My GPS — How I Make Decisions


So, what is my personal GPS? How do I figure out where I am going. How do I make decisions? Well, first, there is what I actually do, what I know I should do, and what I think may work, but have not yet tried or fully worked out. This essay bows to all three, but tries to answer the question of what might work best for me going forward. All is flow.

I have three principles: pay attention; make decisions; find a groove. Mostly, I have come to these experientially. I find that when my life is out of balance — when I am not making good decisions — that I can usually find and solve the problem by dealing with one of these areas. Good decisions lead to action for me, so to keep my life rolling, I try and make the best decisions I can.

This is not to say that we have full control in our lives or even that good choices are always available. We often have to make informed guesses in real time, lacking critical information. Living a collaborative life in a collaborative community makes more good choices available. And sometimes, life simply sucks. Then our best choice may be controlling our perception, finding our groove, and overcoming the bad place our body chemistry has led us.

Few people take the time for self-examinations such as these, and certainly few realize the choices available to them. Paying attention, for example, is an involved, active process. Humans perceive through a maze of filters. Aldous Huxley saw LSD as a means to open up and bypass these filters, opening our doors of perception. But most of the time, filters are really useful. When driving, it is good to pay more attention to traffic than the beauties of nature that are flashing by us. On the other end of that spectrum, if we do not also put some attention into the person in the car with us, we may find ourselves in an argument even more distracting than the wonders of nature. Balance is good. We must have filters, for there is too much information coming into our brains for us to be able to properly process all of it, but with effort we do get to examine and tweak these filters. For some, the psychedelic experience has helped in such an examination. For most, just pay attention to your attention. Perhaps we can be happier focusing on the sunny day outside the window than the undone dishes below the window, or the smiling children in our living room looking for attention rather than the horrors on the nightly news. The dishes still need doing, and people still need to seek peace in our world, but a happy person is better able to approach both these issues. While it is good and necessary to deal with the small and large fires in our world, more change comes from paying attention to the good than paying attention to the bad — this works for both internal change and for change in the broader world.

We think we are actively making decisions and often feel empowered by this fact, but we are often fooled as to the relevance of our choices. We see voting as an important choice, yet we are more likely to get killed on the way to the polls than to alter the course of an election. Why not go out and actually act on the issues important to you. Voting and politics are the opium of the liberal minded. We are often controlled by wirings that mask the real choices available. Back to the driving analogy, when we decide to make a left turn, I will guess there are 20+ micro-decisions that are made without internal awareness — slow down, brake, foot off the gas, glances 6 different directions, etc. Such subprograms are needed in life, but many such subprograms do not serve us as well as if we instead took apart the program and examined the individual decisions. Automatically washing dishes after a meal serves many well, but often we are better served by consciously asking, what should I do next. Perhaps it is time to watch the sunset or go for a walk first.

Finding a groove I most often interpret as finding the right mix of body chemicals in which to live at any given moment, but I know that the question is more complex than that. Broadly, we must constantly be choosing whether to live with love or to live with fear. To live with love we must set fear aside (it is always there, available if we need it). Fear runs with fight or flight chemicals — the rush of adrenaline is addictive to many. It also pushes us toward accumulation rather than collaboration. Love is helped by the “find-a-groove” chemicals — endorphins and others. With love we do not have to look at the world as us versus them — we are all one. We alter our chemistry in more ways than we know, and gain by efforts towards awareness and partial control (breathe). How we eat, yoga, running, kissing, open loving conversations, music, bare feet on grass — these all affect our chemistry. Some efforts are more a part of general maintenance than moment-to-moment tools of control. When seeking to alter our chemistry in real time, control is fuzzy and often quite ephemeral. What is clear to me is that if in the present moment your body chemistry is not serving you well, change things. Walk if you are settled, take a nap if you are being active. Go outside/find a quiet chair inside — change your circumstances if they are not working for you in this moment — stir the pot, even if you do not know the cause. Change what you are doing to change your chemistry. Act, knowing it may help, perhaps in the moment, perhaps in an hour, perhaps not at all. Develop a toolbox of “go-to” actions that usually work for you. Meditation brings calmness, water brings energy, touch brings love. Our chemistry is complex, often random, and very interactive with things outside our control. But we do have choices and they are part of our toolkit for navigating our lives. So…pay attention, make decisions, find a groove. A start.

Pay Attention

If you want to be the national champion of something, move to a small, distant, poor, country and pursue a sport that is obscure there. I was on the Liberian national bridge team in 1976 and represented Liberia in the Pan African Championships in Dakar, Senegal. In preparation for this event, one of our team members, a Brit, took it on to coach us. He had been the British champion in his youth, but at that time was a gnarly, 70 year old who was Liberia’s diamond inspector. He was fierce like an eagle. We practiced at the posh home of a woman who claimed dual citizenship (she grew up in the US) and whose husband was the attorney general. She had a house guest who had been her college roommate back in the states, a tall, stately black American woman who sat behind me and watched quietly for over 3 hours. My partner fidgeted and played poorly the whole time. He was her biggest fan. At the end I asked if she played bridge. She said no, but she hoped that if she paid attention she might learn. This was Nina Simone. Of course a great Jazz singer would think she could learn bridge simply by paying attention.

A scholar might look to books to learn bridge. A twelve year old would simply play. Most adults could use more twelve year old in their attention filters. For everyone it is different. Most of us, like Nina Simone seeing bridge through the eyes of jazz musician, have at least one well developed filter or lens that we have learned through activities we excel at. When we bring an understanding of several disciplines to our attempts at attention and awareness, we do better at making sense of our world. For me, these include history, game theory, economics, psychology, horticulture, and music. New filters/lenses bring opportunities for added perspective.

Sometimes we use conscious, active interaction to tweak our attention and perception, much as one might test a hypothesis. If we are trying to determine the path of a river running through rugged terrain, we may have to sometimes walk on one side of the river and sometimes the other. Is coffee four times a week too little or too much? Try more, try less, follow the river. When you pay attention, you can trust experience more.

Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes is one of the best ways we have of tweaking our attention. This might be a lover, a child, someone we are in disagreement with, someone we make music with. Perhaps we try to actually experience the other’s thoughts and sensations. Sometimes this takes us to another time, perhaps remembering when we were a child and mud was fun. Sometimes it lets us understand a point of view that is not our own — to see why something was hurtful. Sometimes the art of actively paying attention, as we might when playing music with someone, will be the thing that alters our chemistry into a groove that improves both our attention and our decisions. All is interactive.

Experiencing art is perhaps the most powerful filter for improving our attention — whether it be in music, through the beauty of ritual, through the truth of the written word, or through the images of visual art. Art came before settled grain agriculture, before progress, before towns, and before armies — it is part of our innate wiring. Art often does a better job of portraying the truth than facts alone. Whether you are the creator or the receiver of the art, you are chemically altered — your being is fed what it needs — and in the end you will make better decisions.

Make decisions

Many people have difficulty making decisions, and this can be quite damaging to some. Feeling you often make bad decisions can darken your perspective and limit your life. Putting too much attention into past and future decisions can take away from your ability to pay attention to the present. We want to believe that there is a philosophic or scientific perspective that if followed will lead us to a singular best decision — -this is simply not true. It is good to realize that for most things, if you can narrow down to just two choices, that you have eliminated all the bad choices. Just pick one. Many choices allow you to later change your mind and making choices that allow this sort of flexibility can be a good strategy. Do not worry so much. If your attention is good and you are actively engaged, you will make good choices.

The more perspectives you can take, the more tools, or strategies you will have for making decisions. One tool I learned in classes on consensus, is, rather than starting with just two choices, to usually have three options and then try to flesh out these alternatives with more details. This process encourages more hybrid choices. Another strategy is risk avoidance. All or nothing choices are seldom right. Ask how to live a good life, not how to maximize your accumulation of money and things. When we must act with incomplete data, best to do so in a way that leaves us fine, regardless of how those missing details work out. Another useful tool is worst-case analysis. You are considering three choices that have a similar bottom line with expected inputs — choose the one that works the best when the unexpected happens, a form of risk avoidance. When we reduce risk we reduce the need for fear and allow more love into our lives.

A couple of tools from development economics. One came originally from defense planning and it is called the theory of the second best. If you are thinking of building a dam to assist the development of a region, and you have only half the funds, building a smaller dam is likely not the best strategy. Often the second choice differs considerably from the first choice. Open up your vision. If your first choice, retiring in a year, does not seem feasible, the second choice might be changing careers rather than grinding away at your current career for another five years. Then there is the theory of the hidden hand, that states it is often easier to account for the costs of a decision than to anticipate some of its potential benefits. In deciding to become an academic rather than to work in government, you might fail to anticipate that your best mate might better be found in the academic world, and not add this benefit into the equation. Perhaps sometimes when something just feels right, the veiled part of our mind is calculating such benefits without our awareness or control. Intuition is part of the veiled part of your mind — do not ignore it.

Bad decisions often come from bad initial assumptions. In the 70’s, when the US was considering going to mars, considerable effort and money went into trying to figure out the smallest possible area that one could grow a complete human diet in. Work with the computers of the day at Cornell and the University of Michigan assumed that protein would be the limiting factor and came up with figures between 20,000 and 50,000 square feet, making travel to mars infeasible. A couple of years later, revised estimates on protein and specific amino acid needs allowed me, using cardboard slide rules, to bring this figure down below 1,000 square feet (the minimum size of a garden needed to produce a complete human diet). A few simple wrong numbers may have set back our colonization of mars by a century — but was this a bad thing?. Culture has a knack for stating that certain things are emphatically true — you must do this and you must not do that. So often, these limit our possibilities, our choices, in ways that are harmful. Question authority and question assumptions.

Our mind is limited to about six or seven objects that it can hold simultaneously. Can you, in your mind, see a photograph of 4 people, 6 people, 7 people, and distinguish all the faces at the same time (in your mind)? This is one of the limitations of the conscious mind. I try and work efficiently within these limitations, breaking all problems into six parts, and each part into six subparts. I call this hexagonal thinking. I have done this for over 30-years. It works. This essay is written in this form.

The highest order of decision making is more problem solving or code breaking. Such efforts may linger for decades around a single central problem. Think of the mind as having one part which is observable in it workings (and also mostly controllable). There is another part where great things may be done, but that part lies beyond the veil of our consciousness. For large problems, both sides are required. For such problems, details must be chipped away at with the conscious mind, but often this is like solving the perimeter of a jigsaw puzzle, with these details giving structure to the more complex problem of solving the whole. For a large problem, we must often float (for years) around it’s shimmering, translucent, n-dimensional whole as we slowly allow our veiled mind to rewire itself in an attempt to be one with the problem. For a useful insight into such a process, read Walter Isaacson’s recent Einstein biography that examines Einstein’s decades of effort looking for a unified field theory.

Find a Groove

We are a singular whole, and discussions that divide our mind from our body and our mind into different parts tend to miss this important concept. Where do our nerves end and our hormones begin? What the heck are chakras. I suspect there is in a sense one system that overlays all these things or aspects of them — but I really do not know. When one tomato plant is attacked by insects, it shifts its internal chemistry to repel them — but it does not stop there. The tomato plant gives off root exudates into the soil, that stimulate the soil fungi to in turn give off chemicals over a wide area (soil fungi act almost like a nervous system for the soil ecosystem). These chemicals from the fungi are picked up by roots of other tomato plants and trigger them to put up their own chemical defenses to insects — before they are attacked. What is chemistry and what is energy, and where is the border to this thing we call self?

It is easy, false, and also useful to think of the the world in binary terms. For many this means us and them, good and evil. For a long time I have thought in terms of those whose groove is love and those whose groove is fear. The same religion can tell us it is all about love (Jesus) and also tell us that Jesus died for our sins and that we must behave or go to hell (Paul) — is it love or fear? You choose, Jesus or Paul. Love and fear have competed for all of human history to see which chemistry will dominate us. Recently I have been thinking about those who deal with the world through collaboration and those who deal with the world through accumulation. These binary perspectives are all sort of the same and they all have to do with what your groove is and what your body chemistry and energy are — clearly this is fuzzy stuff, but it is important to consider even if it can not be laid out in the clear, proven ways your mind may desire. And perhaps it is not our chemistry or energy that runs things, perhaps we are just nodes in a bigger whole. Perhaps it is all vibration.

Few are very self observant in these areas. Is anger a response to being wronged or is it a mix of chemicals pulsing through us that is not particularly helpful. Has your pulse increased? Are you thinking clearly. What are the sensations you feel when you feel love (or is love just a mix of chemicals?)? Do you notice your breath? Do you know that through the day, breath shifts from being predominantly through one nostril or the other? What happens when you drink water, hug, smell the flowers, take a deep breath. And the act of observing definitely alters that which is being observed. We are pretty darn complex.

Meditation is a form of self observation for me — yes, I know you are supposed to not think of anything, but I try and get there by observing my breath, and I find this very clearing. In-breath, “one”, out-breath, “two”, continue to ten and repeat. I have tried a lot of approaches and this works the best. When you lose it, simply begin again, you breathe in, count one, breath out count two, up to ten and then repeat. For some, drugs give access to different doors of perception — they clearly alter our consciousness. So does nature. I am drawn to my dock when there is a high tide, I love full moons and I feel very connected when I sit beneath a large, old tree. It is all about paying attention to your attention.

Don’t we all choose happiness? I do not think so. Too many feel they could be happy if not for (fill in the blank). For the most part we choose the life we have, in great part governed by addictions. Blaming others and external factors does not help. Our body likes to experience the same chemical mix over and over, whether from running, drinking alcohol, or being abused — we are odd creatures. Some addictions support our well being and some do not. Pay attention.

Long ago I was garden manager at a research garden in Willits CA. We had many visitors. One that stands out was a young man who lived out of his old rusty station wagon, consuming only wheatgrass juice (he had trays of wheatgrass growing in the car and a manual juicer). He was also one of the happiest people I had ever met — he glowed. I told him this, and he said that he could be truly happy if he lived in a wheat grass village and found a wheatgrass woman. I got it. We live with others, we need a tribe, and the nature of our tribe, our people, has a lot to do with what our groove will be. Choose well.

Going Tribal

It is my belief that we have wirings that go back before the origins of settled grain agriculture, genetically passed down adaptations, such as our innate fear of snakes and our skills in language acquisition. Another of these is the nature of our relationships. I think there were hundreds of thousands of years where we existed tribally, and that we have innate wirings for relationships that were developed during this period. So, life in this time of nuclear families and anonymous suburban and urban life is for humans like a square peg being forced into a round hole. We need tribes. Churches act as tribes for many, some in good ways, some in bad. When they teach love, they are good, when they use lies to manipulate people and declare us versus them, they are bad. And they are fading. Churches are no longer the place where values are tested defined and passed on, yet we need something larger than ourselves, larger than our small households of loved ones.

One thing all tribes use is ritual, where we use our bodies to express things inside of us and perhaps become more attuned to the veiled part of our brain. Tribes need rituals that unite, make us feel good and help to pass on values. Dance is nice. And music — I think music is the heart of the new rituals. Listen and play music with people and you bond with them in real ways. Tribes should also use food and the rituals of food. We share, we feed each other, we celebrate. If you know a person of spirit, be open, they may guide you in new ways, in ways of ritual. Sit quietly, do yoga, chant, walk in meditation, practice a physical discipline — anything from ballet to karate to soccer. Let your body express itself, both alone and with others. Sometimes it is through a physical discipline that you come into tune with the workings of the intuitive, veiled part of your brain — just ask a good soccer defender how they knew when to move when nothing signaled a move and it was exactly the right thing to do — just because you know does not mean you know how you knew. When you experience intuition as real, you come to trust it more, and ritual helps in this.

Children have gotten lost in the shuffle of progress. Some remember clustered neighborhoods of summer and evening play. More common now is the fortress of the nuclear family home, which seeks to protect children, who only leave it for lessons, organized activities and school. Children need a tribe, they need the love of other people, other children and other adults. This is part of how values are passed. Do what you can — the structures may not be there — but act in small ways and change will begin. We all need more energy from children — we adults need children as much as children need us.

Tribes should not be seen as limiting — we are no longer wandering nomads, we live in a complex world. My favorite class in college was on local government in 19th century China — two world class professors, 7 grad students and me. We wrote essays each week that were meticulously commented upon and that had to be exactly 5 pages — a huge help to my writing skills. This class showed how people were connected in lots of different ways and how that made for stability in a crowded, complex society. You had family, neighbors, clan. There were various light levels of government that connected people. There were burial societies that acted as funeral insurance co-ops. Today, we have multiple tribal groups as well. Your daughter’s soccer team, the thursday night jam session, the people you work with, people who gather for spiritual reasons — these are all good. Recognize them as tribes, and make them more real, more bonded, more connected. Add ritual — a potluck, a song, a poem, maybe something silly.

And what about a partner — you know what I mean, the love of your life, whether you are starting a family or finding someone to age with, it is good to have a partner. If you cannot find your person, it is ok to have partials, people that fill some of the needs of company, activity partners, intimacy. I recently saw Bela Fleck and his partner Abby perform on their banjos. They glowed. I was near the stage, and I could feel it as if it were a wood fire warming a cold room. Know what you want, and be willing to accept what is real and possible.

Tribes are about collaboration. This means you really have to believe that two or more heads are better than one, and this requires trust and knowledge and respect. Most substitute cooperation, which means, let’s divide up decision making into spheres of control so we will not fight as much. For collaboration, you have to thin the walls that separate you from others and know that their happiness is your happiness. And there may be higher levels — I am not sure. When I am being sexual with someone and when I am making music with people, I try and become one with their minds, to know what they know, to sense what they sense, to share the experience more fully. And I know this may not be real, but it might be, so I pursue it. Sharing minds is not like connecting two USB ports with a cord. It is each person attempting to bring their own wiring into alignment with that of others so that they can be connected by a common vibration. You change, they change. You have to say, you can come inside me, you can share my mind and my heart, my pleasure — do not be afraid. This is barely within my reality, but I know it is powerful stuff, and I suspect that simply making the effort is a good thing. So, find a tribe, make a tribe, gently, collaboratively — all is flow.

Building a Life

Building a life is about selecting and creating components that you then knit into the whole systems that define who you are. We all carry with us an array of complex systems and subsystems that work to different degrees, but that are also dysfunctional in many ways. To redesign a life (you do want a well designed life, don’t you?), the first step is to simplify, to remove as many components as you can. When you have been through a traumatic experience, say a divorce, simplification may need to come before trying to rebuild, before trying to find someone. Recognize that most of the things that we consider necessary are truly luxuries. As you unburden yourself, as you simplify, the redesign of your systems into a single, integrated whole will begin to make sense in ways you cannot see at first. Less things, less activities, will lead to less stress and more clarity.

As an exercise, try turning off your refrigerator for an entire lunar cycle. Make a ritual of it, gift away problem items. Let it be an adventure, be creative, perhaps document your story. Need butter and eggs? These keep fine for a while. So does cooked bacon and hard cheeses. Much of any cuisine is derived from food storage procedures. Think about pesto — tasty green food high in vitamins A and C that you can preserve into the winter by using garlic as a preservative and olive oil to seal out oxygen. Pasta is a means of preserving much of the protein value in eggs for the times your flock does not lay. Fermentation — similar. Eat the good stuff as much as you can. I have a wooden box that closes for storing my food. Make lists — can you get it down to just 36 foods. Talk to people about your adventure, invite them for a meal. If you need a little refrigeration help sometimes, buy ice and put in an ice chest.

Gentle. When people make changes and get excited by the process, the tendency is to be anything but gentle. The classic example is the enthused yoga student, stretching this way and that and perhaps stressing body systems that are not used to such use. Sometimes it works, sometimes they hurt themselves, and sometimes they burn out, shooting stars in the sky of yogi wanna-be’s. Gentle has to do with attention, look for the good more than the bad, be at ease with yourself and others. It has to do with choices, do not choose a burden that will leave you too stressed, look for the balance of ease and effort. But gentle mostly has to do with the groove we choose — you need to choose love over fear.

There is a pulse in life to be honored as we balance the flow of ease and effort. Sometimes we must deal with life with a fierceness, like a gentle warrior. And sometimes we must pull back, find ease, go more internal — think of winter holidays. So, a pulse — forceful/gentle, effort/ease. When we stay in just one mode, it tends to become a harmful addiction. These pulses are always there, find the vibration, and slow it or speed it up as is needed. I try and pay attention to my body, the tide, the moon, the weather, the seasons, and the state of the planet (even relationships if I am paying attention — they have a pulse as well). Even if these efforts do not help directly, the act of paying attention does.

So patterns — pulses are an example — can be good, useful, a gyroscope for our lives. This is one way to find balance, internally generated patterns. Breath is one gyroscope we all share, it is a pattern that can help keep us in balance — watch your breath. We also seek balance when we stand in Tadasana, mountain pose, knees stacked above ankles, hips above knees, shoulders above hips — this balance is created using constant micro-adjustments from our muscles, a different approach from the spinning of patterns. When we stand in Tadasana, we find balance both with the internal gyroscope of our breath and also from the more external micro-adjustments of our muscles. Then we begin to move. We raise arms overhead, we fold, hands towards the floor, and we flow in a way that is always different, always shifting, always finding balance.

When you create a life of good design, you come into better alignment with all that is around you. You find pulse in yourself, relationships, your tribes, nature. When you find the right harmony, all benefit as vibrations come into sync and expand into wider circles, joining an ever-enlarging wave of energy. When you create good things, they will be experienced by others, copied, tweaked, and they will evolve, and that is good. All is flow. We create a new game not just for ourselves but so that we can join with others in gentle playfulness.