All Sales are Final
The Anatomy of Choice
So many lines cross, and where they meet
Lies the choosing but there is no choice to make
The past’s collar has already chosen
We are either on lines that limit
Or the one open to All (1)
They say that the two things one can certain of in life are death and taxes. Obvious chuckle factor aside there are, of course, other things all of us can be certain of and one of them is that we will make choices. In fact, we will make an enormous amount of them and when we do we will carry on with our lives rarely considering how or why we chose one possibility rather than another. When we do consider our choices the focus is on the outcome of our choices rather than the process of making them. That is we tend to notice being pleased, satisfied or not happy with the outcome of a choice. The process may seem unimportant unless one tends to make what seems to be bad choices. However, with this attitude we are overlooking the fact that no choice we make is insignificant and we make far more than we are consciously aware of. Beyond that, our mind will consider our thinking (conscious or otherwise), the choice itself and the outcome when it integrate the experience, most of which are not consciously aware of. Given the importance of choice and the fact that once we make a choice there is no turning back the clock, it's time to take a look at it.
The easy aspect of choice to understand is it's definition, which is the act of making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities. This seems simple enough, at face value at least. We come a point in time where we have to choose between options A and B and perhaps others. We tend to see this decision point as either an isolated choice or the start of a chain of events. What we often neglect to consider is that every choice is part of a series of choices, one that not only stretches out before us, but one that also reaches back in to the past. It is not the first word in the sentence nor the period at the end, nor any of the ones in between. It would be more apt to say a choice is all three at once.
Choices are part of the complex dynamic that is our lives and of all the acts that we perform they have, arguably, the most significant affect on our lives. They affect the paths our lives take and pretty much every step along the way. With every choice a path is taken and another or others are not. Whether you call them choices or decisions the fact is we make them continually even though we are not consciously aware of most of them. One reason is we have allowed our non-conscious mind to not only significantly influence our decisions, but to also make choices for us. Another is while we may notice the decision to take a particular course of action, we are far less aware of the choices made as we are doing whatever it is we chose to. For example, we are typically aware of choosing a course of action and far less otherwise. In the former case I am referring to where we are choosing between options such as to do or not do something, and by the later to when we are actually doing whatever it is we chose to do.
We make choices about what we buy, eat, wear, say, feel, where we will go, ideas we will believe, who we will associate with, what we will think, feel and do and so on. We often do so without much consideration for why we make a particular choice, though we may consciously have notions in this regard. We may choose to put raspberry and not strawberry jam on our toast because we prefer it though we rarely know why. Another example would be choice to like or dislike someone or whether to trust them and so on when we first meet them, though I accept that we do not notice making the choice. None the less it is also likely we will justify our thoughts about them one way or another unaware that most of these thoughts arose after our mind has decided how we feel about them. This may seem odd for to us it seems like we make decisions based on the now; however this is not the case.
It is exceedingly rare, and takes a great deal of effort, to be conscious of our initial reaction to an experience. We are capable of doing so but over the years we give our non-conscious mind more and more freedom to react to and integrate experiences prior to our being consciously aware of it. I call the function or aspect of our mind that does this our Rational Mind Editor (RME) (11). It edits what we are conscious of based on what we trained it to do. I looked at this in an exercise related to honesty, which is where the below quote comes from (3). It is in continual operation and does perform useful functions though most of us are unaware of it lurking in the background.
Our rational mind controls what we are conscious of and this has a direct bearing on our honesty. We looked at our how our own minds create the blocks and filters that affect what we are conscious of in the essay The Limiting Aspects of the Rational Mind (2). Blocks and filters are part of what one could figuratively refer to as the Rational Mind Editor. It is this editor that decides what we notice, what is too sensitive to consider and even what thoughts we think. It did not take over this function on its own, we have allowed it to do so. By improving our honesty we begin to take a more conscious role in our minds editing process.
Our RME does a great deal on our behalf and as a result we are rarely conscious of our initial reaction to what we experience nor most of how our mind integrates it. Continuing with the example of how we react to meeting a person for the first time, our consciousness reacts to all the various levels on which we perceive them, our mind being one of the levels. It reacts to and then integrates what it is able to be aware of, namely vibrations of its own kind and those denser such as emotions and physical sensations. We typically become consciously aware of our thoughts about the experience once our RME has determined we want to be aware of it. Remember that we have given our RME the authority to not only decide what we want to be conscious but when as well. Suffice it to say we give our non-conscious mind far too much rope.
It is also of value to note that what our non-conscious mind presents for us to be conscious is not necessarily factual or valid. Hence some of the thoughts we have are created and presented to us by our minds (4). Adding to our challenge is the fact the mind can actually alter our memory over time. We have all experienced this at one time or another. The original thought or memory is still intact; however, what can happen is subsequent thoughts can added to it so that what we see when we look back is the additional thought rather than the original one. When a memory is too painful the mind may block it or alter it so that it is less painful. Once again, it is not likely we are aware the memory is being changed unless we are deliberately and consciously trying to do so.
At any point in time we have thoughts we are conscious of, those near the surface of our conscious awareness and those that reside a deeper levels within our non-conscious mind. There is also "thinking" going on at all the various levels as our minds react continually to our experiences and to what we think and feel (which are also experiences). Our minds are never completely idle. The result is that as we go about our lives and have experiences it is constantly reacting, comparing, integrating, assessing and evaluating, though not necessarily in that order. For instance, whenever we see an object our minds compare it, in a way, to all other thoughts about object that share any commonality with it. Those thoughts that match whatever criteria a particular mind (person) uses are considered in the evaluation of the object. Most of this occurs at the non-conscious level.
Going back to the example of our seeing a person for the first time, any thoughts we have that share a commonality with a feature of the person will be considered in our assessment of them, including the non-physical aspects of them our minds are aware of. Our mind will come up associations between all the person traits and all the thoughts we have be they memories, simple thoughts of various types or even beliefs we hold. It will even factor in environmental elements not associated with the person. For instance our mood affects how we react to people. As a result we have already judged the person and everything else about the experience before we are consciously aware of the other person. This happens so quickly that we are not even aware of it being done. To our conscious mind it appears that we seen them and then think about them even though this is not the case.
We often go by first impressions of people yet, as we have seen, our first impressions of them are nothing of the kind. The reality is that, due our RME, what we believe is a first impression is far more likely about the eighth to twelfth impression. I realize this seems like a great deal of editing for our minds to do before we are conscious of it, but that is because we do not realize just how much power our minds have. How much editing or pre-processing our minds do depends on a number of factor's, though two of the main ones are the degree of mental and emotional entanglements and how closely we pay attention to things in general. By the former I am referring to how we have reacted to what we have perceived over the course of our lifetime. For instance, our minds do more editing when it comes to experiences where, in the past, our reactions (thoughts) manifested strong emotions. When you consider how our minds process what we perceive you begin to wonder - "Do we have free will at all?" We will look at this soon enough.
Given the impact of choosing in our lives you would think we would be more cognizant of and pay a great deal more attention to the whole notion of choice and choosing, yet this is not the case. The reason for this is that most of us are not very mindful. We have choices, choose one and then move on rarely considering the choosing save in passing . We tend to accept what our minds make us conscious of at face value and do not question our memories or other thoughts and feelings. Choosing sounds simple, on paper at least, however, the act of making choices brings a highly interconnected web of thoughts into play. We know this because choosing becomes more challenging when we have more thoughts and feelings about a choice we have to make.
What we have looked at so far is part and parcel of why choice is greatly misunderstood and it's role dramatically underestimated. A deeper look at choice will help clear up misunderstandings about it and provide ideas that can be used to make better choices. To begin our examination of choice we will start with the two fundamental aspects to making a choice. These two aspects are the choice or choices we are presented with, and the act of choosing from among them. The first is a a noun and the second is a verb. You can liken choice to a stimulus we perceive and choosing as our reaction to it. Yet even though one is noun and the other a verb their definitions are almost identical as shown below.
Choice (noun): an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities.
Choose (verb): pick out or select (someone or something) as being the best or most appropriate of two or more alternatives.
One can be presented with choices or made a choice, but this is different than making a choice, the act of choosing, which actually occurs in between the two. That is to say we are presented with a choice(s) then choose from the options available and in so doing have made a choice. How we arrive at the particular choice we take, the choosing, is really the crux of the biscuit and this is where will focus our attention - the dynamics of choosing.
One would think that the ideal situation for choosing would be situations where there are only two options, we have no attachments to either of them and the pro's and con's can be evaluated objectively. Besides the fact that such circumstances are rare indeed, certainly with any save mundane decisions, choosing even under ideal conditions is still a challenge because we cannot know what will happen as a result of our choosing. Our thoughts about what could occur for all of the options we have and the imagined future that will result from our choice, are based on guesses, facts known or assumptions held or extrapolations about what will occur based on the past and so on. However, even though our minds are capable of a great deal they are rooted in the past hence any assumptions about what the future will bring are speculative.
Earlier I mentioned that our non-conscious mind makes choices for us, ones we are not even aware. You have experienced an example of this if you have ever "blanked out" for a bit and then "snapped back" and realized you'd carried on as if awake. An even simpler example would be how our mind continually makes choices as we reach to grab a glass, such has how far it is how we will more our hand to grasp it and so on. Our non-conscious mind presents the facts, options and risks to us, based on past experiences and one's level of awareness. As a result, even our conscious choices are made because of thoughts that arose from our non-conscious mind. Remember, our thoughts are not thrust upon us by some unseen force, they come from our mind and it is only exercising the authority we have given it.
The thoughts we have at the conscious level, hence what emotions will be activated, are established or determined by choices we have already made. The same thing applies to the thoughts we are conscious of whenever we have to make a choice. The below passage from part 3 of the Our Mental House series, titled, "What We Are Conscious Of" (4) covers some of the main factor's that determine what we are conscious of at any point in time.
The reason we have certain thoughts and not others depends on a number of factors, primarily the following:
- Our personal experiential history- What we experience shapes how our mind develops including what we react to and hence what we think about (whether we are conscious of it or not).
- How we integrated our reactions to experiences- Our reaction history determines whether we are conscious of something or not.
- Our reactions to our experiences- The nature of the thought determines how prominent it is. We are more likely to be conscious of thoughts formed out of strong reactions to experiences, or where the thought is has a large number of commonalities with other thoughts. Repetition is another way, though often this allows us to act without “thinking” about it.
- Our current experiences- Obviously our reactions to the experiences we are having now means these thoughts are likely to be the most active. However, our minds filter out much of what we experience and other thoughts can take precedence (4)
With every experience we have our mind presents us with a continuous stream of thoughts based on the past. This stream also includes future our mind imagines or projects, again based on past experiences. We are conscious of only a small percentage of these thoughts unless we have spent time working on our mental clarity in one fashion or another. There is no equation, formula or model one can use to predict what thoughts come to the fore and which ones do not. A commonality between current events and previous experiences does not mean that we will be conscious of the past experiences. If you have ever said to yourself "I never thought of it at the time" then you know what I am referring to. Given we make decisions pretty much continuously we find the same thing occurs when we are making decisions. It applies to the options we see, to the imagined future along with the associated risks of each and what factors we consider when weighing our options.
We are all challenged by our mental programming, what some refer to as our ego. This applies to our decision making as well. There is no escaping it, not even through denial as it will catch up to us at some point in our lives. We cannot avoid how it affect our decision making either. This is why I have examined it from a number of different perspectives in various essays as I did in "What The Gods Made For Play" (5). The following passage is from that essay.
"The programming I refer to is the legacy of our past, and a great deal of it is very necessary. We cannot function if we have to reprocess everything. We get so much input each and every moment that we do need our minds to correlate things, even to filter out what is irrelevant at a particular point in time. If not we would be overwhelmed by input and spend our time sorting through it. That said, while how we have programmed our minds is not the only challenge to being in the now but it is one of the biggest. This is because many of our mental programs are based on superficial observation, mistaken notions and erroneous reasoning. Good examples of this, ones I am sure most of can all relate to are found in how we stereotype people, jump to conclusions based on little or inaccurate information and in the filters and blocks we encounter as we try to grow and learn.
The past is not something we can actually forget. The experiences we have had remain with us in their raw essence though we cannot be conscious of them save through our thoughts about our experiences. The raw essence gets buried beneath the plethora of thoughts we have had about them but it is not gone. Our memories, even false ones, do not erase the actual experiences, they merely make them harder to get to."
In a very real way our minds control us and they do so in just about every manner conceivable. You might respond by saying "But we are our minds." and hence we do control ourselves, however, this is not the accurate. First, our minds are an aspect of us. They are not "I" any more than the clothes we wear. That we come to associate our minds with "us" is primarily due to the nature of our existence and our ignorance of it. Second, our minds are comprised of a web of thoughts of various kinds and thoughts by their nature are part of the past. This means that whatever control we believe we have is subject to the past and not the present moment or "now". In order to take conscious control of our lives we need to understand our minds and in the process find a way to reduce its influence.
Taking conscious control over our minds is not something we can do quickly. In fact, doing so takes lifetimes. In considering this you might find yourself thinking "If it takes lifetimes to do, what's the point?" This is a valid question. My answer to it is that there are degrees of conscious control one can assume over their minds and, as a result, our awareness. Further, they are so powerful that even a little more control makes a significant difference. The reality is we tend to give up more control to our minds as we age for a variety of reasons such as:
- The degree of entanglement between the thoughts in our minds
- The ruts we develop that further narrow our focus and attention (6)
- Our curiosity and imagination tend to diminish over time
- We become focused on our physicality
Even though this is typically the case we can do something about it. We can wrestle back control and the rate at which we do so depends on our commitment and the approach we take. It does not matter whether one is simply trying to get by day to day or to resolve the life issues they face or even if they already have their feet firmly planted on the path of growth. All that matters is how one goes about it and their commitment to it. Another challenge we face is that over time our reactions to experiences and the choices we then make can take us to places we never intended to go to.
Even if we do not like where we have arrived at the burden of the years make finding the resolve to change things a challenge. We can find ourselves saying "What's the point? I can't change the way I am and there is no going back" or "I am too tired to fight" or "It is what it is" and so on. These matter because so long as we allow such thoughts to persist we will be bound by them. However, we will not get into an examination of our mental programming here, as I have covered it in a number of essays. I only mention it for reference purposes so that you are mindful of the influence of our past on our now and hence on our decision making.
We use our mind for to do just about everything. We can view it as having two components, these being its conscious and non-conscious aspects. I say this even though there is no clear line one can draw between the two. As we have touched on already our thoughts do not belong to one or the other as they drift in and out between the two depending on what is going on at the time as well as the power of our thoughts themselves. This may not be of much consequence to us when what we are doing has no significant impact on our lives; however, when it does the consequences increase significantly.
We all would like to be able to make better choices, the question is how do we go about doing that? We start by recognizing that our minds may not be presenting all the relevant information to us and all decisions we make have a subjective component. It is the subjective element that makes it so hard. Businesses have to deal with this on a regular basis so they work to reduce it's influence in the decision making process such as how they go about purchasing processes.
When businesses are purchasing items of any kind they develop a list of requirements and often break them down into ones the product must have and those we'd like it to have but which are not essential. This method reduces subjectivity in the decision making process. They then evaluate all items available against the lists of musts and wants. The product that rates the highest against the criteria established, and meets all the "must have" elements is the one that will be purchased. Problems only arise when none of the options meets all the musts or when two products have the same score after the evaluation. When this occurs the decision becomes problematic and subjectivity often enters the mix.
We tend to find it harder to be objective when it comes to personal decisions, especially ones made in the privacy of our own minds. It is one thing to find the right widget for a business need, as we can be fairly precise when defining what we need and the outcomes are predictable. For example if we are buying new tires for our car we know what size we need and once we buy them we are not worried about whether they will fit. If they do not we can take them back and get either replacements or a refund. However, when we make choices in life there are no do over's.
Organizations making purchases try to minimize subjectivity in all the various steps by following a rigorous process. They do an analysis of their needs and doing some form of research to determine all the available options, often with a number of people or groups providing their input. Life choices are far more personal and so are subjective by nature. Further, the outcomes are far less predictable. This is what makes them so problematic. We get caught up in the thoughts and feelings we have about our choices and at times wish we didn't have to make one at all. It is one thing to make a choice in tires for our bicycle or car and quite another to make a decision that will affect our lives. However, despite how complicated they seem to be, they need not be so.
Earlier we touched on having choices and choosing as the core aspects of any choice or decision. This is an oversimplification, true, but it is accurate and a good place to start. Consider the contrast between how complicated they seem to us and the notion they only have two basic elements. When you do you may realize that the complications we face are entirely of our own making. When we consider the two elements of choices and choosing we see that each of them can be examined in a more detail, not too much detail mind you, just the key ones. Any more detail than this would be counter productive.
The below list is summary of the aspects of each of the two elements. The aspects under choices deal with the choice itself separate from us while those under choosing covers what "goes on within us" as related to the choices.
- Choices: list of all the different choices we have to choose from
- Factors: all aspects of or "elements" related to the choice being made, including the circumstances (such as why we are making a choice)
- History: our experiences related to all options and factors
- Imagined future: the imagined outcomes (including thoughts and actions) we believe will occur for each of the options
- Risk: likelihood that the various imagined futures will occur
- Choosing: the "act of doing" the selected choice
We must remember that we may not be consciously aware of some or in very rare cases any of the aspects in the two lists above. In the later case we may have momentarily gone on "autopilot" or simply didn't notice we had made a choice at all. This applies to every day choices rather than choices of significance. For instance, when we have a negative thought it is unlikely we noticed ourselves decide to have it, yet at some level we did. This can happen when we have built up what I call Action-Reaction sets (A-R sets) (7), which are simply thought constructs, you could call it pre-programming, such as that it is acceptable or "no big deal" to have a negative thought. Our minds will not stop "presenting" such thoughts to our conscious mind until we have modified the A-R set. In order to remove the permission, or pre-programming, we must resolve the fallacious thinking that we used to "give ourselves permission" to think in this manner. Note that such sets are not all bad, we use them when we walk, grab a cup, sit down and so on.
Making choices, especially important or highly personal ones, gets more complex when our uncertainty about the future rises. In such cases it is not uncommon for one to put off making the decision in hopes that things will become clearer. Unfortunately doing so starts a rut, which can make it harder to make the choice as time passes. If we want to not get caught up in this trap we need to either find a way to reduce our uncertainty through more information or make the choice that appears to be the best under the circumstances.
Making choices also becomes harder when every choice leads to more choices. For example, say I have two choices to pick from A and B and if I pick A then I have to choose between E and F and if I choose B then the choice is between C and D. A practical example would be if A and B were investment strategies, and C to F are stocks or funds, with one being a higher risk-reward scenario than the other. In this case the decision has a series of steps and if we consider them at the same time things can get complicated.
When events are chained together the uncertainties of each choice are not added they are multiplied. This can make even slight differences in risk far greater and making a good choice even more difficult. One of the reasons is that it can make a mountain out of a mole hill. Another is that we are not able to accurately calculate risk and if we are off in which risks are higher we could make what seems like the right choice only to discover it was the worst option to take. We can reduce this risk by focusing on whichever decision in the chain is the most important or critical. This is similar to the Critical Path Method (8) used in project management except rather than tasks to be completed one has choices to make.
Life will have its way with us if we do not make choices. Not casual choices in the heat of the moment or in reaction to a particular experience, but choices to which we are fully and deeply committed. How often have we stopped to consider what we stand for, what we are committed to and what we believe in? I am not referring to the kind of beliefs that we have come to accept merely because we were raised with them or that fits with what we believe to be already or that sort of make sense to us in one way or another. Rather beliefs we have examined fully, from all sides possible, ones we have debated or others. Further, we hold far too many beliefs and they are built into webs of notions. A great many are formed at the non-conscious level so we are often not aware we even hold them. Further, we tend to not have bothered to contemplate the ones we are aware of more than casually and certainly spend little time looking for those we are not aware of. The interesting part is when we do this we find that many cannot “stand the light of day”. That is once they are exposed and examined we can see the folly of them and how they inhibit us. (12)
Another factor that affects our decision making is that we would like to make choices that are in our and everyone's best interests, though I realize that many of us are still primarily focused ourselves. This is hard to do for two main reasons. One is that it requires knowing what is in their or everyone's best interests and this is not something our mind is capable of doing. The other is that many are not ready to make choices for the common good as that can mean ones has to make personal sacrifices. If we could always make choices that are in everyone's best interests we would be able to cease destructive or bad habits before they get started or once they have been established. This is why the real challenge in making choices is dealing with the burden of the past.
The past is where our biases, subjectivity and needs and wants come from. When we use our mind as the sole tool in the decision making process, which is almost always the case, we are letting our history of experiences, actions and reactions pick the options available and make the final decision. We will only see options that we have trained out mind first to notice and then whether to make us conscious of them. Anyone who has ever said "I never thought of it at the time" knows full well what I am referring to. The way we can try to get around this is by "thinking out of the box", the box being our programmed tendencies and barriers. Even the criteria we use to evaluate our options are in "the box". If we are able to get at the memories that are associated with choosing and the various aspects of doing so, which occurs when we reduce the editing done by our mind, we are likely to see more options and do a better job of evaluating them. The reason is by being aware of our mental biases we can compensate for them and see things more objectively. Personal growth helps us with this, which is why it is beneficial to work on ourselves even if we do so at a slow pace.
Other elements come into play when we are making significant decisions. One is our reasoning processes as these are used by our mind during all the steps involved in making a decision. If we are using faulty reasoning then we are certainly far less likely to make good decisions. Another is that our thoughts about the risks and some of the possible negative outcomes, or aspects of the outcomes, can manifest strong emotions. If we are making decisions under these conditions it certainly helps to manage our thoughts and deal with the emotions (10). Strong emotions such as fears, anger, worries and so on cloud our ability to think clearly and use good reasoning skills. They can also lead us to rush or delay a decision or evaluate the options we see based on emotions rather than thinking it through. By staying rational and calm and not letting emotions build we make better choices.
Save for the enlightened our past plays a significant role in each aspects of the act of choosing. This applies to the options we are aware of, the factor's we notice and our history related to them. It also applies to the how our mind imagines the future that goes with each option and the risks or reward associated with them. We need to be aware that if we let the past play the lead role when we are choosing we are likely to repeat the mistakes of the past or continue to follow the ruts we have made. While this is important to note in regards to any decisions it is most relevant when dealing with personal issues. Being forewarned is to be forearmed.
Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power. — Lao-tzu
Enlightenment is a long way off for most of us. The path to get there is not one of knowing facts or information. It is, as Lao-tzu suggests, one of knowing and as a result mastering ourselves. The only way to do this is "get past our past", which we do by looking within. There are a variety of ways we can go about this such as through self reflection, automatic writing (11), contemplation, mindfulness, meditation and by paying attention to the thoughts and feelings we have and so on. We can work on this with someone be it a trusted friend, a professional or even a complete stranger.
It can be exceedingly difficult to get past our fears, worries, guilt and blame and so on unless we know what thoughts are triggering our emotions and work on them. Further, we will not be able to deal with the thoughts much at all unless notice them. To do this we have to start paying more attention to what we think and feel. We also have to want to know. Knowing ourselves is and has always been the key. By delving into our own mind we start to unravel it's programming and untangle the knots that we have built up over time. Doing so also reduces the editing our minds do on our behalf.
The mind does not voluntarily let go of anything, we must act in a conscious manner for this to happen. Part of our challenge is we are creatures of habit, not by nature rather by practice. We tend to not be mindful enough, do not think clearly enough and are too given to taking on attachments and needs that we are not even aware of to avoid adding mental and emotional baggage. The baggage I am referring to are the habits, ruts and the rubble of our reactions to experiences that cloud our minds. Of course one must be willing to face the ghosts that reside there. We need to be able to accept what we perceive as our failings, mistakes and the hurts, fears, pains, guilt and blame and so on as these reactions are what led our minds to bury them in the first place.
We benefit by reducing our mental baggage; however, doing this alone will not help us make decisions that are in everyone's best interests including our own. Even if we consider everyone in making a decision our minds have no way of knowing what the outcomes of our choices will be. This is especially true when our decisions involve others for they will react as they choose and not only do we have no say over their reactions, our minds cannot accurately predict them. Sure, if we know someone we might be more accurate in our predictions of what they may do in a particular situation, but there is no certainly.
Our assessment of the possible outcomes is based on the past and hence our ego. Our mind can only predict the future based on the past and what it knows; however, one thing it cannot know is what the future holds. It is the uncertainly of the outcome of a decision, along with the potential for outcomes we do not like, that triggers the bulk of the mental and emotional trepidation we experience when making choices. Often the best we can do in such circumstances is calm ourselves and accept that we have no control over the outcome and are "good" with whatever it may be. I will grant you this is easier said than done, however, it still is doable (10).
Let's look at an example. Let us say I have to make a decision between two outcomes. In the first we see definite personal, financially or other benefits where the second appears to offer far less, perhaps uncertainty or it may even involve something I am not fond of. It would seem that the one with the benefits would be the best choice; however, maybe the second option, though more not a preference and lacking perceivable benefits, gives me opportunity to grow in new ways and give me opportunities that will enrich me far more in the long term. If I listen only to my mind I am likely to be inclined to take the first one and pass on the second, even though in the long term it would have been better.
Yes, there are no guarantee's in life. We make choices, hopefully based on the best information and when we have clarity of mind and spirit. Nothing hurts our ability to choose well more than runaway thoughts and emotions. Considering our relationship with the elements of the situation and the options we have before we fixate on any of the choices enables us to notice if something about the situation and decision tweaks a certain mental program in our mind. The more we do this, the better our decisions become.
"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one" ~ Albert Einstein
I realize that many are not inclined to believe they one can know the future. Do note that I do not mean knowing the future in the sense of absolute certainty for nothing is written in stone. That does not preclude the notion that we can know how the future that is most likely to come about, that we can get a sense of it or even details on it. However, what I stated earlier is that "our mind" cannot know, not that "we" cannot. We are not our mind, that is an illusion. We tend to see ourselves solely through our mind because it is what we build as we act and interact at the physical level. It is our interface to "reality" so to speak, kind of like the clothing we wear during a given lifetime. We consider it "us" because virtually all our attention is focused externally, on the perceptions we get from our physical senses and the activities (thoughts, emotions and actions) that arise from them. Thus we spend the vast majority of our time being aware through our mind. However, we are not our mind. We are not the car but it's driver.
Above I made the statement "it requires one to know what is in their and everyone's best interests and this is not something our mind is capable of doing". As I have suggested above we can know whether this is the case or not. One way is to make our minds more opaque by working on reducing our ego, attachments and needs through personal growth. If our mind is clearer and contains less baggage "inner knowledge" flows through more readily. The other is to develop our non-rational awareness (9), those aspects of us that are "beyond" our lower vehicles (mind, emotions and physical body). Such things as intuition and knowing arise from other those aspects of "self", that is they are not part of our mental, emotional or physical bodies. These aspects exist outside of the space time frame of reference that our minds operate in. This how true psychics can predict the future as they are either born with the gift of noticing and listening to their inner self or have trained themselves to do so.
The knowing I am referring to is often referred to as intuition, as I have mentioned, it is also referred to as second sight or even "listening to ones gut". Some attribute such knowings to other beings such as ones "guide", guardian angel, to divine guidance or the spirit of those who have passed away or some even other consciousness. One can attribute it to whatever they like or feel comfortable with, for this is neither here nor there. Naming the source is not what is of value to us, learning to notice and use our intuition is.
We get knowings all the time, we just tend to not notice them as we are not paying the right kind of attention and have a great many thoughts and emotions active on a continual basis. Further, when we do notice something we often confuse it with impulses or urges from our mind. We can learn to recognize the difference between the two if we are paying more attention and our mental and emotional bodies are calm. One of the differences between the two is that an intuition is never frantic. For example, it is a consistent "yes" or "no" rather than the "yes-no-yes-no" that our minds feed to us. The other is the energy of an intuition is different than that of an impulse because their sources are different. However, that said, even when we have an intuitive though, and recognize it, the mind will react to the thoughts it triggers. This applies to what some call their gut instinct, which many see as a knowing of one form or another. Whether or not it is a good indicator in decision making depends for it is subject to the same challenges of mind I just mentioned, ones that can interfere with our knowing whether our gut instinct is an intuition or an impulse.
If we want to start hearing our intuition more clearly we have to work on the baggage in our minds. To summarize, whether or not we notice what our intuition is telling us depends on such factors as:
- How noisy our minds are
- Our emotional state
- The beliefs we hold
- How mindful we are
Meditation can be very helpful in making decisions. The reason is that in meditation we can quieten the mind. Further, we can firmly ground ourselves, clear emotional energies from our aura's and put ourselves in a neutral or centred posture (13). In such a state the mind we can consult our inner self to get guidance. The mind cannot know what the best option is but there is a part of each of us that does. For instance, when we are in a good meditative posture we can consider each option in turn and with each consider only the options of yes or no. What we then do is feel one option then the other and at the same time pay attention to our reactions. The answer that is in our best interests will feel right.
Of course we may not like the answer we get and we can certainly choose to ignore it. However, we will at least have a better idea about what the best option is. In the case where we do not like the answer we have found a growth point because the resistance comes from the programming in our minds. We can take advantage of this and explore why we do not want to do what our inner self is suggesting and learn more about ourselves. If we do so we may find that we can get past the limitation and grow as a result.
“Keep your focus on the present moment, for that is the only place you have the power to make choices” ~ Alistar Valadez (5)
The present moment Alistar is referring to is what is also referred to as "the now." The mind goes from moment to moment and so is incapable of functioning in between moments, which is the now. Fortunately we are not our minds and so are capable of not just existing but being totally aware in the now, when this occurs we are not using our mind much at all. When you combine this with the fact that the mind is essentially a very complex and intricate program one should be asking themselves "If this is all true then do we truly have free will?"
Choosing is an action and it is one that is associated with free will. Free will is defined as the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate or the ability to act at ones own discretion. Do we have free will? That is a good question. Let us look at the definition of it and consider whether we do or not. To start with, I don't believe in fate, per se, or accidents for that matter, certainly not as they are commonly understood. I believe that the experiences we have are ones we set up or attract to learn; however, this is a topic for another discussion. This leaves us with the idea, going by the definition, that the only time we don't exercise free will is when we are constrained by necessity; however, this is also a misnomer for one can still ignore necessity. By this argument it would appear that we do have free will to choose as we see fit, alas it is an illusion, though I agree it appears that we do.
For me the definition of free will hinges on two notions: being without the constraint of necessity and acting at one's own discretion. For most of us everything we do is driven by necessity, albeit of various degrees. For instance one would apply a higher degree of necessity to the choice of taking a certain medication than to have a particular style of clothing to wear, or at least I would hope so. That said, we like what we do and though we may not "need them to live" we certainly do not ignore our personal preferences when making decisions. Therefore we are constrained and also conditioned by what we have come to desire, need, want and so on even though it is not often that we are aware of why. As for discretion, which is the freedom to decide, we have that, though once again we are not fully conscious in the moment, unburdened by past experiences or the "ghosts in the machine" (12).
The thoughts we created or reinforced by our reactions to our entire history of experiences are part of the "inner situation" Dr. Jung refers to, part of a sea of webs of entwined thoughts that make up the body of our mind. To us it appears that we act with free will when we make choices, unfortunately that simply isn't the case, at least not going by how it is defined. Every choice we make is burdened by various constraints all of which are part of our mind. The constraints are established by our past reactions to experiences. For example we tend to choose certain types of food but do not remember or are not aware of the when and why we decided we preferred it. Certainly, when making a choice, we are aware of some of our thoughts and emotions about the options though we are rarely aware of most let alone all of them. As a result, when we are choosing, we consider as many pro's and con's as our mind presents to us based on our experiences, what is occurring at the moment and any and all thoughts related to it.
This bring us to one more point I would like to touch on regarding choice. It is one that is or should be important for those who are on a spiritual path. I am referring to karma. Karma, which is a Sanskrit term, literally means "action" or "doing". Of course within the Buddhist tradition the term is used two senses, one being the actions that result from intention and the other being the process of karmic actions and their results. In this essay I am concerned with the former.
"If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." ~Rush (from Freewill)
Karma is what results from acts of volition, and volition is choice. Volition is an act of mind hence when we rely on our mind to make choices we generate karma. We don't do something by accident, we choose to do one thing or another or choose not to do something. Nor does it matter whether we are conscious of making a choice or not. As a result all choices made by using our mind, or ego, generate karma be it what some refer to as the good or bad variety. Karma is what keeps us bound to the cycle of incarnation so whether our actions or choices result in good or bad karma. The only way to be free of karma is to act without thinking. This may seem impossible but it is not.
We will all generate karma, typically a fair amount of it, save for the most enlightened among us . Every thought we have is a choice and creates a reaction in matter of the mental plane, our karma is related to the reaction from our thought(s) much like the ripples in in a pool of water that occur when you move your hand in it. The karma does not arise from the outcome, for there is no volition in that, it comes from the thought that led to the act. When we have a thought to to do this or that and not something else or even to not decide what to do we are making a choice and manifesting karma.
We also assume we are making these choices in the moment, consciously but, as we have seen, this is an illusion. We typically allow our mind to make our choices for us and our minds can never be in the moment. It is an illusion because our minds are incapable of operating in the moment, they are built up out of our reactions to experiences hence are of the past. The illusion is part and parcel of why we come to make the choices we do. The above might lead you to believe that everything we do leads to karma; however this is a misnomer and also part of the illusion. Why? The answer is simple. We are not our minds. It can be a challenging concept to get ones head around and so perhaps an example will help.
Say I am walking to work and am a little late. Along the way I notice someone in need of assistance and I am the only one around to help them. If I think to myself "I should help them" and then debate whether I will or not, however briefly, I am making a choice, that is I am using my mind. If I help them I get good karma, if I ignore them bad karma. There is a third option, one that generates no karma. That option is to act without thinking, to simply go to their aid without hesitation or considerations of any kind. The third option is not generally available to most people because they live in their minds and it is their whole world. The only way out of this trap is to work on personal and spiritual growth, otherwise the mind has already processed the perception and there is no avoiding the resulting karma regardless of the choice one makes. One way of looking at is that by choosing we have created an attachment to the outcome our mind imagines.
Karma is also tied to the notion of free will. As we have seen we do not have free will at least not free will as most people conceive of it. When we act based on our thoughts we are acting out of personal will, when we use "other aspects" of self we are acting out of universal will. When we act out of universal will we do not generate karma. Another way to look at karma is as a form of resistance. Personal will is not aligned with universal will and so the two do not "flow" as one. Friction arises when two forces are not aligned and this is, figuratively speaking, how we manifest karma.
I have not brought up karma to scare you, only to make you aware of the broader picture regarding choice. We make choices all the time, there is no avoiding them. What we can do is work on how we go about making choices. At one level we can recognize the influence of our past when we have choices to make and understand how our subjectivity and reasoning skills affect our choosing. The past influences how we feel about the various options we have to choose from (the thoughts and emotions that come into play when we are faced with making a choice), the possible results of each choice and even what the various options we have to choose from. However, when we do this we are using our mind to make choices and in doing so act out of personal will. Further, the mind will make decisions based on what it thinks is best not what actually is best for us. At a higher level we start to learn how to notice and then go with intuitions from beyond our minds which brings us into alignment with universal will.
No man is free who is not master of himself ~ Epectitus
We take our existence for granted, make a great many assumptions about it yet rarely question or even consider what assumptions we hold. Each of us is the master of ourselves even though the degree to which we have mastery over ourselves varies greatly from person to person. While our minds are but one aspect of our whole self they are the key to our mastery. Until we have have developed ourselves to the point where our full consciousness is awakened our mind is the our primary interface to the world around us. It handles our perceptions of and reactions to "reality" and we live our lives based on what we have programmed into it. Hence working on our minds is the key to everything. We may be inclined to believe that we are the one making conscious choices now, but for the vast majority of us that is an illusion.
We also tend to take our choices for granted even though they are the forks in our road. When we make a choice we are taking one fork and passing on the others that were available. When have done the choosing and acted we should let go of the other alternatives and not hold onto them as if they were still an option. Regret is powerful and can negatively influence our lives in many ways. So we should not bemoan our choices when they don't work out as we might have thought or hoped. If we do not like how things turned out we certainly can and should look back on how we make our choice. We should do so to see what we might have overlooked or what influenced us so that in the future we can make better choices and not to criticize ourself for the one we made. If we had known better at the time we would have made a "better" choice. It's a matter of the old "could have, should have, would have". Also, accepting that we are fallible is important growth point in part because it reduces our fear of making choices that may not work out. For it is critical to realize that there is no going back and, as they say, all sales are final.
© 2014 Allan Beveridge
References (*- denotes essays only available to site members of TheTwinPowers.com):
- Awakening Our Gifts Part 5: The One and the All http://thetwinpowers.com/en/awakening-our-gifts-part-5-the-one-and-the-all
- *Limiting Aspects of the Rational Mind (RM) section1concepts-5/intro-to-the-rational-mind-rm
- *Exercise 2: Improving Our Honesty http://thetwinpowers.com/en/ex-2-improving-our-honesty
- Our Mental House Part 4: What We Are Conscious Of http://thetwinpowers.com/en/our-mental-house-part-4-what-we-are-conscious-of
- What The Gods Made For Play http://thetwinpowers.com/en/what-the-gods-made-for-play
- The Folly of Familiarity http://thetwinpowers.com/en/general-writings/64-daily-living/153-the-folly-of-familiarity
- The Webs We Weave http://thetwinpowers.com/en/the-webs-we-weave
- Critical Path Method http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_path_method
- *The Non-Rational Mind http://thetwinpowers.com/en/the-non-rational-mind
- Dealing With Strong Emotions http://thetwinpowers.com/en/dealing-with-strong-emotions
- Intuitive Indulgences http://thetwinpowers.com/en/intuitive-indulgences
- The Long Shadow of the Dreamer http://thetwinpowers.com/en/general-writings/60-perspective/140-the-long-shadow-of-the-dreamer
- Essays on meditation, grounding, centering and clearing http://thetwinpowers.com/en/section-3-spiritual-development