Who Is in Control?

Last Updated on Teachings

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To continue my recent theme about control, let’s take a look at the real heart of the issue. In previous posts, I discussed how the idea of being in control is pretty much illusory and how you can’t even control what your next thought is going to be. In this little essay, I want to look at the controller, the you that has no control over anything.

From the beginning, the idea of control over one’s life, one’s thoughts, one’s actions, anything and everything, presupposes that there is a someone who is in control. That stands to reason, doesn’t it? If there is control, there must be a controller.

So, find him or her. Right now, see if you can find the controller, the one who has control over this thing called “your life.” Is it your body? Does it have control over your life? Is it your mind? Does it have control over your life? Do its wishes, desires, thoughts and even intentions have control? Given that thoughts have a crazy way of “just arising spontaneously” then the mind being in control seems iffy.

Look inside and see if you can find this controller. Is it the thinker of your thoughts? Where is this thinker? Can you find him or her? Is it the soul? While some of my readers are very convinced of the reality of the soul, I would ask you to do a very simple thing: look inside and find it. I mean, if the soul is you, then shouldn’t you be able to find it? It seems reasonable. And yet, when you look inside, what do you find?

If you are like me (and basically everyone else who does this very simple exercise), you come to the most interesting realization: there is nothing there. You look inside and you find nothing. In this context, you look inside for the controller, for the ultimate you that does things, decides things, chooses things, and you do not find anything. You find a whole lot of nothing.

I will leave you with a few questions: is this a bad thing, finding nothing? What if this nothing that you find is what you are? What if everyone is the same nothing? How much control, then, do you have over your life? Every time you look inside, you can’t find the you that you always thought you were, and instead find nothing. Isn’t that interesting?

In my next post, for those of you who are convinced as to the reality of the soul, I’ll take a look at it and discuss why it, too, is not what you are (even if we assume for a moment that it does exist). Namaste.

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  • Andrea Hess|Empowered Soul

    Well, Tom, you already know I’m a firm believer in the Soul. I mean, I work with the Soul all day long – my own and my clients’. I think it’s pretty easy to find, actually. :-)

    However, I don’t think the Soul is our ultimate identity, or that there even is an ultimate identity to be found. The Soul is like the body or the mind … just another illusion of separation. Still,we chose to incarnate into this context, so we’ll work with what we’ve got, right?

    I don’t really have the experience of finding nothing, so I can’t really answer about whether that is bad or good, I’m afraid.

    As always, I’m looking forward to the discussions on your blog!


  • Sergio

    Well, that makes me think again that reality is nothing, look around long enough, and you will see there are no limits, to anything at all.
    Yeah, I think it’s called nihilism, and it makes some sense. Any opinions?

  • Tom Stine

    @Andrea I think we agree that the soul isn’t what we are. I’m not saying that there ISN’T some collection of mental-emotional energy that may incarnate from lifetime to lifetime, something we could call a soul. But if it isn’t real, and isn’t what you are, then I can only ask, “What are you?” That’s THE question. All of spirituality is contained in that one question. What are you? That’s it. Not a soul, not a mind, not a body, not a ….

    In Advaita, the practice is called neti-neti: not this, not that. Eventually, you end up with the same result as my look within questions. You look, and you find nothing. But you say you find something? What do you find? When you go looking for what you are, what is looking out of your eyes and reading these words, what do you find? I’m curious. Thanks for the comments.

    @Sergio I would agree that the more you look, the more you find no limits, no anything at all. Nihilism is the belief that there is no ultimate meaning to reality, no ultimate anything. In a sense, this could be what we are talking about. But most philosophical beliefs are usually negative in affect, devoid of anything substantive. The nothing that we find when we look is far from lifeless. It is filled with life. It IS Life itself. But it isn’t a thing, it has no substance, it isn’t a someone or a somebody. And everywhere we look, we find this no thing.

  • Psiplex

    Thinking about the Jinendra quote:
    “Awaken and See
    All our Confusion, Conflicts
    and Problems are self-made
    By none other but Me — the ‘person’
    So Transformation is possible
    For me, By me, Through me only”

    The idea of control starts out in the human part of human being, that which is always striving, improving, doing and then trying to manage the mess.

    The being of human being is. This isness, already whole is what the soul is yearning to be. The soul is always trying to attain that which is eternal, the wholeness of love. Until the soul is surrendered (not by a controlled doing), the chase goes on. When the false sense of self, ideas produced in the mind
    are believed and acted on, the ‘control’ issue arises. Soul merges with the spirit, the being, the oneness. As the Jinendra quote says ‘All our Confusion, Conflictsand Problems are self-made’. Very sobering, very illuminating.

    One Love

  • Ariel

    Hey Tom,

    I’m gonna play devil’s advocate here for a moment, just to verbalize my own toying with this self-inquiry.

    If I were to look inside and find the smallest aspect of myself, an atom or a proton for example, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to detect it just by “looking within,” but that wouldn’t necessarily negate the existence of a collection of atoms within me, just because I can’t see it.

    There’s a limit between what I can detect by looking within, but noticing something is different from that thing’s existence.

    I can feel peacefulness within the experience of me, but I can’t find any limits to it. That doesn’t mean it’s not part of my experience.

    Scientifically we know, at least to the limit of our current understandings, that everything is energy, or strings. Yet if we were to look within and feel for this particle of energy, we couldn’t see it, even if we were to feel energetic and alive in the moment.

    The Self seems to be beyond the experience of our five senses, but that doesn’t mean it does or doesn’t exist.

    The whole idea of experiencing the unexperiencable, achieving the unachievable seems silly when we get down to it, which is what enlightenment is all about.

    You can’t “become enlightened” or “become the Self,” only strip away all false ideas about that which you mistakenly believed to be and thus realize what you truly are.

    In the context of this post, let’s say there is a thinker who is the one who chooses the next thought, but I am not him. Are thoughts random and I am the one who is witness to some undeterminable thinker? I may not be the one in control of my next thought, but is there even a controller in the first place who decides, perhaps unconsciously, what the next thought will be?

  • Ariel

    Also, here’s my take on the soul itself, based on two subjective experiences. OBE’s and past life pregressions.

    1) OBE’s.

    I’ve had a few out of body experiences in meditation which seem to be induced by a feeling of total let go and surrender. In that experience, there’s a sense of “me,” a localized non-physical awareness that rises above this physical body and looks down from above. It is in no way tied to the physical body, yet it still feels like an individualized “me” who is separate from and witness to the room around and the body below. As soon as a thought arises such as, “Whoa, cool!,” that’s a trigger that sends this “me” back into the physical body.

    So from this experience, if we could call this localized non-physical floating existence a “soul,” that’s the best I could do at pointing to it in my own direct experience.

    2) Past life regressions

    I have a friend who’s certified in NLP and hypnotherapy. The following is less concrete because it can be written off as pure imagination, but take it as you will.

    In guided meditation, he led me through the experience of relaxing, going up the tunnel towards the white light, and through a set of doors which I intuitively select as the one to enter, which leads me “into” a “past” life. In the one I did, I was experiencing “myself” as a woman in egypt, in the sand near the pyramids. The details are not too important for this discussion, but in terms of looking at a soul, I could say that there is a localized sense of self, limited yet simultaneously boundless, that travels from this body we call “Ariel” into another body in another lifetime.

    Awareness itself has no capacity for memory and is not at the effect of emotions or anything else in physical reality, yet there is still a sense of non-physical separate self which does interact with whichever body or mind it is current interacting with. This sense of self I would call the soul.

    The soul, much like awareness itself, seems to be finite yet boundless. It’s a lot like looking for the limits to awareness itself and not finding it, yet simultaneously not being aware of what’s happening in a neighboring country in this moment, for example. Boundless, but not omnipresent and omniscient.

    Thanks to a recommendation here on your blog, Tom, I’m slowly working my wah through “I Am That” by Nisargadatta Maharaj. In the book, someone asks him since he is beyond time and space, what is the weather in New York. (Page 38) He basically blows off the question by saying that he doesn’t have the necessary yogic training to know this, is not currently in New York, and is unable to locate himself in a point in time and space anyways.

    While that’s alright, I don’t fully understand how he can be aware of what’s happening in the room the body he is using is in and unaware of what’s happening in the rooms you and I are in while still being unable to find at least some sort of localized sense of awareness. In my own glimpses of awakening, there is a direct realization as oneself as the unlimited and infinite Self, yet the simultaneous awareness of what’s happening around this body, but not your body.

    hm, so yeah, a few more ideas to chew on. :)

  • mike S

    Actually, nihilism is the rejection of all laws which means even “no control” is a law that must be rejected as well.

    I have a friend who enjoyed Zen immensely until he lost his job and nothingness became unsupportable and only caused greater suffering.

    However, I do suspect that there are many who substitute the ‘facticity’ of existence for the concepts of no control or nothingness.

    “If you are like me (and basically everyone else who does this very simple exercise), you come to the most interesting realization: there is nothing there.”

    Geez, Tom, I found love, compassion, deep peace and even a sense of joy. Why should I define that as “nothing”? Seems a bit disempowering. Nature abhors a vacuum and therefore, so do we.

    Most individuals have had enough of feeling like nothing in a world that supports limitation, scarcity and lack.

    They don’t want to “find nothing” but more likely, everything. The soul is what you are and what you are NOT. Any simple dissection may be disingenuous since Deep Spirit is NOT so cut and dry.

    Nevertheless, I enjoy how your posts stretch the mind and compel a deeper consideration.

    Peace Angels,
    mike S

  • Tom Stine

    @Psiplex Nice to have your comments. Yes, I would agree that control seems to be a human thing. But I would still ask: does the human being HAVE any control? If he does, he has very little. As for the soul, it may be striving to attain wholeness, but it is in fact simply a manifestation of the very wholeness it is seeking. It will never attain what it already is made FROM. But still, that will not allow it to be what it is not. A seemingly separate soul can never become the One. The One is the One, appearing as a soul (if there is such a thing).

    @Ariel Wow, I doubt I can respond to everything. However, let’s look within. What do you find? An atom, a particle, a string? No, none of that. You might find some thoughts, some feelings, but you never encounter a THING. Just experiences at most. But remember, you are looking for YOU. Where are you? What are you? Try as you might, you can’t nail the sucker down. Even if you say, “I find a soul,” what is it you’ve found? Some memories? Some feelings? Some thoughts? An energetic pattern? Is this then what you ARE? I mean, really, really ARE?

    That’s where the inquiry breaks down. One is left staring at the one thing we absolutely do not want to find: the Void. The great emptiness. But I would add, and will respond to Mike in a moment, that emptiness, that Void, may not be quite so empty. It just lacks THING-NESS.

    Glad you like Nisargadatta. He’s one of the best.

    @Mike Lots of good stuff here. Let me say at first that I agree about nothing. I wasn’t completely clear nor complete in my discussion. When you look within for YOU, when you try to find YOU, what do you find? Nothing. You don’t find a you. You find a vastness, an emptiness, a Void. But you go a bit further, which is the next step of the inquiry. What do you find? What is the Void like? What are the attributes of Nothing.

    As the inquiry deepens, as you experience goes further, a realization begins to occur: when I look within to find ME, I find nothing. But this nothing is just nothing, it is a NO THING, but it has attributes. Maybe I’m this NO THING that has these attributes. Now THAT’S interesting!!

    As for your friend who lost his job: as many discover on the spiritual journey, there is often a disconnect that occurs. I’ve experienced it myself, where the spiritual seems to exclude the worldly. You see that in a lot of eastern paths such as Zen. Nothingness can, and in fact DOES, work, earn money, have relationships, sex, go to basketball games, you name it. Nothing, I’ve found, is incredibly functional and tends to get the job done effortlessly. But there is an integration that needs to occur, and it is a tough one for most people, myself included. That’s why I also do life coaching within a spiritual context. Quite often, people need help with the worldly and the spiritual. Yes, there really is no separation between the two, at least in my awareness, but it SEEMS that way for most people. I wish your friend the best.

  • Sergio

    Tom: now that I think about what I said, I realize that maybe we don’t perceive things as ‘nothing’, but instead, the world is so overwhelming, that as we try to look further and further away or closer and closer, our minds are saturated and see nothing at all.

    Anyways, that was just a shot in the dark, I’ll let you guys look more into it. :)

  • Evan

    So here’s how you do it.
    You and a friend sit down side by side. After a minute of you thinking ask them what they have been thinking. I bet they will be different. One way of accounting for this difference is with the labels ‘me’and ‘you’.

    They seem perfectly valid and useful labels to me.

  • Davidya

    OK, Tom. You raise a few points.
    The question of controller is very interesting. There can be a sense of this shifting as awareness grows. We may feel powerless, at the mercy of others. Then, find ourselves ‘in control’, self sufficient and in charge. Then, that falls away and we seem to ‘loose control’, yet at the same time see there was nothing to be controlled. It takes care of itself. We may perhaps then step into a sense of a ‘higher’ control, as in God or divine something. But at some point, the whole idea of controller falls away. There is no controller as there is no thing to be controlled. Control is meaningless if its all just one thing.

    On the point of the nothing (laughs). The nothing does not mean there is no soul. If I look within, I find a spark of life, a driver to be expressed. A golden ball. I refer to this as the soul. One can perceive it departing on someones last breath.

    That spark though is not separate from life itself, the movement of silence within itself. It is the end point of a thread of intention, arising in the idea of the world.

    Of course, one can say the world and thus the soul is a dream. But it is a dream of the silence, made of the silence. Curiously, seeing it as real, as not, or as illusion is the illusion. (laughs)

    All of this is within the nothing. But it’s important to understand a little detail here. When we step out of the dream, we find nothing there. But as the perception and depth of silence grows, that nothing is found to be everything. The emptiness is found to be fullness. The silence overflows with love. And the spark of that love sits within, in the heart. Connecting our expression with our source. That’s mighty real to me. ;-)

  • Davidya

    Hi Evan
    Another way for accounting for it is the different points of awareness, one apparently through ‘me’ and one apparently through ‘you’. Each are focused on different aspects of mind so have different thoughts. But there is no other here – no other you having other thoughts in an other mind. Just different values of one.

    The labels are useful but not if we forget what they mean ;-)

  • Davidya

    A further point though. This is not to say you are wrong and should not go on to post further articles around this subject. (you know this) You are expressing this key step out of control and into nothing very well. It is an important step on the journey, one that many people are facing.

    But it is not the last step, that’s all. ;-)

  • gregorylent

    wow, i could not deal with all these great comments .. and starting with the first one, am glad there is such a metaphor as spiral dynamics to help me understand that there are different “levels” of comprehension, real to each level, in this world .. and probably atma vichara, self-enquiry, is not the first thing many people need to be exposed to, or are ready to see …

  • Tom Stine

    @Evan Of course “me” and “you” are convenient labels for describing the apparent Evan and the apparent Tom. But it doesn’t mean there is a difference. What looks out of my eyes is the same as what looks out of your eyes. All the same. Oneness means ONE.

    @Davidya I wasn’t reading any of your comment as a criticism. You were just taking the discussion further. The essential step is looking within and seeing NO THING. There is no little person hanging out in their. No separate self. That’s the necessary first step.

    @Gregory You know, I think people will be exposed to inquiry at exactly the moment they are ready. Because, (here I go again!), who is it that is ready? And who chooses the moment of exposure? Not the teacher or the student. LIFE does. :-)

  • gregorylent

    thinking of andrea hess, first comment above, and the idea of the soul, and the nothing of self-inquiry, and appreciating the sanskrit concepts of jiva and atma, the distinctions are useful ones helping to see both “sides” of this dialogue

  • michael

    Hi Tom,

    I run the Santa Monica Eckhart Tolle meetup group and last night I sent out an email to our members. Apparently, you and I were on the same wave length regarding topic as here is a portion of what I wrote:

    “As many of you know, I am working on a new book called, Enlightenment on Demand. One of the many great things about writing a book is that it gets you to explore the material you are writing about in great depth–much deeper than if you are just casually reading. You compare and contrast what other authors/speakers have said on the topic of spirituality vs. your own experience.

    Interestingly, I have found that most of the material points at the same thing, regardless of who is saying it. However, in the end YOU still have to experience it yourself! Otherwise they are just words on a page, or sounds coming out of someone’s mouth.

    Remember our last meetup exercise: reading about, talking about, or thinking about chocolate is a completely different experience than actually eating it!

    That said, here is a brief excerpt from my book (due out Spring 2009):

    My Thoughts on Thoughts

    Seeing through the illusion: We are using thoughts to think about thoughts. If something can’t be thought of, the mind can’t comprehend it, can’t think it (such as unlimited space and time, something that has always been and was never born and never dies).

    YOU are outside of thought. You are the one that the thoughts happen in! You are the space that allows for thinking to manifest.

    The key is that you must experience it yourself. You must know it, not think it. You can only do this by going into stillness and just being in and perceiving through silent awareness, not through thinking.

    You might mistakenly believe that the only way to know something is to think about it. But thinking is not KNOWING, it’s just believing. It’s just one thought believing in another thought. What we are talking about is outside the realm of the thinking mind. As long as you believe you are your mind, you can never experience this because it will just be another thought.

    The “aha” or breakthrough happens when you observe your thoughts and notice that they just arise from nowhere and then disappear into nowhere. They come and they go. And, YOU have no control over them! Zero. You think you create your thoughts but that is just an illusion. You are simply the space that the thoughts appear in.

    Test: If you think you create your thoughts than tell me something, “What is your NEXT thought going to be about?”

    Well, I’m waiting…

    Still waiting…

    You can’t tell me, can you? The reason is because YOU don’t know.
    Now, if you really were in control of your thoughts, wouldn’t you know what your next thought was going to be?

    Think about it… :)”

    Love and Serenity,

    Michael Jeffreys

  • Tom Stine

    @Michael Nice to have your comments. Very good essay from your book. You nailed the next thought issue quite well. No one really likes this amazingly simple observation. Well, almost no one. I love it. What a relief! No idea what I’ll think next, no idea what will happen next in life. Some control, huh?

    Thanks for the comments and the excerpt. Namaste.

  • mike S


    “Test: If you think you create your thoughts than tell me something, “What is your NEXT thought going to be about?”
    Well, I’m waiting… Still waiting…”

    OK, the thought that I think based on your provocation is that Eckhart Tolle is wrong because if he were right, then all his statements would be based on his thought which as you posit, does not exist.

    People are struggling these days and can’t don robes and enter the monastery. They need a path that does not deny existence before they can consider the idea of denying existence. Reality, no matter how illusory, is to most a very ‘factual’ encounter.

    To say that I should detach from my ‘identifying’ with reality (even if in my mind) may be disingenuous, since I still have to work for the man so I can pay the bills. If I completely nullify the ‘self’ maybe I can achieve a sense of satisfaction in the austerity of my CHOSEN path of detachment. But who will pay the bills?

    mike S

  • michael jeffreys

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your comment. Please don’t think I’m being sarcastic in anyway when I say: There is “no one” to pay the bills and yet bills still get paid!

    What this means is that the “apparent you” after awakening continues to live your life just as you always have. Perhaps you’ve heard the zen saying, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment chop wood, carry water.”

    Seeing through the illusion of an ego-self is a blessing and a gift of love from oneness to oneness. My experience is that the deeper you go into your own beingness the more you want to give and help others. The fear that keeps so many of us fighting for scraps simply goes away because you realize it’s all ONE. If I take from you I am literally taking from myself. If I feel jealous of you that just means I have fallen back into the illusion of separation.

    To me, spirituality must be practical or it would not be of real value. I will give you an example from my own life. A while back I hit a pole with my car while backing up. The old me would have been very upset at the dent in my car, how much would it cost to fix, etc.

    However, my reaction when I got out and saw the dent was spontaneous laughter! I mean a good laugh like I had not had in a while. Why the “strange” reaction? It was because I realized that it was just a piece of metal that was now in a different shape that it was before. That is all! Why did I need to get upset by this?

    All I can tell you Mike is that you can still play the game of life just as enthusiastically as before awakening, it’s just that you no longer take the score seriously.

    Love and Serenity,


    p.s. Tom, thank you for the warm welcome and keep up the good work… I love your site!

  • mike S


    Thanks for the comeback and no, I did not interpret any sarcasm whatsoever. We are all engaged in the ongoing dialogue toward truth, and I thank Tom for allowing this format for that dialogue to occur.

    We all have different paths, but no path is any less valid. You introduce a significant life event that was spiritually pivotal for you and I think we all resonate with such transitional experiences.

    Spiritual paths simply serve to aid us in negotiating the lived reality of experience and nothing more than that. It cannot serve any other purpose considering our attachment to reality. When will we become enlightened?

    Alas, there is no way of knowing. Truth comes when it comes and there is nothing we can do to accelerate its occurrence. However, in the meantime, we can conceptualize and practice all manner of ‘spiritual’ practices in the hope of accelerating what, essentially, we have no choice in bringing about.

    Therefore, spiritual practices serve only to provide greater comfort with the absurdity we call ‘real.’ Nobody can really choose a path toward “awakening” since in that very egoic choice awakening is nullified.

    However, we do need to find concepts of control or no control that aid us in dealing with a very contrary and dualistically conflictual existence. And every concept is as good as another. the moment we assert one way against another we’re trapped.

    Thanks for the dialogue!
    mike S

  • Tom Stine

    @Mike and Michael Let me say this much about the discussion. While it is true that the ego can do nothing to awaken as it is what we awaken FROM, there still is much “to do” as we travel the path. It is completely contradictory, and yet our experience is that we are doing various things. We meditate, we go to retreats, we do inquiry, we sit, we punch the wall in frustration. As long as the drive to do that is within in us, we must keep going until we finally see it: there is nothing I can do. And in that moment, we see it: the “I” that wants to do something is just a thought, just a movement of mental energy, not real.

    Also, Mike, I disagree with your assertion that one concept is as good as another. From the perspective of the All and Everything, you are 100% correct. All are false. And yet all can be helpful. But for YOU and for ME, not all concepts are as good as another. Based on my conditioning, the way I’m hooked up, certain ones will strike me and cause a big AH-HA!!! Others will land as flat as a pancake. So I say as long as the impulse to seek is still within you, then seek for that which resonates with you, that which encourages consciousness to wake-up. If Eckhart rings your bells, then read him. If Tom Stine lights your fires (*smiles*) then read his blog. By all means, read Tom’s blog!! :-D Find that which resonates, stick with it, and as Adyashanti’s teacher told him, “Dance your dance right out the door.”

  • Sharon Wilson

    Woah- Hard to compete with all these comments- I really enjoyed reading them all though, and can find how its a heated topic, but great insight from everyone.

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