‘I Just Can’t Decide’
Dr. Stephen Fulder
Sometimes it’s agonizing. We just cannot decide about something. It may be as trivial as which restaurant to go to tonight. Or as important as whether or not to get married. It seems particularly acute when we are younger; choices such as which subject to study in University can create sleepless nights and obsess us for weeks on end.
Faced with all the endless possibilities of what might happen in the future, the mind spins scenario after scenario, trying to predict the best outcome. This is what causes the stress. The reason that the mind does this is the fact that we are driven to try to get the best outcome for ourselves, in an unpredictable world. Essentially, it cannot be done. The future is unknown. The best we can do is to write possible future scripts based on our experience of the past, or of who we know ourselves to be. For example, ‘I will buy this white shirt not the blue one as in the past people told me I look good in white’. Both are unreliable as guides to the future. The past is gone along with the situations we found ourselves in. And we ourselves are changing constantly and may not be sure exactly who we are and what fits us at any point in time.
What we forget is that much of what happens to us is not our choice. Can we choose to be happy or miserable, in love or in anger? We find ourselves at a fork in the road struggling to choose left or right, and meanwhile we forget all the non-chosen events that brought us there. We try to choose whether to take an umbrella, but we did not choose the weather. Much of what occurs to us happens anyway. We just imagine we are choosing everything, with a rather inflated view of our own power. Or to be more precise, the ‘self’ that sits in the consciousness like a big, officer, boss or overseer, has an inflated view of its own powers.
Lets do a small exercise. Try and remember the last time you ‘chose’ to go to a coffee house, and ‘chose’ something from the menu. Notice how you paid attention only to those choices, not to the sequence of hundreds of small or big influences that resulted in you finding yourself there – you were already in the area, you were attracted by the décor, you were hungry or deprived of caffeine, you had a positive memory of that place. Even the item you ‘chose’ on the menu – did you really choose it or is it simply likes and dislikes that were conditioned by past experiences, such as the kind of food your parents used to give to you when you were small. We swim through a sea of influences and so we have less freedom than we think, and we can relax and go along with it.
But the opposite is also true. Paradoxically we also actually have more freedom than we think. Our life is often lived on automatic pilot. We are run by our own habits, and the biggest habit of all is forgetting. If we notice how we keep following the same tracks of thinking and acting, if we remember to be there fully with every moment of our life, we see how playful and open it all is and how much more power we have to change things and make new choices, to do the unexpected, and to be original and independent. A classical example of this is the conditioning we absorb daily by the media, advertising, and our peers. As soon as we realise how all this stuff shapes our mind and reduces our power of independent thinking, a whole new world of choices opens up.
Choices in life are therefore made radically easier if we wake up a bit, and live according to three main insights:
Events condition and create us from moment to moment. We do not choose events - they choose us. This takes away a great deal of pressure from us to continually decide or to try and design our future. We can watch the present continually unfolding and offering us its surprises, without the need to decide. We can be much more child-like and fresh, appreciating what comes instead of manipulating outcomes. When we do have to decide, between the blue shirt and the white one, between this course and another one at University, we do so with much less stress, because we don’t feel in charge of everything. We just go in the direction that seems most fitting.
If we live mindfully, and not on automatic pilot, a world of greater freedom and spontaneity opens up. We do not want to be entirely passive bystanders in our life, carried along by events like the famous story of the man who went into the bedroom to change his shirt for an evening dinner, but then assumed it was bedtime, undressed, and went to sleep, much to the consternation of his guests. There is the phrase: ‘only dead fish go with the flow’. We want to be very much alive. If we wake up to the original nature of each spontaneous moment, we live with much more potential and possibility. More choices open up.
All choices are actually made spontaneously in the moment. If we look carefully, most of the intensive calculation, speculation and hardship that goes along with choosing, is actually like treading on water, or pressing the gas pedal in neutral. It doesn’t go anywhere. When the choice is eventually made, it is always in a moment, often when we have given up from exhaustion after all that thinking. If we wake up to this, we can shortcut our decisions drastically, by learning to make spontaneous, intuitive and instant decisions, and cutting though all the useless churning in the mind.
These awakenings are not technical. They are part and parcel of a more spiritual and aware life. In this kind of life, pressure to choose is replaced with something else. This is intention or direction. A real sense of what is good for us, what helps us, and a wholesome and steady direction to our life. This is the big picture which makes all the choices less critical. After all, most choices are on the level of what I want or what I don’t want. If our wants and needs are less holy, choices are no big deal.