Choice: Laying the Foundation for Living Ethically

I am privileged to have the opportunity and space to walk or ride a bike with my 3-year old son, Malcolm, almost every morning.  His glider bike is green and has no pedals making it especially useful for children just learning how to balance without having to simultaneously learn how to pedal.  Malcolm’s use of the bike has been a game-changer for our morning walks, allowing my wife and I to walk at a faster pace – much appreciated after either pushing him in a stroller, carrying him in our arms, or having to do shorter walks.

On mornings when Malcolm and I are together without mom, it’s especially interesting to me to be in a position to create space for Malcolm to make choices, and to witness his sense of agency over his environment.  When I genuinely provide him the opportunity to choose where we are going, I notice some shifts in me.  I feel a sense of spaciousness inside and around the place where my heart is located.  I feel a releasing of my abdominal muscles, perhaps associated with a dissolving of my own fears and anxieties of having to be in control of the situation.

With Malcolm I notice how easily and quickly he takes control of the situation, without hesitation.  He knows where to go without me telling him.  As a parent, I find this wonderfully liberating.  I don’t have to tell my son what to do, or what to be interested in.  He knows! 

We come to the corner of the sidewalk, for example, and there is the choice for him to go right or straight.  I realize, as the adult, I could easily take that choice from him by making the decision myself, or worse, by being unconscious that there is an opportunity to make a choice– that we could go left or straight.

As we come to the corner, I ask Malcolm, “Which way do you want to go, left or straight?”  I give him just two choices of the myriads of possibilities.  He could go right or back, or simply choose to stay still.  Malcolm responds, “let’s go left daddy.”  It’s so wonderful to hear him say this.  I notice an increase of energy in my core as Malcolm leads the way.  I notice my own concentration (based on a subjective feeling of focus in my forehead) increases as I let go of my desire to control my son.

Many would perhaps question that a child has the ability to make an informed choice, but having observed him myself in this process, it’s fascinating for me to watch as he makes decisions for himself, based on what he wants to do.  It requires on my end that I remain open, with “don’t know mind”, and with goal-less-ness.  For, if I’m the director, I teach him how to follow.  If he learns how to make decisions for himself, with his own physical body and mind, then he learns how to be a leader. 

I do not merely become his follower letting him do whatever he wants – that would be irresponsible.  Rather, I become the facilitator of him developing a sense of agency over his environment  – that he feels he has some ability to influence the world as he experiences it based on his decisions.  I also prevent him, if need be, from destroying property or hurting other people – though instances of destruction have been rare in him and often are tied to the need on my part to pay greater attention to what he’s doing, and to engage with him more deeply.

This shard of experience leads me to wonder about the connection between the early childhood development of choice and living an ethical life.  How might these two things be connected? 

Regardless of your beliefs or lack thereof in the Abrahamic religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam make freedom to choose the bedrock of living a life centered on or in God.  All the stories in the Hebrew Bible, to my knowledge, point to the importance placed on choice, and choosing to live a life based in closeness with God – understood not as a perfect life, but a life of meaning and a sense of belonging to the world, to the human race, and to the divine with every atom of one’s existence, and a life of awareness of the sufferings of others and what to do about it. 

The very first story in the Bible of human interaction with God – the story of Adam and Eve has been interpreted in a variety of ways.  I invite my readers to keep their minds open and curious when re-reading this story because I feel it has very important things to say about our early childhood psychology as humans.

In the story God gives the first humans a choice.  God tells them that they can eat from any of the trees except from the one in the center of the garden.  Yet, at the same time, though God forbids eating from this tree, Adam and Eve are given the opportunity to choose whether or not to do that.  In other words, God gives them permission to disobey.  They have freewill.

Similarly, all human beings, from the very beginning, are endowed with freewill.  If we look at this story from a psychological perspective, Adam and Eve prior to exiting the Garden of Eden are symbolic of humans in a pre-pubescent state, or maybe an adolescent state.  Our ability to distinguish and choose right from wrong, from this perspective, is not something we are born with, but something that is developed over time, and cannot be shaped without the freedom to choose.  We have to realize that we have choices.  That we can make a choice isn’t often readily apparent to any of us, and we slowly discover this ability as we mature.

If it is true that the ability to choose needs to be realized (regardless of whether one chooses right or wrong), then as a caretaker of a 3-year old it is part of my responsibility to facilitate that learning, and it could be done with the most basic of tasks such as going for a walk and allowing Malcolm to exercise not only his legs, but his ability to choose.

From a Buddhist perspective, what role does choice play?  I love the Kalama Sutra.  In it the Buddha basically recommends checking things out for oneself, and making a decision based on your own experience, rather than what someone else says.

The Kalama Sutra was written for a community that had many different teachers of a variety of doctrines wandering through their town.  The people became confused as to which teacher to follow.  This scenario is very common in our present world.  In times when we are inundated by so much information at our fingertips, how do we figure out which path to take?  The Buddha’s advice in the Kalama Sutra is extraordinarily generous.  He doesn’t say, “follow what I’m doing, and I forbid you from following anyone else.”  He instead implores us to check things out and see through our own experience whether something is true or not.  In other words, we have the power to choose how to live (even if we don’t think we do), and we can learn from our past experiences as opposed to someone simply telling us what to do or not do.

The Abrahamic faiths as well as Buddhism offer ethical guidelines for how to attain their respective goals – whether it be intimacy with God or Awakening.  The Hebrew Bible talks about, among other things, Commandments.  But just the word, “Commandment” can be problematic if we have not properly developed our ability to choose from an early age, prior to understanding right from wrong.  The 10 Commandments are really an advanced kind of practice, in my view, once an understanding of choice has been well established.  If choice has not been well established during youth, in other words if a young person is consistently denied opportunities to make choices, or even consistently given things that they would never choose, then that person will not be prepared to even consider living by the 10 Commandments.  I think the same can be said of the Buddhist precepts.  The flip side of this is that – considering that the mental factor of choice has not been well developed – then precepts or “commandments” will most likely be followed blindly without the ability to question them.

In modern times thanks to social media and the internet we can find so many examples of unethical behavior and there is an almost immediate condemnation of those behaviors.  Without condoning unethical behavior, I would like to see us begin to uncover the roots of such behavior in adults.  When we look at criminals in the justice system, for example, murderers, drug dealers, rapists, etc., who would not condemn their actions?  Maybe they do need to serve time.  However, what do we know about that person’s background?  How were they treated by their adult caregivers?  How were they treated by their community?  Was there abuse or neglect involved?  What about the role of generational trauma such as what the Black community has experienced, or indigenous peoples?  Where is our responsibility for these traumas?  In what ways may we have benefited, for example, from the oppression of Black people?

If we look at people of color, indigenous peoples, or anyone with early childhood trauma there may be a common thread:  denial of choice – being forced to do something against one’s will.  Black people did not choose to come to the United States.  They came on slave ships.  Indigenous peoples did not freely give over their lands to the white settlers.  It was taken by force.  No child chooses to be beaten or sexually exploited.  These are examples of trauma that results from extreme lack of choice.  While some notable individuals rise up out of these kinds of traumas, are able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps , how can we, as a society, expect people to act ethically if we don’t understand what a person or community has been through, nor our own complicity in this trauma?

When choice is robbed from us, then the bedrock out of which our ethical behavior follows, I believe, is seriously eroded. 

We can learn to develop choice at any age, and in any moment.  The concept of “No self”, which the Buddha taught has amazing ramifications for anyone who chooses to delve deeper into comprehending this concept.  No self means that there is no continuity to the self, that runs from the present into the past.  While we cannot deny that we have a birth and come from a particular blood lineage, no self is asking us to look deeper at this belief and to see that every moment we are born again.  If we take this teaching to heart, then every moment is an opportunity to make a genuine choice in how to proceed.  We need not fall into constrictive habit patterns.

While these opportunities to choose are available to us moment by moment, if one has not practiced making choices, or had choice robbed from them, then one’s ability to do so may have atrophied.  This is why in my offerings of Trauma Sensitive Yoga, and in my attempts to make Zen more trauma informed, I make it a point to give people opportunities to make a new habit – that of making choices. 

We often unconsciously judge behaviors as right or wrong without consideration for the bedrock making it possible to know right from wrong: the exercise of choice.  Choice is not something that we learn when we are adults or teenagers.  It’s something that we do from the moment we are born – or even before birth.  Some might say even before conception – especially if you have an understanding of reincarnation.  Regardless of our beliefs around when choice is available, we can test our beliefs in any moment.  Using our own life in this moment as a laboratory, we can become more aware of the choices available to us, rather than settling for old habits.  In our interactions with our family – those younger and older, we can offer them choices, try to better understand their preferences, and be willing to be a servant to them, without condoning or facilitating choices that may be harmful.

I admit that offering choices to adults – or those older than us – is challenging unless they are willing to learn or are already open to perspectives other than their own.  I find it easier to work with children who are much more mentally malleable.  They are our future, and we need a future of people who not only are able to make ethically solid choices, but are able to critique the status quo of our society and know that there are many ways to live with integrity.


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