Do we really have the power of choice? Part Two.

Continued from Part One.

First off, recognize where you actually have power: you (as individual) do *not* have the power to control the outcome of any given situation, ever. (Remember the teaching in Part One that there is only one Doer, and it ain't you--at least not the you you think you are). Therefore, which bit of conditioning wins a given battle in your mind is not actually under your control. However, what you can do is give more and more energy to the truths and values that you want to be ultimately victorious in the long term; that is, you can strengthen your spiritual conditioning which will simultaneously weaken your self-defeating old conditioning. You do this by clarifying your aspiration: reminding yourself again and again of what you really want in your innermost heart. It is also important not to become numb to your own suffering through self-distraction, because being in touch with your suffering is one of the most effective reminders of what You really want. The more intensely your flame of aspiration burns, the easier it will be for the newer, more healthy conditioning to win out (because those pathways are potentiated with more energy, in neurological terms). Focus on the aspiration more than worrying about "making the right choice".

But, the objection comes, doesn't this focus involve a choice to strengthen your spiritual conditioning? In a sense, yes, but not an individual/egoic choice—you are simply letting Life do what it ultimately wants to do through you (fully know itself); you are letting God have his way with you, as it were. In the end, you will see that this process is inevitable, with a foregone conclusion. You can't mess it up. In that sense, choice is an illusion. When you give that illusion energy (e.g. worry), your process slows down, as it always does when your beliefs are out of alignment with reality.

There is a step beyond this, of course. Spiritual teachings (when they're at their best) generate a conditioning-set that more effectively mirrors the deep pattern of reality. But doesn't the tradition teach a final escape (mokṣa) from all conditioning, a merging with the pattern itself, free of the need for "mirrors"? Yes. Eventually, the teachings that you have internalized must dissolve into direct experience of the divine flow. At this stage the teachings are no longer needed, for you embody their spirit, their source; and their verbal articulation seems an absurdity or a pale approximation at best. Now there is no more struggle, no debate, and, curiously, no more illusion of choice — for the liberated being, there is only one thing to do in every moment, and no need to mentally determine what that is. It lies naked and clear before you, glowing with rightness, moment to moment to moment. And here we arrive at the greatest paradox of all (from the mind's perspective) — the awakened one experiences the Power of Autonomy as the essence of Being, yet never experiences herself as having a choice (except when there is no significant consequence either way). But this paradox appears only if we define choice as "I could choose A or I could choose B". What the awakened one experiences is that God/Life/Consciousness has enthusiastically chosen to become the whole of the present moment, and that, given infinite possibility, has chosen to submit Herself to the pattern (i.e., the laws) of this universe, and finally, consistently chooses to flow towards the action that is of greatest benefit to all beings, moment to moment, which is why "options" in the conventional sense do not appear to the awakened one.

So, let's sum up. In everyday spiritual discourse, teachers and coaches like me tell people "you have the power to choose, to become healthy, to shape your destiny," and we tell them this because we wish to empower them. But it can also backfire, because it confers the burden to make the "right" choice and sets up a pattern of self-judgment and self-condemnation for not doing so, that can also get turned onto others (after all, who is more judgmental than a religious person? and yogīs are no exception). Furthermore, it denies the fundamental truth that the individual has no control over the outcome of any given situation, including how his or her mind and body responds to stimuli. The body-mind acts on conditioning—you can't even choose what thoughts will pop into your head, let alone your actions. Sometimes you direct a train of thought, but the vast majority of your thousands of thoughts per day are not preselected by you. On the body-mind level you are just constantly reacting to stimuli on the basis of your programming. If two different programming-sets offer two different responses to a situation (e.g., punch the person or say "I'm feeling really angry right now!"), the programming that is activated more strongly will win. Remember, the feeling that you are choosing doesn't mean you're actually choosing (experiments have shown that the brain makes a choice before you're consciously aware of it). Having said that, when two opposing pieces of conditioning are about equal in strength (which is rare), you might be able to tip the scales with a "act of will" coming from a deeper place (a little wiggle room for free will there). The tradition says that two opposing karmas of equal strength create the opportunity for grace to strike (see, e.g., the Kirana-tantra).

But much more importantly than this, you DO have truly empowering choice in two significant ways that make a HUGE difference over the long term:

1) you can choose what "angle of perception" to adopt on the present situation. In other words, you can choose how to look at it, and each way of looking at it automatically generates a corresponding attitude or energy state. So to choose your angle of perception is to choose your attitude, and some attitudes give you more energy to work with. This is crucially important. (Of course, whether you can remember to choose your angle of perception, and have the energy to do so in any given moment, is entirely beyond your control. So no point in self-blame or self-praise, again.)    

2) You can choose how to recondition yourself — you can keep absorbing stimuli (e.g., the company of awakened people and their writings) that will eventually and inevitably result in the radical restructuring of your whole being; especially focusing on those stimuli that clarify and invigorate your deepest aspiration.

Whether the last two examples "really" constitute free choice or not is irrelevant, because to consider them as within your power to choose is highly effective indeed.  Both 1) and 2) are examples of choosing where to place your attention. And here we see why the "Power of Autonomy" (svātantrya-śakti) is a power attributed to Awareness, rather than the mind or body. The subtle, simple act of where we place our attention is the one in which we can exercise the most freedom — and the aggregation over time of this simple choice has, in the end, the greatest power to shape our destiny.