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

To what extent do we really have the power to choose? — Nuancing an old debate.

In the spiritual traditions of India, there are two apparently opposed teachings:

1) you are not the doer, says the Bhagavad Gītā -- because the spirit part of you is inactive pure witness, and the mind/body part of you is simply nature, and the sole cause of the operations of nature is God, (or impersonal natural laws, says Sānkhya philosophy and modern science); and

2) the divine Self, the real You (beyond the mind and personality), is the sole Actor, says the Śiva-sūtras, because you are in essence eternally one with the Divine; and it is You alone who performs the creation and dissolution of your reality (Pratyabhijñā-hṛdayam).

How can we reconcile these two apparently opposite teachings?  I've been contemplating this question for twenty years, and only now do I feel I'm starting to understand it.

My mother, a perspicacious individual, asked this question in terms of choice and autonomy, sparked by reading my book, Tantra Illuminated: "At the end of the Theodicy section you quote Victor Frankl, who talks about transforming personal tragedy into triumph - learning to change ourselves - he talks about choosing one's attitude and one's way - and you mention the power of autonomy. But recently I heard you talk about the fact that we actually don't have the power of choice in the way we think we do - I would like for you to explain this more. It seems like a contradiction. What I remember you saying is that our brain develops in a certain way which influences how we react and approach things - however, I've been watching myself over and over again making choices to allow my mind to focus on one thing or another - take one action or another. It seems to me that choice does come into play. Without becoming aware that one can choose by pausing and reflecting, how can people learn how to turn things around for themselves?"

This is, undoubtedly, one of the most subtle yet crucial of all spiritual issues.  On the one hand, we know that Tantra stresses the Power of Autonomy (svātantriya-śakti) as the central power of Awareness, and nearly all spiritual philosophies stress choice as the locus of self-improvement and our opportunity to cleave toward dharma (right action); and on the other hand as the science of neurology improves, it increasingly declares that it cannot find a neural mechanism that corresponds to free will, that all action stems from conditioning, and what appears as choice is just two bits of conditioning in contest, with the slightly stronger one inevitably winning out. (See Sam Harris' book Free Will and the recent work of Ezequiel Morsella among other sources.)

But this is not really an opposition between religion and science: we find the same apparent opposition already in the (Shaiva) Tantrik tradition itself. For it declares that individual agency is a fiction, that there is only one agent, one performer of all actions: God, universal divine Consciousness, the sole cause of all. In other words (since in the nondual view, God is not conceived as a person or a personality) there is a single patterned flow of energy or "intelligence" that underlies everything (or at least, everything in the world of your consciousness, which is all you have access to); and its flow always eventually proves to be irresistible.

On this view, your spiritual journey happens something like this: due to the ripening of your karma, you become ready for the spiritual path, and you then find the path and set your sights on awakening and/or liberation (all souls being destined to form this intention sooner or later, because it is the natural process of discovering your true nature). Then the spiritual teachings of that path begin reconditioning you, laying down new saṃskāras that are beneficial. Then there follows a period in which it seems you are repeatedly challenged to choose between your old conditioning (say, open a beer and watch TV) and your new conditioning (have an organic salad, journal about what you learned that day and go to bed early, say). But in fact you are wasting a lot of energy by conceiving this as a choice, and even more by beating yourself up for making the "wrong" choice when you "know better". What is really happening is that two incompatible sets of conditioning are jostling for position, and you are not as in control of which one gains the upper hand in a particular moment as you conceive yourself to be. Your view of yourself as a "chooser" who can choose wrongly is nothing but a mental construct, and one that curiously doesn't serve you most of the time — because when a wrong choice is possible, choice can become an oppressive burden; and, once made and in the past, a "wrong" choice becomes a source of guilt and self-hatred. To me it is lucidly clear that this is sheer insanity and a huge waste of energy. At every moment, each of us is doing our best with what we know and the energy available to us. The self that takes the credit and the blame for "right" and "wrong" choices is sheer illusion; what we call the ego. However, the tradition teaches what seems to be a contradiction: looking backward (whether a moment or a lifetime), you couldn't have done anything differently; looking forward, you can shape your destiny. How can both be true (since we know from physics that the future is not in fact qualitatively different from the past)? Here's where it gets delicate. ~ Continued in Part Two.