What Is Submission?

This weekend, I had a good conversation with a good friend of mine about the meaning of submission. I ended up clarifying my thoughts on the concept quite a bit, in a way that I expect to be useful, despite being pretty abstract and meta.

As long as I can remember, I’ve had pretty negative affect around the concept of submission. In my mind, submission has traditionally been mixed up with fear and shame. I associate it with an authority figure trying to intimidate me and get me to behave a certain way even though it goes against my own intuition about what to do. To submit would be to decide that the other person is scary enough that it would be worth it on my part to lose some status and take action that may not be in my best interest.

I knew that when people would talk about submission or surrender in the context of (among other things) Buddhist philosophy, they were talking something a little different, but I’d never sat down and unpacked what exactly I thought they meant.

My new framing of submission is simply that it happens when a process decides to turn a certain part of its job over to a different process. It’s not all or nothing, and it happens all the time. By this definition, I’m submitting to the timer on my phone when I decided to stop tracking when I put the scones in the over and wait to hear the beep.

Will and I have been talking about the letting go of control. My new best understanding is that it’s nearly impossible to do voluntarily unless I truly believe that something else can handle the task to my satisfaction. Of course we’re sometimes wrong about which process is most effective at handling one job or the other. A common failure mode is to assume that only the verbal loop can be trusted with some task or the other. I’d say that I currently alieve that isn’t safe to experience anger without my verbal loop holding the reins, so to speak. On the other hand, I accept that subconscious processes do fine to figure out when to breathe or not.

Given that we’re often miscalibrated about what we need to “have control over” (which I think usually means inhibit behavior until the verbal loop gives an explicit okay), we can sometimes gain wisdom by forcing the loss of control and seeing what happens. Useful, but that approach has its limits.

For this week, I will meditate on the areas where I feel I am leaving “control” in the hands of a too-narrow mental process and what it would take to trust whatever I think should actually be running the show. And what is actually running the show now. It’s very common for this tight control to be more of an illusion than a reality. Maybe the verbal loop is preventing me from talking much when I’m angry, but the more relevant factor is that my emotions are evident in my body language.

It helps for me to remember my Hayekian heuristics about the failure modes of central planning. The more I can keep things distributed and let whatever has the most information act, the better the system will work.

  • Romeo Stevens

    This seemingly ties to the ‘elephant and rider’ model of System 1 and 2. Pretending we have more control than we really do is a common failure mode in establishing useful habits. “Clearly I can just choose to do X 3 times a week.” Yeah right.