‘When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice.’
Many of us get really stuck when faced with making decisions, and mindfulness can be a very helpful tool in supporting us in this kind of challenge. Our emotions can be a helpful guide in the face of making big decisions. As you become more aware of the body sensations
associated with particular emotions, not just the thoughts, you’ll find a deeper source of wisdom that is your intuition or ‘gut feeling’.
Our emotions can be powerful guides that help us move forward in the face of difficult decisions. So in this way, mindfulness helps us get better at discerning which emotions are driven by fear and lead us away from what we truly want in our lives, and which ones are
driven by wisdom guiding us towards what we genuinely desire.
The word ‘decision’ comes from the Latin decidere, which means
‘to cut off ’. Decisions lead to change, which inevitably come with losses and gains, and for many of us the thought of closing doors and making the ‘wrong’ decision can be deeply uncomfortable. We each have our own unique way of making decisions. Some of us dive into taking action in the face of a decision, then are overwhelmed post-decision as the mind starts analysing the situation. Alternatively, some of us end up in analysis paralysis and then finally make a choice once we’ve exhausted all possible outcomes in our mind.
Mindfulness training has been crucial in helping me tune in to my feelings and intuition to solve a dilemma, rather than getting caught in analytical mind loops.
Although many philosophers over the centuries have warned that we
should always turn to reason over emotion, science has revealed that our emotions are actually useful bodily signals that can help to support our decisions. In his book Descartes’ Error, world-renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes a patient whose inability to experience emotions had a devastating effect on his decision-making and his life.
Elliot was a successful lawyer who underwent surgery for a brain tumour that led to an injury in his prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for receiving messages and signals from the emotional brain centre. After the surgery, his intelligence was unaffected – he could think, speak and do all of the things he could do before. However, his life fell apart through poor decision-making. His family explained that simple decisions such as what to eat or how to file his work papers would now take him hours to make. Damasio tested Elliot’s brain and found that while his thinking and reasoning were unaffected by the surgery, when asked what date he would like to come back for another check-up, Elliot could give a list of things that were coming up but was unable to make a decision.
Damasio’s theory was that when we are faced with decisions, we unconsciously receive body signals associated with different emotions that help us filter one outcome from the next. Without an ability to access his emotions and ‘body wisdom’, Elliot could not weigh up what mattered most to him.
In fact, the term ‘trust your gut’ has a scientific base, thanks to a part of the brain called the ‘basal ganglia’. According to Daniel Goleman, our basal ganglia stores information about everything we do and keeps track of our decisions, like a database that remembers everything from our lives. It isn’t connected to our verbal brain and so it can’t communicate with our reason, but it is connected to the gut and may therefore play an important role in what we call ‘intuition’, our non-verbal feeling system. It can’t tell us what it knows in words, so it tells us what it knows through the body, through our feelings.
In his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung describes visiting Taos, New Mexico, to learn about Native American culture. He spoke with an elder named Mountain Lake, who expressed to Jung that white people always seemed uneasy and restless: ‘We do not understand them. We think that they are mad.’ Jung asked him why he thought white people were mad. ‘They say they think with their heads,’ Mountain Lake explained. ‘We think here.’ He pointed to his heart.
In the Western world, we too easily dismiss the body as no more than a mode of transportation for our heads, rather than an additional source of intelligence. Our language is a powerful reflection of the way we perceive reality, and in English (and most other Western languages), we define ourselves with two separate words – we are a ‘mind’ and a ‘body’. In contrast, the single Japanese word ‘kokoro’ translates to ‘heart–mind–spirit’, which reflects an understanding that these parts are not entirely separate, but are really one integrated whole, which is a more accurate reflection of the reality.
Is there a decision that you’re avoiding because it feels too hard to
This might be a good time to try accessing your intuition.
This mindful writing exercise invites you to bring your awareness back into the body
In terms of managing a decision with greater ease, here are a few more steps that can help you to gain a different perspective on the dilemma:
Clearly label the decision that you’re grappling with.
Sometimes we get caught in thought loops about decisions that really aren’t that important. Other times, we’re faced with decisions that have no positive outcome as an option. Recognising and labelling what type of decision we’re facing provides a perspective on it. This brings attention to what is really going on so we can gain deeper insight into what is occurring beneath the surface of our busy minds
Ask yourself what this is really about
Often a decision may seem like it’s about one thing, but through
further investigation, you’ll discover it’s about something deeper and
more universal, like the fear of the unknown or a need to be in control. When I catch myself clinging to the need for a perfect decision, I remind myself that there is no way of absolutely knowing its consequences. Instead of letting myself be trapped by the need for certainty, I turn my mind to a challenge that I have faced and managed, and I tap into my inner resource of resilience. I remind myself that I’m making the best decision I can, knowing all that I know, and that I will have the strength and resilience to manage its outcomes.
Be aware of what the mind is doing in relation to the decision
If you are just obsessively replaying thoughts through your mind, recognise this as anxious thinking. Let the thoughts go and bring your attention back to the breath as a way of unhooking from it.
Make sure you have all the information you need to make the decision
Are there missing bits of information that might help you make your
decision? Contact anyone you think may be helpful in giving you the
information you need to take a step forward.
Reflect on your values and let them drive your decision
For example, if one of your values is courage, recognise that perhaps the thing obstructing your decision-making process is fear, and reassure yourself that just as you’ve managed difficulties in the past, you have the resilience to manage any of the outcomes. If one of your values is authenticity and honesty, then you can allow this value to drive the decision to have that difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding.
Be compassionate with yourself
Big decisions often take longer to make than we’d like. This can cause
frustration and create a feeling of ‘stuckness’ in our lives that can
easily turn into self-criticism. Remember to actively maintain self compassion as you navigate the complexity of your decision. Remind yourself that sometimes answers don’t come according to the timelines we have in our mind.
Dr. Elise Bialylew, is bestselling author of Amazon #1 bestseller, The Happiness Plan and founder of Mindful in May, the world’s largest online global mindfulness campaign that teaches thousands of people to meditate, while raising funds to build clean water projects in the developing world.