How do you decide what to think or do next?
Let's remember that action precedes consciousness (as I discussed in the article about that topic). Thus, the actual decision to think or act is not conscious. You can become aware of it having happened, of course. Your mind can even be configured to preview actions (as in “think before you speak”), but this is not the natural or default way for your brain to work. Unless you are exceedingly neurotic and hypervigilant most of your decisions will tend to take place in the natural way.
If you do something repeatedly, that action becomes internalized. For example, when you were a child it took a lot of thought to tie your shoelaces. Now, though, you don't need to think about it at all; the action has become internalized. To put it another way: you no longer bother to be conscious of the action.
This does not mean you are completely oblivious, of course. If somebody asks, “Did you tie your shoelaces?” you will usually remember having done so. Not always, of course! Sometimes someone will say, “Did you remember to lock the front door?” or “Did you turn off the stove?” and you will have no recollection whatsoever. In such cases the action was so automatic that your mind allowed other actions to dominate your attention. The memory of the action might be in your brain somewhere, but you simply cannot assemble enough of the context of the action to remember having done it.
Independent Yet Coordinated
Please recall that the mind (along with the brain) is made up of billions of independent neurons. These work in a coordinated fashion, but they are nonetheless individual cells. The mind is, in essence, a massively parallel computer made up of billions of processors. These processors are arranged into functional groupings (for language, vision, smell, emotional labelling and so on). These groupings operate asynchronously.
Consider this statement: “I saw the apple; I thought I'd like an apple; and so I picked it and then ate it.” We may remember our actions this way, but this is a vast over-simplification because while this sequence was occuring so were many other mental processes. For example, after seeing the apple your eyes may have glanced around while your mind was considering whether or not to eat it. If, during those moments of consideration, you saw a lion, the process would have been interrupted. You would not complete your apple-oriented thoughts before responding to the threat!
It should be obvious, then, that the mind does many things simultaneously. It should also be obvious that its activities can be at odds with each other — “Do I consider the lion or the apple?” — and a choice must occur.
Most choices in our lives are far less exciting than avoiding lion attacks. We might have to choose between an apple or a pear. Do we vote for this candidate or that? Do we smile at this person or not? Which of these 17 television shows do we watch, or should we do something else altogether?
Deep within the mind these choices take place. And the mind can be lazy about it. If we usually choose an apple over a pear, we will tend to do so again. There are good evolutionary reasons why we take these shortcuts: if a decision does not seem to matter much, why waste energy on it?
Choosing an apple instead of a pear is fairly simple. But what about complex issues? Do I compliment the boss on his new tie? Do I spend money on new tires for my car or risk using them for another month?
Our minds choose the actions of our lives from a maelstrom of alternatives. Different people have different patterns of choosing. These patterns are a big part of what we call their personality. Some people will tend to choose in a selfish way. Others seem to choose from a mix of 90% logic and 10% compassion. And so on.
There are countless ways to describe personality, but the key issue I wish to highlight now is that choices arise from numerous alternatives within the person. These competing alternatives are what I call “personality fragments.”
When your brain is faced with a decision these personality fragments all jostle around. One of these “wins” according to various criteria — though this does not mean that there is a central “choosing organ”! Habitual actions (like choosing an apple because you always have done so) will have an advantage, but there can be exceptions for various reasons.
Now recall that action precedes consciousness. Once the choice is made and the action takes place, your mind has to catch up to what just occurred. Now comes the process of rationalizing the choice:
Alice asks, “Why did you eat that apple?”
Bob replies, “Because apples are healthy!”
Bob is almost certainly fooling himself. He may indeed believe that apples are healthy, but it is highly unlikely that his explanation is complete or even identifies the main reason for the choice. The actual process of choosing is so far from his consciousness that he cannot accurately explain why he chose as he did. So he rationalizes.
We never know the full story of why we choose as we do. Bob may prefer apples because they remind him of a fine year during his childhood when he lived in an orchard. But he might never admit this because he has never bothered to notice the connection.
Because we cannot see the interaction of personality fragments our entire lives are fictions we make up after the fact. What we tell ourselves about our motives will always be incomplete. We can, of course, meditate deeply and obtain some additional insight into our choices. But we will never know the entire truth.
If our lives are fictions, what happens when we start to believe those fictions are true? Is this not the ground upon which ego grows? And once the ego flourishes, will the rationalizations not bend to accomodate the beliefs the ego has established as fact?
Can we see ourselves as something other than what we imagine we are? Perhaps we can, provided we recall that we didn't actually know in the first place.