I had decided to try taking cold showers in the mornings for the good of my health. But now I stood in the bathroom with the cold water running, I felt less sure. It felt icy! My body flinched at the thought. Was it really such a good idea? Wouldn't it be better, with a simple turn of the tap, to have a nice hot shower after all?
How to make a wise choice in this situation? What even is a wise choice? To try and answer this, first I want to look at what can affect me in making any choice and also what defines a wise choice.
My emotional state affects my choices
We have been formed by our past and our past goes back a long way. About two million years ago we began to develop complex abilities associated with a rapidly enlarging brain brought about by increasing socialisation. This new brain development allowed for qualities such as reason, reflection, imagination and, significantly, the ability to recognise that other people have minds like our own and the sense of self that goes with that. These qualities have been very successful for us but can result in conflict with survival systems developed earlier in the older, reptilian brain.
These systems have been described by Psychologist Paul Gilbert as threat, the stress response in the face of danger, drive, the seeking for food, sex and shelter and soothing, the safe space that allows for rest and recuperation. Difficulties can arise when these old brain systems, particularly threat and drive, are stimulated unnecessarily by new brain activity. For example, criticism by others can cause us to feel threatened and these stress responses may persist over time, negatively impacting on our health. Our basic drives may become channelled into being overly competitive with others as we strive for personal status and wealth, which may reduce our capacity for healthy relationships. However, we have also developed motivations that support the soothing system such as caring and altruistic behaviour. The soothing system, in particular, promotes a calm and balanced state of mind that is often the best basis for making wise choices.
My habits affect my choices
If we find ourselves in a new situation, we may be required to make a choice as to how we will proceed. If we are satisfied with our choice, the next time we face the same situation we are likely to repeat the choice we previously made. If the situation and the same choice continues to occur over time the choice becomes a habit.
This is an essential aspect of learning any skill; as a habit becomes more deeply learned so we become less conscious of what we are doing and can concentrate on other aspects of a task. For example, when learning to play the guitar we first concentrate on how we place our fingers on the fret board. Once familiar with that we notice it less and can pay more attention to learning the shape of chords.
However, in other circumstances, the reduced attention of the habitual response may result in us disregarding nuances in a situation which can lead to difficulty. For example, the pleasant experience of drinking alcohol or eating delicious but unhealthy food can result in a habit pattern that eventually becomes an addiction. Or perhaps a negative view of someone from the past can lead us to judge others unfairly.
What is a wise choice?
A choice means to decide between possibilities and is often based on preference at the time. To choose wisely suggests something different. I have tended to think of a wise person as inherently wise and so incapable of making a bad choice, but research has shown that I do not need to be a wholly wise person to make a wise choice. I can make a wise choice simply by shifting my perspective.
This involves making an ethical choice; a wise choice is always for the good. Is the villain of a story ever thought to be wise? Can a bad choice ever be wise? The benefit may be for me, another person, or a group of people, but it is always for the good of someone. In my case of stepping into a cold shower, I had a sense that it would be beneficial for my health.
This shift in perspective also involves a degree of challenge. The alternative to a wise choice usually has some attraction that could easily override it and some degree of effort is required to avoid this. It was certainly true for me when standing by the cold shower!
I believe that making a wise choice goes very deeply into my being. It requires a reassessment of my sense of self; how I perceive myself has to shift somewhat to accommodate the wise choice. I am, maybe just to a small extent, a different person.
Here are my suggestions for 3 ways that support making a wise choice.
1. Notice discomfort!
Making a wise choice is challenging and that can be uncomfortable. Notice the discomfort, which could be an indication that you are on track to making a wise choice. Be willing to continue noticing the discomfort as that will help you to stay in touch with what is real in the situation.
2. Be willing to change
It is natural to want to remain with the familiar. We spend a lot of our lives trying to find out just who we are and so it is easy to resist making a change in how we see ourselves. But we are not fixed in this way; we change all the time. Perhaps the most difficult part of changing ourselves is less to do with changing our own identity and more about the effect this might have on others in our lives. Be kind, be understanding, be generous, to yourself as well as others.
3. Allow time to be still and quiet
Take some time, every day if you can, to be still and quiet: through meditation, reflection, or just being by yourself for a short time. Let it become a positive habit that can affect the way you respond to events in your life. The simple act of being still and quiet allows the mind to breathe. Out of this, new and unexpected possibilities can arise.
So, did I step into the cold shower? It was uncomfortable to begin with but now I enjoy my cold showers in the morning. I know this is not a particularly life changing example of making a wise decision but I hope it is sufficient to illustrate my thoughts and I believe the same principles can apply to more difficult situations. You may have other ideas that add to or disagree with me. Feel free to comment in the blog, below.
We are pleased to welcome Chris Garland as our guest blogger this month. Chris has been part of Love Mindfulness from the outset: he does our website and also contributes his ideas, research and editing skills.