choice makes all the difference

The Choice That Makes All the Difference

Have you ever said something hurtful in a moment of frustration and later felt awful about it with self-talk like: How could I have said that? What was I thinking?! Although it’s important to acknowledge and honor difficult emotions when they arise, if they run the show the results are usually disastrous. If fear or confusion is in the driver’s seat, you’re sure to be headed for trouble. That’s why integrity—acting in alignment with your values—is one of the essential components to awakening joy.

A key to inner peace is learning the power of delayed gratification with regard to impulse control. We often don’t realize that we can choose a longer lasting well-being by foregoing the quick gratification of hastily acting in unhealthy ways. Although it may feel good in the moment, the action is usually followed by many moments of regret.

If you can pause and slow down to use some wise awareness before engaging in a questionable action—like the moment before clicking the send button of a charged email—you give yourself the space to choose wisely. Take a moment to ask: How will this action feel looking back in retrospect? Will it support my intention to allow more joy in my life? Or will I regret it whenever I think about what I’ve done? If you truly want to find happiness and joy keep reflecting in this way so your wisdom has a chance to guide you.

Being able to ask yourself these questions means you’re slowing down enough not to act on every impulse. You might experiment with a particular unhealthy pattern that you easily fall into or you sense you’re about to do something that you could later regret.

How can you remember to give yourself the space to choose wisely? One way is to pay attention to how certain decisions feel in your body. Your body doesn’t lie. It will reveal when you’re choices are rooted in stress or confusion. Start to notice when you feel tense, contracted, fearful or confused. Those are usually the conditions for acting unskillfully. If it’s apparent that you’re feeling disconnected or anxious, that’s when you need to give yourself a time out—go for a walk, meditate or do some exercise—whatever helps you get enough space to re-connect. This gives your natural wisdom a chance to guide your actions.

What If Focusing on Integrity Leads to Self-Judgment?
Of course, even with the best of intentions, we still can blow it. That’s what makes us human! An Awakening Joy participant asked for an important clarification regarding “The Bliss of Blamelessness,” the phrase that I’ve used to describe the well-being that accompanies integrity.

She wrote:

I definitely feel that whatever I do, integrity is very, very important to me. I believe that it’s the most important part of any action. However, the “bliss of blamelessness” does not seem to happen to me, since I end up feeling bad (or not so blameless) about my anger, my emotions, or my other unskillful actions that have nothing to do with integrity.

She asked me if she was somehow misunderstanding or misinterpreting the “bliss of blamelessness” since it was leading her away from joy. Certainly this practice is not meant to make you feel worse! At times, everyone acts in ways that are less than noble—when we get triggered we say or do things we wish we hadn’t. But rather than adding to the problem with guilt or shame, the recommendation is to reflect with what is called in Buddhist teachings “wise remorse.” Understanding that your reactions have been conditioned through habitual response can give you a bit of compassion for your predicament. We are all creatures of habit. You’ve simply practiced certain unhealthy responses to situations that don’t serve you.

When you’ve fallen short, the idea is to keep learning from your mistakes. By doing so you’ll be less likely to repeat them. How you deal with your mistakes will either compound the problem or help you grow. Julia Butterfly Hill, an inspiring spiritual engaged teacher who has been a guest speaker in the course, says if you make a mistake and learn from it, it’s not a mistake; it’s part of your process of learning and waking up.

If you want to awaken joy, use the situation to understand the suffering you’ve created for yourself and others has been due to not seeing clearly in some way. Bring awareness to the unpleasantness of how it feels and set the intention to choose doing it differently in the future—not because you’re trying to be some holy person or saint, but because you don’t want to create suffering for yourself. You might ask: Is there anything I’ve learned from this that will help me consciously choose to act differently in similar situations in the future? If so, remember to make a deliberate commitment to act in that way. Reflecting upon unskillful action in this way helps you become wiser and more conscious.

In “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg talks about how habits work in the brain. Once a habit is formed the brain actually turns off its rational thinking when it’s triggered (seeing a container of ice cream) and we are on automatic pilot. This process takes lots of patience and kindness. It also requires clear intention and real determination because we’ve practiced unskillful habits for a long time.

When trying to break a habit that doesn’t serve you, don’t only focus on the unskillfulness. Rather than wallowing in self-judgment when you’ve blown it, concentrate on the positive feeling you experience when you do choose to stay aligned with your values and let that feeling motivate you. Saints are few and far between. But there are lots of people who are committed to waking up. As long as we’re facing in the direction of more ease and peace, that’s what counts. And the more we see we have a choice whether or not to act on an impulse, the more happiness we create for ourselves.