mastery is the only way to avoid this trap and discover what can be done.

It is an ongoing habituation. We learn to avoid the traps of the easy. We learn to maintain focus and concentration in the face of frustration and apparent impotence. We work to define and refine our engagement with the world.

This has been an open-ended exercise. It’s purpose, to establish a perspective on our predicament. It leaves the question of How? unanswered. It leaves what constitutes THE discipline of mastery un-articulated. It leaves our chances of success unquantified….

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26 thoughts on “Mastery, Not Control

  1. I would use the term “self-mastery” – because one can also attempt to master/be master of other people. Control in a psychological sense always seems to be from the point of view of a child who is afraid of being overwhelmed by forces ranged against him, where self-mastery is a quality of maturity.

    • I agree.

      I shortened the term to a single word, mastery, because I feel this is its intrinsic meaning, the other “mastery” mastering, etc. is really just another form of control.

      Without self-mastery, which again is different from self-control, there can be no true mastery, and there is no true mastery that doesn’t accept ambiguity and the limits impinging on any attempt to effect outcomes.

      In the end, mastery, self-mastery involves gaining the ability to accept what cannot be changed without falling into paralysis or the frenzy and fantasy of chasing after control.

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