As told to Leigh Newman
The writer of "The Power of Now" explores how to arrive at new kind of clarity when we're standing at one of life's crossroads.
One scenario: Due to budget cuts, you may -- or may not -- be losing your job, and you're not sure if you should take the much-lower-paying job at another company or just stay where you are in case things work out. Another: With the birth of your new baby, you need to move, and you can't make up your mind between the neighborhood with the good public school and the one where the houses are actually in your budget. Yet another: After seven years together, your marriage has turned into a relentless series of bitter arguments, but you're not certain if you should try to reconcile or finally end the relationship.
All of us have had these kinds of experiences -- times when we have to decide something and we just don't know what to do.
The first step is usually to collect information. You have to look at the facts of the situation: What's for and what's against. But even then, you still may not be able to come to a conclusion. For example, if you're choosing between two three-bedroom houses, and they're just about the same price, and they're in just the same kind of neighborhood, you're not going to get very far. Pros and cons are one level of decision-making but not the most vital one.
When we can't make up our minds, it's because of our minds, or what I call "the voice in your head." Many people don't even know they have this voice. But it's talking away, creating a never-ending inner monologue. Sometimes the voice is even engaged in a dialogue, because it splits into two and you start talk to yourself. The chatter is so incessant it's like having a continuous humming sound from a refrigerator or an air conditioner in the room with you and after a while, you don't hear it anymore.
During tough choices, this voice isn't very helpful. Often it criticizes, keeping a running commentary about you and all the things you did wrong or you just didn't do. It criticizes others as well. It's like living with somebody who can't stand you, much less anybody else. You wouldn't want to live with a person like that. You would walk out of the relationship. But since you can't get free of your mind, you're stuck. The result? You get discouraged. You can't see the positive side to what might come from your decisions.
The voice in your head also creates a huge amount of problems that aren't really problems. They're just things that haven't happened yet, things that could happen tomorrow or next week. Listening to unreal problems has another name: worrying. That's what the voice in your head does. It what-ifs. It frets. It agonizes, and you can no longer sense the joy of life.
If it runs out of other ideas, that voice in your head then turns to complaining. Now, I'm not talking about complaining when you go to somebody and say, "This is wrong, and it must be put right." For example, when you're in a hotel and you see there's no hot water. Of course, you should phone the front desk and say, "I'm trying to take a shower. Can you please help me?" In these cases, something can be done. But when you're in situation where you're still making up your mind and you don't know where to go next, the voice in your head begins to complain about everything else, even things unrelated to the situation: the weather, how bad the economy is, how your life wasn't supposed to turn out this way and why everybody but you seems to figure things out. Complaining adds nothing except heaviness. It gives you a big sack of rocks to carry around on your back while you're trying to figure out what to do, and it prevents you, in many cases, from taking any action at all.
Now imagine that that voice inside your head suddenly stops. You realize, Wow, it's so beautifully quiet. This is exactly what you need to make an effective choice. You need to be present. You need to be free of anything other than what is happening now.
Of course, you can't just snap your fingers and suddenly it happens. Some people first experience it during extreme sports. Climbing a mountain, for example, finding footholds and handholds, they realize they're not thinking at all. They're totally present, because if they slipped into having thoughts, they would fall off the mountain. Others go into nature. They look at the beauty all around them, they listen to the birds and the rustling of the leaves and suddenly they realize that this is what being present is. But you don't have to wait to become engaged in some dangerous activity or go into the wilderness. You can choose to be present anywhere, in any situation, by moving the focus of your attention away from thinking and into the aliveness of your entire body.
When you're present, your sensory perceptions -- your hearing, your seeing -- instantly increase. You'll feel a stillness, one that you don't have to manufacture. It's been there all along, under all that thinking about "what to do." You'll be able to see the difference between: here's the situation and here is what my mind is saying about the situation, or, in other words between: "I might lose my job" and "I might lose my job, which will mean I'll lose my house and have to take my daughter out of her school and move in with my parents, so I have to get another job by the end of the week, even if there are no jobs and I'm not skilled enough to get one."
This doesn't mean that you completely disregard or ignore the future, and it doesn't mean that you can no longer think about what you're going to do tomorrow. It just means that the focus of your attention is in the present moment. You need to plan for certain things but always come back to the immediacy and liveliness of what's really happening.
How do we do this? One way is to start recognizing that voice in your head. Once you hear what you're thinking, you may be able to stop thinking. Another way is to ask yourself What problem do I have right now? Often, this wakes you up. You'll have to admit: All right, right now I don't have a problem. For example, at this very second, you haven't lost your job. You may lose it later, but at this very second you have a job. Yes, you still may have a challenging situation that will later require action. But that's not a problem, is it? It's an event. Further, should a problem arise, right this second, then you'll do something about it.
Once you understand what your situation actually is -- which is not what that voice in your head says it is -- then, of course, you can stop struggling. The situation exists. You don't have to worry about it or drink over it or cry or debate or ask others for advice. You can stop resisting it because what was making you sick was your own thinking about it -- not it.
In fact, you're able to go on with your normal activity -- and that's where intuition comes in. Because when you connect with stillness, you also connect with a creative intelligence that is higher than analytical thinking. Very often, the right decision then arises spontaneously. It may not happen immediately. It may take your going back to your normal life, but this time period gives your intuition the room and silence it needs to surface.
Ultimately, I believe, whether you choose one way or the other doesn't matter. If you're present when you make your decision, then you'll be present in the next situation -- and be ready to make choices as the need comes up. Of course, you always could have done things differently. But the ultimate importance is not what you do, it's how you do it -- the state of consciousness brought to the process, which hopefully will let you feel the aliveness of all your experiences.