I was recently invited to give a dharma talk after a yoga class. It went pretty well, with the audience of 5 nodding along and laughing, which was encouraging. I’m grateful for the invite, it was a kick in the tushie that I needed. I had a general outline to follow, and then I tried to relax enough to go off on riffs to fill it out. We had a nice talk afterwards.  Here’s what I spoke about; leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Why do we choose what we choose?
Life is endless choices, beginning before you were even born. Your mom was thinking “Pink or blue? Or yellow?” long before you were born. As a child, your parents made choices for you… carrots or Fritos with your lunch? Public or private school?
As adults, we make thousands of decisions every day… what to wear, which parking spot, whether that snarky chick at work purposely left you out at lunch. In fact, our brain cannot process all the choices it’s faced with every day, so many of our choices are made based on habit, or completely on auto-pilot. Habits are choices our brain makes for us based on repetitive experiences.
We often find ourselves making poor choices, and they’re frequently the same poor decision over and over again. Some of the most common themes are: Diet (why can’t I keep the weight off?), Relationships (Why can’t I find a nice guy/girl?), and Money (Why am I always broke?).
These repeating themes are called samskaras in yoga, and there is a biological explanation, too. If you think about the structure of our brains, we have all these neurons – brain cells – with little lightning-bolt thoughts zapping between them. The more often we have a thought, the stronger the connection between the neurons. Just like with a habit, our brain chooses the path that it knows well.

Why? Because of all the crap in our heads.
Our heads are filled with facts, assumptions, truths, misunderstandings, stereotypes, and lots of mystery stuff! It’s put there by people we trust and admire, and people we don’t trust and admire. No matter what we think of the source, the stuff still gets in our heads. Worse, we rarely fact-check what people tell us, especially when it’s someone we trust and admire. We just BELIEVE. All our thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviors filter through all this stuff in our heads.

How does all that crap get in our heads?
There are four ways information enters our brains:

  1. Direct Perception through our senses. This is the most trusted information, because you have experienced it firsthand through your eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin.
  2. Authoritative Testimony from a reliable authority. This would be someone/something whose information has been proven reliable over time and through many people’s experience. While being an authority has to be earned, one still has to be careful believing without vetting the information in some way. For example, the information should be checked against your own direct perception or multiple authorities. And remember that sometimes with time, information changes so the authority’s opinion is no longer correct. For example, there was a time when spanking a child with a willow switch was absolutely acceptable and, in fact, encouraged. Obviously, times and culture have changed.
  3. Inference based on previously gained knowledge. This is your basic, “I saw that cow give milk, so all cows give milk” theory. This can still be incorrect, and is where stereotypes come from. “I had a bad experience with this person, so all people like him that act that way.” One has to be careful with inference.
  4. Misconception: knowledge not based on true form. In this case, we’re definitely not fact-checking before coming to a conclusion. There is an ancient story of a man who enters his dimly-lit courtyard only to see a huge snake coiled in the corner. His body and mind react with panic – speeding thoughts, increased heart rate and breathing, panic. He rushes to find a light and a weapon. Returning to his now lit courtyard, he finds no snake – only a large coiled rope. Note how the man has a complete physiological reaction to the rope due to his misconception. We do this in our own paranoid, self-conscious  lives all the time.

So now that all that crap is in there, what happens to it?
All this stuff creates filters or veils that we see our reality through. Think of them as “me-colored glasses”. Nobody has had exactly the same experiences, or reactions to those experiences, as you. So you view your world through your own brand of shades, and your reality is totally based on your perception. Perception is reality!
This creates the swirling mass of illusion that we live in. Here’s a great example of an illusion (disclosure: I didn’t come up with this, but when it was told to me it was a huge lightbulb moment): There are a couple of yellow lines painted on the street out there. These lines keep our cars on the right side of the road. What, really? A stripe of paint is going to keep my car in the correct lane? Well, yes, because our society as a group has decide to value this illusion for the sake of public safety. The yellow line doesn’t actually keep your car from doing anything, you can easily drive over it. Its power is in the illusion. Marriage is an illusion, politics is an illusion, the end of the world is an illusion (see this and this).
To make it more complicated, there are emotions tied to all the stuff, the filters, and the sources of information. Emotions are the enemy of clarity! You just can’t make clear decisions when your emotions are screaming and raging; fueled by adrenaline, fear and pain (real or perceived). How can we listen to our gut with all that ruckus going on in our heads? Remember: your Self (gut/soul/chi/energy) whispers but your Ego, Intellect, and Personality shout.

So how do we make better choices?
First, we have to realize that we’re pretty ignorant of our own triggers and why we have them. The hardest part is looking inside to discover what things set us off. What enters our perceptions, is viewed through our filters, sets off a wave of emotions and causes us to make a poor decision? What are your triggers? Sometimes it helps to have a trusted friend give you an honest assessment of your flaws. Ripping the band-aid off hurts, but it’s the only way to know what to look out for. Digging deep enough to determine why you have that trigger (discovering the root cause) gives you power over them.
Once you know what your triggers are, the solution is to catch yourself before the trigger goes off. So it usually works like this: In the beginning, you’ve made the bad decision but at least you realize it was bad. After some more practice, you can catch yourself in the moment of making the bad decision and hopefully have time to stop. After even more practice, you see the trigger coming and catch yourself before you make the bad decision, so you’re fully able to make a better one. Sometimes this practicing takes a long time, but occasionally it comes to you in a flash of insight.

Methods to try
We have lots and lots of crap in our heads, and lots of  triggers. It is often pretty easy for our buttons to be pushed. I wouldn’t recommend trying to tackle all those triggers at once; in fact, it is impossible. Its better to start with one or two really obvious ones, working down to the more subtle ones as you find yourself making better choices. Don’t feel bad falling off the wagon, just get back on. Here are some things to try, you might find one or more of them useful as you move down your path.

  • Concentration/meditation. Don’t get hung up on “meditating”. I wrote about that in this post. Sit quietly and think about a time you made a poor choice. Play it in your mind like a movie in reverse… what exactly happened? How did I feel during that? What happened just before that and what was I thinking/feeling then?
  • Journaling. Similar to meditating, write down what you were thinking and feeling the last time you made a poor choice. Don’t worry about being perfect, nobody has to see what you write. Just write whatever comes into your head, even if it’s stupid and has nothing to do with making a choice. Eventually the dam will break and the thoughts will begin to flow.
  • Work with a trusted friend. Someone who will tell it to you straight and not judge you. A life coach, therapist, or trusted clergy are other options.
  • Read scripture from whichever theology speaks to you. But be cautious – for all the truth that can be found in scripture, there is an equal amount of illusion.