Finding peace when making decisions

As I have my morning coffee and write, I wonder, what really wakes me up?

Yes, the coffee helps. I love a good espresso in the morning with some foamed milk. It makes me happy.

What other things make me happy? Am I bringing them into my life? And if not, why not?

It’s not necessarily the big things like a house, trip, car, or vacation. It’s the smaller things in my day like the strong espresso made at home as I listen to “coffee” music, which for me has a soulful vibe that touches my heart but is not distracting when I write. I love this track.

Writing makes me happy. When I write, I feel like I’m getting into my car and driving onto the open highway. I can write anything, I can go anywhere. My heart and words are like the GPS to take me to places that I didn’t know that I’ll be going to. My adventurous spirit is satisfied, at least while I am absorbed in it.

I’ve been reflecting a lot about the choices and decisions we make. While we have so many options before us, we often think we only have two. Why is that?

Why do we box ourselves in?

Even many of the creative souls I know, who are highly innovative at their craft, can only think of two options when it comes to the major decisions of their lives. To get a full-time job or be self-employed. To stay in a relationship or not. To buy a house or not.

When I looked into this, I found out that this is one of the ways, go figure there are many, we have irrational thinking that distorts our world and plays havoc with our lives.

American psychiatrist and father of cognitive therapy Aaron Beck first proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions and Stanford professor David Burns popularized Beck’s cognitive behaviour therapy with common names and examples for the distortions in the 1980s.

In “black and white thinking”, Becks says, “you have to be perfect or you’re a failure — there is no middle ground. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.”

Beloved Buddhist teacher, author, nun and mother, Pema Chodron has inspired millions of people from around the world who have been touched by her example and message of practicing peace in these turbulent times.

Chodron says, “the judging mind is forever trying to label everything as right or wrong and seeks the resolution of everything in life. And the need to compartmentalize everything neatly in its place leads to much suffering and lack of peace.”

How do we fix it?

Therapists try to help patients learn to correctly identify this kind of negative thinking so they can refute it. By refuting the negative thinking over and over again, it will slowly diminish over time and be automatically replaced by more rational, balanced thinking.

One of the techniques Beck suggests is “thinking in shades of gray”. Instead of thinking about your problem or predicament in an either-or polarity, evaluate things on a scale of 0–100. When a plan or goal is not fully realized, think about and evaluate the experience as a partial success, again, on a scale of 0–100.

Pema Chödrön suggests a state of mind that can find the peace in spite of the uncertainty and the paradox. Instead of suffering from wanting to resolve everything, we are better off accepting and allowing the paradox of uncertainty and deep ambiguity onto our lives.

These days, when I look at a problem through an either/or lens and feel boxed in as a poor helpless victim, this is a red flag for me.

I’ve realized that it’s best not to go deeper into the options before me and make a chart with advantages and disadvantages for each, which I have done too often in the past and resulted in even more confusion. I need to do the very thing I don’t want to do: let go.

In detaching and taking an objective macro view of the problem, I step outside the box I have created for myself.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, a global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist, revered around the world for his powerful teachings and bestselling writings on mindfulness and peace says,

“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything — anger, anxiety, or possessions — we cannot be free.”

When I do this, the options are limitless and I have the CHOICE to do what I want or not. And sometimes the problem becomes not a problem anymore. I realize it’s what I’ve labeled it as.

When I was the chef-owner of a popular restaurant, running myself ragged with the work and hours, and stressed from a relationship that wasn’t working, I used to have a frequent nightmare.

I was in a car driving, eventually going down a hill, and I found out when I pushed down on the breaks to slow down, I couldn’t. The harder I pressed on the brake, and it was even painful to push the brake as if I had arthritis in my legs, nothing happened and the car was in a free fall.

I would wake up terrified and be gasping for air, relieved to wake up. Quickly turning on the bed side light in the middle of the night, I would bring myself back to the reality of sleeping in my bed and coming out of a nightmare that was not real.

I had that same feeling after I left the restaurant and my long-term relationship. I woke up one day out of it, relieved and happy while being sad and scared, gasping for air and trying to find the switch to bring in more happiness and light into my life.

It was obvious what that nightmare was about. I had no brakes at the restaurant. I couldn’t stop the crazy hectic exhausting life there and was distressed by the constant fighting with a person I worked and lived with 24/7. Then my father died suddenly.

I had thought about stopping many times before but this time my father’s death gave me the courage to get out of the car that was driving me and live my life without pleasing others first. The life as I knew it came to an end and I gave myself the time out that I was so desperately craving and seeking permission from others for.

Before this point, I felt I had no choice. I was a helpless victim waiting for someone to rescue me. I didn’t see a way out. The many questions I didn’t have answers for made me even more confused, frustrated and sad.

How could I leave the restaurant that I had created and had a mark on it? How could I leave a relationship of 17 years now that I’m 50? Who would want me? What would I do if I’m not at the restaurant? How would I survive? What would people think?

The day I decided to leave, I realized that the only person that could rescue me was me. I got back into the driver’s seat but this time I was in full control of my life, deciding where I wanted to go. It changed my life.

When I was younger, I thought that when I got to a certain age I would have it all together, there would be no more problems or struggles, I would always be confident and happy and all my self-esteem issues would be washed away with age as my saviour.

I realized over time that this age never comes.

It’s like the Prince Charming and Cinderella fairy tale that we secretly long for in our lives, and that’s why Hollywood continues to spit out these films because they have a captive audience, me included. We believe that there is someone or something out there, to help us, rescue us, to see our true beauty and take us away to a life where we live happily ever after together.

This is bullshit.

We are tested over and over again in our lives with roadblocks and challenges that come in our way, some incredibly heart breaking and others that take us down to dark hidden places. When we choose to get back up when life has beaten us down, we realize that there is no Prince Charming or Cinderella coming to rescue us, and we are frustrated and sad. We cry out, “why not me?”

It’s not you because it doesn’t really happen for anyone. We have moments of feeling like we are in a fantasy world, be it our wedding day, a new romance, a holiday, or new job, but it doesn’t last. Just as the good moments don’t last forever, we often forget this when the bad moments come and think they will last forever.

And in the end, the only one that can truly be there for you is you. The only one that can drive the car is you.

When I realized this, after much wallowing in sadness and frustration, things changed for me. Now when I fall, I get back up more easily, wiping off the dirt from my clothing from being on the ground, gently wipe away my tears, and get back into the driver’s seat to where I want to go.

What are you waiting for? Are you a passenger or driver in your life?

Where are we going to today?


Rocky Road Smoothie

What to drink when you’re driving through a transition, making a big decision or need a pick-me-upper? How about a rocky road smoothie?

I’m ending this post with how I started it, with my love of coffee. There is so much you can do with left over coffee. I keep leftover coffee for iced coffee or to make a rocky road smoothie, much healthier and cheaper than the coffee shop lattes, though I must admit that I love those too.

I take the leftover strong coffee, about 1 cup, mix it with 1 to 2 ripe bananas (peeling and freezing ripe bananas is perfect for this), and about 2 cups almond milk (or the milk of your choice), a few tablespoons cocoa powder, a few tablespoons almond butter or peanut butter, ice cubes (you don’t need this if you use frozen bananas), and combine everything in a blender. If it’s not sweet enough, I add a few tablespoons of maple syrup. Add a marshmallow or whipped cream on top if it makes you feel special because you are.

Savour the happy moment it brings!


Originally published at Caroline Ishii.