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The Only Question You Need to Ask. ~ Barry H. Gillespie

Every day we are faced with countless choices.

Some of them are trivial, like “do I want whole wheat or rye bread in my sandwich?”
Some are not so simple.

We are constantly asking ourselves, “How do I know I’m doing the right thing?”

The answer typically given is to simply follow the rules laid out by our cultural and religious morality. Since we were old enough to listen, we’ve been told what is right and what is wrong, how to act and speak based on these values.

The problem is we end up making many decisions based not on what feels right but out of fear.

Morality always comes with a wagging finger: “don’t do that! If you do, you will be shunned, you will be thought of as bad—you will burn in hell for eternity.”

Choosing from a place of fear is bound to fail.

It’s not that these rules aren’t useful, they are simply incomplete.

I discovered the real question I needed to ask myself near the end of a month-long sit several years ago, when James Baraz, one of my teachers, asked us this question. What came to mind at the time was a choice I had made almost 30 years before.

My wife was working as a counselor at a month-long summer children’s camp at an ashram we belonged to and I was commuting back and forth on weekends.

Our two-year-old son was with her; she was taking care of the youngest group. There was a seven-year-old girl in her group who was in difficult circumstances: Tana was from Venezuela and was in the country illegally.

Her mother had died two years before, her father didn’t want her and she’d been shipped off to her grandmother in Toronto. The grandmother was elderly and couldn’t keep up with an active young child.

So Tana was in the camp for the month, and no one knew where she would be going when the camp ended.

My wife told me all of this one weekend. I went home and back to work, but I kept thinking about it. The next weekend, without any more discussion, I said to my wife, “I think we should adopt Tana.” She said, “So do I.”

That was it.

If you’d asked me at the time I could only have said, “this feels right.”

From any logical, rational point of view, it was kind of crazy. Tana was an illegal alien. She spoke almost no English and her father still had legal custody. We hadn’t talked to any of the official people who were in charge of adoption.

The next weekend we simply took her home with us, and then, with the help of a really great lawyer, dealt with all the legal ramifications.

When I thought about this all those years later—when I asked myself how I knew at the time that I was doing the right thing, the answer was obvious.

The choice we’d made created a great deal of happiness in the world. Tana was happy, my wife and I were happy and our son was happy because he had an instant big sister. Tana’s grandmother was happy and her father was happy because he was relieved of what he saw as a burden. Many other people at the ashram were happy.

All the various officials we had to deal with: immigration, children’s aid, social workers, school board officials, lawyers, judges—they were all happy, though sometimes they had to get past their ideas of the correct way things should have been done.

30 years later, I told this story at Tana’s wedding and I could feel the room light up with happiness. That feeling, that knowing that it was the right thing to do, continues to create more happiness in the world.

To answer that question, “Am I doing the right thing?” you simply need to ask yourself another question:

“Will this create more happiness in the world?”

I’ve come to this understanding not just from the times I’ve made the right decision, but also from the many times I haven’t. I’ve learned that it is important that the question is not simply, “Will this make me happier?”

That is the question that we are encouraged to use when making decisions, both by our culture and by our own tendency to move towards what is pleasant and away from what is unpleasant.

Using this as the basis for decision-making is what often gets us into trouble.

When I look at the many times I have spoken or acted unskillfully, where instead of creating more happiness I have created more suffering for myself and for others, it has always been because I’ve asked the wrong question. Somehow I had become deluded into believing that what I was doing or saying was okay, because I was thinking only or primarily about myself.

I had come to see myself as separate from everyone else.

Then at some point in the process I got shocked into waking up, into seeing the harm I’d created.

This is a critical moment, another moment of choice. I can easily fall into a space where I blame others, or pretend that I didn’t really do or say what I did, or wallow in self-blame or self-pity.

None of these choices would be skillful, because none of them create more happiness.

Instead I need to accept what has happened, own it, apologize to people if that is appropriate and then move on, determined to do my best to make the right choice the next time. I can learn from the experience, see where I lost mindfulness, where I’d managed to fool myself again, but then I simply need to go on with my life, making choices. This is the only skillful thing I can do.

We just have to keep asking ourselves, “Am I creating more happiness in the world?”

Everyone will be happier because we’ve remembered the only question we ever need to ask.

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Ed: Bronwyn Petry

{Photo Credit: Elephant Digital Archives}

 

 

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Kim Roberts Dec 8, 2013 8:58am

Love this Barry! thanks for your wisdom. hope you are staying warm.

Teresa Dec 7, 2013 11:30am

What about self-care and making decisions that might be unpopular or inconvenient to someone else but that are necessary to your well-being. For the most part I agree with what you've said, I just fear that by making a blanket statement like this it would be easy to slip into bouts of codependence or poor boundaries under the guise of "Well, it will make them happy". I just wanted to point out that while it's a good concept, it might not apply all the time.

Beautiful Dec 7, 2013 11:11am

Beautifully written & beautiful story & a very important question.

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Barry H. Gillespie

Barry H. Gillespie was introduced to formal meditation practice in 1978, through the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram. In 2003 he began exploring Theravada Buddhist practice, sitting many long retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA and Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA. His principal teacher is Guy Armstrong. His teaching arises out of his desire to share what he has learned with others. For more information on his teaching go to his website.