April 19, 2014

A Fork in the Road

Isn't it strange how often we're met with the problems of choice? Time and time again we find it necessary to unify our divided mind, to make a definitive decision, a right decision - and woe betide us if we get it wrong!

When a choice can result in consequences we may not have the power to alter, the thought of making the wrong choice may cause us anxious days and sleepless nights. We might then decide to ignore the problem, to turn our backs to it... yes... to walk or run away. But whether we turn tail or not, the problem always stands there waiting.

So, what do we do when we're faced with this situation, particularly when we're in doubt about the possible outcomes? Maybe what we first need to do is to understand the nature of coming to a decision.

Let's suppose that on our travels we come to a fork in the road in a very unfamiliar landscape. Do we go right?... or left? What are the possible consequences? Either path could get us lost or either path could take us where we planned to go, or perhaps we think that only one path is the correct one. If we happen to guess that one we'll later congratulate ourselves for having made the right choice as if it really was our choice. The truth, of course, is that we made a guess that happened to turn out lucky.

Coming to a fork in the road can be rather like having two plans of action, Plan A and Plan B. We might adopt Plan A as the most likely to succeed; and if it doesn't, we just revert to Plan B. Simple? Yes, but only if there were no serious consequences resulting from Plan A's failure.

And in truth, most of the choices we make in our daily lives are straightforward. There is nothing momentous about them. Once in awhile, however, the choice is serious and the outcome very important to us. We must get it right.

As before, we formulate Plan A and Plan B and weigh the probabilities and check the pros and cons, trying to visualize advantages and disadvantages. Our head, filled with wriggling thoughts, feels like a snake's head that's been pinned between the prongs of a cleft stick. We can't on our own turn either way. We helplessly listen to even more confusing advice. Mind-management gurus draw us brain maps and road maps but succeed only in making us suspect that we'll be just as damned following Plan A as we'd be if we followed Plan B.

Let's have another look at those alternative choices: lef, right. Up, down. In, out. Backwards, forwards. Here, there. Beautiful, ugly. Benefit, detriment. Good, bad. This list goes on forever. Our efforts to make up our mind about anything whatsoever can only be done with the aide of our dualistic language. This is the means by which we think and engage our egos. We spend our whole lives picking and choosing between opposites. This, then, just might be the read cause of our problem.

Ok, so we want to do the right thing, particularly if we consider ourselves moral beings. We've been taught right from wrong. We need to form ethical opinions, opinions that matter. We have an image of ourselves that we care deeply about. And, of course, we want to be happy. So naturally we think that what is good for us is that choice which will make us happy. We understand happiness because we know what it means to be unhappy. What we need to do is to get beyond these interminable opposites, all the things that we recognize as choices to decide between. It is our own ego that is at the core of the problem. The problem is not 'out there' among the opposites. It is 'in here'! We've been looking out at external choices and this is the wrong direction to look. We are the problem. We have determined that we need to choose. And we are wrong. Once we arrive at this conclusionwe may ask, what exactly is to be done? The startling answer to this is ... nothing.

Now, this 'nothing' is a special nothing, an emptiness. It isn't like turning our backs on the problem. We've already determined that this is useless. Intuitively, as Zen Buddhists, we need to realize that 'doing or not doing' can be of no use to us. No, and we need to be on guard against dualism, and watch for those "opposites" that creep into our language as a barn owl watches for mice. We have to abandon all our ideas of what we are and instead identify ourselves with this 'nothing'. If we succeed, our identity will be such that we'll see the matter of 'this or that' choice in an entirely new and transcendental light. We will have a new perspective.

Nothing in the road can affect our happiness. The right fork or the left fork, Plan A or Plan B, our happiness cannot be affected by chosing one or the other. When we subtract our own ego's demands from the decision making process, we find that there is no process at all. We act spontaneously because without ego-considerations, we process data more efficiently. We waste no time in worry and confusion. We have transcended the point of fork and plan.

We come to understand that choice implies expectation, and that to expect nothing is never to be disappointed. There is no easier way to attain contentment and inner peace.

Oh, yes, the choice is still there as it was before; but, and it is a very big 'but', it is no longer a problem and choosing doesn't hurt us or anyone else. We may realize simulatneously that there is no one isolated person that can possibly hurt. What follows from this kind of understanding is that we begin to appreciate that all choices have a yin-yang outcome, the Wheel of Life turns, and that the very concept of what is to be chosen is in itself quite empty.

In the end there is nothing left to do but carry on walking! A clever fellow once said, "All roads lead to Rome." We can stand on the spot where the roads divide and know at last that the answer was from the beginning at our feet. Where else could it be?
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