The Myth of Choice
by Robert S. Vibert
Each time we are faced with making a decision or choice about something, we may think that we have free will and are using our critical thought processes. That we do this is not surprising, as so much of our experience in the world contains choices. From lunch menus to driving routes to vacation spots, we are presented with countless choices to make.
It is also quite common to hear that we can be the master of our thoughts, emotions, and belief. Quite a number of people say this, including the positive thinking advocates. They tell us that all we must do is discipline ourselves with will power and positive thinking and our emotions and beliefs will come around. The recent movie "The Secret" is an obvious example of this line of thinking. The premise is that we can be in control of our mental process with practice and perseverance. How hard can it be?
Is it true that we can choose our emotions, our thoughts, our beliefs? Unfortunately, this concept is only partially true and only valid under certain circumstances. In reality, much of our thinking, our emotional responses and our beliefs are determined by the various factors that either contribute to their creation or impede their free choice.
Beliefs can be defined as the conviction of the truth concerning some statement (or collection of thoughts) or the reality of some being or phenomenon. However, no matter how strong our conviction is, these beliefs may not be true or even valid. Beliefs need to be verified to be true by objective validation.
Beliefs are not reality, but really only value judgements. However, this does not stop us from treating beliefs as if they were real. You may have heard the expression "Don't confuse me with the facts; I've made up my mind" which of course sounds like nothing more than a well-practiced set of thoughts. Often beliefs can be found just under the surface of our consciousness, ready to be blurted out without much thinking - statements like "I'm never on time" and "I'm not good enough!", "I'll never get well!", "No one likes me!" etc...
Where does a thought or belief come from?
There are a number of factors which contribute to the creation of thoughts and beliefs, and emotions related to these. Some of the more common factors are peer and family influences, cultural norms, and traumatic events. All of these have an impact upon us, and trigger the creation of thoughts and deeply embedded beliefs, which we can mistakenly think are our own. Although they are deeply embedded, they are not our own, as we did not consciously create them.
In fact, many of these thoughts and beliefs are passed down from generation to generation - you've probably heard people say "when you use that expression, you sound just like your father/mother". In this case we're not considering the verbal sound, but the way thoughts and concepts are expressed. And, of course they may also sound like their relatives - they have been subjected to a constant, repetitive indoctrination in the thoughts of their family and friends.
You can notice the same phenomenon when you travel to other countries, areas or regions. People from one part of the world can sound remarkably alike in their thinking. Their mind set will also be highly homogeneous, as not only do they hear each other repeating the same ideas and concepts, they share similar opinions, and these are reflected back to them by their local media. In my travels to close to 40 countries, this is usually one of the first observations that pops into my awareness.
Recent scientific studies have shown that our DNA is dynamic, adapting to the world we live in, and that the life experiences of our ancestors affected their DNA to an extent sufficient to carry down to future generations.
There are also a number of sages, from Carl Jung to Eckhart Tolle, who say that the thoughts in our heads may not all be ours anyway, as we tap into things like the collective unconscious.
So, it is easy to see how we may have no choice over where these thoughts and beliefs we carry around come from. At any one time, we carry around a complex collection of thoughts, emotions and beliefs that are at times interwoven and at times somewhat separate from each other. Generally speaking, it takes a lot of practice using objective mindfulness to distinguish thoughts from beliefs and notice the emotions attached to each.
There are also pre-verbal beliefs (the ones we have but cannot verbalize because we don't know what they are), but it is enough to start with being aware of the ones we can consciously identify.
Making choices when in pain
The other part of this equation is that whenever we are in pain, especially emotional pain, our capacity to think clearly and make clear choices is severely diminished. There are plenty of studies which show that the parts of our brains that react get the most blood flow when we are emotionally triggered, leaving our thinking brain parts with much less blood than normal.
In other words, we can't think straight when we are in a highly charged emotional state. If we can't think straight, then it is going to be darn hard to make informed choices. So when someone tells you that you can choose to feel or think differently, don't beat yourself up if you cannot.
It took me some time to reach this conclusion, as like most people, the onslaught of messages telling me to "get over it" or "move on" were hard to fight. Becoming aware of the societal programming and then watching myself revealed much about this whole puzzle of choices.
I now understand and accept why I found it difficult to listen to certain music -- it reminds me instantly of a certain heart-break. The same with certain locations; who wants to visit a place where they have associations with some pain from their past?
The concept of will-based change is based upon the notion that somehow you are going to simply and quickly overcome
the beliefs and thoughts that you inherited and were indoctrinated with for years,
the emotional pain that might be surfacing, and
whatever else might be influencing you at this moment.
What to do
Researchers have found that the first step in making informed, intelligent and resourceful choices is to heal any emotional wounds that surround a choice. If one examines the beliefs and thoughts which arise around a potential choice, the emotional wounds are often easy to spot. Once they have been healed, preferably using a quick and effective technique such as AER (Awareness, Expression, Resolution) it is far easier to examine the options, consider the consequences and make choices that serve us.
Then, without that emotional pain we are in much better shape to think clearly and rationally, by using the relevant parts of our brains to make mature, informed choices.
Copyright Robert S. Vibert May 2007, all rights reserved.
First published on www.real-personal-growth.com