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The importance of rationality in decision-making || IIT Delhi (2020)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
14 min
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Questioner (Q): I would like to ask your advice regarding decision-making. How rational should we be and how to weigh the consequences of our actions when we need to make important decisions in our life, like those related to work-life balance? How much importance should we give to our career or financial stability in comparison to, let’s say, family and relationships? So, could you give some advice on this?

Acharya Prashant (AP): How important is it to be rational while making decisions? There is no other way. I am assuming that when you say that we need to be rational, you are emphasizing the role of discretion over instinct, reason over emotion. Is that what we broadly mean by rationality?

Reason over emotion and discretion over instinct—there is no other way to decide. One has to be not quite rational but completely rational. Let the intellect go all the distance. Let the mind exercise itself to its fullest potential when you are deciding. Let no decision come from the blind wave and the primitive momentum of physical and mental tendencies, intuitions, instincts, etc. It is just that the reasonability has to be honest, and if one is honest, honestly intellectual, then the intellect will come to see its own limits.

Exercise your intellect, your reasoning capability, your analytical capability fully; and when you apply these fully, then the very application of the mind brings the mind to its own boundary. That is what brings some humility into us, and that is what leaves the space open for a higher kind of decision-making in which the mind has done everything that the mind can, now the mind has nothing more to offer. And after that if a decision comes from somewhere else, then there is nobody left to contest that decision.

You see, only two possibilities are there: First, one applies the intellect and the decision is to be taken very much within the zone of the intellect. “Is X greater than Y?” You do not need to transcend your intellect to decide on such a thing. You need no mystical powers or spiritual insight to solve an equation in mathematics or a question that just involves material factors.

So, that would be one kind of mistake, where that which needs to be addressed purely materially is addressed by way of intuition or emotion, and we often make that mistake. If one is designing a machine or a flyover, or anything material, then why should there be a role for anything other than reason in the entire process? The whole thing has to be utterly and absolutely reasonable. Anything else that comes into the decision-making process will only dilute it and corrupt it.

On the other hand, there are matters that involve stuff that is not quite material. For example, contentment. Contentment is not something three-dimensional; contentment is not something that you can assign a color or a weight, or situate in a place, or know by its material properties. Therefore, when it comes to contentment, then reason has to be transcended. Transcended, not avoided.

There is a difference between transcending reason and keeping reason aside. Transcending reason implies using reason to its fullest capacity only to see that in certain matters in life reason does not suffice—matters like contentment, matters like joy, matters like love, or matters like rightness. But even in these matters, you have to be, first of all, as reasonable as you can, which means you must know the facts of the case; you must know how one thing relates to the other. And after all that was possible to be done intellectually has been done, then you let the decision come from a place probably beyond the mind or the intellect.

But in any kind of decision-making, first of all, my submission is that the mind has to be respected, and the respect to the mind connotes nothing other than complete utilization of the mind.

Q: I have noticed that I have many habits that have morphed into compulsions over time, and I am disturbed when people don’t do things the same way as I do. For example, I have a habit of making my bed first thing in the morning, the moment I wake up. Generally, this is regarded as a very good habit. But the problem arises when people don’t do the same, and that starts disturbing me. This, I feel, is something that shouldn’t happen because I cannot control the people around me. So, how should I work on this?

AP: Work on what? Please clarify.

Q: Work on handling compulsions like these.

AP: But why do you want to work on them? What problem do you face?

Q: Because I feel it is fundamentally wrong to expect people to behave in a way I want them to behave. Just because I have a habit of doing something in a certain way, I should not expect the same from others.

AP: Do you want to control your habit to make the bed right in the morning or the habit to feel hurt when people don’t approve of you?

Q: The habit to feel hurt when people don’t do things the way I do. I am fine with my habits.

AP: Then you need to be very clear of what you do. In that case, even if people don’t approve, it doesn’t matter because you already know by yourself and for yourself whatever you are doing. When you know for sure that the problem in mathematics has been rightly solved by you, and someone comes and starts picking holes in that, it doesn’t bother you beyond the point, or does it? In fact, if the fellow tries to say too much, that fellow falls in your esteem. The problem remains, the solution remains where it was, the fellow is dismissed. Where is the question of hurt?

Hurt comes when you are not sure of yourself. You are saying you are alright with your habits but not alright with people criticizing you; you feel hurt. If you feel hurt, that clearly tells that you do not know what you do and why you do it. If you know that making the bed, for example, is the best thing you can do with your time in the morning, then why would you pay attention to someone objecting to it? That problem arises only when you are yourself not sure of why you do certain things. Then the real problem is not the hurt. The real problem is ignorance. The real problem is lack of self-knowledge.

Know what you are doing. Know what you are doing things as . And then there will be not much need to look at others for validation or approval, and their rejection or condemnation also won’t hurt that much.

Q: It is not about what they are saying, it is about what I want. I feel that just because I have a particular habit, everyone should have it because it is not anything particularly wrong—for example, making the bed in the morning. And I think it shouldn’t influence everyone because now I am not at home, I am in a hostel, I am living with my roommates. I cannot control their habits. It is about my control over myself.

AP: Do you really know what is best for yourself? If you really know that, why don’t you know what to do to get rid of your hurt? Because that is the best thing to do for yourself. And if you don’t know what is best for yourself, how are you so confident in determining what is best for others? How do you know that others too should have the same habit when you don’t, for sure, know what is good even for you?

This kind of irritation at others arises from misplaced self-confidence. “I am just confident of myself without ever taking the effort to know where I stand and what my inner mechanics are.” Confidence is a false front for understanding. To understand something is one thing, and to be just confident is totally another thing. When you know what you are, what life is, where do habits come from, what do we need to spend our morning hours doing—when you know these things for yourself with clarity, then you will be in some position to advise others as well. Otherwise, it is a case of, forgive me the usage, the blind leading the blind.

“I compulsively make my bed in the morning. I need to first of all shut out the others and figure out what else is compulsively present in my life.” All that is compulsively present in your life needs to be examined; that helps, really helps. And when you are someone who realizes things, then you will be in a great position to helpfully, compassionately advise others as well.

So, get into each of your habits. See how they affect you. See where they are coming from. See if those habits are an escape from something. See whether those habits want to point at something. Try to get into your inner world, and you will find lots of treasures there. Very important information lies hidden in the inner self. Explore it. You will enjoy.

Q: Awesome! If I can follow up on that, can I reach that state of self-realization where I always know what is good for me and how I must proceed with everything?

AP: No, you already know what is good for you in a very fundamental sense. Look at the baby on its very first day. Does it like being suffocated? No. So, we all need space, and space is freedom. Does the baby like being hurt? No. So, we all need the kind of strength that can never be hurt, we all need something that is hurt-proof. Nobody in the world likes to be cheated. So, we want something that we can absolutely rely on. Nobody in the world likes to die. So, we all want something that goes beyond time.

So, these are the things that you must care for in your life and these are the things that you must bring into your life—simplicity, truth—and equally, you have to be very careful of things that take you away from these basics.

You want to be at a point where there is no desire. Nobody likes being desirous all the time. Desire is, in some sense, an irritation; beyond that it is just suffering. So, we want to come to the end of desire. So, you have to avoid situations, people, places who just keep provoking desire in you. The body is going to meet its end one day, so you should not desire situations, thoughts, and concepts that make you more body-identified, because your nature is immortality. That is how you navigate through life.

Q: Can you please introduce us to some tools or practices which can help us in maintaining and focusing our awareness on the path of liberation and inner work?

AP: Actually, all my life I have never really used any specific, definite tool. But since you have asked for it, the one that I can recommend, especially to a young person, is the question, “What is going on and to whom?”

Things always happen to you when you are awake, alive and conscious, right? There is always something happening. You are constantly in the middle of experiences, are you not? Always keep asking, “What really is happening, and who is experiencing it?” That is all, and this has to be twenty-four-hour practice.

This is not something that you can practice only when you are down or defeated. In fact, far greater importance is of asking these questions when you are happy and high. What is happening? What is happening? What is happening out there (pointing outwards) , and what is happening in here (pointing inwards) ? I am in the middle of a market—what really is a market? Can I define a market? Bring the whole definition down to first principles. So, a market is a place where a seller meets a buyer. Who is the seller, and why does he want to sell? What is he selling? Who is the buyer? Why and what does he buy? What is this interaction like?

Don’t believe in the pre-existing definitions that you carry in your head. Always reduce everything to the first principles. What really is going on?

There are two kinds of people: One, who just work on formulae—so they mug up the formula, try to plug in values and try to solve problems, and that usually does not get you through the IIT-JEE—and then there is the other kind of mind that operates from first principles. Cultivate that mind. Always go to first principles.

So, there is a woman that you are feeling attracted to. What is this thing called attraction? What really is happening? Could I have experienced this attraction when I was asleep? So, what happens when I wake up? Alright, I saw her and there is something called attractiveness. Can I define attractiveness? Indulge in all these things. It might spoil the romantic fervor of the evening but would help you a lot.

“I am afraid.” What is this thing called fear? What is my fear saying to me? Fear is threatening me. What is the threat all about? If you can understand what fear is saying to you, you will have to answer, and you will be in a position to answer who is the one being threatened.

Have very, very curious eyes, very investigative eyes. Don’t just trust what you already know. What you already know might be of value or might be of no value at all; it might actually be a big impediment in the way of understanding.

See, apply the basics. What is the harm in asking a question? If your preexisting answer is alright, then the question and the associated scrutiny will only reinforce your confidence in your preexisting answer, so no harm done. But suppose for a moment that your preexisting answers are hollow or even junk; then that scrutiny can help you so much.

The attitude of inquiry must not be reserved only to an academic subject. When one becomes an enquirer in life, then life itself shines beautifully. All that which is not worth keeping simply drops and great things start coming to you.

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