Conscious Decision Making
It appears that there is a lot of confusion about how to make decisions from a conscious place. People just don’t know how to do it, with the result that they are shadowed by chaos and disappointment wherever they go. As with most things in life, the way to live consciously is utterly simple and perfectly clear, and at the same time baffling to the point of despair when applied to the nitty-gritty of daily living. It is a practice — we must find our way through years of experimentation — and as such it is not something that another person can really teach you to do. Others may point out the way, however. This practice is the work of a lifetime; I have traveled only so far down that road myself and have much left to learn. I know a few tricks and have absorbed a few principles, however, and so I will pass these along as best I may.
The first thing to consider is that within Life there is no such thing as “making a decision”. If we are “making a decision” then we are entangled with conditioned mind and preparing to experience some trouble. The reason for this is that a “decision” requires a “somebody” to make it, and there is no such animal. We are all Life; there is no separation, and so everything we do or that we “decide” to do is merely Life manifesting moment by moment. It appears as if we are deciding everything as we go along, but only from the perspective of an individual self, which “self” is not more than a compelling illusion.
A conscious “decision” is one made with the big picture in mind. Considering all the factors involved, and getting a close as possible to center, what is the obvious thing to do? To make a decision consciously is to wait until there is a sense of clarity and a feeling of rightness, and then to act from that place. Sometimes that happens instantaneously — Zen masters of old were famous for making profound decisions in the moment in immediate response to things that happened — and sometimes that takes a really long time. An unconscious decision is one made impulsively or as a result of faulty logic, usually in order to get or to circumvent something as a way of avoiding pain or discomfort of some kind. Again, the “conscious” part of this is the understanding that there is no “me”, the willingness to go wherever Life leads, and the ability to see the difference between the Guidance of Life and the shenanigans of conditioned mind.
Let’s say as an example that I need to choose when to visit my Uncle Ernie. If there were ever anything to “decide” this would be it, don’t you think? So how do I go about “making the decision”? First I will to collect the information I will need. When is Ernie available, what are the flight times, how much do they cost, and so on. Now that I have all the information, what do I do? I wait until the answer shows up out of nowhere in my brain, accompanied by what I like to call “the meant to be feeling”. “Ah! I’ll go on the 22nd in the morning,” I tell myself, once that happens. Did I decide anything? No! “I” had no responsibility whatsoever. The answer just appeared. Now, “I” will eagerly claim responsibility after the choice is made, saying “I decided”, but it was Life that decided, not “I”. Life is always “deciding” everything; we are just tagging along behind and pretending to be in charge.
Let’s take a more significant example: say I need to decide whether or not to marry a particular person, or to take that job or this one, or to move here or there. With large life-decisions such as these people become hysterical at the notion of leaving the thing up to Life, and yet this is the only skillful way to go about it. People often ask me how I decided to go to the monastery — the most significant “decision” of my entire life, most likely — and how I decided to leave. I always say that I didn’t. If I had “decided” I would have neither gone in the first place nor departed once I got there, simply because conditioned mind wouldn’t have let me. It just happened. Of course, it happened because there was a willingness to follow Life rather than playing it safe withing conditioned mind, but “I” was not responsible for this willingness any more than for the decision. Life moved — that’s really all you can say about it. This is the way all decisions can be. All we really need to do is to gather all the relevant information and to have all the pertinent experiences, then wait. If our clarity is not obscured by conditioned mind, if we are not mired in the “self”-producing thought going on constantly upstairs (a very big “if”, obviously), then sooner or later it will be clear what to do. The answer always comes as an insight, not as a deduction. That’s important: we can’t think our way to clarity. We can only wait for Life to show us the way.
So let’s say I’ve met a nice girl and I’m thinking about asking her to marry me. She has many qualities that make her a good candidate, but she also has certain…tendencies…that cause me to hesitate. What am I to do? If I “decide” then disaster will surly follow. In that case I will go up into conditioned mind, think and think and think for however long, then reach some kind of logical conclusion. This is no good: the poor girl in this case is merely a walking pros and cons list. All the while I am “deciding” conditioned mind will hide behind my thinking and steer me towards what will the best service its agenda (to produce suffering and unhappiness) and away from what will be the best for me and my potential mate. It will talk me into deciding apart from the natural movement of Life, in other words, with suffering as an inevitable result. Even if the outcome is the same as it would have been if I waited for the Guidance of Life, the result will be suffering because of the place from which the decision was made. Did I make a good bargain? Am I getting what I wanted? Any time you are having thoughts like these, know you’re in deep do-do. One of the best tricks conditioned mind has in its tool belt is to get us into dualistic positions with lose/lose decisions, and then beat us up no matter what decision we make. Many people, alas, spend their entire lives trapped in this dynamic, simply because they believe in “me” and follow the “guidance” of conditioned mind.
Alternatively, if I refuse to “decide” and if I wait for the clarity of Life then the result will be in accordance with the “place that is the most compassionate for all”. The result will not at all be that I’m blissfully married forever (or blissfully alone) — such a thing is not possible — but I will have space to not suffer if I choose. There’s a way in which it could be said that this is the only choice we can actually make: to align ourselves with Life or with conditioned mind. There is a confidence and assurance that comes with Life, in my experience, that is profound enough to found a whole life upon. Much of the eighteen years that I trained at the monastery “I” resisted it, and that was terrible — but I never doubted the inspiration that had called me there, and that certainty carried me through all the pain and trouble I endured. I had chosen Life, and so Life supported me all the way. We may all live with that foundation if we choose it.
This brings us to the ancient question as to the real freedom of human choice. Do we have free will, or is everything we do determined by what has gone before? The answer, so far as I can see, is both. More about that in the next blog.