Decisions, Decisions

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura…

In the middle of our life-journey
I found myself in a dark wood…
– Dante, Inferno

As Kierkegaard noted, while we understand life backwards, we can only live it forwards. We are all time travelers [1], and while we only live within each moment, moment to moment, the moments tick inexorably away towards the future. The thoughts we entertain and the actions we engage in within each moment give birth to the next moment. This is the meaning of paticca-samuppāda, or dependent origination.

We do this living forwards in a fog of uncertainty. Every choice we make is a bet with an associated degree of risk and uncertainty. We can never accurately predict where each step, each decision, each fork in the road, will eventually lead.

We all crave certainty. We want to know the right stock to invest in, the best school to attend, the right career path to follow, the right partner to marry, the right time to have children, the best smartphone to own, the true religion that will save us. We try to contrast and compare, weigh the pros and cons, play the odds, but we’re really like the farmer with the lost horse in the Taoist fable. Good choice? Bad choice? Who knows?

Despite the uncertainty that shrouds our every decision, we still need to do the best we can. What other choice is there? This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is a light that illuminates our path one step at a time. Mindfulness allows us to see one moment ahead in the fog of uncertainty.

Before making an important decision, after we have done our diligent research and weighed the pros and cons, it’s helpful to take the time to sit mindfully with the choice at hand. This means giving up thinking about the choice but just sitting quietly with the choice as an open question. As Dogen might say, “think non-thinking.” This allows the choice to breathe and reverberate throughout our being, permitting all aspects of Being that rational thought alone cannot fathom or penetrate to resonate with the choice. As we sit, inchoate thoughts and feelings we had not been previously aware of have the space to unfold. When we take the time to sit with a decision in mindfulness we emerge into a new kind of clarity, one that rings true within our deepest selves.

When we have done everything possible to make a good decision, it can still come out badly. We can never control the consequences of our decisions once our actions have launched them into the real world. Whatever the consequences are, we now own them. We may not like them, but we have to deal with them as best we can. Is it possible to live without regret? Without longing for the road not taken? Without whining? Is it possible to accept our current life fully, just as it is?

In the Angulimala Sutta, a murdering brigand gives up his thuggish ways to become a member of the Sangha, and eventually achieve Enlightenment. Despite his enlightened status, he’s vilified by the public. The Buddha tells him to accept the consequences of his past actions with equanimity:

“A clod thrown by one person hit Angulimala on the body, a stone thrown by another person hit him on the body, and a potsherd thrown by still another person hit him on the body. So Angulimala — his head broken open and dripping with blood, his bowl broken, and his outer robe ripped to shreds — went to the Blessed One. The Blessed One… said to him: ‘Bear with it, brahman! Bear with it! The fruit of the kamma that would have burned you in hell for … many thousands of years, you are now experiencing in the here-and-now!’ [2]


The Buddha would give us the same advice: “Suck it up!” Imagining a world where things can be different right now than they actually are is a waste of our energy. It’s the way we made it. The world is as the world is. Can we live in it with mindfulness, acceptance, and even joy?

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  1. [1] Thanks to Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe for this metaphor!
  2. [2] Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Two Truths: Causation and Choice

An earlier version of this post was published in Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings [1]

Trying to reconcile the objective truth of causation with the experiential truth of choice is exceedingly difficult.  Buddhism insists, however, that we find a middle way between these irreconcilables, and that dismissing the reality of either causation or choice is an error.

Our everyday functioning requires that we talk in terms of choice, but the language of choice doesn’t yield the deepest understanding of the way things are.   The experience of choice is like the computer “desktop” metaphor: we can talk about “desktops,” “folders,” and “files,” but at a deeper level there are only photons or electrons that either change state or don’t in a binary fashion.  The desktop is semi-real: one can see it and do things on it.  At another level of discourse, however, there is no desktop.  This is similar to the disjunction between our everyday perception of common objects and what physicists say about them.  They appear solid, but at the atomic and subatomic level are mostly empty space.  Our everyday perception is good-enough for most purposes, but the physicist’s description of reality opens up powerful new ways to see and use the world.

Many of our actions occur without our being aware of either the actions themselves or our reasons for them.  We mostly operate on automatic pilot.  A moment ago I noticed my hand rubbing my eye.  I didn’t “choose” to do it.  Some part of my brain must have registered some irritation around my eye, and my hand was there in an instant.  Most of the time that my hand is touching my face I’m not aware I am doing it.  Similarly, I don’t usually “choose” to swing my arms when I walk, or decide what to look at and notice while walking.  Our experience of most behavior is that it “just happens.”  When we retrospectively try to come up with the reasons why we did one thing or another, our answers are often only guesses based on what we think we must have been experiencing.  Our guesses are often no better than an outside observer’s guesses.

When do we become aware of “choosing” our actions?  When a snafu has developed in the automatic pilot program; when our usual way of resolving a problem non-consciously is not working and a metaphorical warning light blinks on.  Perhaps there’s a conflict between two equally strong action tendencies, or an awareness that the action we’re about to engage in has had painful consequences in the past, or an awareness that what we’re about to do conflicts with a high priority goal.  When that warning light blinks on, the brain allocates more workspace to the problem,  putting more of its computing power in service of a solution.   The brain does this because when conditions like this occurred in the past, allocating more resources led to a happier outcome.  As a fuller range of associations, memories, and acquired problem solving algorithms are brought to bear, we are more likely to succeed.  This is the process we experience as “choosing” which feels so different from our automatic pilot behavior.  But the main difference between “choosing”  and “automatic” is the greater degree of resources involved, not some newly acquired freedom from cause-and-effect.  A bigger computer is being used to solve the problem, but the solution still relies on the structure of the brain and our past experiences.

One reason why the experience of “choosing” feels “free” is that we’re unaware of most of the antecedent processes that go into making a “choice”. The brain doesn’t receive feedback from most of these antecedent processes, and their final product just seems to pop into our heads from the void, uncaused as far as we’re aware.

While our internal decision-making process isn’t free from causality it can be relatively free in other senses of the word.  For example, it can be relatively free from the salient pushes and pulls of the immediate stimulus context, or from the influences of parental, social, or religious authority, or from short-term self-interest.  Our capacity to have larger segments of our brains go on-line as part of the process of  “making decisions” makes these kinds of relative freedoms possible, and these freedoms are the most crucial freedoms from the point of view of ethics and morality.

So we don’t have to choose between causation and choice.  There is an experiential process of choice which feels real and suffices for everyday understanding, and a “deeper” process underlying it which is based on causation.  I use the term “deeper” with trepidation, because the word implies one reality is more true than another, whereas they are really just two different levels of description of reality,  just like chemistry and quantum physics are two different levels of description.

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  1. [1] Segall S. (2003). On Being a Non-Buddhist Buddhist: A Dialogue With Myself in Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. SUNY Press: Albany, NY