Even though as humans we tend to pride ourselves for being in control, autonomous and blessed with the freedom of choice, in truth we are much less in control than we think. When I was finishing graduate school, I had to choose between accepting a job in the ‘real world’, or going down the academic root of becoming a Fellow within a PhD program. At that moment the contents of my whole life seemed to rest in that choice as I lay awake night after night weighing the pros and cons of each option. It wasn’t until an older, wiser friend gently explained to me that there was no right or wrong decision, just different paths that, for all I knew, would end up at the same place for unexplainable reasons.
It turns out that in the scope of things, this was a relatively small decision to make but had far reaching implications. It’s the same with most decisions; we are involved in a complex and dynamic life matrix, every choice we make involves and impacts other decisions and others’ lives. Lifetimes are based on this, and many of us spend our days wondering how much to plan and take life by the proverbial horns, and how much to let go and let life lead the way.
Sometimes in all the wondering, we get stuck. Fear of the unknown, attachment to things we love and aversion to others play a role, as does the ego. The kleshas (avidya [misknowing, or ignorance], asmita [egoism], raga [preferences], dvesha [aversion], abinivesha [fear of death]) are the obstacles of yoga that prevent us from feeling free, from being blissful, and from making decisions easily.
The truth is, we all live at least a little bit in the dark. Even when we think we know it all, life has a way of reminding us that the universe is simply too large and our scope too limited. The ego, however, thrives on wanting to be right, wanting to assign names and judgement to everything in order to make some sense of the world. In this sense, avidya and asmita go hand in hand. When making decisions, we put ourselves in a vulnerable situation because we never know all the variables or how the scenario will play out. The ego does its best to assess the situation and cling on to its sense of self; labelling, judging and assigning any points of reference to the process that it can to regain some semblance of control. By observing the decision making process and the role of the ego it may shed some light on why we find ourselves seeking out the approval of others especially during these moments.
Raga, our preferences, and dvesha, our aversions, become the things to which the ego clings, and are two sides of the same coin. Our preferences for things we love tend to push us further from the things we are repelled by, and for many people, these things swap places unexpectedly or dissolve completely over time. Often though, these two factors play a large role in the decision making process, and sometimes a sense of foolishness is felt about why the choice was made in the first place. The more we can become aware of our preferences and aversions, the more may we gain clarity about why we make certain choices over others. Ultimately this may help to assess how we go about making choices for the future that are the best for our health and happiness longterm.
The fear of the unknown, abinivesha, may be the largest obstacle for most to overcome when involved in a change process. Yoga philosophy maintains that all fear is really about our uncertainty of the process of death and dying, and these other four obstacles are just coping mechanisms for the fact that none of us really knows what the future holds. For that, a certain degree of faith helps to believe that given the circumstances, we are all doing the best we can. There is also a benefit of having an friendly antagonist nearby to help (just a little bit) push one out of the safety zone to continue taking risks and experimenting while alive.
As a daughter of a physician and sometimes patient of auto-immune disease, I have been struck with how being decisive enables doctors to take patients lives into their hands, decisions that are often not small, but rather, life altering for patients and families alike. As my doctor puts it so simply, its all about taking the knowledge given, assessing the risk, making the best choice at the time. Of course, life always knows how to throw in a wild card.
When afforded the opportunity to contribute to the change process of one’s own life, a degree of balance between planning and letting go seems to help with the economy of time and energy spent. The more we become aware of why we leap towards the escapism of spontaneity or hem and haw over even the simplest choices, the more we may be drawn to look deeper for understanding. The role of our ego, preferences, aversions provide a rich ground for self reflection. Lastly, when in doubt, don’t despair, life will bring things into focus the closer they come, and the decision will find you.