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Making Conscious Decisions
Vedic rishis predicted the discoveries of a Nobel laureate millennia ago, and show how to overcome the pitfalls.
What would you think if I told you that each of us constantly undermines our own potential for success without realizing it? That we pull a veil over our own eyes without knowing it, and as a consequence often fail to make correct decisions? That despite being sentient, conscious beings, much of our behavior is shaped by unconscious reactions to the world around us?
The Rishis of the Vedas observed this, and much of Vedic philosophy is based on self-inquiry, and conscious observation both internally and externally. While most of us go through life reactive and not conscious of why we do what we do, and why we think what we think - they deeply delved into these topics to create a better understanding of the self.
While this knowledge was available and transmitted from time immemorial, many directly applicable lessons have not been understood by the mainstream today. In the modern era, observing these mechanics of thought and how we make decisions earned noted Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman the 2002 Nobel prize in Economics. In his bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes the different modes or systems in which we think:1
System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.
System 1 as Kahneman describes operates automatically and generates impressions, intentions, intuitions, and feelings. Think of the simple associative image tests where a response to an image is asked for before one has time to consciously think through the implications. In this case System 1 is mobilized. We have little control over the operation of System 1 most of the time, and it encompasses some activities that we are born with, and others that become fast and automatic through practice. For example, orienting to the source of a sudden sound is an innate function of system 1, while understanding simple sentences or association with stereotypes are learned.
By contrast, System 2 requires active engagement and requires effort and attention. System 2 is engaged when we are performing more complex, effortful mental activity, for example solving a complex problem or proving a theorem. System 2 also arbitrates the impressions from System 1 - System 2 turns System 1 intuitions into beliefs, and impulses into voluntary actions.
One of the tasks of System 2 is to overcome the impulses of System 1. In other words, System 2 is in charge of self-control.2
This fascinating interplay and systemic division of labor in the mind was captured by the Vedic Rishis in their explanation of the antahkarna or “inner instruments”. The inner instruments are manas, buddhi, ahankara, and cit. Of these inner instruments, manas and buddhi coincide with Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2. In the system of antahkarna, the manas receives sensory information from the senses and coordinates perception. It is the instinctive mind that coordinates motor and sensory organs, delivers sensory impressions, and is the seat of emotions. If not actively coordinated by well-developed buddhi, intellect or System 2 as discussed here, it simply acts on the wants, wishes, desires, and aversions stored in memory, cit.
By contrast buddhi, the intellect or System 2 in this case, is the determinative faculty of the mind that actively makes decisions. Buddhi is seen as the higher functions of the mind in Vedic thought, but requires active efforts to develop while the other antahkarna simply develop naturally.
Recognizing this helps us understand the implications in our own daily lives. Immediate, unconscious behavior is shaped by manas, or System 1, and deliberate, conscious behavior is shaped by buddhi, or System 2. It is important for us to understand this because much of what we do is shaped by manas without our direct conscious thought.
The automatic functions of manas are important and useful. If everything required direct laborious conscious thought, we wouldn’t be able to function. Things like basic motor functions or simple understanding of language happening unconsciously allow us to direct conscious thought on other things. And in many situations it is important to train reactions to happen quickly. A hunter-gatherer in the wild may require such trained instincts for survival. An athlete competing at the highest level needs to train themselves to react quickly and automatically to perform at the highest levels. Pausing to reflect on a decision, or thinking through the optimal reaction, may lose the hunter-gatherer their life, or the athlete the match.
However, there are many times we fall back to the automatic, reactive components of manas when we actually need to engage our buddhi. In these cases, it can lead to many problems. It is critical to understand what we get wrong with unconscious, reactive behavior, to understand why and how to engage our buddhi to lead to better outcomes.
One of the key ways that unconscious behavior and following the whims of manas create a problem is through unconscious bias or cognitive bias. Today unconscious bias is a major topic because it leads to discrimination and unequal outcomes in the workplace and beyond - across society. An example of this is implicit gender and racial bias leading to women and minority workers earning less than others for working equivalent jobs. This unconscious bias is made up of a number of cognitive biases - shortcuts the manas takes to answer things quickly and efficiently for us. For example, Kahneman describes how System 1 jumps to conclusions without appropriate consideration of data:3
The measure of success for System 1 is the coherence of the story it manages to create. The amount and quality of the data on which the story is based are largely irrelevant. When information is scarce, which is a common occurrence, System 1 operates as a machine for jumping to conclusions...
Jumping to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence is so important to an understanding of intuitive thinking, and comes up so often in this book, that I will use a cumbersome abbreviation for it: WYSIATI, which stands for what you see is all there is. System 1 is radically insensitive to both the quality and the quantity of the information that gives rise to impressions and intuitions.
A related point, beyond simply jumping to conclusions, is that sometimes instead of evaluating the actual question at hand, which would require engaging our buddhi, we instead choose an easier route:5
If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 will find a related question that is easier and will answer it. I call the operation of answering one question in place of another substitution.
This is another place where biases may come in. For example, instead of asking a question that requires deeper thought like which candidate for a job best matches the characteristics that will lead to success in the role, we may unconsciously favor someone who looks like or sounds like they are trustworthy - ie. basing the decision on familiarity rather than an objective decision criterion.
A related way manas can act automatically to carry us away from acting on the good judgment of buddhi is by making judgments on pre-existing likes, dislikes, and stereotypes as opposed to seeing things clearly as they are. In the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna explicitly warns against this, speaking of raga-dvesa vimuktaih - one who is free from attachments and aversions is the one who attains the best outcome. These attachments and aversions (raga-dvesa) are the shortcuts one stores to avoid engaging one’s buddhi in effortful mental activity. They preclude objective decision criteria. In practice it may be a long journey to becoming completely free from one’s attachments and aversions, but by actively engaging one’s buddhi one can attempt to loosen its hold over one’s judgment.
Another example of reactive thinking explained in the Bhagavad Gita is given in Chapter 2, verses 62-63, where Lord Krishna describes how attachment leads to reactive emotions like anger, which eventually leads to the loss of buddhi as one’s mediating factor in behavior. Eventually, this leads to one’s downfall.
ध्यायतो विषयान्पुंस: सङ्गस्तेषूपजायते |
सङ्गात्सञ्जायते काम: कामात्क्रोधोऽभिजायते ||
क्रोधाद्भवति सम्मोह: सम्मोहात्स्मृतिविभ्रम: |
स्मृतिभ्रंशाद् बुद्धिनाशो बुद्धिनाशात्प्रणश्यति ||6
One point upon which the wisdom of the Vedic Rishis diverges from modern observers is our ability to correct these mistakes and exercise our buddhi in situations where the manas provides automatic responses. In this regard, Kahneman is pessimistic about our ability to correct these mistakes. This is partly due to experimental evidence showing that even many experts may fall prey to these same cognitive biases and mistakes of system 1 in their respective fields. One aspect of system 2 that Kahneman discovered is that because its activity is so effortful, it is often lazy and rubber stamps impulses from system 1 as decisions. This is why, despite having a system that is able to exert self-control, we so often fall prey to lazy unconscious thinking.
However, in the Vedic system, a whole set of meditation and mindfulness techniques have been designed to teach us how to deliberately engage our buddhi, or system 2. Without regular exercise and deliberate engagement, of course it becomes lazy! This also explains why even an expert in a field may fall prey to reliance on the impulses of manas. This is because much of the effort of acquiring expertise in a field often comes from acquiring knowledge and storing this in memory, rather than constant active engagement of buddhi. Once one has encountered many of the typical problems in a field, solving issues may not even require much active effortful engagement of one’s buddhi. However, in the system of Vedic study, Patanjali’s system of ashtanga yoga, and many other forms have exercises that regularly and actively engage buddhi and thus keep this system exercised.
In the Bhagavad-Gita, Arjun asks Lord Krishna about this very problem. He explains how difficult it is to corral the mind and marshal its efforts towards the activities that Lord Krishna prescribes. Here Lord Krishna responds:
असंशयं महाबाहो मनो दुर्निग्रहं चलम् ।
अभ्यासेन तु कौन्तेय वैराग्येण च गृह्यते ॥ ३५ ॥
It is undoubtedly very difficult to curb the restless mind, but it is possible by practice and by detachment7
The first part of this acknowledges that curbing the automatic unconscious thought of the manas is indeed difficult, as we have described earlier. Here the ancient wisdom diverges from the modern opinion, however, as two things are prescribed to solve this problem. Abhyas or repeated practice and vairagya or detachment through understanding. In the yoga sutras Patanjali echoes this:
abhyāsavairāgyābhyāṃ tannirodhaḥ ॥1.12॥
By practice and detachment the fluctuations of the mind are restrained.8
The practice of yoga is about the repetition of the basic exercises. While there is a range of meditative practices, the most important aspect emphasized here is the regular repetition of them, and repeatedly striving to bring the mind under control. Which meditative technique is used is less important than diligently and regularly practicing the method. This repeated effort is what is important in quieting the manas. Kabir, the 15th-century saint famously said, “करत करत अभ्यास के जड़मति होत सुजान” - through repeated practice, even a dull mind becomes perfected.
We are all familiar with the virtues of repeated practice, but the second part prescribed here is less common in the west. Vairagya is frequently translated as detachment or dispassion, though these English words fail to properly capture the meaning of the Sanskrit term. Detachment or renunciation can seem like an application of raga-dvesa or one’s attachments and aversions. However, what is being asked of us here is not to develop an aversion for certain things. Vairagya is about understanding the true nature of your likes and dislikes. For example, if there is a drink in front of you, you may be inclined to drink it if you are feeling thirsty. However, if you are informed the drink is poisonous, you will not be inclined to drink it anymore. This is the ‘detachment’ from the drink, the understanding of its true nature which causes you to take a wiser approach to determine what to do.
A great deal of Vedic teachings are devoted to uncovering the true nature of ourselves and the world around us, so that we may understand our relationship and act accordingly. An example we discussed in an earlier article is karma yoga. We discussed realizing that while you can control your own effort, often the results are out of your hands. Realizing this, you may develop vairagya for the results, and thus focus 100% of your energy on your own efforts, leading to a better potential outcome.
It is the combination of practice and detachment, abhyas and vairagya, that allow us to avoid many of the problems of reliance on manas - it allows us to make better, more objective decisions. As we discussed earlier, this self-mastery helps us become better leaders. The practices underpinning such a move to more conscious behavior may provide even broader benefits, such as more broadly enhanced cognitive function. For example neuroscientists found that pandits practicing the chanting of Sanskrit mantras exhibited 10 percent more grey matter across both cerebral hemispheres as compared to the normal population in structural MRI scans.
There is still much to explore from a scientific perspective in these fields, but we can easily take some practical lessons for our daily lives from the inquiry of the Vedic Rishis into these subjects. Starting some meditative or mindfulness practices can help us exercise our conscious discriminative intellect, and help prevent us from falling into the many traps of unconscious thinking and cognitive bias. Deeper self-inquiry can free us from reliance on unconscious impressions. The combination of these two can unlock our buddhi and lead us to a more awakened life.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 20-21). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 26). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 85). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 86). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 86). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
Sri Bhagavad Gita, Ch 2, V 62-63
Sri Bhagavad Gita Ch 6, V 35
Kak, Subhash. Mind and Self: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and Modern Science . Mount Meru Publishing. Kindle Edition.