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How to make proper choices in life

At every step in our life, we are presented with multiple options to choose from. The choices that we make today can have a serious impact on our future. We can be faced with simple questions like "which shirt should I wear for the party?", or whether or not I should eat this ice cream, or more serious matters like picking the right profession or career or picking the right life partner. Every option that we pick, every decision that we make, can have short-term and long-term implications.

What propels us to make inappropriate choices?

In a previous article, I wrote about how the mind functions and how we tend to be driven more by our ego rather than the pure intellect. Based on our past experiences, the ego likes to pick those choices which gave us a pleasurable experience in the past. For example, if we enjoyed a piece of cake in the past, in our memory bank it gets labeled as a "pleasant or enjoyable" experience. Next time when we are given the choice of eating a cake vs. not eating it, the ego will decide to eat the cake even though the intellect knows that it may not be good for our health. When we repeatedly make choices which are pleasant but not desirable, it can lead to much suffering in the form of disease or other physical and mental ailments. This also ties into the theory of Karma which can be summed up in this oft-heard statement, "as you sow, so shall you reap". As per this theory, our current thoughts and experiences are driven by our past actions; also, our future experiences will be driven by our present thoughts and actions.

One of the key concepts presented in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is how to bring about a transformation in our mind such that we are driven more by the pure intellect rather than the ego for all our thoughts and actions. Some people like to think of the ego as the "lower mind" and the intellect as the "higher mind" or the "devil" and the "angel". The idea is to sharpen the intellect enough such that it does not depend upon the ego for any decision-making. When choices in life are made with the pure intellect, then we have a better chance of avoiding future suffering.

Can suffering be avoided?

There is a very relevant sutra in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:

हेयं दुःखमनागतम्॥१६॥

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heyaM duHkham-anaagatam

"Suffering that has not yet come is avoidable".

Suffering that happened in the past is already gone. If we are going through some suffering in the present moment, maybe we have to let it run its course. However, according to this sutra we can avoid future suffering by taking appropriate steps now. As mentioned above, suffering happens because we made some wrong choices in the past. Similarly, if we make wrong choices today, we stand to suffer the consequences in the future.

You may have heard the statement, "Pain is unavoidable but suffering is by choice". For example, if we get into an accident and break some bones, we are bound to have physical pain. But, should we allow that pain to be felt as suffering in the mind? We definitely need to take care of the injury and the pain. However, if we allow the ego to take over and start feeling helpless and miserable, we can actually delay the process of healing. We might start thinking, "Oh my God! I will have to miss several weeks of my job due to this injury. How am I going to earn money and support my family. I may even lose my job". etc. etc. This is what we can call imaginary suffering which is caused by negative thinking about a present situation and also negatively projecting imaginary consequences into the future. However, if we can stay focused on taking care of the physical pain and eliminate mental projections, we can quickly regain health and prevent suffering in the future.

There is a very famous couplet in Hindi by the Saint poet Kabir:

"दुःख में सुमिरन सब करे, सुख में करे न कोई ।

जो सुख में सुमिरन करे, तो दुःख काहे को होय ॥"

"dukha men simarana sab kare, sukha men kare na koye,

jo sukha men simarana kare to dukha kahe ko hoye"

Meaning of the couplet: Everyone remembers and prays to God when confronted with hardship or pain. When people have no pain, they do not think of Him. However, if we were to think of Him even while we are happy then there will never be a reason to be unhappy or to suffer.

For example, only when we are diagnosed with high cholesterol levels, we start thinking of changing the diet and doing some exercise. This couplet says that if we were to make the proper choice of the right diet and exercise today, we may actually prevent or delay the onset of high cholesterol and potential heart problems.

In our current state of the mind wherein the ego is more dominant, suffering is a part of life. In Buddhism, there is mention of four noble truths:

  1. Dukkha (suffering): This life is full of suffering
  2. Dukkha samudaya (reason for suffering): lustful cravings (trishna) lead to suffering
  3. Dukkha nirodha (end of suffering): It is possible to put an end to this suffering
  4. Nirodhagamini pratipad (path to freedom from dukkha): Buddha gives the eight-fold path to eliminate dukkha

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali has used a slightly different terminology to present an identical viewpoint:

  1. Dukkha (suffering): Those with discriminatory wisdom know that all life is suffering (Sutra 2.15)
  2. Heya-hetu (cause of suffering): Ignorance that causes one to identify the pure soul with the ego and intellect is the cause of suffering (Sutra 2.17, 2.24)
  3. Haana (removal of dukkha): By removing this identification, dukkha can be removed (Sutra 2.25)
  4. Haanopaya (technique of removal): Uninterrupted discriminative wisdom is the means of eliminating suffering (Sutra 2.26)

As you can see, while describing dukkha (suffering), there is a marked similarity between the philosophy presented by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras and the four noble truths presented in Buddhism.

As stated earlier, we can make the appropriate choices in life by sharpening the intellect and diminishing the impact of the past impressions. It is like taking charge of our lower mind or the ego and not allowing it to lead us in the wrong direction. You can think of it as, "taking the bull by the horn"!. According to Patanjali, this goal can be achieved by practicing the eight limbs of yoga. Please visit here to learn more about the various limbs of yoga.

In a future article, I will be writing more about suffering and the underlying causes of all suffering.

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