10/27/2012 10:50 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Paradox of No Choice

About eight years ago, I was presented with an opportunity to do some business in Eastern Europe. While everything in me knew that it was not something I really wanted to do, the amount of money being offered was more than I had ever made before and came at a time when we could have really used it.

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I asked one of my mentors at the time whether or not I could just ignore my wisdom this one time, take the money, and regret it later. He shook his head wistfully and said "No -- not anymore. You're past that point." And while a small part of me balked at the idea that I didn't have any choice, the majority of me knew exactly what he meant.

I was reminded of this last week during a discussion I was having with my friend Sandy Krot. She was sharing with me a model she uses in both business and personal sessions to explain the role of wisdom in decision-making.

Imagine a continuum that goes from left to right:


On the left hand side of the continuum we see ourselves as victims of circumstance, and consequently, when a decision point comes up in our lives we believe that we have no choice about what to do -- we must stay married or get divorced, keep working at the same dead-end job or leave immediately, allow ourselves to be bullied or "defend our honor" by fighting back at every imagined slight.

As we become more conscious of our role in creating our experience of life, we realize that we are not really helpless victims, and we begin to see that even in the most dire of circumstances we do have some choices, although we may not particularly like any of the ones we are currently able to see.

The further we go toward the right of the continuum, the more empowered we feel and the more choices we become aware of until we realize that in any situation, we have a nearly infinite range of choices. There are not only innumerable actions we could take (though some of them may take great courage), but we also have choices about our attitude (angle of approach) and what meaning we ascribe to whatever it is that is happening.

But at some point, as the voice of fear diminishes and we begin to see things more clearly, we realize that there isn't much of a choice after all -- we are pretty much always going to do what our wisdom and common sense guide us to do, not because we "have to" but because anything else would be self-defeating and a little bit silly.

At this point, our continuum now looks like this:


The guidance of our wisdom is always available to us, but at times can be a bit hard to hear amidst the noisy chatter of our fearful thoughts. But once we do begin to hear it and understand its significance, there's no going back.

By way of an example, think about the simple task of crossing the street. As a child, chances are you were shouted at by the big people the first time you began to run into a busy street without looking. Their intention was to frighten you just enough to prevent you from ever doing something so life-threatening ever again. And if you're reading this, chances are it worked -- you learned not to run out into the street without a grownup holding your hand, or as you got older, without looking both ways for traffic.

But at some point, you realized that the voice in your head saying "NO!" was just a voice in your head, and that you could run out into the street (or try drugs or sex or swimming less than an hour after eating) without getting into trouble from your parents or teachers. And in an odd sort of way, that was quite empowering. At last, you're your own person, and nobody can ever tell you what you have to do or not do ever again.

Except that at some point, you no longer run into the street (or take drugs or have unprotected sex with strangers) not because you are frightened, but because you actually understand the consequences of each one of those acts. It's no longer about asserting your freedom or individuality -- it's just about following your common sense, understanding and wisdom.

Of course, you can still ignore all that and go play in traffic anyway -- but why would you? It would make no more sense than deliberately hitting yourself in the face with a shovel, or teaching a pig to sing (which as most people realize doesn't work and annoys the pig).

The paradox of no choice is that in order to live a truly guided life, you have to be willing to give up things that sound awfully good to the personally developing mind -- things like "empowerment" and "courage" and "choice." Not because you couldn't hang on to them -- but given the alternative, why would you?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below -- and may your inner wisdom be as loud as a helicopter and as clear as a bell!

With all my love,

For more by Michael Neill, click here.

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