What should guide our action?

Some say only reason should guide our action; “do what you think best,” they tell us. Others suggest that we only listen to feeling; they recommend “following our hearts.” However, reason by itself can be cruel and feeling by itself can be blind. Therefore, I find it best to balance reason, feeling, and experience and take the wisdom of all three into account.  When harmonized, these three sources of insight hold the power to compensate for each other’s limitations and enrich our lives for the better.

There are, however, no easy answers on what is the best balance for any decision we encounter. Ultimately, we have to make a choice. Sometimes, hindsight reveals that we did not strike the best balance; sometimes it reveals that we could not have stricken a better one. Reality is nuanced and extremely complex. So are the patterns of optimal human response.

In response to the above ideas, Swami Omkarananda told me: ” I know you are very intelligent. But how do we knwo whatever level of intelligence we have is good enough to count on when we often are unaware of what it is we want, how we feel, and what direction we should head?”

This is a fantastic question and I don’t have a fully satisfactory answer to it.  The main point that I wanted to make was that instead of having reason dominate feeling or feeling dominate reason, it is usually a good approach to balance the two and inform them with experience.

We never have all of the information it would be optimally helpful for us to have and, therefore, I always emphasize the importance of dialogue. This is one point that Martin Buber was insistent upon, and I fully agree with him on this subject. Our own viewpoints, feelings, reason, and experience, and necessarily limited. We gain more information to take into account by sharing with one another and helping each other out. 

You are fully right that we are often unaware of what we want, how we feel, or what direction we should head. This can cause serious problems. Mindfulness and meditation do help to a great deal, especially with increasing our awareness of feelings and desires, in what they are, in how they arise, in how they are sustained, etc. However, they can only do so much. We only ever have so much information, and often it is not as good as it possibly could be.

And yet, we must live. We must continue to make decisions and take actions of various kinds. And therefore, we do need a kind of general principle to guide us and part of that involves what role reason, feeling, and experience should play in our lives. Some, like Plato, say “let reason dominate and guide everything.” Other say, “no, follow your emotions.” Other say, “just do what is intuitive.” As a general rule–though how we apply it depends on the case–I think it far better than any of these to deeply listen to what our reason, feelings, intuitions, and direct experiences are telling us and to then make a decision in light of the best of what we know from each of these sources of insight.

This is a general principle; putting it into practice can be tricky. Dialogue helps. Sharing ideas and interpretations helps. We are not islands; we are interdependent and have a lot to offer each other. I am all for sharing and dialogue over self-reliance in the limited sense. Certainly, I do not expect everyone to rely only on their own ideas, feelings, and experiences. I expect them–and myself, for I do live by this approach–to take those of other people (and in some cases, nonhuman beings) into account as well.


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