Thursday, April 22, 2010

Choice Points

Elisha Goldstein, my colleague and co-teacher of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for depression, uses a phrase that has really caught my attention and imagination. He refers to the pivotal moment when the habitual mind presents itself as a "choice point."

As human beings, we are constantly making choices. Often, however, these choices are made unconsciously or automatically. In cases like this, it can seem to us as though we actually have no choice. Usually, we choose the same outworn ways of reacting to a situation by going down the familiar and well-grooved neuro-pathways of the brain that have become habit. This is not only a very self-limiting choice to make, it can potentially lead us into some pretty self-destructive places.

For example, if a friend does not return my phone call or e-mail promptly, I may begin to wonder if I have done something to upset them. This could lead to the mind producing any number of automatic negative thoughts, such as, "I'm not worthy," or "I'm a loser," or "Nobody likes me." These automatic negative thoughts might increase in frequency, and I may start to believe them as being facts. Pretty soon, taking this habitual pathway has led me to a downward spiral of insecurity and low self-worth, which can lead to depression.

So the "choice point" would be the moment I realize that the friend has not reciprocated my communication. I might even begin to go down the insecurity pathway, but I catch myself, and here is where consciousness and mindful awareness present themselves in the situation. I can remind myself that my thoughts about this person are not facts, but merely my interpretation of why they haven't contacted me. These thoughts are stories that my mind is making up, pure and simple. Awareness like this can short-circuit the negative thinking that would come next, and by interrupting this cycle, space opens up out of which I can make more skillful and effective choices.

We can practice working with choice points very effectively during our meditation practice. Choosing to come back to the breath when we notice the wandering mind is an obvious example. Noticing our aversion to events, such as discomfort in the body, sounds that we allow to annoy us, or thoughts that we don't like to have, offer us more choice points. I don't have to try to fix or get rid of any of these experiences, I merely have to acknowledge they are here and then allow them to be. Again, this opens up space so I can see the experience differently, which again gives me more options.

During your day, notice the habitual reactions of the mind toward or away from certain experiences. This would mean that you have reached a choice point in your life. Notice the feelings in the body, acknowledging the event, and then put everything on pause as you feel yourself breathing for a few moments. This will bring you to the present moment reality and get you out of your head which may be spinning with stories about the situation. Then come back to the situation at hand, and with the spaciousness you have cultivated from taking the short breathing break, take a new pathway that is more responsive and less reactive.


1 comment:

  1. I think this is very interesting and to even acknowledge the choice point and see it is a step. I am beginning to notice that I have strong habitual thoughts when it comes to an assumption that I am isolated. thoughts that are not (for the most part) true. I will try and see the choice point and take you advice to breath and feel that moment and go from there. Thank you.