Released on September 8, 2019, I wrote this in response to a question my mother posed to me after reading my last Reflection, Owl. To be perfectly honest, I cannot remember the question, but it did inspire me to write this. Like Alan Watts said, a singular will is not about predestination. Here are my thoughts on it.
I remember questioning free will when I was a kid. It was one of the first philosophical chestnuts that I tried to crack. Does free will exist? Or is it fate? This was the dichotomy under which I was operating. This is the dichotomy most people operate within. There are two potential realities: one where free will is absolute, and one where fate is absolute.
The question is completely academic. At least, that is the way it seems. Does it really matter if free will exists? I mean, the world is the way it is. Just because you wish it were one way or another, it does not matter one whit to the procession of the sun and moon and the flow of time. And yet, we wrestle with this particular philosophical problem (at least some of us do, at some point).
I think it is very important to unpack what we mean by ‘free will.’ Free will means that you are free to do as you like, certainly. But it is based on a fundamental conception of reality: that your mind is separate from the rest of the world. We say that we, from inside of our little separate minds, have a will that is completely whole and unique from the rest of reality. It implies random chance at some level - without random chance, the whole thing would break down before it was out of the gate. This is basic to the entire premise.
We also need to be certain about what we are talking about when we say fate or predestination. Fate basically means that the trajectory of our lives is immutable. We cannot change our fate, any more than we can change the way that water behaves. No need to change or to grow or to do anything, really, because it’s all unchangeable anyways. Again, this view of reality by necessity implies a separation. We like to talk about being unable to change our fates, that if we, our little separated bits of mind, could change things, we would. Something else in the world controls our lives, and we are merely the pawns in its game. Call it God or Brahma or whatever: the bottom line is that we are slaves to it.
This is the dichotomy: either we are separate and free, or we are separate and bound. It is a very convincing story. And yet, there is still another possibility.
God having ‘a plan’ was one of the ideas that most rankled with me when I was a kid trying to decide whether or not there was anything worthwhile in the whole religion thing. That some wizened old dude who would sit on high and capriciously call the shots of reality was something out of a Greek myth, not real life. I mean, this is what fate is, if we look at it as a separated will, be it of God or the universe, that overrides our own. But I think this warrants a little examination itself.
First: what is ‘the plan,’ if there is one? I mean, what would an omnipotent, omniscient, all-powerful creator be looking to do with us mortals? What could this God possibly want to do?
Well, I’ve been speaking about separation at length thus far. Let’s look at unity. The oneness. From Christianity to Buddhism to the New Age, this is the essential message: we are all one thing. And if it is all one, then this God is indeed who we are, at our cores. That means that it’s not God’s plan, it’s ‘our’ plan. Which means that somewhere, deep down, we want reality to be the way it is. Yes, with all of its horrors and strangeness, the will for reality to exist in precisely the way that it does is our own.
Insanity? Perhaps. But what would be the point of such a thing, if it were true? I have a nearly two-year-old daughter. She finds enjoyment in a great number of things: going down the slide, holding onto something and swinging, playing in a little pool filled with water. But what gives her the most elation, as far as I have discovered, is a little old game she calls ‘peek’: peek-a-boo. I hide my face from her, usually just using my hands or my hat, and then I pull them away and she squeals with delight (and makes me feel just as wonderful in the process). I would say she is still well-acquainted with the divine plan. Which, as it turns out, is a game.
The divine game of hide-and-seek. This is what it’s all about, as far as I have discovered. And many others have, too. It’s basic to much of Vedic Hinduism. That is what Alan Watts described in his book, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. A bit of a mouthful is the title, but within it he says this:
“God also likes to play hide-and-seek, but because there is nothing outside God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over this difficulty by pretending that he is not himself. This is his way of hiding from himself. He pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars. In this way he has strange and wonderful adventures, some of which are terrible and frightening. But these are just like bad dreams, for when he wakes up they will disappear.”
The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts
When I look at the third option beyond fate and free will, I think of plants first, destiny second. What I mean by plants is this: plants grow up, live, and die. There is absolutely nothing ‘incorrect’ about the way plants grow. Chances are, you don’t go to a forest and say ‘tree number one is good, tree number two is bad, tree number three is so-so.’ No, what you do is simply understand the whole forest is fine, fine, fine. Why, then, do we act differently with humans? When did we as a species become worthy of judgment and separation? When we developed free will? To some degree, it would seem, the free will vs. fate debate is partially arrogance about human sentience. Because we can think we are separate, we dress up free will like some be all, end all truth about existence. At what point in evolution did the change occur? Was it instant, gradual? Some ape developed self-awareness and boom, here we go? How did we become separated from nature to the point that we could dream up this idea called ‘free will?’ To me, at this point in my life, it seems pretty obvious that it was just that: a dream. One from which we can wake up. Which brings me to destiny.
Some people consider fate and destiny to be the same thing, but I think there is an element of volition involved in destiny that is absent fate. In my cosmology, it is a middle ground between the two. When we choose our fates, we become guided by destiny. But how do we actually ‘choose’ our fates?
Well, we need to learn to listen to the thread of fate. It is alternatively called following one’s heart, one’s bliss, the signs, God’s whispers - whatever. From the perspective of a person born into a world that appears separate, completely ignorant of his or her true nature, this process would appear to be the work of one’s own free will. And in fact, I think, it has to look like free will to some degree. At least, until it is our time to wake up to the reality of who we are. Because, truly, what rules over God’s will? Absolutely nothing. God’s will is totally free. And if God is who we are, at bottom, then our will is God’s will, no matter what we choose.
When we use our separated free wills to try to get free, we spin our wheels and get mired deeper and deeper into illusion. When we give up on life and call our faint-hearted attempt to disavow ourselves from responsibility, we cravenly say that we are subject to the vagaries of fate. But no matter what we believe, we have to make choices in life. So what to choose?
In choosing to walk the path of our heart, we are choosing to accept something that seems pre-ordained, and that is through the choice of our own ‘free will.’ It is beyond the thing that we call our own separated minds, a voluntary submission of one’s apparent will to the will of something which seems greater. And in this submission, one learns that there never was any difference between the two at all. It is a resolution of a paradox. It is liberation itself.
That is enlightenment, that is moksha, that is a merging with the Godhead, that is the virgin birth. When we finally understand that we are exactly what is happening, not something separated within the happening, there is no longer any suffering. There are no mistakes. There is no living in anything but the moment. How could it be any other way?
Because, as far as I can see, the clash of free will and fate were never about anything more than a concern with the past and future. When we look back and experience regret, it is because part of us thinks we are separated wills. This part thinks that things could have gone another way if only we had acted differently. We honestly think that things could have been something else than what they are and that pulls us out of the present. Or, if we are fatalists, we feel we do not have to change anything in our behaviour because it’s all fate anyway.
When we look at the future, we think that by careful planning and calculation, we can control the future. Or that we can absolve ourselves of any responsibility for our futures by just not doing anything and blaming it on fate. We cannot live in the moment unless we, to quote Tool’s song Lateralus, we reach out to embrace whatever may come.
And yet, through it all, even when we are ignorant of our true nature, it does not change the fact of our true nature. The ignorance of our Self is our will, just as my daughter could not end up laughing at our game unless I first covered my face up to hide from her. That is the reason that even a spiritual dichotomy like ‘enlightened’ and ‘unenlightened’ is just as problematic as saying that you are better than someone because of the colour of your skin. There is nothing unenlightened in this world, just as there is nothing that is out of sync, going wrong, evil, etc.
That is the message of resolution that comes when free will and fate become one. All is well, all is in perfect harmony. Or, in the grand words of the late great Bob Marley:
Don’t worry ‘bout a thing, cause every little thing is gonna be all right.