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Body Truth, Mind Lie: How to Make the Right Decision

Decisions,_decisions_-_geograph.org.uk_-_191544Five minutes into our session, Claire dissolved in tears. “I’m so exhausted from making decisions!” she said. Claire did have a lot on her plate. Her boyfriend, Mike, had proposed to her (she loved him but said he was often impatient, so she wasn’t sure he was The One). She was looking for a new home (an apartment, actually, in case things with Mike went south) but hadn’t found the perfect place. And she was desperate to quit her boring job, but was still in the process of zeroing in on a better one. It all sounded normal until we started discussing time frames. “Impatient” Mike had been waiting almost four years for Claire’s answer to his proposal. Claire had been house hunting for three of those years. And her career indecision? Almost a decade old. Claire’s exhaustion didn’t spring from making decisions; it came from not deciding—from vacillating, fretting, seeking endless advice. In a word, dithering.

Now, most of us dither now and again, but there comes a time, as an old translation of Goethe’s Faust has it, when “indecision brings its own delays, and days are lost lamenting over lost days.” If you ever find yourself singing this particular sad song, it’s time to change course—before you hem and haw your life away.

Opportunity Misers

Claire thought her problem was excessive optimism: “I intend to have the perfect man, home, and career,” she explained, “so I can’t commit to the wrong thing!” But optimists are relaxed, and Claire was anything but. Her whole life was devoted to obsessively avoiding something economists call opportunity cost. Whenever we choose one course of action, we rule out others. Giving up those other options is the opportunity cost of any decision. Claire couldn’t bear the thought of losing any opportunity by making a clear choice. She was an opportunity miser.

Just as money misers hoard their wealth, living as if they were poor even when they’re rich, opportunity misers hoard their freedom to choose—and end up becoming prisoners of indecision. Because she was unwilling to limit her future opportunities even slightly, Claire was never able to enjoy the opportunities she had. Yet she felt huge pressure to do so, as she admitted during a couples-coaching session with Mike. “I know I need to step up and make the rational choices,” she said.

Ironically, that was exactly what she didn’t need to do.

Breaking Through Decision Deadlock

From Plato to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, countless wise men have advised us to make rational decisions. Put aside emotion! Compare the costs and benefits of your options! Pick whatever option yields the highest value for the least cost! This seems like pretty logical advice—so how come other cultural icons, such as Captain Kirk, are always boldly going where passion takes them, making decisions based not on reason but on courage, love, loyalty? As it turns out, there are good reasons logical Mr. Spock ranked second in command, while emotional Kirk was captain.

We now know that decision making is an emotional process, not merely a calculation. Brain-damaged patients who can still think rationally but have lost the ability to process emotions can become pathologically indecisive. They may spend hours simply deciding what to wear. (I’m not sure I have this kind of brain damage, but it would explain a lot.) And it’s impossible to rationally calculate opportunity costs, because life is unpredictable. So decision making is always a gamble, and gamblers need confidence in both their calculations and their hunches.

People who trust their gut over their brain often take flying leaps with little information—risky, but at least they get somewhere. Folks with no faith in either their intellect or their instincts generally follow the path of least resistance; again, not an optimal strategy, but not paralyzing, either. Great strategists trust both intellect and instinct; they gather information until they feel they can make a good decision. But people who try to decide with the mind alone, who place no faith in their heart’s desires, are doomed to stall and fuss, compare and contrast, forever insisting that just a little more knowledge will make the choice clear. It won’t. Luckily, the two steps below just might.

Getting Unstuck: Step One

A yogi friend of mine once told me, “The body truth goes ahead of the mind lie.” When we dither over a decision, our intellect tries to gain the upper hand, shouting, You’d better be sure! Keep your options open! Have you considered the legal implications? and so on. Fortunately, our bodies patiently persist in telling the truth. All we have to do is listen.

Here’s how:

  1. Think of a time you said yes to something you later regretted. Vividly remember the moment you made the decision. What were you feeling, physically? Did your gut churn? Did your hands feel cold? Did your feet get hot? Even small sensations are significant. Describe them.
  2. Next, think of a time you said no to something and later wished you’d said yes. What physical feelings did you have while you were making that choice?
  3. Now recall a time you said no and were later relieved that you’d passed on what would have been a bad experience. What were you feeling physically when you made that choice?
  4.  Finally, remember a time you said yes to something that turned out to be a great choice. How did you feel, physically, when you were making that choice?

Generally, the sensations of an unwise decision will be consistent, whether your choice was yes or no. A wise yes or no will also have a consistent “body truth.” Focus on these sensations until you can tell them apart.

Now think of a decision you’re making today—where to buy yogurt, whether to change religions, and so forth. Feel which choice your body wants to make. Thinking about that option will ease your shoulders, open your lungs. The opposite choice will close you up like a clam. Once you’re able to sense these feelings, go on to step two.

Getting Unstuck: Step Two

Claire found that her body always felt queasy when she was making an unwise decision, solid and centered when she was choosing well. But when she tried to sense what to do with her many big decisions, everything became a nauseated blur. Nothing felt right.

This wasn’t because all of Claire’s future options were bad. Her body was reacting, as bodies always do, to the way she was spending her energy in the present moment. Our minds may tell us that deferring a decision can ensure our best possible future—even when doing so is making us crazy right now.

Check in with yourself: Does your life feel meaningful and on-purpose at this moment? If the answer is yes, your energy is invested in living your best life. But to the extent that you feel misery, your energy is asking to be reinvested. Misery literally means “the feeling of being a miser.” If you’re miserable, stop hoarding your life energy. Spend it now! Make a choice, any choice. If you’re still miserable, you can choose again. Eventually, you’ll see that all misery is simply life asking you to trade your current course of action—or inaction—for something purposeful and true.

…And Repeat

“Are you in earnest?” says my dog-eared copy of Faust. “Seize this very minute. What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” This doesn’t mean you’ll never misstep. It means that when you trade indecision for choice, you’ll be rewarded with either success or education. Guaranteed.

Claire finally said yes to Mike and no to her own apartment. Though her mind yapped like a mad poodle about lost opportunities, her body relaxed. She became less frantic. She hasn’t switched jobs, but right now, she says, that feels okay.

Claire discovered the genius, power, and magic that comes with finally, actively choosing. You have the opportunity to discover that for yourself. Feed your mind, but feel your heart. Trust in your truth. It will be the best investment you’ll ever make.

Yes? No? Maybe? How to Make Decisions

_DSC6293“I’ve got to commit to this relationship or end it,” said Tessa, sounding a little desperate. “I can’t go one more day without making the decision.” It was clear that she really meant this…just as she had the first time I heard her say it, eight years earlier.

Tessa is prone to ambivalence, a torturous condition that simultaneously pulls and crushes us between incompatible alternatives. Though it can make us say laughably absurd things (“I’ve known for eight years that this can’t go on one more day!”), ambivalence feels anything but funny. If you tend toward indecision or face a problem with a number of equally good solutions, it can help to be reminded that you may have more options than you think possible. 

Option One: Do Nothing

If you’re feeling intransigently ambivalent, it might pay to formally accept what’s already happening—that is, decide not to decide. Here are three ways to take the pressure off yourself to make a choice right this second.

  1. Refocus. Stop thinking about the problem by thinking about something else. Read a book. Feed the homeless. Learn French. You’d be amazed what you can do with the energy you once put into fretting. If a decision is absolutely necessary, change will eventually push you off the fence. Tessa, for example, will stay in her relationship until it becomes unbearable or her boyfriend leaves her or they die in a hail of satellite debris, or whatever—whether Tessa continues to agonize or focuses on more interesting pursuits.
  2. Delegate. Officially give someone else authority to make the choice, as you might pay a skydiving instructor to push you out of an airplane or an organization expert to trash the objects clogging your home. Warning: When the moment of decision comes, you’ll disagree, rationalize, possibly weep. So make sure your adviser is both honorable and utterly ruthless.
  3.  Research. Indecision may come from an instinctive hunch that there’s more you need to know—which means it’s time to learn everything you can about the pros and cons of each option. You can continue on this track, however, only as long as you’re unearthing genuinely new information. The moment your research becomes reiterative, you’ll need to go to Option Two.

Option Two: Do Anything

I often make ambivalent clients play that game where you find a hidden object by following the clues “You’re getting warmer” and “You’re getting colder.” Ditherers often stop dead in their tracks and start asking questions: “Where is it?” “Is it under something?” “Can I look up?” These are smart people and the game is extremely simple, but my waffling clients manage to find the one possible way to lose at it: not moving.

The reason I make my clients search my office for a pen, a coffee cup, or my elderly, immobile beagle is because many of us do this with major life decisions. I want to go back to school, but what if I ruin my career? That’s a nice house, but what if it burns down? Instead of asking whether one option makes us feel “warmer” (as in happier) or “colder” (unhappier or generally squashed by the universe), we may ponder such questions for ten, 12, 50 years…then, boom! A quail-hunting expedition or liposuction procedure goes awry, and the only determination left is whether we’d prefer to spend the future in a coffin or an urn.

If you’re waiting for the Right Answer to end all uncertainty, look no further: The answer to every “what if” question (which I got from a fabulous teacher named Nancy Whitworth, who got it from her special-needs students) is “som’n else.” What will you do if you make the wrong choice? Som’n else. If you lose your job? Som’n else. If your fiancé stomps your heart into a pulsating pancake? Som’n else. Using this principle, we can formulate a complete guide to life:

  1. Do anything.
  2. See if you feel warmer (happier, more alive) or colder (more miserable and dead) if you do X.
  3. If it feels colder, do som’n else.
  4. Repeat as necessary.

Some people, however, are too baffled to use this method. For them doing nothing is intolerable and doing any old thing is overwhelming, but they have one option left. My favorite. 

Option Three: Do Something Completely Different

No problem, said Einstein, can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. Then he resolved ambivalent aspects of Newtonian physics by figuring out relativity. Intense uncertainty may be a sign that a problem is pushing us toward a new level of consciousness. Instead of choosing one of two options, we may squirt sideways, like a pinched watermelon seed, into an entirely different way of seeing.

Zen masters force this to happen by requiring students to meditate on baffling queries called koans. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “What did you look like before your mother and father were born?” The masters insist that students answer such unanswerable questions, deliberately causing severe ambivalence. Why? Because this is the path to something called satori, an experience of the mind suddenly sidestepping its usual level of consciousness, recognizing its own limitations.

For instance, I once spent years studying role conflict in American women. Our culture has created two almost irreconcilable descriptions of a “good woman.” The first is the individual achiever; the second, the self-sacrificing domestic goddess. I found that women fell into one of four categories: those who’d chosen career (and were very conflicted); those who put family first (and were very conflicted); those who’d combined work and family (and were very, very conflicted); and mystics.

Mystics? Where the hell did that category come from? It was so unexpected that I did years of interviews without even noticing that the calmest, happiest women had all experienced a kind of satori: Faced with two mutually contradictory options, they had discovered and come to trust an intensely personal inner voice. Each had found some method of detaching utterly from social context, connecting deeply with inner peace, and carrying that peace with them back into their hectic lives.

Practical Steps to Satori

If you are now facing a confounding choice, congratulations. Your life, that crafty old Zen teacher, is lining you up for your next satori. A silent meditation retreat might help. Can’t go to one? No worries; ambivalence will bring one to you. You’ll sit sleepless, hour after hour, staring at nothing through red-rimmed eyes that see no satisfactory answer.

Once you get really sick of this, you’ll be motivated enough to take a tiny vacation from doubt and fear. Just for a few minutes, stop trying to solve the problem and relax into trust: Trust in the process, in your true self, in God, in the scientific method, in any force you hope may be strong enough to hold you, ambivalence and all, for even a little while. It is in moments of surrender, following terrible vacillations, that quietly earth-shattering revolutions occur.

I can’t tell you when or how your satori will arrive. All I can tell you is that if you keep struggling with ambivalence, then relaxing, then struggling again, resolution will come. You may invent a solution no one’s ever seen. You may realize that not deciding—ever—is perfectly okay. Or you’ll feel free to do anything at all, and then do som’n else. The alternative you select will be inconsequential next to the realization that your frustration came not from a difficult choice but from the way you thought you had to choose.

Life is full of tough decisions, and nothing makes them easy. But the worst ones are really your personal koans, and tormenting ambivalence is just the sense of satori rising. Try, trust, try, and trust again, and eventually you’ll feel your mind change its focus to a new level of understanding. The problem that was tearing you apart will suddenly appear as a little puzzle, already solved. It will make you nod, or smack your forehead, or roll your eyes. It will make you laugh right out loud. 

How to Stop Regretting Decisions

Great Egret in FlightSo here’s the story: After a lifetime of hand-copying ancient texts, an elderly monk became abbot of his monastery. Realizing that for centuries his order had been making copies of copies, he decided to examine some of the monastery’s original documents. Days later, the other monks found him in the cellar, weeping over a crumbling manuscript and moaning, “It says ‘celebrate,’ not ‘celibate!'”

Ah, regret. The forehead-slap of hindsight, the woeful fuel of country ballads, the self-recrimination I feel for eating a quart of pudding in a crafty but unsuccessful attempt to avoid writing this column. If you’ve ever made a bad decision or suffered an accident, regret has been your roommate, if not your conjoined twin. It’s a difficult companion, prone to accusatory comments and dark moods, and it changes you, leaving you both tougher and more tender. You get to decide, however, whether your toughness will look like unreachable bitterness or unstoppable resilience; your tenderness the raw vulnerability of a never-healing wound, or a kindness so deep it heals every wound it touches. Regret can be your worst enemy or your best friend. You get to decide which.

There are at least two time zones where you can choose to make regret’s powerful energy healing rather than destructive: the past and the future. Both can be transformed by what you decide to do right now, in this moment.

Let’s start by changing the past. If you think that can’t be done, think again. Literally. The past doesn’t exist except as a memory, a mental story, and though past events aren’t changeable, your stories about them are. You can act now to transform the way you tell the story of your past, ultimately making it a stalwart protector of your future. Try these steps, more or less in order.

1. Get Beyond Denial
As long as you’re thinking, “That shouldn’t have happened or I shouldn’t have done that,” you’re locked in a struggle against reality. Many people pour years of energy into useless “shouldn’t haves.” The angry ones endlessly repeat that their ex-spouses shouldn’t have left them, their parents shouldn’t have overfed them, or their bosses shouldn’t have made them wear uncomfortable chipmunk costumes in 90-degree heat. Even drearier are the sad ones, who forever drone some version of “If only.” If only they’d married Sebastian, or gotten that promotion, or heeded the label’s advice not to operate heavy machinery, they would be happy campers instead of les misérables.

I call this unproductive regret. People use it to avoid scary or difficult action; instead of telling the story of the past in a useful way, they use it as their excuse for staying wretched. If you’re prone to unproductive regret, please hear this: Everyone agrees with you. That thing you regret? It really, really, really shouldn’t have happened. But. It. Did. If you enjoy being miserable, by all means, continue to rail against this fact. If you’d rather be happy, prune the “shouldn’t haves” from your mental story, and move on to…

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