We will start this dharma talk with a one-minute exercise. For the next one minute, you are welcome to do anything…sit, move, keep your eyes closed or open. But only one condition, you shall not speak. How did people feel after the exercise? Everyone made at least 2 choices. The choice to not speak out loud was a conscious choice, in some ways made for you although the choice to adhere to this dictum was voluntary. When the mind wandered in thoughts or judgments, it was an unconscious choice but a choice nevertheless which brings us to the topic of today’s dharma talk…the Role of Choice.
Before we begin however it is important to lay out the context or a caveat – we will not talk about choices that are forced under duress. There are some exceptional and rare situations in life where choice is truly taken away from us and we will not be talking about those situations. Instead, we will concern ourselves with the following questions:
The Role of Choice
What is a choice and how much control do we have over our choices?
The Oxford Dictionary defines choice as “an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities.” A few observations jump out – there is a degree of free will involved, the choice is a function of the options available, some level of awareness is required to exercise a choice and finally the implicit assumption that choices are made consciously.
Let’s understand the level of control we have over our choices. Are we truly free when we make decisions such as reaching for a glass of wine or picking a particular chair when we enter a hall? The key question is whether we are genuinely making choices out of free will i.e., consciously, or are we deluding ourselves into thinking we make choices out of free will?
If we pay close attention, we realize that choices are made consciously or unconsciously. In the case of a glass of wine, it is an idea that ‘wine = relaxation’ that is planted in our heads to which we have become enslaved. Basically, someone made the choice for us and we are simply conditioned. Similarly picking a particular spot in a hall, is a function of our compulsive tendencies that have hardened over a period of time. These tendencies govern nearly everything we do – from judgments to our view of the world. Our present state is the sum of all choices we have made so far yet we can see that there are very few truly conscious or ‘free’ choices that we make in our daily lives.
From a Zen perspective, life can be viewed as an observation of choices being made – consciously. It is the full awareness of the connection between thought and action. It is about making us 100% responsible for our choices. The goal is to make our unconscious choices completely conscious and yes, we have the means to achieve this goal. Zen offers a brilliant key to this problem. When we meditate, we essentially train ourselves to ‘consciously’ bring our attention back to our anchor, each time we ‘unconsciously’ allow it to wander away. It is in the moment-to-moment awareness of the choices we make that we find serenity, peace, and enlightenment. It is about time to stop the harm our unconscious choices are inflicting on ourselves, our families, and most importantly our planet.
To summarize, our life today is a function of choices that have been made so far…consciously or unconsciously. In most circumstances of life, we have a choice. The key is to pay attention to each choice and find the balance – so we don’t do too much or too little but just enough. Be acutely aware of the greatest flaw in our evolution which is our innate tendency to comply with a notion planted in our mind. True freedom, on the other hand, is about making each choice with full and complete awareness.