The Benefits of Losing Control

Silhouette of horse and rider in the countryside

Image by treehouse1977

Once upon a time there was a boy named Milton H. Erickson, who lived on a farm in Wisconsin. Walking home from school one day, he and his friends were overtaken by a runaway horse with a bridle on, covered in sweat, that bolted into a farmer’s yard.

The farmer didn’t recognise the horse, and there was nothing on the saddle and bridle to identify it. The others were at a loss for what to do, but Milton took the lead, asking them to corner the horse so that he could mount it. Once in the saddle he shouted “Giddy up!” but held the reins loosely, so that the horse, not the rider, decided which way to go.

The horse trotted and galloped along, only pausing from time to time when it was distracted by a new farmyard or field. Each time, Milton pulled on the reins and encouraged him to keep moving. They took several turnings, all decided by the horse.

After about four miles, the horse turned into a farmyard and stopped. The farmer came out and stared in amazement.

“So that’s how that critter came back. Where did you find him?” I said, “About four miles from here.” “How did you know you should come here?” I said, “I didn’t know. The horse knew. All I did was keep his attention on the road.”

(Phoenix: Therapeutic Patterns of Milton H. Erickson, by David Gordon)

Years later, when Milton Erickson had achieved fame as a psychotherapist, he liked to tell this story to his students, telling them that doing therapy was a lot like riding that horse. Whatever ideas you might have about the best path for the client to follow, you stood more chance of success by tapping into the wisdom of the unconscious mind – both yours and the client’s. “You can trust the unconscious,” he used to say.

Erickson’s faith in the power of the unconscious mind led him to make extensive use of hypnosis in psychotherapy. He was also very alert to subtleties of body language and to the strange logic behind his clients’ symptoms. He saw the unconscious not as a storehouse of repressed memories and negative emotions, but a treasure-house of creativity and potential waiting to be released.

Over and over again, he encouraged his students to let go of their preconceptions – about clients, about therapy, about human nature – and to trust their unconscious mind to help clients come up with creative solutions to their problems. In this, he resembles a long line of teachers and mentors, from ancient yogis and Zen masters to the gurus of modern popular culture, such as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, Yoda in Star Wars and Tyler Durden in Fight Club.

The Buddha compared our situation to a puny rider (the conscious mind) perched on a mighty elephant (the unconscious mind); an inexperienced rider can coax and cajole, but if the elephant decides he wants to go in a different direction, there’s only going to be one winner.

I’m sure you’ve already started to connect the dots with the creative process – so often, we start off with certain ideas about how a piece of work is going to turn out. But if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves ignoring the promptings of our unconscious mind – or inspiration, instinct, Muse, bodymind or whatever else you call it – and the work suffers as a result.

If you’re too wedded to your original plotline, you may miss the dramatic opportunities that emerge as the story unfolds.

If you keep plugging away at a realistic portrait of your subject, you may not spot the dynamic patterns of colour and form you are creating, glimpses of the abstract masterpiece struggling to appear.

If you keep trying to play the character the way you’ve seen her played in other productions, you may not realise that all those ‘mistakes’ are actually nudging you towards a startlingly original interpretation of the part.

And it’s not only artists who are susceptible to this kind of ‘creative blindness’.

If you’re a business owner, you may be so convinced of the value of your current product that you fail to spot the market opportunity in the objections raised by your prospects.

If you’re a teacher, you may not realise that that ‘difficult’ student isn’t failing on purpose, she just has a different learning style to the others in your class.

If you’re an athlete, you can try so hard overcome your limitations at one sport, that you don’t see the killer advantage these very limitations could give you at a different sport.

I’m not saying there’s no value in making plans and applying what you know. You have to start somewhere.

But whenever you set out to do something extraordinary, there comes a point where, like Erickson on the horse, you have to choose between trying to control everything – or letting go and getting carried away by something bigger and more powerful than yourself.

Over to You

Have you ever succeeded by letting go of your preconceptions and allowing your instincts to take over? What happened?

Have you ever screwed something up by clinging too tightly to your original ideas?

Any tips for letting go of your conscious mind and allowing your creative instincts to take over?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post


  1. Once again thanks for a great blog entry. Letting the flow go it’s own way often results in the best results. The run away horse is a great way to explain rolling with the flow. I have had good luck with it, be it martial arts, writing, or just playing around with something. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks Christopher, I can relate to what you say about martial arts as well as writing. Learning to relax and go with the attacker’s momentum is one of the key principles of aikido, which I do my best to put into practice (though usually not so smoothly as at the keyboard!).

  3. Recently I’ve been trying to force the creative process and that has resulted in me being devoid of inspiration. Then I have a casual conversation, with no expectations or direction, and I suddenly hit a great idea.

    I’m trying to let go more often and trust my own internal processes to generate results, but it’s a hard habit to break. One thing that has helped is distracting myself, usually with music, so that my resistance is occupied while I create.

    Thanks again for sharing Erickson’s story. It really hits home.

  4. I recognize myself in that straightjacket – too often I don’t let go and feel what I’m doing instead of thinking it out…the thought of needing to make money, be productive, be organized doesn’t help here either…for true, sometimes you just have to let go and allow your senses to be refreshed.

  5. I write the occasional short story. Often, I’ll have a set of ideas prior to writing it. But as I begin to write, the story begins to reveal itself. The same thing happens with non-fiction articles. No matter what you have at the ready, it’s going to take a path at least a little different than originally planned. Often, it will go in new directions and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what shows up. Perhaps that is part of the joy of the creative endeavor, the discovery process.

  6. @ Gabriel @ Finola – Yes, the temptation is to try harder, but sometimes that’s the worst thing you can do.

    @ Bamboo Forest – Yes, discovery is the fun bit. If you knew how the story was going to turn out beforehand, what would be the point of writing it?

  7. Marcy Gerena says:

    Once again Mark, excellent article!

    Yes, I have experienced letting go of my preconceptions and letting my instincts take over. I felt free. I could see the big picture with vibrant colors. I could see where there were disconnects in the picture, and where I needed to reconnect. I could see patterns, and I found hidden treasures in the process within me and in others resulting in finding innovative solutions. I would have to say it was an awesome experience.

    I have also screwed up by clinging too tightly. I wonder if while I was on the horse, the reason for holding too tightly would be the fear of falling off the horse. In the process, I am not sure if I fell off the horse, or pulling on the horse too tightly so it cannot move. If I fell off the horse, I wonder if I suffered a concussion resulting in amnesia. If this is the case, a mentor would be helpful in reminding me where I live, and where is my horse.

    I believe I am learning how to hold onto the reins loosely for the entire journey while still sitting on the horse. One thing I know for sure, I would want a horse to take me where I am going versus having to walk.

    As I reflect on what worked for me, I remember having the revelation that I am not in control. Everything happens for a reason. Life is a journey that tells a story, and like a story there needs to be a period after each sentence. If life is a journey than it is up to me to decide how I am going to view the scenery. If I am going to see this world through the eyes of anger and frustration, it will limit my view. But if I want to find solutions to problems and create a beautiful picture, I have to choose to do the opposite of anger and frustration and dig deep within me to remove my preconception and stretch open the small hole of perception just to find the hidden gems.

  8. Very very interesting. I’ve definitely held on to ideas too tight. Other times I long for the free flow of inspiration. I feel it often arises when we’re connected to ourselves, our core selves and let if flow through. The endeavour then is to stay tuned to our core . Thanks for this great post

  9. Paul Sabaj says:

    I often have had some ideas as to what I wanted to do and was informed by my teacher and mentor to always go with your strong points. He further pointed out that while dreams are important reality plays a small role. I had told him I wanted to pole vault. He said he never saw a lineman pole vault and handed me the steel training pole. We had a good joke on me and he then had me do shotput. Great post and great comments from all.

  10. Very nice post indeed. For a nicely overlapping post — making not the identical point but a distinctly related one — check out Stephen Shapiro’s “Doing Nothing to Enhance Creativity,” published just today at Blogging Innovation (

    I love it when these synchronicitous meetings of memes start popping up.

  11. @ Marcy – “One thing I know for sure, I would want a horse to take me where I am going versus having to walk.” 🙂 I hadn’t thought of it like that! You’re right, it’s a lot less effort when you let [whatever it is] take over.

    @ Uzma – Stay tuned indeed! In every sense.

    @ Paul – Great story! I’m from the UK so I’m assuming a lineman is a big beefy guy. I guess it would be like a prop forward from rugby, I can’t imagine one of them pole vaulting!

    @ Matt – Thanks for sharing, I’m a big fan of doing nothing – when I remember to do it. 😉

  12. Mariane says:

    Amazing post;

    especially loved the Lord buddha parable;)

    I have found that with horse riding as well as elephant riding (have tried both…) the key to stay put is to be present in you legs/thights – which is the equivalent to be grounded…!!! so, when fluttering/clinging/etc for me what works, riding as well as painting, is to let go of the stiffness in the upper body, straightening the spine, let go of shoulders, stretch my neck to get my head high and free, position myself steadfast with my feet on the ground/butt deep in the saddle and breathe deep and steadfast with the tummy… the inner as well as the outer animal feel your presence and feel the balance in the load and walk happily with you wherever you want to go…

    good luck!

  13. Thanks, great description! Happy to have the metaphor confirmed without having to get on an elephant myself. 🙂

  14. Marcy Gerena says:

    I never thought about riding an elephant, but now that I think about it, one day I hope to have the chance. :0)

    I agree with Mariane in using your legs and thighs to be on the horse and straightening your back and having a good posture for the ride.

    This reminds me of how important it is to have a strong back (core) both physically as well as part of our inner being.

    If our back (core) is weak, we may not see the low limb ahead requiring us to lower our head to go under it so we don’t get knocked off the horse.

    I believe having a solid core allows all elements to function properly and freely. It is essential to being proactive and creative both personally, professionally and within an organization.

  15. Hey,
    I enjoyed this post. I have definitely noticed amazing things when I’ve ‘let go’…in sports (I play basketball) and just in personal life…wanting to control everything is a bad habit I’m trying to shake.

    I like the horse analogy…I’m going to see if I use it next time I’m feeling tense :).

    Thank you,

    Cinthia P.

  16. @ Marcy – The same principle of core strength applies in aikido, it’s much easier to throw someone with your whole body strength than just your arms!

    @ Cinthia – Glad you like the analogy, hope it works next time you need it!

  17. Hey Mark,

    Supercool post – the use of metaphor is fittingly Ericksonian too 🙂

    In my work, I always encourage clients to cultivate as much of a relationship with their unconscious as possible. It’s good for decision making and good for business.

    People struggle to “go with the flow” because their baggage (emotional) comes between them and their unconscious mind’s attempts to lead their way.

    In my opinion it’s the clearing up of that baggage that makes what you’re suggesting possible… And easy.

  18. Yep, I originally trained as an Ericksonian therapist, can’t shake that metaphorical habit. 🙂

    “And easy.” – Well, I’ll grant you “easier”. 😉

    Intriguing holding page you have there… and great design!

  19. hehehe I knew it. James Chartrand (responsible for the hot holding page) pointed me to this article and I bet her that you had had this kind of training.

    Metaphor fascinates me from a psychological point of view. My expertise is a little more focused on the NLP side, but I spent a few weeks hanging out with Steve Gilligan earlier this year. Erickson left a remarkable legacy via that man.

    Keep an eye on the site – the grand unveiling happens after the weekend 😉

  20. I swear I didn’t hear my name being called…

    Good post, Mark.

    I think the only problem is that many people see this analogy as “go where your mind takes you”, but as any good rider knows, you still have to have some control over the horse you’re riding.

    They know where they’re going, and they’ll take you home, but you have to work in tandem as a complete whole and not rider letting the steed wander at will to some miracle surprise.

    I will certainly say that when you do work as a team, you have fantastic journeys. As one, without fighting each other for control.

    And isn’t that the point?

  21. @ Peter – Steve Gilligan’s work is awesome, I bet that was an inspiring few weeks. Looking forward to seeing your site.

    @ James – Well the Buddha agrees with you. 😉 He said the elephant needs training, otherwise it will run amok. And the horse wasn’t doing too well on its own before Erickson got in the saddle.

    Continuing the animal metaphor theme, the Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah said the mind was like a chicken – leave it to its own devices and it will wander off into the forest. If you want to understand the chicken you need to put it in a cage (i.e. disciplined meditation practice) so you can study it.

  22. I agree with James – Working as a team creates the synergy needed to have a remarkable journey. Whether your team is (me, myself and I) or with other like-minded individuals, working in unison will keep the rhythm needed to move forward just as you would riding a horse.

    I also agree with the chicken metaphor. It made me think of the saying, “running around with your head cut off like a chicken.”

    It takes a lot of discipline to control our thoughts. I found success in controlling what information I receive before it takes root in my thoughts via what I read or hear on TV or from others.

    The difficulty comes when information is coming faster than one is able to process.

    I am not a psychotherapist, but I would call controlling the chicken metaphor a state of mind. Correct?

    I also believe there is a state of being, which goes deeper than a state of mind. Is there study on the state of being?

  23. Hi Marcy,

    I’m not talking about controlling thoughts, neither was the Buddha. It’s more like observing and understanding them, so that you don’t get caught up in them.

    I agree with you about the state of being, but I think studying it is more of a direct experience than something you could do as a research ‘study’. 🙂

  24. Hey Mark,

    I had a thought and not sure where to put it so I hope you and my creative community don’t mind but I thought the title of the article goes in line with my thought.

    The message around the creative community is to be child-like. I agree. Kids dream, believe and are simple. As adults, we stop believing, we complicate things, we stop dreaming and we stop seeing.

    One thing that stands out in regards to kids –

    They know they are not in control and just free to be.

    Just a thought –

  25. Gary Phillips says:

    I think this may be the single most insightful thing I have ever read. Thank you! The lesson applies to everything in life and I’ve decided to view my life much like the story and use the metaphor of me on the horse. I direct as I am able to do so, but I don’t object to the paths that are away from where I thought I was going or should go. I just learn to trust that the new direction will be better somehow in the long run and I do my best on the new path. By the way, I was trying to find the Buddha quotes regarding the rider and the elephant. Any chance you could point me somewhere for those? Thanks again!