“The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves”
It is curious that many people have a keen interest in knowing whether there is free will or not. In practical terms, having the answer does not seem to change things much, because one continues to live as if one has free will anyway. Some people much prefer to believe that we have free will, while others like to believe that our life is predetermined according to the will of a higher power that governs all earthly matters. Those who are more creative and more willing to take responsibility for their destiny naturally like the idea of having free will, while those who are more passive are unwilling to take charge of their lives, and prefer to live as bystanders.
Denial of Free Will and Spiritual Passivity
It is quite possible that the concept of not having free will originated in India because of the caste system, where the higher castes justified their power in society through fate or destiny. In this way they hoped to prevent a rebellion. So, Hindu philosophy has always leaned toward the denial of free will. To think that one has freedom of choice was considered an expression ignorance. Many Hindu holy scriptures, like the Bhagavad-Gita, call on the seeker to drop the illusion of being a doer and to become a dispassionate witness. In doing this, one is meant to leave everything to god, with the idea that whatever is meant to happen will happen anyway. The denial of free will is further supported through the concept of non-duality which speaks of only one self. Here, if the issue of the free will of an individual does come up, it is as an aspect of ‘maya’, or illusion. In fact, free will does not apply to Brahman, the universal self, either, because he is not doing anything. Brahman is the ultimate witness or non-doer.
Only Shaivism is an exception to this simplistic stance. In it, the universal self is seen in a more dynamic way and given the attribute of absolute free will. Creation is a more self-determinative process in Shaivism, and the individual soul, being part of it, is also granted the freedom of choice, or free will. There is no doubt that the philosophy of Shaivism reflects the nature of reality more closely than other Hindu traditions, such as Vaishnavism or Advaita.
Man-machine has no Free Will
In Advaita one often hears the statement that ‘everything is just happening’, that we need to just get out of the way and flow, and this is supposed to represent some higher truth. But is it so? Gurdjieff said that free will is a matter of evolution: that it is unevolved humans, the man-machines who have not yet developed their individuality, who have no free will. He also observed that the man machine loves the idea of having free will but in truth, he does not have any. He thinks that he is ‘doing’, but everything is just happening to him. For Gurdjieff, things are ‘just happening’ only to unawakened fools. A man-machine is not choosing anything; his society and relative circumstances make all the choices for him. Even though Gurdjieff was largely a solitary voice without the backing of an institutionalized tradition, he was actually much closer to the truth in this respect. Of course, Gurdjieff had learned from many different schools, including Sufism, but most of his teachings were original to himself.
Evolution into Free Will
The issue of free will is not only about denying or affirming its existence, but about seeing it from a higher perspective. Firstly, it is not black and white and, secondly, there are degrees to which we can be free to make choices. Life is not a play of marionettes being controlled by strings from above; life is very much unpredictable and, even though it follows fundamental laws, it can take unexpected twists and turns. What we know of life is based on the past, on what we have learned from history and on what has happened to us personally. However, what has happened does not necessarily determine what will happen. The future is unknown and our predictions are made as projections of our past into the future.
If we observe nature and animals, we can already sense that there is some element of choice in the ongoing process of life’s journey. And perhaps there is already a seed of free will at the subatomic level, in the quantum world of elementary particles. One of the most important revelations of quantum theory is that we cannot predict for certain how the subatomic particles will behave in given situations. Quantum theory has helped humanity become aware of the shortcomings of an older mechanical interpretation of reality, in which nature was meant to behave like some vast, entirely ordered machine. Life is not a machine, and this becomes especially clear when we observe other living creatures. Anyone who has a dog or a cat will know that they are continually making choices within the constraints of their predictable behavior. This decision-making can be seen throughout their everyday lives, such as in how they react to other animals or to particular people, whether they turn left or right when out on a walk, and even in where they choose to sit or lie down in a room.
In the mechanical view of the world there is no place for free will. According to Descartes, animals are just machines. When he was asked why a dog cries when it is hit with a stick, he replied that the dog is just the kind of machine that cries when it is beaten. This is one way of looking at things, but to see the world in this way seems shortsighted and unimaginative in many ways. Of course, most of the choices that animals and humans make are instinctive. Dogs follow their sense of smell, respond to feeling hungry, bark to protect their territory, and so forth. But even among dogs, we can see that a more intelligent dog will take its time in making choices, while a stupid one is more mechanical.
Most human actions are ruled by certain complex subconscious programming. This raises the question as to whether free will is entirely limited to the conscious mind? It is more complex than that. There is also subconscious free will, even though it is much more limited. Before the conscious mind evolved, it was the subconscious mind that, for many millions of years, was making choices. The subconscious mind has its own evolution, learns things at its own pace, and in this learning, uses a form of subconscious intelligence. So even on the subconscious level a low but still significant degree of free will and choice can be observed.
For instance, when an average person goes through their habitual daily routine, he or she has freedom of choice, but uses it in a subconscious way. Because the subconscious mind seeks to conserve energy through constant repetition, rather than being adventurous and seeking change, the lives of most people are continual repetitions of their usual habits. Despite this, they do have a choice to do things differently, but they choose not to out of a combination of lack of imagination, fear of change, and inertia, or laziness.
Free Will and Intelligence
The answer to the question of free will cannot be found just through the intellect. The mind can reason or speculate as much as it likes, but its conclusions are always limited by the linear intellect. For instance, one could speculate: ‘If all is one and there is only consciousness ruling everything, how can there be individual free will?’ Unintelligent reasoning of this sort leads people to believe in all kinds of things. They do not even understand the basic concepts underlying the words they use. Does anyone know what ‘oneness’ means? Does anyone really know what ‘consciousness’ is? Does anyone really know the meaning of ‘free’? We commonly use words discrimination, and then we string them together in a statement and create the illusion that we have said something meaningful. It is often much better to humbly admit one’s ignorance than to claim knowledge. When one knows that one does not know, the cup of the mind is empty and able to receive true understanding.
Unless we understand the nature of consciousness and intelligence, and above all, unless we connect with the light of me, all talk about even the possibility of having free will is meaningless and arrogant. If we do not know who we are, how can we possibly know if we have free will?
Real free will is directly linked to intelligence. Our free will evolves as we evolve. Gradually, the spectrum of choices available to us opens us as we become aware of different possibilities. It is said that people who are more intelligent have a harder time making choices than those who are lesser so. Unintelligent people tend to see very few options, while those who are intelligent see many options. They are also more aware of the consequences of different choices and of how things can go wrong. When you see that your choice may produce negative consequences, you are naturally more cautious. Having this higher level of awareness is a sign of having more free will available to you.
So our free will increases according to the evolution of our consciousness and intelligence. What truly expands our capacity and level of free will is spiritual awakening and entering the realm of the soul. It is our soul who is truly free to use her will in creative ways that are in harmony with her truth of pure subjectivity. She does not exercise her free will just for the sake of using it, but to serve the expansion of her light and understanding. To be constructive, free will must be connected to wisdom and higher purpose.
When the soul reaches conscious samadhi in the ultimate reality, her intelligence is infused into the universal intelligence and her will merges with the universal will. She still has her individual will that participates in the inner and outer worlds, but her will operates in complete harmony with the will inherent in the wisdom and purpose of creation and higher evolution.
Freedom of Choice on the Path
The presence of free will becomes much more pronounced on the spiritual path. While most of the decisions people make in life are subconscious and instinctive, no one enters the spiritual path based on habitual tendencies. On the contrary, to enter the path requires one to forcefully go beyond one’s conditioned past and open the door to new possibilities. Of course, some people enter the path for wrong reasons, or have exceedingly shallow conceptions of it. But if one enters the path for right reasons, as a response to inner longing, one is consciously using the faculty of free will. Some people then give up and drop off the path, and, in doing so, they are also using their free will, which in this case reflects the weakness of their spirit.
There are also seekers who make serious mistakes on the path, either due to their ignorance, impurity or insincerity. When they make decisions based on their insincerity, such as betraying their path or their teacher, they are also using their free will. They have the choice of either succumbing to their weakness and lower tendencies or of honoring the truth. As an example, when a seeker’s arrogance is challenged by his teacher, he has freedom of choice as to how he responds to this: surrendering his ego, feeling victimized, or even resisting his teacher’s message and lesson. In such a case, the wrong use of free will can have negative consequences for the seeker, impeding progress he might otherwise make. In certain rare situations these consequences can be irreversible, which means that, because of one’s catastrophically wrong choices, such bad karma can have been created that the soul’s path to awakening is complete blocked; that me has sabotaged it’s one chance to awaken, and it will be dissolved back into the universal subconscious upon death.
Free Will and Destiny
Some people believe in destiny, but without really understanding what this word means. Destiny should not be confused with fate. As an illustration of the latter, the fate of our sun is that it will one day run out of fuel and there is nothing that can be done about this happening. On the other hand, destiny, as the word implies, is about our destination. When we walk up a hill, our destination is the top of it, but this is not our fate, because we may not reach it or we may choose to turn back before doing so.
Destiny, in its deepest sense, is about our blueprint, which is the plan for our evolution into the most beneficial future. There is no certainty that this future will be reached; in fact most mes in this dimension will not realize their souls. Reaching our destiny is just a potential and the chances it happening are higher for some mes than for others. When we use our free will in accordance with our higher purpose, we make use of all of our resources to achieve our destiny. But when we succumb to our lower tendencies, we use this free will in the wrong way to sabotage our path, blocking the possibility of reaching true peace and completion. There are indeed many seekers who obstruct their own progress by making poor choices. Our free will is an inseparable aspect of taking responsibility both for who we are and for who we are becoming in the course of our evolution.
Free Will and Karma
It is because of free will that we can create positive or negative karma. If freedom of choice were not possible, then even committing murder would be acceptable. If we were to take free will out of the equation, those who do evil things to others are just following their subconscious programming, and have no choice to do otherwise. The concept of sin is based on one making a choice to do the wrong things for the wrong reasons. So, rather than serving basic goodness, the natural will of the soul, one has chosen to follow a lower and negative intention of the impure mind. The concept of sin has been used by different religions, but notably so by Christianity, to induce guilt and to control and exploit their followers. However, the misuse of sin in this way does not mean the concept has no validity. Sinning is another term for acting against the will of the soul, which naturally creates negative karmic consequences.
On a deeper level, we create negative karma by resisting the higher intention of the soul. This starts with our agreeing to live in unconsciousness (though, of course, if one is too ignorant even to know there is the option of evolving beyond unconsciousness, one does not have yet a choice and hence is not creating negative karma). It is karmically negative to follow insincere and impure tendencies rather than serve our higher wisdom, goodness and love. We create karma by our choices and, to make these choices knowingly, we must clearly understand that we do have a choice, that we have free will. To resist acknowledging our freedom of choice would be foolish; it would take our very humanity away from us, and justify all the unnecessary evil in this world. According to the law of evolution, the more conscious we are the more we are responsible for our intention. This is why, a seeker on the path who succumbs to his lower nature creates more heavy karma than a person who has no access to his real me.
The Free Will and Creativity to Break Through Our Limitations
The naïve translation of free will is that we can do what we want to. Obviously, we cannot do everything that we want to, and the degree of free will we have access to functions within our physical and mental limitations. You can exert your free will to travel, but you are still limited by your life situation and financial resources. Free will operates within a certain relative framework, and its purpose is to be as creative and efficient as possible within this framework.
One of the important aspects of using our free will is being able to break through our present, personal limitations. This requires a great deal of imagination, and usually considerable courage, too. This explains why a man-machine hardly uses his free will, because he is unable to go beyond his conditioned view of life and circumstances. Many people do the same things all of their lives, and, even if they seem to be changing something they do outwardly, inwardly their thinking and the framework of possibilities they live within remains the same. Although they may live many years, it is really more like living the same year many times over. This is despite having the creative force to change their life situation or habitual psychological predispositions. If they are poor, they remain poor. If they are depressed, they continue being depressed. They just cannot change, because they have no will to change and do not even aspire to activate their free will. Without the intention to activate their free will, there can be no will to change, and so change is not possible.
Getting in touch with free will cannot happen in isolation from being in touch with our living consciousness and creative intelligence. Intelligence is not the mind – it is a combination of an intention and readiness to understand together with the resulting understanding – like flashes of inspiration. This takes place in the silence of our pure nature which is illuminated by the sacred light of me. Only after embodying our pure subjectivity, and becoming one with pure and transparent intelligence can we become aware of and appreciate how truly free we can be. Freedom boils down to the question of who we are. When our identity is the ego in the subconscious mind, freedom is extremely limited and fragmented. When we have become the soul, or at least awoken in consciousness to a certain degree, true freedom really begins to become ours. This freedom is not just freedom from suffering, but the higher freedom to expand into the mystery of our ultimate and ever-receding future.
Ramana Maharishi and his Denial of Free Will
One may wonder why Ramana Maharishi denied free will if he was in such a profound state of consciousness. The answer is that he refused to acknowledge his individual consciousness and embrace the light of me. What is consciousness without me? Obviously, in his experience of consciousness, the essence of me continued to be present, but he either did not acknowledge it for what it was or was not consciously in touch with it. Not being in touch with me is effectively the same as not being in touch with the freedom of will and the creativity of intelligence. With some small modifications, Ramana repeated much the same teaching all of his life. He was content to live in samadhi and remain passive. Just as he had no interest in acknowledging his very me, he also had no interest in acknowledging his freedom of choice. This does not contradict the fact that, throughout his life, he was using his own free will in his own passive way.
Taking Responsibility for being Free
In Genesis, man eats the apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, becomes self-conscious, and is forced out of the Garden of Eden. Here, he has stopped being a mere beast. With self-consciousness comes responsibility and more an identity that is more separate from that which is outside of us. Some people would prefer to resist this, and dream of returning to the womb of the unconscious. Like children, they believe in predetermination and destiny, and are actually making a low-level subconscious free willed choice to deny their own precious free will. But there is no way of making a retrograde movement into unconsciousness come true, and, even if there were, one would realize that unconsciousness is not what it seems. It is not a paradise, but another form of hell.
It is said that Eve made Adam eat the apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and that this resulted in them losing their innocence and having to leave their paradise. Adam had to cultivate the land from which he had been made, which can be seen as a metaphor of entering a conscious and creative relationship with one’s own existence; cultivating the consciousness from which one originally came. Although this was not easy, it was very worthwhile, because Adam and Eve could then begin to live real life.
In order to evolve in existence, we must be separated from it, so as to acquire self-awareness and connect with our individual intelligence. There is no awareness or intelligence without free will, just as there is no existence without the mystery of the creative force. As we become one with that creative force, the will of the individual personality merges with the will of the soul, and the will of the soul becomes one with the will of the creator – who is the true source of living and eternally evolving consciousness.
There is one true will and that will is free . . . and so are you. To deny it is to live in denial of reality.
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