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The Choices We Make

Updated: May 10, 2023

There is a Buddhist quote that I have held in my consciousness for some time, known by many as the opening lines of the famous Dhammapada:

We are what we think.

All that we are arises with our thoughts.

With our thoughts we make the world.*

In other words, “with our mind, we create the world.” More recently, Gabor Maté, renowned trauma expert, retired physician, creator of the Compassionate Inquiry (and prominent teacher in my life) added an important addition: “but before our minds create the world, the world creates our mind.”

When I took my first yoga class in 1997 as a 25 year old, I had never considered for a moment that I played a hand in shaping my world, let alone creating it. My thoughts were as wild and untethered as a feral horse; my choices as meandering as a child chasing a butterfly; and I, a victim of circumstance. The protective layers learned from an early age as a cornerstone of my personality kept me pleasing other people and escaping into music, school, exercise and work, but separate from myself. The world I grew up in taught me that I was responsible for other people’s happiness, and in order to make good on this expectation, I suppressed anger, and underneath that, I did what I could to quell the ocean of unexpressed sadness.

My first yoga teacher began his classes with a seated meditation that invited long pauses between physical movements (a method I came to know as Sivananda). His beautiful Indian voice said only “empty your mind,” over and over again in a sing-song voice. At the time I was wholly uneducated in the realm of self-realisation, and had no idea about what he actually meant.

A few years later, having moved to Amsterdam and taken on a more committed relationship to yoga, I found myself practicing with teachers who chanted in, and explained Sanskrit. New signposts revealed themselves, including a master called Patañjali and his book of yoga sutras which delved deep into the relationships integral to the practices of yoga, one common thread being the mind, its fluctuations, and how to ‘still’ it. I remember chanting sutra 1.2 yogaścittavṛttinirodhaḥ : yoga quiets, or stills (nirodhaḥ) the fluctuations (vṛtti) of the mind stuff (citta). For the first time, I had a visceral feeling of inner vibration as the sound of my own voice penetrated every cell of my body. I arrived to some new and foreign inner territory, and with it, came tears of joy, and sadness. Evidently, I wasn’t the only one looking for ways to wrestle the mind into submission, and it brought me some comfort to know that these thousands of year old sutras pointed to an age-old challenge of what it means to be human, in my case with a mind that just wouldn’t stop.

With this newfound sense of solidarity in a place that felt calm, I kept going back to yoga classes at an ever increasing rate; I was seeking something that equated to inner peace, and for the most part, after a yoga practice I felt more at peace than any other time during the rest of my day.

And yet, in between the classes, I was not at peace. I began to notice tension in my hips and stomach along with a running commentary that seemed to have always been there for as long as I could remember; in fact, I had always assumed it was just me. That nagging voice, constantly questioning, criticising, punishing me; that tightness in my hips, jaw and stomach holding it all together, keeping it all in. What was the it? I never thought to ask. No wonder I was not at peace, I was full of self-loathing. But if not me, who’s voice was I hearing? Where did it come from and why couldn’t I get rid of it? For the first time in my life, I asked an important question. What was I seeking peace from? The more I explored the question, the more long-winded and complex the answers seemed to become. Yet in the end, the voice always traced back to me.

As I continued down the rabbit hole of self-awareness, my own thought patterns began to emerge, but I also had an enhanced sense of those around me. I began to realise I wasn’t the only one with this rather harsh inner-intercom system, and that the voice was not solely my own, but more of an amalgam of my parents, teachers and other imposing figures from my youth. Not only that, but I began to notice myself subconsciously seeking out relationships with people who shared this critical undertone. It was a familiar voice, and while it brought with it a good deal of pain and shame, it was one I knew how to respond to, and as dysfunctional as it was, that brought with it some comfort. Whoever this voice was within me, it was governing me and my world: how I treated myself, how I perceived others and the lens by which I perceived the world. The pivotal moment came when I realised that because I created this beast, I had a choice about not only how I responded to it, but the very tone, and contents of the voice itself. It's just that I hadn’t found an access point to turn it off or to change it, not just yet.

Meanwhile, time went by. Thanks to the practices of yoga, a variety of things in my life were shifting. I ate differently, moved differently, and made different choices about how I spent my time, and who I spent my time with. I was invested in becoming a yogi, and that meant learning more, practicing more, and making more time to follow the instructions set out by the yoga teachers in my life and the books I read voraciously. I hadn’t yet graduated to learning to listen to my own needs, or being wholly self-responsible, and on that front, some things weren’t changing: my body was in systemic inflammation and I had the thought patterns to match its stalemate. The main seed of my chronic discomfort was right under my nose but too close to see. The same voice that propelled me into running marathons a decade earlier was now ensuring I got up at the crack of dawn, day in and day out, to practice yoga. I did it as if my life depended on it, because in some ways at the time, still immersed in a very stressful work situation and with a daunting health prognosis (having recently been told I had a disease that would result in end stage liver failure), I believed it did. Life was a matter of survival, and in survival mode there was no room for tenderness.

I was recently talking to a friend who asked me when the shift came - when did I learn to let go, and stop the voice of the ‘super-ego’ from running (and ruining) my life? It was a hard question to answer because there was no defining moment. It happened gradually, over time and in phases. The thing is, despite all the years of yoga, self-discipline and good intention, I had never taken the time to be in an honest relationship with myself. Without even knowing the phrase, I had learned to ‘spiritual bypass’, and had been doing so for years, using the ideology and framework of yoga to seek answers outside of, and to escape from myself, instead of learning to listen and trust what was happening inside of me with compassion and confidence.

It has been the work of Gabor Maté (Compassionate Inquiry), Richard Schwartz (Internal Family Systems), Dan Siegel (Wheel of Awareness) and Tara Brach (RAIN) that has enhanced and deepened my understanding of yoga and self-realistion. These loose approaches to inner-reflection have provided me with a safe vehicle to explore my own terrain with love and compassion rather than judgement and rules, things that I could not find solely through the practices of yoga, not in my twenties, anyway. Today, I see yoga and embodied practices such as Rolfing, Chinese 5 elements/acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, meditation, tai chi, qi gong, or even a simple walk in the woods, as tools to navigate the inner landscape, and the various frameworks above (Compassionate Inquiry, Internal Family Systems, the Wheel of Awareness, RAIN) as the communicative language of union, of connection. These various lenses are undoubtedly endless and in no way separate or competing, but instead, loose frameworks that invite interaction and playfulness, working with the common intention of relieving the tension and promoting presence.

Twenty-six years after that first yoga class, I was informed that micro-biologists found a lymphoma in the lining of my large intestine. The cancer I so feared for a large part of my life had finally manifested, and with it came emotions and uncertainty. Yet when I met the oncologist, he reminded me that this was not a random event, but was entirely a result of my history. While it remains unclear about how cancer manifested, zooming out into the wider field of play, I understand that it had everything to do with the choices that I had made over time, as unconscious as they may have been. From a young age, for example, my parents, and later I chose to take medications to help mitigate an inflammatory auto-immune disease; both the medications and the disease itself (again, an adaptive choice made by the cells of my body), carried a cancer risk. Based on learned behaviour from as early-on as I can remember, I spent years in a self-destructive relationship with myself, first by supressing anger and other difficult emotions instead being expressing myself; and later by beating myself through exercise, diet and self-demoting thought patterns. As a result of any, or possibly all of these things, my body found an adaptation based on the choices I made. Of course, none of these things equates to cancer, and likewise, ownership of the facts doesn’t make me wrong, guilty or a flawed human; on the contrary, it gives me agency and holds me accountable. I’m no longer a victim of circumstance, but rather, the recipient of unconditional self-compassion.

In life, we are all constantly making choices. Some are unconscious, others are made with bravery and awareness, and yet others born out of the circumstance the world creates for us. Even in the hand of the most recent cancer diagnosis, it was not dumb luck or coincidence. Really, nothing is.

All experience is preceded by mind,

Led by mind,

Made by mind.

Speak or act with a corrupted mind, 

And suffering follows

As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind, 

Led by mind,

Made by mind.

Speak or act with a peaceful mind, 

And happiness follows,

Like a never-departing shadow.**

*This quote is considered by Buddhists with far more clout than myself, to be a ‘fake' Buddhist quote, insofar as it is an augmented translation of the original Pali.

**This second translation of the Dhammapada is more faithful to the original Pali text. Both are referred to in the Tricycle Online magazine. You can read the article here.

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