"Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?" -- Pema Chodron
Many people associate meditation with some blissed-out state, preferably in a tropical climate with sandy beaches and Zen music in the background. Yet for most of us, our day to day life involves rush hour traffic, tight deadlines, screaming children or needy pets, and last minute urgent requests.
In this environment, we are often faced with key decisions that must be made, often quickly and with insufficient information.
So what is the mindfulness approach to all of this? How can we remain engaged and active in our busy world and make timely decisions while still focusing on living in the present moment?
Here are some strategies that I have found incredibly helpful:
1) Does this need to be decided today?
While some decisions are certainly necessary day to day, I have found much of my decision-making power is used up ruminating on things that I don't yet have the answer to, and don't need to.
I think I revisit whether I should sign up for a psychotherapy training about 20 times daily, when the selection process does not even begin for another 6 months, and the course starts almost a full year from now.
I want some certainty around this, I want to know NOW what will happen then, but the reality is I'm not sure. I don't need to be. From now until then, many things will happen that will inform whether the course will be right for me.
So when the thought comes -- yes I will sign up! No I will not do it! And then changes the next day, I observe the thoughts, without judgment, and give myself compassion for wanting to have it all figured out. I trust that with more time, and more information, the right answer will come.
2) What Is More Peaceful?
When making decisions around social events, vacations and other future situations that require scheduling and do need to be decided today, I tune into the emotional charge that each thought brings.
Does the thought of going to yet another family function make you cringe with resentment while thinking of staying home and watching TV with your dog brings on feelings of contentment and wellbeing? It may be that despite the seeming obligation, staying home is what you need right now.
In my experience, doing what is most peaceful is seldom wrong. If one of your greatest objectives in life is having a peaceful and joyful life, it makes sense to use this as an anchor when choosing what to do. Another day, you may feel rested and eager to be with your family, and this would be the correct choice at that time.
Tuning in to what is most peaceful when making decisions provides a way to connect with yourself in this moment, and see what you most need.
3) What does your body say?
For most of us, making decisions involves an analytical process that uses primarily the intellect. However, there is much, much wisdom in the body that can be tapped into at any time.
Imagine a key decision that is coming up for you now. When you think of one outcome, what happens in the body? Does your belly contract in and tighten or relax? Do your shoulders hunch up towards your ears or drop down? Does your chest close up or widen and open?
When a decision is right for you, your body will tell you by relaxing and expanding. When it is wrong, you will tighten and contract. Even if a choice is scary, if it is the correct one there will be an expansive quality to the fear. Like excitement and anticipation, not a desire to hide or run.
4) When in Doubt, Leave it Out
We live in an age of acquisitiveness. There is always a new model of phone or computer to buy, another certificate to get, a room to renovate in your house, or another obligation to get to. I see this in my children, who at 2 and 5 already "need" a pair of light-up shoes or to join yet another after-school activity because all their friends are doing it.
Given this culture of needing more and more, it is often wise to go without. When a choice is difficult, and you are not sure whether to change jobs yet again, to dump your current boyfriend because he's not exactly meeting all your needs, to get a new car, or a new puppy, consider leaving it out, and letting things be as they are. Stay with the discomfort of choosing not to change, for now.
If it's really right for you, a time will come when you are no longer in doubt, and that is the time to act. I once heard a beautiful quote that aligns with this approach: If you know, but don't act, you don't yet know. So don't rush the process, and trust that when something is right for you, you will know. In the meantime, practice letting go and resting in gratitude for all you already have in the present moment.
These decision-making tools, like any new technique, require some practice. One great way to practice is to use them when making small decisions such as what to wear or what to have for lunch. Once you see their effectiveness in small ways throughout the day, you will trust yourself enough to make important decisions not just with your mind, but with your whole heart and being.