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How to Decide by Not Deciding

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There are many different types of decision makers: those who jump in, feet first, and ask questions later; those who gather info, discuss and deliberate; those who punt -- who would simply rather not; and those "deciders" who, like a certain former president, relish the thrill.

Like me, you have probably been each type of decider at some point in your life -- even if the last time you felt certain was when you were a toddler, and pursued desires and exerted your will without hesitation or remorse.

When a small group of Zen monks in California chose to stay and defend their monastery during a wildfire in 2008 -- and then decided again, midway into a final evacuation, by turning around -- I was enthralled. How had they made such a choice, in the heat and tumult of the moment? Did their Zen practice help? As a longtime Zen student, and as someone who has struggled with indecision, I wanted to know. "The great way is not difficult," goes one of my favorite teachings, "just avoid picking and choosing." And yet, who can avoid it? Each of us makes dozens of decisions each day, most so small we're hardly aware of them. The big ones come less frequently, but they can freeze us in our tracks.

"Sometimes we need to reason through our options and carefully analyze the possibilities," writes Jonah Lehrer in "How We Decide." "And sometimes we need to listen to our emotions. The secret is knowing when to use these different styles of thought. We always need to be thinking about how we think."

In research for my book "Fire Monks," which describes how residents of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center decided to stay and meet the fire, I discovered that the science of decision making mirrors some core principles of Zen practice. The aim of zazen, or meditation -- if meditation can be said to have a goal -- is to let go, which turns out to be key to decision making, too.

Let me explain.

Eight centuries ago, Soto Zen founder Eihei Dogen told his students in Japan to "think non-thinking" as an instruction for meditation. In zazen, don't try to blot out thoughts or corral them. Rather, allow them to rise up and float away. Watch how the mind flows, chases its own tail, eddies here and there. Gently guide your awareness back to the present moment by paying attention to your breath, to sensations and sounds. This isn't quite thinking or not thinking -- it's a process of cultivating a field of awareness that is not tied to particular thoughts.

We tend to think decisions are made in our heads, but we can get stuck when we try to come at a decision from a purely intellectual, abstract or individual stance. The decision of Tassajara residents to stay during the fire didn't stem from a thinking place. (Actually, this is always true, for everyone. Even as we mentally weigh a decision, stored emotions work behind the scenes, providing advice in what we experience as intuition.) They made the decision to stay holistically, with their bodies, their hearts, their intelligence about the place's defensibility and their preparations. They decided as individuals with unique histories and also as a community with the shared experience of Zen practice. For me, it's helpful to remember that any decision is actually a web of choices like this -- even if it feels more like a tangled rope -- a complex interplay of interdependent circumstances in which I play one part.

I get hung up making decisions when I fear I'll screw up. But mistakes, it turns out, are inevitable, even necessary. Every time we stumble or miss the mark, Lehrer says, our emotions keep pristine archives. Mistakes are, literally, teachers, both in the neuroscience behind decisions and in Zen practice. Decisions are just decisions, particular actions with unpredictable outcomes. Strange as it may sound, it's good to let go of hanging a choice's worth on whether or not it brings you what you want. Measured by that standard, a life can only amount to a grand failure. I try to regard my own bumbles with tenderness, even gratitude and affection, knowing that my mistakes are the stagehands for the moments in which I make what feels like the "right" call. "Awkward in a hundred ways, clumsy in a thousand, still I go on," goes another Zen saying.

In Zen, the mind that doesn't know -- and admits this freely -- is held in higher regard than the mind that thinks it has it all figured out. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of Tassajara, famously stated it this way: "In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." This is contrary to what most of us have been taught. We like being "in the know." We have little tolerance for uncertainty, which makes us feel small and vulnerable. But the evidence is in: A mind that won't tolerate uncertainty -- "that can't stand the argument," in Lehrer's words -- is a mind easily misled. Zazen fosters a willingness to be with the unknown, an opening of the gates of perception, a posture that is firm and alert but not stiff or closed off. From this flexible place, it's possible to chart a wise course, moment by moment. You can't bully your way to enlightenment or decisiveness. You have to let go of wanting anything at all, and then a world of options opens up.

A lot rides on how we decide. Decisions are the junctures where our lives meet the world. They define the trail we leave behind. But we make good decisions, ironically, when we let go of trying to make good decisions or to leave a mark at all. The best decisions I've made didn't have much "me" in them at all. They simply arrived. My job was just to recognize them and take the next step.

Colleen Morton Busch is the author of "Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara." For more information, visit http://fire-monks.com.

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