One day a Japanese university student came running to the temple of a Zen master crying, “Master, Master, the water pipes in my apartment broke and the whole tatami floor is flooded, isn’t it terrible?” The master simply smiled and replied “Good thing, bad thing, who knows?”
The next day, the student again came running to the master. “Isn’t it wonderful master” he said “ A fire broke out in the apartment next to mine last night and my neighbor lost everything, but because of the flood, my apartment didn’t catch fire. And I’m getting new tatami to replace the other ones which were old and dirty anyway. Isn’t it wonderful?” The master simply nodded again and said “Good thing, bad thing, who knows?”
Later that week, the student returned again to the master “Oh master, it’s so unfair” said he, “My neighbor whose apartment burnt down got enough money to replace all his belongings and they have moved him to a great new apartment that is twice the size of mine. Isn’t it terrible?” And of course, the master only smiled and replied “Good thing, bad thing, who knows?”
The following day there was an earthquake. The ex-neighbor’s new mansion was next to a huge skyscraper that collapsed on their building and killed everyone in it.
The moral of the story? We can never fully know the ultimate consequences of the events in our lives. This is true, not only of the things that happen to us, but also of the choices that we make – the things that we supposedly have some control over.
Let’s look at an example of a choice to stay in a job that you don’t like for an extra year in order to prepare to find a job in a completely new field. Some of the consequences of your choices can be predicted. If you choose to stay, having a clear reason for doing so – certain goals that you are working towards – will help you to explain another year of experience that is not directly related to your chosen field. You can control how much you benefit from your staying at your old job by following this process of conscious planning and action and being aware of how you might be able to take on additional responsibilities that would fit in with your long term career/life goals.
Of course, there are also consequences of your choice to stay which you can not predict. Maybe this is the year that you will meet the man/woman of your dreams on a business trip and you will end up moving to a different country. Years from now, when you are set up in a European village with two kids and your own restaurant business, you may look back on this seemingly minor choice to stay another year as a pivotal one.
It is this lack of knowledge about and control over consequences that can make such choices a stressful part of life. What do you do when faced with a major decision? Do you obsess, agonize, analyze, avoid, or become apathetic? Or do you calmly gather the facts, spend time in quiet contemplation, seek input from valued friends, and work at listening to what your heart/intuition is telling you? Unfortunately, most people choose some combination of the first set of methods, all of which add to the stress of making such choices.
Why do we stress so much about making choices? Essentially it is because we fear making a mistake. The stress that we feel when making a choice comes from the amount of ego we have invested in getting it right. We fear others disapproving of our choices and thinking us stupid. We fear changing our minds lest we look foolish. Yet what could be more foolish than sticking with a course of action you know is wrong for you in order to avoid a bit of embarrassment?
While I don’t really believe in mistakes, (everything in life has its lessons) and I haven’t made a choice I regret in ages, I do believe that it is possible to make bad choices. Bad choices are based on fear rather than faith. Bad choices are founded on values and principles that are not your own. In short, bad choices are based on seeking approval from others rather than following your own internal sense of what is right for you.
To start making good choices ask yourself these questions:
Is this choice based on fear or on faith?
Which potential choice is based on approval from others?
Which option is based on what I would really like to do if only…..?
What have you learned from the current situation?
What would you still like to learn or do?
Can you do this more easily anywhere else?
If so, what would you gain from doing it here?
Finally, think about the zen story above. Learn to stop trying to control and predict the consequences of your choices. Practise living in the excitement, joy, and mystery of watching the results of your choices unfold as you live them.