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?

  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

23 Replies to “Decisions, Decisions”

  1. @ Seth :

    I largely agree with what you wrote and loved the summary at the end. But your essay seems to be mixed with a thought that I find inaccurate. Though I don’t think you really hold that thought. I think, in the end, I may be miss reading the “mix”, but let me illustrate my concern. I don’t think you personally hold this view, but I have seen it mixed into the Buddhism of many folks and just wondered if I heard tinges of it here:

    You wrote: “We do this living forwards in a fog of uncertainty. ……… Mindfulness is a light that illuminates our path one step at a time.

    I don’t think “mindfulness” adds any more certainty or less risk. Lots of folks take false comfort in their sitting practice by assuming they are now safer — the false security of religiosity. This reflex is the source of much religiosity — fear of the unknown; seeking comfort in an insecure world. Many folks drag this false-comfort practice into their Buddhism but hide it among lots of dharma mumbo-jumbo. (BTW, I don’t think you do that, and I imagine you will largely agree).

    Instead of clearing away uncertainty, mindfulness can make us more familiar with uncertainty, less reactive to uncertainty. I don’t feel it necessarily offers greater wisdom in our choices nor should we take comfort thinking anything like that. But I see this in much of the writings on many Modern Buddhists — they treat their Buddhism as a comfort blanket no different that Christians use their Christianity.

    Christians avoid uncertainty by praying. Many pray reflectively before big decisions and feel secure in trusting up their choice to Jesus and doing the right thing — praying. I hear a tinge of this in how you write about mindfulness sitting — am I mistaken?

    I agree that making decisions thoughtfully is important and useful. I just find it interesting to hear the rationales of various religious folks about why their decision method (prayer, contemplation, rituals) are now more secure and better because of their religious practice.

    I look at much of this as continued veneer over the fear of the nebulous, the uncertain, the uncontrollable. If meditation teaches us anything, I think it teaches (as you say) that uncertainty is unavoidable, it is the very nature of reality.

    Sure, reflective thinking, be it prayer, logic, contemplation or whatever can influence decisions perhaps but (as you say) the outcome uncertainty remains. Nothing is illuminated, we have no new special insights, no new safety, no new comfort. Using our religions to give ourselves a higher feeling of power or insight or comfort is generic — it is a generically running away from emptiness.

    I hope I toned down the writing so as not to be accusatory, but I was curious on your take on this. I think the conclusion of your essay show agreement with my last paragraph. But I wanted to address this temptation in Buddhism. Do you think I am mistaken or confused?

    1. Sabio… you’re right that nothing we can do can eliminate uncertainty, but you are also right in thinking that I believe that mindfulness increases the liklihood of making better choices. We human beings have two information processing systems – one is logical, hypothetico-deductive, verbal and linear. The second works more through intuition, feeling, imagery, and somatosensory input. Semour Epstein at U-Mass has labeled these the “Analytic-Rational” and “Intuitive-Experiential” information processing systems. I find that when I make decisions I tend to be very analytic-rational and don’t have as ready access to the intuitive-experiential system as some other folks do. Other people may be more intuitive and jump to conclusions without reasoning. I think we make our best decisions when we use all the information available to us, which means integrating the two systems. One benefit of mindfulness, at least for me, is that it allows me to access intuitive-experiential information and balance and integrate the two systems. Eugene Gendlin has written a good deal about accessing the intuitive-experiential system in psychotherapy, and how if patients don’t learn how to use and access this system, real therapeutic growth doesn’t occur. Another benefit of mindfulness is that it acts as a “circuit breaker,” putting a delay between impulse and action, which can prevent us from making impulsive mistakes. By the way, there is a new study just out that shows that mindfulness practice significantly increases brain gray matter volume, so there may be neurological reasons why it helps us make better decisions as well! 🙂

      1. @ Joanne
        I am not a nihilist when it comes to views. I don’t think views are void of meaning. When things get tough, though, may Buddhists run here or quote a finger pointing at the moon. They like to play until the playing gets tough. IMHO

      2. Joanne,

        I hesitate answering for Sabio, who can fend well enough for himself, but I think by “view” he meant “opinion,” and opinons can be, and often are, inaccurate. Especially other people’s 🙂

  2. I agree, of course that mindfulness practice is useful. As I said:

    “I agree that making decisions thoughtfully is important and useful.”

    “Sure, reflective thinking, be it prayer, logic, contemplation or whatever can influence decisions..”

    But logic helps decisions, experience helps decisions, understanding helps decisions and without these, mindfulness can be absolutely useless for most decisions. In that sense, mindfulness is not magic — which is the way lots of Buddhists talk about it. It is the sanctity of that exaggerated magic which I am addressing.

    So I agree that mindfulness training helps, it is a question of not fooling ourselves about how it helps.

    Again, I would prefer a surgeon who has lots of successfully surgical experience and no meditation experience to be making the decisions during my surgery rather than a new resident who has practiced Zen meditation for 20 years.

    I think it is too tempting to play up the mystical, magical, deep-wisdom side of mindfulness and to exaggerate the effects. Mindfulness only adds one component in the all the things needed to make good decisions.

    Also, I feel we must be careful of the sanctify effect in our use of our favorite religious concepts (as I jotted in a post today before I read this post).

    Concerning the new study, I don’t think it says too much because:
    (1) I would suggest that many concentrated brain activities (surgery included, doing math and more) can change the brain.
    (2) The new study CLAIMS, not “shows”. Studies have to be analyzed for all sorts of biases, experimental design errors, power of generalization and more to slowly decide if it matches other evidence to feel comfortable saying it “shows” something. But, as I said in #1, I am not surprised that intense activity of any sort could change the brain — even playing piano, playing poker or intense practice at a firing range.

    1. Having taught mindfulness to many physicians over the years, both in MBSR groups and in individual therapy, I would say I would rather have a physician with the technical expertise and experience and a mindfulness practice than one with the technical experience and expertise alone. Being able to listen to patients, thoughtfully communicate back to them, cooperate with colleagues and nurses rather than intimidate them, know the limits of one’s expertise and when to consult, and know how to prevent burn-out are all important physician skills, as you well know. These are areas where mindfulness can help. There are also studies that indicate that mindfulness training increases medical student’s ability to empathize.

      As far as the study I referred to, we’re in agreement that one study proves nothing, but this study does happen to be concordant with several prior imaging studies. I would also agree that any intense practice alters brain structure and function. I’m sure that my piano practice does. The question is which circuits are being reinforced, and what qualities and abilities are changing as a result. My piano practice does an awful lot to improve my finger dexterity, ability to sight-read music, ear training, and auditory-motor coordination, among other things. It does nothing for my personality. We know that mindfulness training does effect a whole raft of attentional, cognitive, and personality variables, however.

      It’s important not to attribute magic to mindfulness — but it’s also important not to undervalue it. It’s made an enormous contribution to my life.

      1. (1) Concerning your point on mindfulness: You ignored my example, which made a point and instead set up another example which ignores my point. I get that mindful training is very useful (or I wouldn’t do it), but that is not my point — which I won’t repeat a third time. It seems you feel I am attacking “mindfulness”, I am not. I know you are heavily invested in it both personally and professionally. Seems I touched a nerve that blocked communication.

        (2) I wonder if mindfulness training without accompanying view of compassion, forgiveness and such might have less effects on personality. I think the peripheral important emotional training (virtue) is often underplayed in some Buddhist circles.

        1. Sabio — I think what I am responding to/reacting to in your posts are phrases like:

          “I agree that making decisions thoughtfully is important and useful.”

          -and-

          “Nothing is illuminated, we have no new special insights…”

          Those phrases underemphasized, I thought, the importance of intuitive-experiential and “think non-thinking” aspects of mindfulness and overemphasized the analytic-rational components of decision making. If that wasn’t your intention, I misread you.

          In regards to your second point, I agree. Mindfulness taught outside the broader Buddhist frame as an isolated cognitive skill would probably have different effects from mindfulness taught as a component of the whole Buddhist package. My own experience with MBSR (the mindfulness-training practice used in the neuroimaging study at hand) is that it does teach mindfulness from within the larger Buddhist frame, but that frame is translated into largely non-Buddhist and non-religious language.

          As far as the point I ignored — I’m assuming you meant the point that some writers attribute almost magical powers to mindfulness and that it can be used as a kind of talisman to protect one from existential anxiety — I didn’t comment on it because it didn’t trigger any interesting thoughts on my part worth imparting. While I agree that mindfulness is only one component of decision making, it seems to me to be one that has been historically ignored by our culture, and as a result, its importance is one that is hard to overemphasize. I hear your complaint that it is overhyped and oversold, but I haven’t had the same reaction to what I have been reading. Perhaps we have been reading different things.

          Can any spiritual practice be used in bad faith as a defense against existential anxiety? Of course. May some people use mindfulness practice in that sort of way? Almost certainly. Would their progress in the Dharma be greater if they didn’t? Agreed. My own experience in my practice is that mindfulness opens me up to subtle forms of anxiety I had previously successfully blocked from consciousness, so that I have sometimes said (in an only partially joking fashion) that the aim of my practice was to make me more anxious.

  3. Excellent post, Seth. Mindfulness is just a tool. It does not offer wisdom, rather it help us to calm and clarify our minds so that we can be wiser and make better decisions. Nothing in Buddhism takes us out of the driver’s seat. I, too, don’t think mindfulness is oversold. It’s a core principle so it’s mentioned a lot. Whaddya expect? Nor do I see anything mystical or magical in mindfulness or what you have written here, or really anywhere. I think that might be the case with more esoteric Buddhist meditation practices, but I have nearly always found mindfulness teachings to be grounded with practicality.

    We live in a skeptical age and unfortunately, some people new to Buddhism or flirting around with it or whatever tend to approach dharma not with an attitude of how can I learn to use these tools to improve my life, but with an attitude of how can I disprove it, how many holes can I poke in it.

    Rather than being preoccupied with semantics, concerned about people’s rationales, and viewing everything as some sort of security blanket, when one reads a thoughtful post like this, informed by many years of practice, I feel it’s more useful to ponder the words seriously and earnestly try to absorb the insights.

    That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything, so one small quibble: I’m not sure that “Imagining a world where things can be different right now than they actually are is a waste of our energy.” I’m reminded of the RFK quote, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why . . . I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” Isn’t trying to effect a change in the world, and in us, one of the main points of the practice?

    1. Thanks, David, for giving me an opportunity to re-write that inelegantly wrought sentence. I should have written “demanding” or “expecting” rather than “imagining.” Demanding or expecting the present to be better than it is is an absolute waste. Hoping for (and working towards) a better future, however, is another story altogether. And imagining a different present is not only the wellspring of great speculative fiction (I’m thinking of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle as I write this sentence), but also the process that lays the groundwork for future personal, social, and political transformations.

  4. Seth, that’s cool. A lot of people do think that teachings on the present moment and so on do imply to some sort of cut-off from the future, though.

    Hip, hip, hooray for imagining and for Phillip K. Dick.

  5. Hi Mr. Segall: I found your article two days ago, I e-mailed to my son-Author Charles Yu and My husband(Dr. Jin Yu-as now he has travel abord in Taiwan). Dr.Yu and I both are so happy to see some discussion with Buddhism -science dialogue, which along with my son’s book-“How to live safely in a science fictional universe”.
    Dr. Yu and I are both buddhist. Please allow me to share your article with my friends at my Facebook. Thanks
    Mrs. Betty L Yu

    1. Hi, Mrs. Yu!

      What a delightful surprise to hear from you! Please feel free to share the article with your friends. Your son is an amazing writer (but you already know this)!

      For those of you who have not yet read “How to Live Safely in A Science Fictional Universe,” my review of it on Amazon is copied below:

      “This beautifully written, wildly inventive, funny-melancholic novel is an instant classic. Owing more (perhaps) to Laurence Sterne and Vladimir Nabokov than to Robert Heinlein, it takes the familiar time traveller trope and ratchets it up a notch to reveal a poignant tale of a father-son relationship gone awry. Yu’s mash up of critical literary and quantum mechanical terminology is a whimsical hoot, but his the ideas about narration and reality are profound Zen, and the underlying existential message is sincere and artfully delivered.”

    1. Thanks, Terry as always. I liked the Castenada quote about following the path with heart, but I want to qualify it with a story about Ruth Denison. Someone once asked Ruth whether the Buddhist path was about “following your heart.” She responded, “No. First reform your heart. Then follow it.”

      1. Seth,
        That’s a very good and wise qualification. One which I am sure Ajahn Chah would (heartedly) agree with – he was always urging us to train our heart, or heart-mind,
        Terry

  6. Hi Seth,

    I found your site while searching for articles by or about Seymour Epstein and his two selves (in one). I’m not commenting on any particular posting here but just offering an opinion that I enjoy the site and will return for more readings.

    Basically, I have been wondering whether Epstein has written about the “no-self” nature of his experiential self or has either neglected or left this fruitful area of inquiry untended. The analytic-rational-cognitive-remembering self, of course, ends with the thud into the apparent solidity of the personalized self/ ego. Has he written about how experiencingness opens into “just This?”

    With best wishes,
    Steve

    1. Steve,

      Welcome to the site! Another Seymour Epstein afficianado! That makes two of us. Nowadays when people discuss the idea of two cognitive systems they usually cite Kahneman, and Epstein gets unfairly neglected.

      I’m not aware of anything Epstein might have written relating to anatta or the “just this-ness” of experience. I have always wondered, however, about the links between his conception of the experiential system and Gendlin’s Focusing. Has anyone tried to link those two conceptual maps up?

  7. about the relation of “…his conception of the experiential system and Gendlin’s Focusing” I am not sure but I sense Epstein’s is more purely experiential, like shikantaza, than Gendlin’s since, to me, Gendlin seems to utilize focusing on an object (i.e., that felt sense). Because of this enjoy Epstein’s work for its lesser reliance on conceptualization, that which counteracts experience.

  8. While sitting with decision in mindfulness sounds like wise advice, and there is no such thing as a perfect decision, or knowing what outcomes will materialize, how can one proceed to make a decision in a case where both choices are equally ambiguous. In psychology this is called a multiple approach-avoidance conflict, and most people in this type of personal conflict tend to feel confused, and often go back and forth between two or more options basically unable to decide. This can lead to indecision. Even rats in lab experiments react this way, and instead of running the maze when faced with such choices, they try to escape the maze. What can Buddhism teach about how to resolve a true dilemma, and how to know what one wants? For example, it often happens that a person is presented with a choice between two partners for marriage, both of whom seem equally good choices, though perhaps also each quite flawed choices. But the alternative to choosing is to be alone. So it is like flipping a coin. How can one resolve the dilemma? How can one know the way forward without making an arbitrary choice, which isn’t really a truly mindful?

    1. Ah, Neal Miller’s double approach-avoidance, paradigm! This brings back fond undergraduate school memories! All mindfulness can do here, Alex, is increase your awareness of your ambivalence, and allow you to hold that ambivalence within a large container of self-compassion. It can prevent you from impulsively acting on one horn or another of the dilemma as an attempt to escape the distress that might be part of your irresolution. It can allow you the time you need to really sink yourself into the choices and see if with time a clearer picture of your most important desires and goals can emerge. It may be that the balance is not really 50-50 but 49-51. When faced with the dilemma of a piece of chocolate cake or sticking to your diet, to use a trivial example, your long term objectives of keeping your blood glucose under control or not gaining weight may be more important than the momentary pleasure of consumption. Mindfulness can act as a “circuit breaker” that slows down reactivity and allows genuine responsiveness to emerge so that long-term hedonism can outweigh short term hedonism, as you go through a thoughtful process of evaluating pros and cons. Of course, if things are really 50-50, everything considered, coin flipping may be your only solution :-).

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