How to Make Wise Decisions in a Crazy World
Over and over, I see clients struggling to make complex decisions – decisions about relationships, about their careers, about raising their children. They ask me: How am I supposed to know what I’m supposed to do?’ ‘I could do this or I could do that?’ “I just don’t know how to decide.’
The problem is always the same. When it comes to most life decisions we tend to make poor decisions.
Why is this? Well, we are past masters at justifying just about anything.
There was a set of famous experiments in the mid 20th century on people who had their cerebral cortex (the modern part of the brain) cut into two separate halves in order to treat their epilepsy. The result for these so-called 'split-brain' patients was that right part of their brain literally didn’t know what the left part of their brain was up to.
As difficult as this was for the patients, for neuroscientists this was very exciting. They realised that they could communicate exclusively with either half of the patient's brain. For example, they found that they could talk exclusively to the patient's left brain by talking to their left ear and they could talk exclusively to the right part of the brain by talking to the right ear. That realisation enabled them to do a wide variety of experiments on these poor people aimed at finding out what the different sides of their brains were up to.
And, they discovered many interesting things. The pertinent thing here is that they found that the left part of the brain habitually makes up stories. In one experiment, for example, they told the right brain of one of the patients to walk. The patient then got up and start walking. The scientists then asked the patient’s left brain (the side that hadn't got the instruction and didn't know about the instruction) why they had gotten up. The patient replied that he had wanted a drink. This was a complete fabrication. The patient's mind had made up a story to fit the situation (which was otherwise totally inexplicable to him) and the fascinating bit was that he had no clue that he was making things up. We call this lying to ourselves. Scientists called it confabulation.
In another example, when pictures of nude women were shown to the right brain of male split-brain patients, (this being the 1940’s) the patients tended to giggle. When the left part of their brain was asked why they were laughing, they justified it – by saying, for example, that they thought that the scientists were very funny. Again, there was no knowledge (in the left part of the brain) of the real reason or awareness that they had made up a story after the fact to fit the experience.
Without knowing it, we do this many times a day. Deep down, for example, when we are we feeling something that we don't want to feel - boredom, emptiness, restlessness, anxious, depressed... - we justify distracting ourselves without noticing that we are doing so. So, we say to ourselves: 'I know, I'll go shopping / I'll catch up on my favourite TV series / I'll eat some chocolate / I'll get a cup of coffee / I'll have glass of wine / I'll phone a friend / I'll see if he's in the mood for a bit of fun' - without reflecting much (if at all) on the underlying mood.
Let's take another example. Let's say that we are getting pretty sick of spending time with the family and we find ourselves spending more and more time at work. The tendency will not be for us to say to ourselves: 'I really don't want to spend time with my family.' Instead we justify working extremely long hours by convincing ourselves that: ‘I’m doing it for my family.’ We all kid ourselves in this way. It makes us feel better about ourselves.
The reality is that, very often, we don't like to see the reality of our motivations. Let's say, for another example, that we manufacture cheap goods and that we pay very low wages without perks in order to achieve this. We might then justify this to ourselves by saying something like: ‘There's tough competition out there. At least I'm creating jobs for these people’ What we don’t say to ourselves is something that may be much nearer the truth like: ‘I am a fearful and relatively greedy person and I am choosing to employ workers that live under terrible conditions so that I can get more for myself.’ We tend to protect of our own self-esteem.
When we want something (or fear something) our left brain tries to justify it. And, it sometimes extends far beyond our conscious moral code. For example, if we are married and we want to sleep with someone who is not our spouse and we do. Then, we either fall into terrible shame and remorse or we justify it to ourselves by saying: 'My partner will never know' or 'It really doesn't mean anything. It's just a bit of fun.'
And, if we lie to ourselves, we tend to feel better – at least on the surface. The problem is that, unless we are psychopathic, at a much deeper level, it just won’t feel right. Deep down in our hearts we know the truth and it disturbs us.
Hiding from the truth has a profoundly negative impact on our mental and physical health.
Consider these statistics sourced from reputed international bodies such as the World health Organisation and from major governmental bodies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the USA as well as the National Health Service in the UK:
- The World Health Organisation now asserts that “depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.”
- The proportion of 15/16 year olds in the UK reporting that they frequently feel anxious or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years.
- In the USA, prescription of antidepressants has risen nearly 400% since 1988.
- In the USA, Excessive alcohol use currently leads to approximately 88,000 deaths a year, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years.
- In the USA, Heroin and prescription drug overdoses have reached epidemic levels, surpassing car accidents and firearms as the leading cause of injury deaths.
- In 2003, 46,471 people died in the USA of drug overdoses.
- In the UK, adult obesity rates have almost quadrupled in the last 25 years.
- In the USA, two out of every three adults is now clinically obese.
I could go on and on.
Deep down, we all know that things are not headed in a good direction and that we are not making wise decisions. We need to learn to do so – both at an individual level and at a societal one - fast!
So, how do we do that?
Well, the answer - in essence - is simple. We need to listen to our bodies.
Now, you may say, that all sounds very well but what exactly do you mean by that?
Well, let me start by being clear that I am not talking about desire or emotions. So, I am not saying that you should follow your heart and run off with your secretary because you have just fallen in love with her and I am not saying that you should eat a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream because your tummy wants it.
What I am talking about is a very specific process - a process I have called The Wise Body Method and I will spell the essentials out for you.
First we need to quieten our minds.
If your mind - like most people’s - is busy, you need to find ways to quieten your mind before you can access this method. There are many ways of quieting the mind from meditation and mindfulness to breath work and the asanas of yoga. Even very focused activity like rock-climbing and needle-work may help. But, my experience - with many hundreds of people - is that the royal road for most of us is meditation and the best kind of meditation to start with is the kind that asks of you to focus on your breath, sometimes called 'following the breath.'
Following the breath is common to many spiritual traditions and is taught by almost all modern mindfulness teachers. I'm not going to go into the method here but, if you are not familiar with it, you can find out more here!
So, settling the mind is essential as the first step.
Having found a way that works for you, you are now far better placed to take the next step - exploring the options that are available.
So, let’s say that you have a decision to make but the options are not yet clear. Say you are frustrated in your present work but you have no idea what to do. The next step is to generate various possibilities and one of the best ways of doing this is through contemplation.
There are many methods of contemplation but here is one that, for most people, is very effective:
First, settle your mind and then imagine that your mind is like a very deep, profoundly still pool.
Now, imagine that you are dropping a question into that pool.
In this case, the question might be something like: ‘In terms of my career, what is the wisest next step for me?’ You imagine dropping the question into the pool and then you simply wait for an answer to arise - most often, as a thought or an image flashing through your mind.
Pay particular attention to the first thing that comes up.
Sometimes answers come, sometimes they don't. This is normal. Try not to get frustrated or afraid. If nothing comes up, simply wait for a while and then drop the question in again. Try not to be too concerned if nothing comes up in any particular sitting. You have planted a seed that may sprout at any time. Now that the question has been asked, anything can trigger an answer – a situation in a film, something a friend says, an advert on a bus – or an answer may appear out of the blue. If you return to the contemplation regularly, an answer will eventually arise. Stick with it and it will bear fruit!
Once an answer (or answers) come, it is time to evaluate them with The Wise Body Method.
To do this, begin, again, by stilling your mind. Then place your attention on your body.
Once you have done that, offer a statement to your body.
Following on the example above, something like the following may have come up for you: ‘I can no longer stay in my job. I need to go freelance.’
Next, I would test each part separately.
So, put your attention on your heart and say the first sentence (to yourself and in your mind): I can no longer stay in my job.’ Watch for the first reaction. As a general rule, softening, relaxing and/or opening indicates a positive response. Tightening and/or closing represents a negative response.
Say that, in this case, there was a softening and an opening in your heart region then this confirms that it is true for you that you can no longer stay in your job.
If there is not a clear response, try modifying the statement until there is one. So, in this case, for example, you could try an option like: 'It would be wise for me to leave my job within the next year.' Try other time scales and other options until the response is clear.
So, let’s say that you get a clear positive response to: 'It would be wise for me to leave my job within the next three months.' Now, you know that's true for you and now you need to test the second sentence.
So, put your attention on your heart and say: ‘I need to go freelance.’
If there is no clear response, then try various other options - ‘I would like to become a freelance consultant,’ ‘I would like to be employed as a consultant.’ 'I'd like to get a similar job but at a different firm.' Allow yourself to be a bit crazy and try anything that comes to mind. 'I'd like to change my work altogether and become a photographer.' 'I'd like to take a complete break and go traveling for the next six months.' "I'd like to work in a different country.' Explore until you get a clear positive response. If you get stuck, go back to the contemplation and wait for further options to arise.
When one of the options opens your heart, you are well on the way and it’s time to start exploring the practicalities.
This method - The Wise Body Method - is a form of guidance that I have come to respect more than almost any other over the years. The depths of your heart have a wisdom that the mind in your head can only dream of. So, I'd really encourage you to explore making complex life decisions this way. It'll serve you extremely well. It's not that logic is useless, it's just that it needs to have it's place. So, for example, if you want to leave your job and become a photographer, you need to explore the employment and free-lance options and their implications including income.
Of course there are many subtleties with the The Wise Body Method. One is that, although most people get the best guidance through the heart, some get guidance through their gut. They know best with their guts rather than with their hearts. Explore both and see which works best for you. It may be a combination of the two!
A common difficulty with the process comes about if there is a lot of fear. If you are fearful, it can feel like the heart is closing when the guidance is really indicating a positive response. In this case, try to put things in a positive and comforting way. For example, rather than saying: 'I need to leave my job now,' you could try: 'When I get the courage and the support that I need, it would be wise for me to leave my job.'
And, don't be afraid to explore until you get a very clear response.
If you would like help with this process, you are welcome to come and see me. You can book a free twenty-minute exploratory session with by clicking here!