In life we can expect to face many difficult decisions, exhausting conundrums and cliffhangers exemplified by The Clash’s old, catchy track “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” For example, making up one’s mind about sticking with or getting out of a stressful job, a rocky relationship, a risky opportunity and so on can make for a tormenting experiences.
The mind has an array of internal ‘attorneys’ who can argue back and forth for hours on end, and when we believe a verdict has been finally reached, the court case rages up again the following day. One internal lawyer, representing its powerful client Fear, might tell us we’ll never find anything better; leaving the job or relationship will result in our ending up alone and destitute. Another lawyer, representing Desperation, might offer the rebuttal “But I can’t stay with this another day, I’m dying.” Still other voices, expressing a wide variety of other emotional reactions, might pipe up in the courtroom of our thoughts.
The survival-oriented brain finds such states—the dreaded “not knowing”—to be uncomfortable, as they smack of vulnerability and weakness. After all, we didn’t emerge triumphantly from the food chain to become the dominant species on the planet by fretting, dithering, and internally deliberating. Even Shakespeare presented Hamlet’s indecisiveness as leading to disastrous ends, which encapsulates our dismay with the to-and-fro of irresolution. We want to know what to do right now, waiting be damned.
So we may turn to our spiritual path for a quick and easy solutions. Yet the Buddha didn’t weigh down his lay followers with endless rites and rules, taking the choice out of our hands. After all, each of us is born without a predetermined purpose; there is no preset ‘meaning of life.’ We create a meaning for our existence via the choices that we make; it’s through our decisions that we establish our very purpose and authenticity. Should any spiritual figure or guru make our decisions for us, they would be taking away our ability to live authentically and grow as human beings. So long as none of our choices intend to cause harm, there isn’t a definite Buddhist ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to most of our choices in life.
Understanding this, The Buddha provided us instead with tools to help us arrive at decisions without undergoing too much agitation or suffering. What the dharma suggests first is that we take a pause from the ‘needing to decide right now’ mind, embracing and relaxing into what life is like right now. Can we establish ease without knowing, via the elongated breath, softening tension via body scans, gratitude reflections, appreciation of life’s wonders? When it comes time to make determinations, its important to do so from a place of calmness; frantic, jumpy, agitated minds make for poor outcomes.
Secondly, we can examine cause and effect, otherwise known as karma. This boils down to a simple but important resolution: So long as our motivations do not intend to cause harm, we can proceed with the certainty that long term suffering will be minimal. Even if things don’t work out, a mind that adjudicates from calmness and harmlessness will be at peace down the road.
When we make decisions from a serene place, we can locate alternative, ‘middle ways’ to work with challenges. For example, rather than staying or going, we might take a break from the debate to explore entirely different solutions. And fortunately, given the impermanence of all states in life, the choices are rarely as lasting and grave as we believe. We can, in other words, generally change our minds if we don’t appreciate the results.
Above all, its important to learn to rest in the times we’re confused and lost, allowing our frustrations and agitation to dissipate. The strength of spiritual practice is that the more we allow the dust and smoke of agitation to settle, the clearer our choices become.