As a Buddhist meditation teacher, I often counsel students seeking help with making various life choices. The most common decisions they present are about whether to take a new job, have a baby, leave a marriage, take an ethical stand against some wrongdoing, undergo a medical procedure, or make a life change in order to dedicate more time to their spiritual journey. The advice they desire from me is twofold and may well apply to you: How do I clarify my thinking when it is muddled by the stress of deciding, and how do I stay in touch with my deepest values when I’m feeling anxious?
Before you can begin to make a wise decision, you first need to be real with yourself about the situation: Is there a genuine decision to be made, or are you just postponing the inevitable? For example, one student, Gloria, came to me for advice about her job, saying she was thinking about quitting. As I questioned her, Gloria realized that her choice between staying in the job and leaving was not real. In fact, she was at such odds with her supervisor that there was almost no chance of her staying. Meanwhile her self-confidence was being destroyed. She came to understand that believing she had a decision to make was actually a way of avoiding the anxiety and fear of job-hunting. By thinking she had a choice, she was denying herself the chance to proactively seek new employment.
Another student, Alicia, also wanted advice about changing her life, but she was in a very different situation and faced a genuine decision. Alicia’s company had just hired a new president who valued her abilities and wanted her to take on more responsibility. But Alicia felt burned out and wanted more free time in order to explore her inner life. The problem was she wasn’t sure she could afford to quit and knew that if she changed her mind later she might not find such a great opportunity again. “Should I just hang in there a few more years, despite how I feel, or should I take the plunge, even if I regret it later?” she asked me plaintively.
Like Alicia, you too probably experience suffering in the form of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty when facing a genuine decision. However, it is possible to relieve your mental suffering around decision-making by applying the Buddhist practice of mindfulness.
Mindful Decision Making
The Buddha taught that mental suffering arises out of ignorance. By “ignorance” he meant the misperceptions and delusions that your mind has about its own nature. Thus, the way to free the mind from suffering is through gaining insight into what truly is. One of the tools the Buddha taught for developing insight is mindfulness, the ability to be fully aware in the moment.
Mindfulness enables you to go beneath the surface level of your moment-to-moment life experience, which is clouded with emotions, to see the truth of what is happening. In daily life, mindfulness helps you see clearly what needs to be done, what you are capable of doing, and how it relates to the larger truths of life. Obviously, it isn’t easy being mindful in such a manner, but you can develop mindfulness through the practice of mindfulness meditation.
In mindfulness meditation, you systematically learn how to pay attention to and receive whatever arises in your mind without judgment, to investigate it, and then let go of the experience. [See “Beginning a Mindfulness Meditation Practice.”] Training your mind to be more “mindful” is not unlike learning to play the piano, speak a foreign language, or play a sport. The more you practice, the more skillful you become. And over time you naturally become more mindful in other moments of your life. Applying mindfulness technique to decision making leads to clearer thinking and to staying connected to your core values, which is crucial to your peace of mind. There are three stages in the mindfulness process that I instruct students to repeat until a decision emerges.
Stage One: Come into the Present Moment
When faced with making a decision, first direct your attention to the actual experience of this particular decision. How does it feel in your body right now? Do you feel pressure? Anxiety? Does your stomach hurt, or do your eyes burn? Or do you feel as though you’ve left your body? Oftentimes, you don’t notice what’s really going on and miss the body’s signals telling you what to do. By feeling the decision in your body, you access your intuition.
Next, start to name the decision as best you’re able, which will help bring it into focus. Many times you won’t be able to clearly articulate what the decision is initially. Other times, you will be able to name it right away, but then change how you name it over time, especially if it’s a big decision. For example, if you are weighing whether or not to stay in your current job, you may initially think, “I don’t want to stay in this job because there’s too much pressure,” then a week later think, “No, I don’t want to stay in the job because I actually don’t like my boss very much.” Another week goes by, and you realize, “I actually don’t like the values that are involved in this type of work.” By staying mindful of the decision over a period of weeks, you discover that it’s really the underlying company values that have led to the creation of an unlikable boss and unbearable pressure. Naming alone can help release some of your tension around making the decision.
Also notice if you’re obsessing over the decision and replaying the same thoughts over and over in your head, which is a sign that you’re avoiding making the decision. When you become mindful that you’re just recycling your same old anxious thoughts about the decision, redirect your mind elsewhere. Often just noticing it’s happening and naming it will help you stop obsessing.
Stage Two: Clarify through Investigation
After becoming present to your decision, the next step is to clarify it through investigation. First, consider the size of the consequence of the decision. There may be times when the long-term effect of a decision is minimal, and you’re getting distraught over something that’s really not all that important. Or it’s not a genuinely hard decision; you just don’t want to face it, and that’s creating stress. Also, be realistic about the deadline by which the decision needs to be made. Are you becoming stressed about a decision that doesn’t have to be made for a long time?
Next ask, what kind of decision is this? [See “5 Types of Decisions, below.”] More than likely you don’t realize the nature of the decision you’re making—you just experience it as pressure. Identifying what kind of decision it is can in many instances immediately ease your mental suffering or make the best choice obvious. For example, let’s say you’re trying to choose between two options that you’re neutral about such as moving to a new home, which your spouse would like to do, or staying where you are. You may well be getting tied up in knots because you think you’re supposed to care a lot about the decision and be passionate about one of the choices. In fact, it’s not that big a deal to you, so you relax and just let the decision go either way.
You will also benefit by reflecting on and clarifying how others who are involved in the decision feel. Oftentimes, when you’re making a decision that affects other people whom you really care about, you can become enmeshed in their feelings without realizing it. Or else you project what you think they want, which clouds your thinking. Simply restating the decision without a view to pleasing anyone else can help you discover what’s true for you.
It may seem like an obvious question, but do you have the information you need in order to make this decision? It’s surprising how often people don’t make the effort to gather all the information they need or don’t organize the information in a way that facilitates making a decision. If you’re prone to either tactic, it could mean that you’re avoiding making the decision. Sometimes you discover that you are postponing a decision by claiming you need more information when in fact you don’t, or else it isn’t possible to obtain more information, therefore you just need to go ahead and act.
Then ask yourself, “Why is this decision so sticky for me?” If it’s a really difficult life decision and you don’t like any of the options, you may be caught because there’s some inner change that needs to happen before you can make this decision.
Finally, restate the decision and write it down on a piece of paper along with what you perceive the inner and outer consequences of your choices to be. Crosscheck your options with your core values, and ask are they aligned? You will be much more likely to feel at ease with your decision, no matter what the outcome, if you have chosen based on your values.
Stage Three: Surrender to the Decision
Observe whether you’re clinging to making the right decision. When you insist on a perfect outcome, you’re only deluding yourself and delaying. Applying mindfulness, you recognize that there is no perfect outcome and that it’s impossible to know what all the consequences of your decision will be no matter what you choose. Consciously let go of your attachment to the decision being “right.” You’re never going to know if you got it right, really. It may be that it is the right decision for a while, but then it turns out to be wrong later; or maybe you make the wrong decision now, but it leads to making a much better one in the future.
As a further act of surrender, write down what your mind is telling you to do, then what your heart seems to want, and finally what your intuition seems to be saying. People are often surprised to discover that these centers of knowing are in conflict, and it is paralyzing them. My usual advice is to go with your heart and intuition, if they agree, but to do so utilizing the practical planning capability of the mind.
Before implementing your final decision, you can “try it on” for a few days without acting on it to test how it feels. Oftentimes, more insight will arise from a trial run.
Through this mindfulness process you will have gained clarity about the decision, its consequences, and your feelings about it; you will have gathered all the information you need; and you will know when it has to be made. So the last step is to simply make the decision, as best you are able, and move on with your life. You will ultimately discover that it is not the decision but rather how you live it out that truly matters.
Even if the outcome of your decision is disappointing, there’s still meaning in it because you were developing throughout the process. You were being genuine and coming from your core values, therefore, you’ve grown. You have more confidence in your decision-making ability, and others will feel this maturity in you. The result is that you are wiser when making future decisions and more relaxed about the whole process.
One final instruction: When you are dealing with a decision, it is critical that you cultivate a non-judgmental, forgiving, and kind attitude towards yourself. Not only does such an attitude provide the calmness and spaciousness necessary for making the decision, it ripens these qualities, which are crucial for a meaningful and joyful life, within you, as Gloria and Alicia discovered.
Gloria was able to transform her avoidance into an active decision, and she now has a job where she is supported and stimulated. Alicia, after many months of deliberation, decided to leave her high-profile job and now works for a non-profit with a flexible time schedule that allows her to pursue her spiritual interests. She recently told me that she knows the peace she currently feels is the result of spending all those months learning to stay present to and non-judgmental about the strong emotions and thoughts that arose during her deliberation. The mindful decision making process was her spiritual practice throughout those difficult months, and it can be the same for you if you choose.
5 Kinds of Decisions
Naming the type of decision you’re trying to make will help bring clarity to the process.
Benevolent: All of your options are good, for instance choosing between two good job offers or between spending time with your family vs. taking a personal retreat. What seems like a benevolent decision can sometimes indicate a deeper, hidden conflict you are avoiding acknowledging because it’s too unpleasant. Ask yourself, “Am I creating options for myself in order to escape facing a deeper issue?”
Neutral: You don’t have a preference for any of your choices, yet you can’t make the decision. This paralysis is usually a sign of a hidden conflict that’s trying to express itself through the decision. Sometimes the conflict is with another person. The skillful way to handle a neutral decision is to be compassionate with yourself and be mindful of how the decision feels in your body right now. Oftentimes, the answer will reveal itself.
Mixed: There are gains and losses inherent in all of your options, and it’s not clear which is the wisest course, such as the choice between committing to a relationship vs. keeping your independence; whichever choice you make, you have to give up something you desire. Beware of trying to have your cake and eat it too. Likewise be careful of fantasy decision-making, such as telling yourself that although the person you’re dating isn’t really right for you, making a commitment will change him into a new person.
Undesirable: All of your options have unpleasant consequences, for example deciding whether to keep silent or speak out about a lie one of your co-workers has told, which will affect workplace morale. There’s not a good outcome no matter what you decide, so it’s a really hard choice to make. In this circumstance, listen to your heart: Which choice will be the easiest for you to live with, despite what’s likely to be unpleasant external conditions?
Unknowable: The consequences of the decision are unclear, such as whether to have a risky operation or an experimental medical procedure. It’s a tough decision to make because you really don’t know how it’s going to play out. It’s best not to make such a decision until you absolutely have to, and then clearly state to yourself the full consequences of making the choice vs. staying with your current situation. People often underestimate the risks and downside of the unknown and exaggerate the negative aspects of the status quo.