I Choose Both

Snow in Hanover, ME

Snow falling in Bethel, ME. Photo by Karen Swanson

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”

“A human being is a deciding being.”

                                                            ~All quotes Viktor E. Frankl


Dear Friends,

Have you ever experienced a feeling of dissonance despite the fact that you are doing what you should, taking the best course of action for your job or as a parent, and yet, there was a scratchy feeling of unrest and anxiety? I am paying attention to this feeling and what I am unearthing is the effect of hidden mixed motivation. Often there are more than one motivators at play in our lives. We usually go with the ones that show us in the best light, make us look unselfish or generous. Our choices often stem from our conditioning and wanting to be seen as good. This evaluation of good and bad motivations can keep our deeper desires and needs hiding from ourselves and result in subtle and not so subtle feelings of distraction and anxiety.

One of the biggest and most concealed drivers of our actions is to be seen in a certain way. We want to do the right thing—to be the generous one, the saintly one. We certainly don’t want to be the selfish lazy one, the one who just wants pleasure and their own comfort. This desire to be seen in a certain way is one of the three hungers the Buddha spoke about, the hunger of becoming. We want to become something specific in a conditioned setting. This hidden desire for a way of being can cause great conflict when we do not have the honesty to confront our desires directly.

In Buddhist forums, I’ve heard folks confess that they really want ease, recognition, or comfort and are surprised how that desire is driving them. There is an unspoken evaluation of “bad” attached to wanting a life free from suffering, with ease, and enjoyment. It’s much more acceptable to speak about service and the Bodhisattva ideal of liberating all beings instead of disclosing the truth of feeling irritated when caring for sick parents or acknowledging how much research and upheaval it creates cooking for a child with a gluten allergy. We may carefully attend to the sick parent and create delicious gluten-free meals for our kid, but when we have an unacknowledged conflict in our intentions, it blocks our spacious generous heart and creates resentment and a limited capacity.

The first step in opening to allow true generosity is removing the dualistic and discriminative label of good and bad to our motivations. Visiting our ill parents, or moving in to care for an elderly parent can conflict with our need for autonomy, for spaciousness, ease, and enjoyment. When we label these desires as selfish and bad, we don’t want to own them or be associated with them. Dropping the conditioned judgment and looking beyond the labels we can give ourselves the understanding that, of course—we, just like all beings, desire to create our own lives. All beings long to be in charge of themselves. At the same time we desire our freedom, we may want to honor our commitments and care for the people we love. However, when our ability to create our own lives is not supported, that lack of understanding blocks the ability to open-heartedly attend to another intention.

When we are able to regard all of our desires and motivators as benevolent—even the ones that in the past have incorporated the unskillful tactics of greed or anger, we can acknowledge them without shame or turning away. Recognizing and allowing all of our motivations takes the first steps towards accepting the whole of our humanity with compassion. If we allow all of our desires to be seen with the same valuation we step into a new way of relating to our choices—they become conscious and the methods for caring for ourselves and others become more creative and varied.

When I know I desire some rest and fun after a hectic week AND I also want to help my friend with the herniated disc pack up her kitchen because I value her friendship and want to make life better for her, allowing both those things to have equal weight gives me relief. If I believe that helping my friend is more holy, generous, and pure than caring for myself, I will create conflict through an involuntary act of self-abandonment. If I do not see the whole of my motivations and I chose to stay home and take a nap and watch a movie, I will have guilt at my choice because I continue to see one as more evolved and better than the other.

The simple practice of looking deeply and honestly gives us the freedom to choose. Knowing what we are needing and legalizing our humanity gives great relief. Recognizing the validity of wanting ease, joy, and to be seen in a certain way is already a freedom that gives us more choice. When we accept our mixed motivations without judgment we can make choices that nourish all of our desires, clearly, without punishing others for needing help and without becoming martyrs. When we act from a place of clarity, we choose the seeds we want to water and how we want to live, authentically, and with equal compassion for self and others.  

This week you may want to use the guidance of the emotions to alert you to when you are operating from conflict. Looking honestly without judgment can give you the freedom to choose to follow one path of action because that value creates a more beautiful life. Recognizing our choice point that gets buried beneath the “should’ and the “have to” creates a life that includes both autonomy and compassion. When we wake up to the choices we make in each moment we are no longer a passive victim. We can recognize our responsibility and our capacity to create lives in accord with our deepest intentions.

May we all trust our light,


Mindfulness is a source of happiness



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