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.
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)