Student: I have been sitting with something I heard you say in group recently. “Until we have suffered enough, we don’t make the choice to end suffering.”
Teacher: Yes. Takes the pressure off the process of transformation, doesn’t it?
Student: Well, I never thought of it that way. In fact, I had trouble accepting the teaching. It sounded harsh to me!
Student: Yes, an indictment of sorts. When I hear you say that suffering is a choice, it makes me feel misunderstood and a little resentful. I am doing my best! It’s not like I want to keep suffering. I am not making a choice to suffer. More often than not, the conditioned reaction happens and it does not feel like I have a choice in the matter.
Teacher: Hmm… Let me tell you an old Zen story.
A student came to study at a monastery. The teacher gave him this koan to work with, “ What is the sound of one hand clapping.”
The student meditated for three years but could not pass the koan test. He came to the teacher in tears and admitted his failure, declaring that he had no choice but to return to his homeland in shame.
The teacher advised him to stay another week and give the koan one more try. A week passed and the student was no closer to the answer.
“Another week,” said the teacher and the student obeyed but his meditations were in vain.
In this way another year passed by.
Finally the student begged the teacher to release him. The teacher considered his request gravely and then said, “ All right. Meditate for another three days and three nights and if you are not enlightened on the morning of the third day, I think you should kill yourself.
The student retreated to the zendo and sat in meditation.
On the second morning, he awakened.
What do we mean when we say we have a choice?
Choice is defined as the ability to make a decision between one or more alternatives.
Does “not having a choice” mean there are no options and only one course of action is available?
More often than not, it seems we say “I don’t/didn’t have a choice,” not when there aren’t alternatives, but when it seems the alternatives are sub-optimal, when we have to settle for the least unpalatable option, when we feel we are “compelled” by unavoidable circumstances to choose a direction.
Here is an example: I have a job that I don’t like very much, and on occasion I am asked to do things that I don’t agree with. But I need the money and so I put up with the work environment. I could look for another job, but there are a dozen reasons why that won’t work. My alternatives are stay and be miserable or leave and be without money. And since I need money, “I don’t have a choice” but to stay and be miserable. (Note: the alternatives do not include find a job I love that provides plenty of money!)
What’s interesting about confessing to being a “victim of circumstances” is the accompanying need to absolve ourselves of the “responsibility.” If we look deeply, a hint of an excuse, a tinge of defensiveness, a trace of shame, or a dash of rationalization accompany any admission of having “no choice.” This brings us to the question: What does shifting the blame to circumstances really buy us?
It would surprise no one doing Awareness Practice that this process of “I don’t have a choice” buys us nothing.
The “victim stance” simply maintains an orientation of a “me” in opposition to a problematic existence. The conversation of being choiceless perpetuates the process of something wrong. It keeps “ego-identity” as the focus of attention.
We are deeply conditioned to be the right, good, person who does the right, good thing. If what we do does not meet the conditioned standard of “good” or “right,” (both the standard and the assessment of performance are “made up” in conditioned mind) then we have to find a way to justify our actions or rationalize our behaviors to avoid being labeled as bad. From within this conditioned program, we fail to see that attention is on a conversation through which an “ego” that has no interest in right or wrong is using our life force to perpetuate itself. In other words, right or wrong is not really the point as long as a “someone” who is occupied with the question of right or wrong is maintained.
Any opportunity to transcend the ego world of opposites—to see what is, without the lens of good and bad/right and wrong—has to be thwarted by egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. A conversation that frames my choices, defends “my lack of choice,” and casts me as a victim of circumstances is just another way to control and capture the attention.
Outside the illusory ego world of opposites, from the vantage point of nothing wrong, we can see what the Buddha taught: it’s possible to suffer and it’s possible not to suffer. There is no “better” choice. But there is a choice. The choice is the focus of attention.
We are either attending to that which causes us to suffer, or we are not. When we cultivate awareness of attention, we have the option of directing what attention attends to.
When we become aware that we are “the voice” that is defending choosing suffering over ending suffering, we have a choice to drop the voices! It is a perfect occasion for ego to hijack the awakening process by getting us to attend to a diatribe of how “listening to voices” makes us unworthy spiritual aspirants! When we are no longer willing to entertain one more beating, we will stop entertaining those voices. This is simply how it is.
Participating in the process of transformation, of training attention on awareness, is the willingness to choose not to indulge what condemns, judges or makes meaning of how “ending suffering” unfolds.
It’s hard for conditioned mind to wrap itself around willingness without “a someone who wills.” But if attention is not on conditioned mind, it is possible to discover what conditioned mind cannot grasp.
Perhaps it takes the threat of death (as in our Zen story) to summon the willingness to make the choice for something other than a conditioned orientation to life. Since life or death is the choice in every moment, for both the ego and the human incarnation, isn’t it marvelous that it is possible to awaken simply because we can and choose to?
Recall some of the instances in your life where you felt you did not have a choice. Record the story of this person. Without the lens of judgment, spot the conditioned identity that was defended and maintained through those “choices.”
What are some of the ways in which the voices keep you believing you are a victim of circumstances? How are you talked into defending choosing ego over Life?
For 48 hours, practice attending to the process of ending suffering. Set a timer. When it goes off direct the attention to thisherenow, to a process of gratitude, love, appreciation, acceptance, kindness. Record and listen to what arises.