Who is making this decision, anyway?

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My friend was reading, while I went into another room to meditate during the break. For several months, we’d been discussing a project that both of us were enthusiastic about. In the past week, we had been having a series of meetings and knew that sometime soon we’d have to either commit to working together or call it off. For both of us, this was a major decision that would significantly affect ourselves and others.

A man using his hand shielding his mouth, in deep thinking.

Nevertheless this reflection on emptiness had helped me to let go of my self-created fears. (Photo by Jacob Bøtter)

When making decisions, I usually use three criteria. First, I ask myself: Will this choice enable me to uphold ethical discipline, or will it, in obvious or subtle ways, encourage me to compromise my values? Second, I reflect: To what extent will this choice benefit others? Will it increase or decrease my love, compassion, and bodhicitta? Third, I investigate: Will this choice enhance or restrict my meditation practice and development of wisdom?

My potential involvement in the project at hand passed these three criteria with flying colors. It would definitely enhance my ethical conduct, increase my love and compassion, benefit to many other beings, make the Buddhadharma accessible to others, and enrich my own practice. Yet, still something in me hesitated. There was a block I couldn’t decipher.

Sitting quietly on my cushion, I let my resistance surface. The new project involved going out on a limb to actualize a goal and a dream I’d had for many years. But with it were risks: This decision would involve relocating to another place, and some people would be unhappy with me for moving. They would blame me for deserting them and letting them down because my attentions would be focused on the new project instead of on their needs. In addition, I was concerned: What if the new project didn’t work out and I had to backpedal? Would I then criticize myself for making an unwise decision (even though I’d thought about it well beforehand)? Would others criticize me? What if the project worked out, but I was unhappy when my ego’s buttons got pushed in the process?

Continuing to sit, I reflected on emptiness. I was definitely grasping onto a solid self, a real “I” that could be blamed for letting others down. But who was this independent “I” that would be the target of others’ criticism? Who was the “I” that didn’t want to be blamed for anything, even when what I was doing benefited myself and others? To search for this inherently existent “I,” questions were posed: Is the body “me?” Is the mind “me?” Is there an “I” separate from the body and mind? In the end, neither an “I” that could be blamed nor an “I” that didn’t want to be blamed could be found. My mind began to open.

I continued: There appeared to be a real “I” that was making the decision. This independent “I” thought it should be able to control all the causes and conditions necessary for the success of the project. But such control was clearly impossible. Reflecting on the lack of such a solid “I,” I (that is, the conventional “I” that exists by being merely labeled) saw that I had to check things out as best I could before making the decision. If factors seemed conducive for actualizing the project, I had to jump, knowing that I couldn’t control all the causes and conditions or their outcome. I had to have as positive a motivation possible, trust in the Three Jewels, and then act, knowing that the future is unknown.

What about my worry that despite my good efforts, the project might fail? Further reflection on emptiness enabled me to see that there was no solid failure to fear. My mind had been creating an inherently existent, unrealistic standard of success – the actualization of the project I’d planned. But genuine success was not about things working out externally according to plan. It was about living the Dharma, which depended upon my mind. Having a consistent, compassionate motivation no matter what happened was the actual indicator of success. With the absence of a preordained, inherently existent measure of success and failure, my heart felt lighter, more inquisitive and willing to take the risks necessary to go ahead.

Then there was my concern that even if the project were successful, my ego might take a trampling in the process and I might not be happy. Continuing to meditate, I reflected that there was no inherently existent “I” to be happy or unhappy. There was no real “I” who possessed buttons that could be pushed while working on the project, nor were there real buttons to be pushed. I didn’t have to be so defensive. I didn’t have to worry so much about my own happiness. That happiness was merely labeled by mind, and rather than label it in dependence upon my own fleeting and unreliable feelings, I needed to label it in dependence upon the long-term benefit the project would have for sentient beings and the flourishing of the Buddha’s teachings.

We might wonder: If the “I,” decision, blame, success, failure, happiness, or unhappiness didn’t exist ultimately, who was making the decision? Because my teachers had continuing emphasized the co-existence of emptiness and dependent arising, I reflected that although the “I,” decision, and so forth did not ultimately exist, they still existed conventionally. They arose dependently, merely labeled by mind. Although they were empty of independent existence, they appeared and functioned, although their appearance was deceptive. For example, despite there being no independent “I” to be found, for convenience sake the label “I” could be used to indicate the constantly changing body and mind involved in the decision-making process. When looking for a solid “I” to make a decision, all that was seen was an interweaving flow of diverse mental factors that arose and ceased. When looking for a real decision to be made, there were only changing moments of awareness holding a similar idea. Yet, in dependence on this, it could still be said “I made a decision.”

By now my mind was relaxed and spacious. I was still a long way from directly realizing emptiness, and my conceptual understanding still needed to be refined. Nevertheless this reflection on emptiness had helped me to let go of my self-created fears. I took a deep breath and began to chant Chenresig’s mantra. The decision was clear, the block had evaporated, and I approached the unknown with commitment and joy.

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