Making decisions

If you cannot make up your mind, just accept that. Simply stay in this “space”; recognize and accept what is happening. It is OK to feel indecisive, confused, or restless. Look at this mind state and try to learn from it. Whenever it happens, this is your practice…Thinking that you need to make a decision will only make things worse. If you can just stay with such a mind state and keep observing it, the mind will eventually settle down and make its own decision. Never try to force an issue. Just acknowledge, accept, and keep observing until things unfold naturally.

– Sayadaw U Tejaniya, Awareness Alone Is Not Enough, p. 161

These words were in response to a student asking his teacher about the self-judgment that was arising when he had trouble getting up in the morning for meditation practice. They apply to the most basic of decisions we have to make at a given moment, but are equally valuable if we are trying to make larger life decisions. Inevitably when talking about decision making, the issues of free will and determinism emerge – a topic that’s equally of interest in Buddhist and western philosophical circles. I’m not particularly well-versed in either, and I know that what I have to offer in particular as a writer is not academic in nature, but rather practical, so that’s what you’ll get here.

There was a time when I believed that “I” was deciding something, particularly when it came to the major things like dropping out of high school, going to college, quitting a job, dating a boy…I would employ all sorts of analytic methods for arriving at a logical decision, but in the end, it was always made at more of a gut level. Because it felt right. There is no doubt that mind and heart work in conjunction with the big questions in life, but in the end I’m not sure that anyone is actually making a decision. It just happens. Conditions line up, there’s cause and effect, things happen, conditions change, other things happen.

We can see this with all that occurs in our everyday lives. Take for example some basic bodily function like going pee, or eating a meal. Well, first, how about getting up? What is happening when the body wakes up after a night’s sleep? Do we decide to get out of bed? Or do things just happen? Rolling to one’s side, one foot on the floor, another on the floor. Bladder needs relieving, one foot after another moves in direction of bathroom…When people are severely depressed or intensely grieving, sometimes breaking down reality in this way is helpful for seeing that we are just experiencing one moment at a time. There’s no need to get overwhelmed when we can be more present in this way. Similarly, hunger arises, so food is prepared. We eat.

A Fork In The Road (Thailand)

Deciding to leave Burma, well, that was a bit more challenging. The last couple months were spent in a cloud of confusion, in anxiety over not knowing when was the right time to go, of not feeling ready. But the cloud lifted, clarity shone, and then the decision was made. I did not make a decision, the decision unfolded because the proper conditions arose – namely clarity. I sure did wish I had a copy of the I Ching at the time though!

Now, I’m faced with not so much confusion, but uncertainty. Where is this life headed? There is much more clarity about it than probably ever before, in terms of what ways I will be in the world. But what’s lacking are the specifics on how. As I’ve discussed previously, there’s a needing to be gentle with oneself. Fortunately, I have pretty much zero obligations and a very supportive family, so there’s not a whole lot of pressure. There’s an ability to just take it one step at a time, moment to moment. However, there are external circumstances that reinforce the idea that a decision must be made, even so. If I want to go back to school, for example, there is a window in which I can apply, and there are a ton of logistics that will have to be taken care of before heading back to Asia (if that’s what I end up doing).

So, this is where neither head nor heart is able to clear things up and I resort to divination! The I Ching is a phenomenal text, from which I will always be learning. Originally written in ancient Chinese, it’s difficult to capture the meaning through translation into modern languages, particularly Western. But there are a couple versions I have found that leave much room for interpretation, which is necessary for an oracle. The more one uses it, the more familiar one becomes with the lexicon and with the personal meaning contained in certain ideograms. I’m still a total tyro after 15 years. I only consult it with big decisions, though, so it’s not like I’m practicing with it all the time.

So the decision I’m currently grappling with — I consulted once, then two weeks later again. In both cases, it was abundantly clear that I am not supposed to act immediately. Whatever you believe or disbelieve (I’m pretty agnostic) in regard to these matters, it’s fascinating that this is what I end up with.

First, I receive 54: The Marrying Maiden. The gist of this hexagram is: you have to wait until the right time (or the right person). Don’t act in haste. You’re on a threshold and you must penetrate slowly as water. Be flexible and accept the imposition.

Second, I receive 52: Keeping Still (Bound). This hexagram is pretty unambiguous. Acknowledge the obstacle or limitation. Abide in stillness, stop! The image is of a foot stopping while in movement. The idea of being bound “articulates what is complete and suggests what is beginning”. One knows how and when to talk or to stop talking. One knows how to remain still in the heart.

The changing lines convert to 33: Retreat. The advice here is to withdraw and preserve one’s strength for the appropriate hour. The image is of retreat from the world, such withdrawal being constructive and necessary for one’s growth.

Certainly, these readings support the pre-existing sentiment around this particular issue for me, and one could argue that all the hexagrams are open enough to interpretation that this would be the case. Perhaps that’s true. But perhaps it’s also true that the I Ching is able to serve as a mirror, and that it taps into the subconscious and shows just what you need to see to strengthen your conviction. To help clear away the doubt.

If I did a cost-benefit analysis to help with resolving this question, it would be virtually impossible. Most of the benefits involved in any of this are totally unquantifiable. So I’m left largely to the heart, knowing that as Ramana Maharshi exclaimed: only confusion comes from confusion, and clarity from clarity (paraphrased, as referenced by Robert Wolfe). The thing that’s so extraordinary is that when it’s clear, it’s clear, and there’s no longer a decision. Maybe that’s one of the reasons the I Ching has become such a trusted friend.

Things just are the way they are.

Some resources on the subject of free will and decision-making

Ken McLeod, Unfettered Clips & Audio, “Making life decisions”

B. Alan Wallace MP3s on Free Will and Buddhism can be accessed here

(Ed. 8/30/2010) Meditation and Mental Freedom: A Buddhist Theory of Free Will (PDF), Ricardo Ripetti, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 17, 2010

“Think you’re acting on free will? Think again.” via Wisdom Quarterly

Will Buckingham: “Thinking about free will”

Neuroscience and Free Will (video)

The I Ching translations I use most often

I Ching: The Classic Chinese Oracle of Change, Rudolf Ritsema & Stephen Karcher (1995)

Leave a comment


  1. One of my favorite ways to consult the iching is actually a website. It makes it easier to use on a daily basis, though there’s always the danger of overuse (which results in not being able to make any decision on anything ever…) But daily use (I generally just ask for advice) does really help one get a good feel/understanding for the system of the iching.

    Good luck with your decision, whatever it may be!

    • Ian, thank you for visiting and thanks for the link. I’m a little skeptical, I must admit, for a host of reasons. I do like taking the time to really ruminate and meditate over the question, to have it in mind as I’m throwing the coins, to physically create the hexagram myself. It would be paralyzing if I started consulting for smaller decisions, my goodness! But I’m going to check it out nonetheless.

      Oh and we’re not the only ones, Genju apparently likes the I Ching too…

    • Thank you again Marguerite – you put this blog in good company. Must admit that the whole idea of awards brings up a lot of aversion (another opportunity for practice, yay!) for me though – superlatives, comparisons, ego-stroking, and the like…Even though I know that in the ideal they are meant to help identify excellence and provide a useful filter for those who may be swimming in a sea of online garbage. Bah!

      • Yes, same here. And as with almost anything, there is no black, no white, but instead a complex hue.

        To the basket you started, I will add, gratitude, appreciation, evaluating . . . The Buddha was not shy with judgments.

        I found the exercise of going through my blogroll and identifying those few blogs for which I have utmost respect, quite profound actually. Who are my spiritual friends in the blogosphere? This is what it boiled down to.

  2. Thank you for this post Sharanam!

    I wouldn’t know where to start, so many things here resonate with me :-). I guess I’d say that i don’t think “things happen”. I might not be aware of how and why things happen, but modern neuroscience seems to indicate the brain is so fast that sometimes we don’t even know we initiated the action (like moving the leg to start getting out of bed). The second thing I’ve been learning and find fascinating is that most of our decisions are made based on something that has its roots deep in the unconscious which is why I think it is extremely healthy and interesting to get to know it more intimately.

    Using I Ching then becomes one way of accessing the unconsous and bringing up some associations that “click”. (When i do use it, I use the book “The Laws of Change: I Ching and the philosophy of change” by Jack M. Balkin, whose commentaries and guidance on using it in a creative way has been extremely helpful).
    I now have turned to working with dreams as part of inner wrok because the imagery my unconsious uses are unique for me and help me easier connect with it and because dream work is so fascinating and there are so many layers to it. Mostly because the unconscious does not care about me not being willing to discuss some stuff but brings it up when it is time to look at it. I could ask the same questions I ask I Ching before I go to sleep and get the answers that I already have but am not aware of.

    As for making decisions, I certainly am acquainted with the anxiety of decision making. I believe partly it comes from us believing that we can make the wrong choice or that if we jump on one train we cannot get off it should we change our mind. I no longer believe it, I should say, which makes the whole thing much easier. That is in my situation I no longer think that there will be a huge difference as to whether I take a job in Australia and move there or if I take one in Germany. It will have different consequences but the point is not WHAT I do but WHY and HOW and in the end if what matters to me is say to have a sense of community and contributing to it, it will not matter where I will be doing it as I will be pouring my whole heart into it and it cannot, it will not fail. I hope it makes sense. :-)

    I read these lines today of my favourate teacher who happens to be a poet, David Whyte:

    “We try to construct a life in which we will be perfect, in which we will eliminate awkwardness, pass by vulnerability, ignore ineptness, only to pass through the gate of our lives and find, strangely, that the gateway is vulnerability itself. The very place we are open to the world whether we like it or not”.

    I welcome you in this place of vulnerability! It takes a lot of nerve to stand there, on this edge but whatever choice you make, if it is aligned with your heart (and not the head alone), you will not regret it. I am glad to read your family is there to support you. Hang in there!
    Thank you for your courage and your practice!


    • Irisha – you are always so thoughtful. Thank you so much for engaging in this way.

      I agree that Western methods of accessing the unconscious can be paired with the work we do in a way that helps us to see the deeply conditioned beliefs, habit patterns, etc. Dreams seem to me to be a continuation of thinking, but because they draw not only on language but even more so on symbols and imagery, a different understanding can emerge. I do believe it is possible to have dreamless sleep as well, as Krishnamurti argued, “if we die to every moment”. (I’ve had glimpses of it on retreat.)

      As far as the comment about “things just happening”. I suppose that wasn’t the best choice of words on my part. There is no denying cause and effect, so, in that sense, there is agency. I was trying to get at how we over-emphasize the aspect of deciding, of there being a decision, and someone to decide. As you explain, given your own life choices, you know that it’s the intention that really matters. The place, the job, the circumstances are not so important. True happiness is not dependent on conditions of course. Most of society does not encourage looking at our life as an unfolding in this way, however, so it’s a bit of an upstream process!

      Thank you for your encouragement and support, and of course for practicing…

  3. Hummm . . . the I Ching.

    There was a time – that was before I got on the path – when the uncertainty of not knowing would make me so anxious, that I resorted to all kinds of divination gimmicks, such as Tarot, and yes I Ching also. These, I no longer consider as helpful. Instead, I have come to appreciate the transformative potential in simply staying with the discomfort, the anxiety, the restlessness, the frustration. My only concession out of just being with, is to do self-collages. I have found that practice very useful in bringing to the surface parts of myself still buried in the unconscious. It is definitely a great visioning tool. The last one I did two weeks ago, was full of women, and buddha, and suitcases, and desert images. I wonder what yours would look like right now?

    • Agreed, the best practice is just to be with what is. The I Ching is no subsitute for meditation, that’s for sure. I’m not the most creative type but if I had to guess, a collage would be vast sky, expansive landscapes, parents, death, caregiving, little eddies in an otherwise calmly flowing river…Thanks for having me create images for it.

  4. Dear Sharanam,

    Thank you for the thoughtful reply!

    It might seem that I am totally cool about choosing either way in the hypothetical situation with the jobs that I took as an example. But I know that some of this attitude comes from experience and faith that wherever I go I can make it a new home (based on this experience) which of course makes it so much easier at the decision making stage. Someone who had not moved around much might have a more difficult time.
    Having faith into Life itself unfolding and allowing “things to happen” is something I definately need to keep practicing, on all levels and in all directions.

    As for dreaming or not dreaming, I cannot tell about others. From the research i heard about we dream a few dreams every night but I discovered that whenever I am not interested in it or am leading a hectic life I tend to forget all dreams upon waking up. When I recently took the dreamwork up again, I started remembering the dreams, sometimes up to four dreams per night. This gives rich material for exploring the knowledge that comes from within, sometimes using art as a tool before I decide to bring the language in.

    Let us strive that the decisions we make today will be to the benefit of all sentient beings! :-)


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