After we picked a career, we would have to investigate all the companies in the field that we could work for. As you can gather, if we did a thorough search to maximize our decision accuracy, we'd spend more time deciding where to work than actually working. We can't live our lives like that. Thus, we use heuristics when we make our decisions. Heuristics are general rules of thumb that we use to simplify complicated judgments. These simplifying strategies can be quite beneficial: they reduce the time and effort required to make a decision, and they often result in reasonably good decisions. While heuristics give approximate, rather than exact, solutions to our problems, approximate solutions are often good enough. The problem is, heuristics can also lead to systematic biases that result in grossly inaccurate judgments. This heuristic works quite well for many decisions--things that go together are often similar. However, it also causes us to overlook other relevant data, and thus can lead to decision errors. For example, when considering our judgment of Steve's occupation, we overlook the fact that, in any given town, there are many more stores than there are libraries. There are therefore many more salespeople than librarians. Even though you may think that salespeople usually aren't shy and withdrawn, given their much greater number, there are likely to be many that are. In fact, there are likely to be more shy salespeople than there are librarians, so a better answer would be salesman. But we don't pay attention to that background statistic. Instead, we base our judgment on an ambiguous personality description because we think it's representative of a librarian. Believing that like goes with like also leads us mistakenly to think that one thing causes another. Why? We think that effects should resemble their causes. This has resulted in some pretty strange medical practices over the years.

At one time, ground-up bats were prescribed for vision problems in China because it was mistakenly assumed that bats had good vision. In Europe, fox lungs were used for asthmatics because it was thought that foxes had great stamina. Certain alternative medical practices prescribe raw brains for mental disorders. Much of psychoanalysis follows a similar approach to thinking. For example, psychoanalysts maintain that a fixation at the oral stage (the breast) when one is young will lead to a preoccupation in adult life with the mouth, resulting in smoking, kissing, and talking too much.4 The idea that like causes like is also a fundamental feature of astrology, where people born under a specific sign are believed to have certain personality characteristics. If you're born under the Taurus (bull), you're thought to be strong willed, under Virgo (virgin), you're shy. There is no physical evidence for these beliefs, but the causes and effects have similar characteristics. And so, basing judgments on similarity can result in a number of bizarre beliefs. Why? When we use the representativeness heuristic we typically ignore other potentially relevant information that should influence our decision. Here are some important decision errors that we fall prey to because of this simplifying strategy. The reason we are all stuck in life's mud is that we ceaselessly run from our problems and after our desires. Meditation provides us with a laboratory situation in which we can examine this syndrome and devise strategies for dealing with it. The various snags and hassles that arise during meditation are grist for the mill. They are the material with which we work. There is no pleasure without some degree of pain. There is no pain without some amount of pleasure. Life is composed of joys and miseries. They go hand in hand. Meditation is no exception.

You will experience good times and bad times, ecstasies and fear. So don't be surprised when you hit some experience that feels like a brick wall. Don't think you are special. All seasoned meditators have had their own brick walls. They come up again and again. Just expect them and be ready to cope. Your ability to cope with trouble depends upon your attitude. If you can learn to regard these hassles as opportunities, as chances to develop in your practice, you'll make progress. Your ability to deal with some issue that arises in meditation will carry over into the rest of your life and allow you to smooth out big issues that really bother you. If you try to avoid each piece of nastiness that arises in meditation, you are reinforcing the habit that has already made life seem so unbearable at times. It is essential to learn to confront the less pleasant aspects of existence. Our job as meditators is to learn to be patient with ourselves, to see ourselves in an unbiased way, complete with all our sorrows and inadequacies. We have to learn to be kind to ourselves. In the long run, avoiding unpleasantness is a very unkind thing to do to yourself. Paradoxically, kindness entails confronting unpleasantness when it arises. One popular human strategy for dealing with difficulty is autosuggestion: when something nasty pops up, you convince yourself it is not there, or you convince yourself it is pleasant rather than unpleasant. The Buddha's tactic is quite the reverse. Rather than hide it or disguise it, the Buddha's teaching urges you to examine it to death. Buddhism advises you not to implant feelings that you don't really have or avoid feelings that you do have. If you are miserable you are miserable; that is the reality, that is what is happening, so confront that.

Look it square in the eye without flinching. When you are having a bad time, examine that experience, observe it mindfully, study the phenomenon and learn its mechanics. The way out of a trap is to study the trap itself, learn how it is built. You do this by taking the thing apart piece by piece. The trap can't trap you if it has been taken to pieces. The result is freedom. This point is essential, but it is one of the least understood aspects of Buddhist philosophy. Those who have studied Buddhism superficially are quick to conclude that it is pessimistic, always harping on unpleasant things like suffering, always urging us to confront the uncomfortable realities of pain, death, and illness. Buddhist thinkers do not regard themselves as pessimists--quite the opposite, actually. Pain exists in the universe; some measure of it is unavoidable. Learning to deal with it is not pessimism, but a very pragmatic form of optimism. How would you deal with the death of your spouse? How would you feel if you lost your mother tomorrow? Or your sister or your closest friend? Suppose you lost your job, your savings, and the use of your legs, all on the same day; could you face the prospect of spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair? How are you going to cope with the pain of terminal cancer if you contract it, and how will you deal with your own death when that approaches? You may escape most of these misfortunes, but you won't escape all of them. Most of us lose friends and relatives at some time during our lives; all of us get sick now and then; and all of us will die someday. You can suffer through things like that or you can face them openly--the choice is yours. Pain is inevitable, suffering is not.

Pain and suffering are two different animals. If any of these tragedies strike you in your present state of mind, you will suffer. The habit patterns that presently control your mind will lock you into that suffering, and there will be no escape. A bit of time spent in learning alternatives to those habit patterns is time well invested. Most human beings spend all their energies devising ways to increase their pleasure and decrease their pain. Buddhism does not advise that you cease this activity altogether. Money and security are fine. Pain should be avoided whenever possible. Nobody is telling you to give away every possession or seek out needless pain, but Buddhism does advise you to invest time and energy in learning to deal with unpleasantness, because some pain is unavoidable. When you see a truck bearing down on you, by all means jump out of the way. But spend some time in meditation, too. Learning to deal with discomfort is the only way you'll be ready to handle the truck you didn't see. Problems will arise in your practice. Some of them will be physical, some will be emotional, and some will be attitudinal. All of them can be confronted and each has its own specific response. All of them are opportunities to free yourself. Nobody likes pain, yet everybody has some at one time or another. It is one of life's most common experiences and is bound to arise in your meditation in one form or another. Handling pain is a two-stage process. First, get rid of the pain, if possible, or at least get rid of it as much as possible.