Saturday, July 31, 2010


It seems to me that when we are faced with a decision that takes some time to make, when we finally make it we come up with 1,001 reasons why not to go ahead and do it! When I was 19 I went to a Catholic high school and truly felt "called" to be a Franciscan priest. I struggled and agonized. When I made my decision I questioned everything about it. You see, I has decided to do be a friar in order to give my life to my fellow man. A short time later I got in my head and ran scenarios through my brain. Was I making the right choice? Why was I doing it? Am I just showboat? Are my motives right? For the longest time I thought it was just youthful folly. Confusion that every late teen experiences when trying to decide what they want to do with their life. Years later (and many lessons learned and experienced) I grew to realize that we ALL question our least when they are rather large, life altering decisions. Decisions that will effect our immediate future and, in many cases, our long term existence. It's natural and healthy to do so. We all want to minimize our risk in any situation. But let's face is a constant gamble isn't it?

Robert Bennett said, “Your life is the sum result of all the choices you make, both consciously and unconsciously. If you can control the process of choosing, you can take control of all aspects of your life. You can find the freedom that comes from being in charge of yourself.”

Take control of the PROCESS of choosing. It's not a matter of just acting on instinct and, for the most part, fear and uncertainty, but actually controlling the process of your choice and decision making. In Buddhism we learn that we have complete control. We have the ability to reach complete Buddhahood, enlightenment. Within us is the power to control our choice process.

Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham wrote this great article that applies Buddhist thought to decision making:

"As a Buddhist teacher, I seem to attract people who cannot decide what to do. They are sometimes so desperate that they come to me in hopes that I'll make a decision for them. The odd thing is that after I give them advice, they often can't decide whether or not to take my direction. The problem is not that they don't know what to do with their life. It's that they don't know how to make a decision.

Decision-making is hard, not so much because of the options we face, but because we have to deal with our own mind. We're confused by indecision. That agitation comes from opposing thoughts. We are uncertain about what to do, and we are thrown off balance. Which thought should we follow? Which line of reasoning is best? We haven't developed a clear motivation for our life, or a standard for sorting through the options.

In order to make a decision, we must know what we are seeking. Most of us want long-term happiness, but we can't decide how we would bring that happiness about. It may feel as though life is moving so quickly that we are not really deciding, we are just reacting. We are constantly being swayed by short-term pleasure.

One of the great texts on rulership recommends that the king or queen carefully contemplate every decision based on how it will create benefit for others. This is a shortcut to the path of virtue. In the Tibetan tradition, "virtue" doesn't have a heavily moralistic or religious overtone. It is a process of developing the wisdom to see clearly how the world works, and the compassion to always hold the welfare of others in mind.

The path of virtue is not a meaningless form of etiquette. The Buddha didn't become enlightened by being polite. He saw how life works and respected the guiding principles of the universe. He learned how to use the law of karma to everyone's advantage by deciding to engage in virtue.

The word "karma" means action. Every decision we make creates action, and every action creates a reaction. Whatever we decide to do will have some kind of effect. The outcome is sometimes obvious and immediate—we knock over a glass of water and the floor gets wet. Other effects may take longer—we gossip about somebody and later, people gossip about us. With other actions, it isn't clear when the result will come about.

Karma works in two basic ways. If we act virtuously, the effect is happiness. If we act unvirtuously, suffering results. If we're at the cosmic bank and we give a couple of nonvirtues to the teller, what they give us back is based on the currency of pain. If we are self-obsessed and angry, the currency is suffering. If we give the teller virtue, what we get in return is in the currency of happiness. The happiness we get in exchange for virtue could happen on the spot or in the future.

When we're making a decision without a clear motivation, we get confused. We don't know what kind of karma we're creating. Contemplation teaches us through experience and technique how not to be swayed off the path of virtue. It is a way to sharpen our ability to self-reflect. Looking at our options with the question, "How does this benefit others?" widens our perspective and gives us a barometer to discern what we should cultivate and what we should discard. In Tibet, this ability to discern is called payu.

Payu is the beginning stage of wisdom. It is a moment of reflecting on the results of what we do before we do it. "Will this action take me in the direction that I want to go?" That moment is the first step in taking charge of our life. With payu, we become like a tiger who moves through the grass in a confident, disciplined, and careful way. When the tiger places his paws, there's an element of respect. What is it that the tiger is respecting? The law of karma.

With payu, we begin to develop inner wisdom, prajna. Prajna is a Sanskrit word that means "the best knowledge." What is the best thing to know? Ultimately, the best thing to know is how reality works. Knowing that life operates according to the principles of cause and effect, we don't have the luxury of being cavalier. We can't blindly engage in negative activity, expecting it to turn out well. We need to now short-circuit this process and do the right thing.

Sometimes we know what to do, but we lack the strength to do it. The small-minded perspective of "me" is holding us back. What takes us beyond ignorance, self-centeredness, and anger? Payu reveals to us what to cultivate and what to discard. When we see the best thing to do, we get some perspective and let go of our small-mindedness. We can make a clear choice. Having made our decision, we move forward without doubt.

The text on rulership tells us to sit with our options and contemplate them, and certainty will begin to arise. Having made a decision, stick with it; don't look back. Changing our decision sets up a bad habit. It reinforces decision-making as an expression of bewilderment and ignorance, instead of wisdom and freedom. Lack of certainty then thickens our consciousness, and decision-making becomes even harder.

Our decisions have karmic power. With payu and prajna, we can learn from our mistakes. We see that when we make decisions based on cultivating excitement or desire, things don't work out so well. When we decide to solve our problems by getting angry or greedy, we become trapped by those actions. Our decision results in an ongoing argument or crippling attachment. On the other hand, when we make decisions with others in mind, we are cultivating compassion, patience, generosity, or forgiveness. Peace and harmony result.

The more we practice decision-making according to these meditative principles, the more we understand how they move us forward. We see that deciding to expand our minds, put others before ourselves, and engage in life with compassion and wisdom is a powerful way to live. Following virtue causes happiness for us as well as others.

I once heard His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, one of the great meditation masters of our time, advise his monks and nuns that it is important to have big plans. If we do not think big about how we can help others, then we will not be able to accomplish very much. Even if we aren't able to accomplish what we decide to do, if we're thinking of others instead of ourselves, we will have cultivated our enlightened qualities in making that decision.

A person who has decided to put others before themselves is known as a buddha, which means "awake." We have awakened to the best thing to do with our lives—use compassion and wisdom to move forward on the path of virtue. Once we are in tune with life in this way, making decisions isn't so difficult. Our concern becomes how to express what we're sure of—that we can accomplish our own happiness by choosing activities that will bring about happiness for others."

So you see, we do have the ability to take control of our thought and therefore, our decision making process. Being mindful and breathing, stepping back and focusing, enables us to make a healthy choice and be confident in our decision.

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