Addendum on choice

A comment by John Becker, near the bottom of the page two posts ago, gave us this automotive metaphor — for steering through a thicket of addictive possibilities and staying on the road:

“…you drive defensively, paying attention. Not too tight; not too loose. You’re not so afraid of having an accident that you’re all frozen up…not so tight you can’t take in the wider picture, but not careless either, you keep your eyes on the road. You’re not alone in the car; [you’re] responsible for your family, you want to be skillful.”


That was a therapist’s response to an (ex?) addict who wished it were possible to say “never again” and be absolutely certain.

I love it. You can’t be certain you won’t have an accident, but you can drive well — flexibly, with awareness — to minimize the chances. John used this metaphor to reflect on the nature of choice. To call addiction a “disorder of choice” merely scratches the surface, he says, and I agree, because we don’t really know what choice is. We don’t know how it works, and therefore we can’t avoid the uncertainty surrounding addictive choices, present or future.

Right now I’m in this “villa” (not such a villa) in the south of France, and it’s hot, day and night. So I’ve been spending a number of hours in this semi-meditative state, rather than sleeping, which I would prefer by 2 AM. In this state I sometimes focus on my breathing, in and out, in and out, and I discover for the umpteenth time that breathing is fascinating. When you focus on your breath, you seem to be right there, present, at the moment when each breath begins. You say: ok, I’m going to inhale now, and you do. But when you relax a bit more, or when your mind wanders, you find that the breath comes anyway. Of course it does.

What’s most interesting is the place where the choice and the automatic reflex converge. There you find that the choice to begin another breath coincides with an impulse that’s already gathering. Like froth on a wave – the wave being an underlying biological rhythm that senses the world and responds to it. The breath happens on its own even when you’re doing it intentionally. So what proportion of the “decision” to inhale is actually coming from you? Or, to put it differently, how much of that inhale was actually your decision?

I think choice is like that most of the time, maybe always. Certainly the “choice” to reach for that bottle or that phone (to call your dealer)  is only part choice. It’s also part impulse — the gathering and then discharging of an underlying urge or plan — mixed together with conscious volition. So your moment of intention rides like a little boat carried by a wave.

The trick then would be to work on shaping the wave – to become “skillful” in order to help protect you and your family from disaster.

Making good choices requires good habits — skillful habits. Driving habits, like addictive habits, are not built in like breathing habits. But that’s what permits us to work on them and improve them. Through effort and practice. Good habits allow the spark of choice to flair in the right direction, the way you want it to, the way that keeps you safe.


This little breathing exercise is a great way to study choice, from the inside — a start toward understanding it. But we can go further. In a couple of days I’ll post Part 2 –a look at what your brain is doing when you make a choice.

6 thoughts on “Addendum on choice

  1. Gray Lindsay July 18, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    I recently “discovered” this site/blog after hearing Marc on radio here in Melbourne, Australia.
    Many thanks for your valuable comments.

    • marc July 20, 2012 at 7:35 am #

      You’re welcome.

  2. Peter Sheath July 20, 2012 at 6:29 am #

    Hi Marc
    Great blog, I’m practicing mindful breathing at the moment and it always brings you into a present state of passive observance. I really like the car metaphor and have used something similar myself when describing the process involved in lapse/relapse. I have always said that if you are maintaining your vehicle, replacing the tyres, driving lawfully and thoughtfully your chances of having an accident are reduced substantially. Pretty much the same in recovery, if you have embarked on a programme, whatever that is, and stick to it, your chances of relapse are reduced substantially. It’s usually when we start doing something we shouldn’t be doing or not doing something we should that relapse rears it’s ugly head!
    I also like George DeLeon’s terminology when he talks about reuse as opposed to relapse. He talks about some people needing to reuse the substance of their choice in order to determine their readiness for abstinence.
    Enjoy the breath and the villa and, hopefully the sun.

    • marc July 20, 2012 at 7:34 am #

      Thanks Peter. Did you say you had gone fishing recently? Well, the sun is definitely out in this part of the world, but perhaps not in England.

      I’m interested in what you say about sticking to a program…that being like maintaining a car in good shape and obeying the speed limit, in order to reduce the chance of an accident. Sure, it’s true, but I wonder if it’s more or less an artifact. Let’s say we insert the moment of choice (or the trigger to relapse, if that’s your preferred model) right in the place where someone starts to stray. Isn’t it a choice to take a chance? As a kid, I would walk out to the end of a high-diving board, or the edge of a roof, knowing it was dangerous but doing it anyway, for the kick. When people start to “break the rules” of their program, you could say that the fork in the road has already happened. Because the present trajectory is almost assuredly going to one place only.

      If you buy what I’m saying, it’s more convenient to think in terms of “micro-choices” rather than “choice” as some bold, monolithic event. And that’s the point. The little boat steering itself on top of big waves, or even the driver downshifting to take a curve — these are relatively micro compared to the trajectories set in motion beforehand. Previous (micro) choices were to go out on a rough sea with a small boat. Or: to shift into third and step on the gas.

  3. Peter Sheath July 20, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    Yeah had three weeks fishing on a river, wonderful stuff. I do buy the micro-choice stuff, always thought of skills as being an amalgamation, and often the result of lots micro-skills coming together. Maybe these micro-choices are made up of all those seemingly irrelevant decisions (SIDs) we make that eventually join up and conspire against us taking us to places we didn’t really want to be.

    • Marc July 30, 2012 at 6:11 am #

      I agree. Only the SIDs gather momentum as they emerge. Each one in the sequence becomes less arbitrary as the path gets laid down. Like a path of dominoes. Skills then are like repositories….slowly accumulating habits which involve some kind of expertise or efficiency in attaining specific goals.

      Lying is one of the most insidious skills that goes with addiction, which itself results from addictive micro-decisions, piled up one after another. Then these specialized skills, like lying, make it easier to make addictive choices — not so irrelevant after a while.

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