The Mental Muddle (and the trouble with making decisions)
“Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursuing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that. But to talk about it is of little use. The practice has to be done by each individual. There is no substitute. We can read about it until we are a thousand years old and it won’t do a thing for us. We all have to practice, and we have to practice with all of our might for the rest of our lives.”
~ Joko Beck
So much of our heads are filled with so many options that it can sometimes seem like making decisions is impossible. There are too many choices available. Picking one is daunting — or may even feel paralyzing.
“What if I pick the wrong one? Or what if the other one is better?”
Or, “I’ve done that before and it was horrible — what if that happens again?”
“What if?” The eternal refrain.
I like to tell people who are caught in a duality battle that, often times, it doesn’t really matter what you actually pick. What’s important is valuing your own relationship with yourself throughout the decision-making process.
Stay or go? Buy or sell? Love or leave? Cat or dog? Who cares, really? Especially if you are suffering on the path toward making a decision.
You see, the starting place most of us begin is from a place of lack. We believe that we need certain experiences, things, or people in order to feel complete or good. We rarely start with, “I’m okay no matter what I choose.”
But that’s where I encourage you to begin. Your starting place is perfect. (It’s perfect because that’s where you are. There is no alternative reality in which you aren’t where you are in this moment.)
So now that you understand where you are, which is perfect, where do you want to go and what do you want to do?
The rule of the game at this point is that no matter what you pick — flip a coin to make your decision if you must (again who cares?) — you will not entertain any voices that attempt to fuddle you back up.
If it’s heads, then you go. If it’s tails, then you don’t.
Whether it’s heads or tails, you actively listen to what the voices say. Make lists of their shrieking comments. Get their language out onto paper. Take perfect dictation. But do not, I repeat, do not, believe any of it.
Theirs are the stories, beliefs, future projections, fears, sabotage systems, and karmic patterns that play out and define the box you live in. Most of them developed in the process of growing up, from something that happened in the past that we survived.
For example, perhaps our hearts were broken in a relationship and so we “decided” that we would never trust anyone or ever fall in love again.
Unfortunately, this belief tightened our box down even smaller. Because it is a lie. We don’t need to be protected from a fiction. We have no idea how the future will play out.
The voices are like the third wheel in a relationship. There’s “stay” and “go” and then there are the voices backseat driving and getting us all in a whirl. With their “yeah, buts…” and “oh no, not thats…”
So pick something you need to decide. Say you choose “to stay.”
Notice how the voices start in about how you should have gone and how you are missing out. Or say you decide to go and then the voices start in about how stressful your experience will be and how staying was really the best option.
With the voices, it’s a lose-lose situation and an unnecessary mental muddle of suffering.
If you must have a third player, who you really want to have present to help you is the Inner Compassionate Mentor. The Mentor knows you are okay no matter what you pick. Your starting place is okay. Your finishing place is okay. And all the places in between are okay.
From okay, you pick and choose where you want to go, whom you choose to be with and what you will do when you get there.
It’s a game. And if you want to have even more fun — pick the option you don’t typically pick. If you typically choose “go”, then choose “stay” this time — just to see what the voices will say. Watch how they argue and debate. And then simply practice hearing them without believing them.
This makes you stronger and them weaker. Eventually, over time, decision-making will become a spontaneous, expressive, and joy-filled process instead of a stagnant, self-conscious, self-doubting and agonizing one that leads to nowhere good.
This is a chapter from my book, The Zen Life: Spiritual Training for Modern Times.