Text by Phillip Moffitt
As a Buddhist meditation teacher, I often counsel students facing big decisions. Take Alicia, a woman in her early forties who felt burned out by her high-profile job. Her company had just hired a new president who valued her abilities and wanted her to assume more responsibility. If she quit, Alicia feared she'd miss out on a career opportunity; if she stayed, she could find herself more stressed. "Should I hang in there, despite how I feel?" she asked me. "Or should I take the plunge and leave, even at the risk of possibly regretting my decision later?"
Like Alicia, we're all familiar with the anxiety and uncertainty that come with decision-making. The Buddha taught that this suffering arises out of ignorance -- by which he meant not a lack of knowledge, but rather our misperception of reality. In other words, if your mind is in a jumble, you're in no position to choose wisely.
The solution, he said, lies with mindfulness, a technique that helps you pay better attention to what is going on in your mind. You can use the mindfulness approach to clarify your thinking -- even when your thoughts are muddled by the stress of deciding. It is a three-step process in which you gain awareness of your thoughts and emotions, investigate the problem without judging, and finally surrender to your experience.
That's what Alicia did. She ultimately chose to leave her job, and because she stayed present to the thoughts that arose throughout the course of her deliberation, she is completely at peace with her choice. The mindful decision-making process kept her grounded -- and it can do the same for you.
1. Take Stock
When you're faced with a tough decision, first pay attention to how you're feeling. Pressured? Anxious? Does your stomach hurt? Do your eyes burn? By noticing your body's signals, you'll gain access to your intuition.
Next, try to name the source of the conflict, as this will help bring it into focus. Note that your understanding of the issue may evolve over time. For example, if you're weighing whether or not to quit your job, you may initially think, "There's too much pressure at work." A week later you think, "No, the real reason is that I don't like my boss." Another week goes by and you realize, "I don't feel good about this job, because it doesn't line up with my values." By staying mindful of the conflict over a period of weeks, you'll come to discover what lies at the heart of it.
2. Get Clear
Now go deeper, considering not only your feelings about the decision but also the consequences of making it. Perhaps the long-term effects are minimal, and you've been distraught over something that's not all that important. Or maybe it's an easy decision that you have been making hard because you don't want to face it -- and that's creating stress. Be realistic, too, about the deadline: Are you worrying about a choice that you won't actually have to make for a long time?
For clarity, also figure out what kind of decision it is. This step alone can often make the best path obvious. For example, let's say you're in the market for a new car. Your spouse wants one particular model, and you may be tied up in knots thinking you're supposed to care. But you don't. In fact, it's not that big a deal to you what car you drive. In this case, simply realizing that you're facing a "neutral" choice will help you relax and let the decision go either way.
It may seem obvious, but do you have the information you need to make the decision? Surprisingly, we often don't, or we don't organize it in a way that reflects our priorities. Either way, this can make deciding difficult. Conversely, perhaps it's not possible to obtain more information. In this case, rather than gathering and reorganizing information endlessly, you need to go ahead and act.
Now think about how your decision will affect others -- and how they will feel about it. After all, we're not islands; every choice we make affects our families, spouses, kids, and friends. As you gather feedback from others, though, try not to get completely overrun by their opinions. Balance their viewpoints within the context of this being about your quest to discover what's ultimately true for you.
3. Go with It
As a last exercise, write down what your mind is telling you to do right now, then what your heart seems to want, and finally what your intuition seems to be saying. When these centers of knowing conflict, the effects can be paralyzing. If you're stumped, my usual advice is to go with your heart and intuition, if they agree, but to do so utilizing the practical planning capacity of the mind.
Try not to cling to the idea of making "the right choice." When you insist on perfection, you're only deluding yourself and delaying the decision. The truth is, no matter what you choose to do, it's impossible to foresee all the consequences. The decision could be right for a while and then turn out wrong later on. Or it might be wrong now but lead to a much better situation in the future. So once you decide what you are going to do, "try it on" for a few days to see how it feels. If you're still confident about it, act on your choice -- and then be open to accepting and surrendering to however the future unfolds.
Through the mindfulness process, you'll gain clarity about the decision, its consequences, and your feelings about it. Once you've made the decision, as best you're able, it's time to move on with your life. In the end, it's not the decision, but rather how you live it out, that truly matters.
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Five Types of Decisions
Can't choose? It helps to know what type of decision you're facing. Buddhist meditation teacher Phillip Moffitt explains the five types.
All your options are good.
If you're struggling with a win-win decision (such as spending time with family versus vacationing with friends), it could indicate that you aren't clear about your values or priorities. Ask yourself, "Am I creating options for myself to escape facing a deeper issue?"
You don't have a preference for any of your choices, and yet you still can't seem to decide.
Paralysis sometimes indicates an unacknowledged feeling trying to express itself. Be mindful of how each choice "feels" in your body right now. Often this will help reveal the answer.
You see gains and losses in all of your options. Because of this, it's not clear which course you should take.
Where sacrifices are involved, beware of trying to have your cake and eat it, too. Likewise, be careful of fantasy decision-making. ("He's not right for me, but if I commit, he'll change.")
All the options have unpleasant consequences (like choosing between keeping silent or speaking up about a family secret, that some relatives don't know about -- but perhaps should).
Listen to your heart: In the end, which decision will be the easiest to live with?
The consequences are unclear (as in the case of whether or not to have a risky operation).
Fully explore the ramifications of making the choice now versus putting it off. Don't decide until you absolutely have to.
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Still unsure? A workout could be just the thing to help iron out your mind.