I live in America, “the land of the free.” This country was built on the grounds that all men (yes, just men, says the Declaration of Independence) were created equal and everyone has equal opportunity for success, the same rights, and the freedom to make their own decisions and pursue happiness.
According to the theoretical nature above, I’m all in. I’m a big believer in equality, pursuing happiness, and freedom. That’s where I’ll focus this post today, specifically on the freedom of making decisions (in case you were worried I was going to get political.) In theory, freedom is a beautiful thing, we can create our own destiny and change our paths at any time. We have that power and the freedom … if we choose to use it.
We Always Have a Choice
Sometimes we don’t realize we are even making decisions. It can happen mindlessly—and before we know it, something in your life has been decided without you even being aware of it. Even though you’re the one who made the decision.
On the other end of the spectrum, we can spend so much time going back and forth on decisions, worrying about potential future consequences that will likely never come to fruition, and weighing our minds down with pros and cons.
We make thousands of decisions every day. From small decisions like whether or not to hit snooze, what to have for breakfast and which yoga class to take … to larger decisions, like whether to move in with your significant other, pursue an operation, or find a new job. Each decision can take between milliseconds to years, with an average of about nine minutes. And that doesn’t include the amount of time we spend wondering whether the decision was the right one, nor does it include the time we spend regretting certain decisions (6-20% of decisions end with regret, according to a study published in the Journal of Social Psychological & Personal Science.)
If saving time appeals to you, you may want to look at the space between a stimulus and the point of decision.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~ Viktor E. Frankl
A stimulus is a distraction of sorts. Which are worth reacting to and worth spending time on? Which are not? You can choose which to react to, and in what ways. But first, you must notice the stimuli as they arise, and actually make the decision to react. This can be the hardest part.
A mindfulness practice teaches us to observe things as they arise. That’s what we practice in mindfulness meditation: awareness of the present moment without judgment.
The guidelines for a practice of observation are below. They help us to practice being non-reactive in our everyday interactions with the world, and help us to understand that we always have the freedom to make a conscious choice, if we can bring ourselves into awareness. Next time you are served with a catalyst that would normally cause you some stress and are auto-thrown into a reactive state … Stop. Take a deep breath. Then come back to the situation with awareness and the intention of making a conscious reaction.
Try the practice in your meditations, and observe how the practice of awareness trickles into your daily activities outside of meditation.
- Start by sitting quietly, upright and tall
- Close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths. Slip into stillness.
- If you feel an itch, tingling sensation or any other physical distraction … simply notice it. Observe it. Then take a deep breath. After your breath, you can choose how you are going to react to it—or not react to it.
- When a thought or emotion arises as you sit, notice them as they come. Take a deep breath and invite your awareness back to your breath.
- If you hear a sound coming from the outside: the washing machine, the phone ring (although hopefully your phone is turned to silent during meditation,) an airplane overhead or a child cry, notice if you have a tendency to want to look or check. Then take a deep breath. After your breath, you can decide whether or not the sound was worth peeking at or checking on.
- If you have a pain in your knee or an ache in your back and have the desire to change your physical position, take a deep breath before you do anything. Then make a conscious choice—of moving or staying still. It’s OK to move or shift or change positions during your meditation, as long as they are done with awareness. Notice: have you decided to shift, or did you do it without first making the decision?
As you transition from these mindfulness practices and into your life, try applying this mindful decision-making to any part of your life. Notice the point where you are stirred, triggered, or distracted. Identify the cause of a new emotion or situation. Notice emotions and thoughts that arise, as well as physical and technological distractions. Observe it all … and then mindfully make a decision on how to respond.