Do you think you have free will? Most of us do. It's a rather pervasive belief amongst humans, I've noticed. Well - what if you didn't? And what if that was like, super great? In my last essay I talked about sacred outlook, which is a magical practice that's reputed to very efficiently lead to enlightenment and at the very least, in my own personal experience makes life way more fun.
Sacred outlook is actually just a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from straight-up nondual perception. In Tibetan Buddhism, sacred outlook is part of the tantric path, which is one rung below the "pathless path" of nondual contemplation known as Dzogchen ("The Great Perfection"). Nondual contemplation is considered the highest, quickest, and most difficult route to awakening.
The past few weeks I've been spending a lot of time reading about Dzogchen, because - Capricorn that I am - if something is the fastest, best, and most difficult I absolutely must know all about it and do it!
Well, bummer for me - turns out traditional Dzogchen practice requires the reception of an official transmission from an enlightened guru which are in slightly short supply on the Southside of Pittsburgh where I reside. Of course the amazing Buddha Brats folks are happy to tell you how to do naughty, naughty guru-less Dzogchen if you're into it. And I am. Also, if you'd like to read a scholarly discussion of Dzogchen (and who wouldn't?), you should definitely check out Secret of the Vajra World by Reginald Ray.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, nondual contemplation in the Dzogchen tradition is slippery business, and I was finding it hard to get into.
The Union of Compassion and Emptiness
But while googling "the union of compassion and emptiness" (like you do) I came across this really neat, thoughtful and exhaustive site on nondual thought, A Course in Consciousness, by Stanley Sobottka, who is a bald and rather serious-looking fellow who happens to be an Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Virginia (i.e., not a no-good slacker hippie slouch like me and my friends who sit around giving each other half-assed explanations of quantum mechanics primarily in order to help us justify to ourselves our obscene over-use of Nag Champa and negligible interest in wage-earning).
As I read his very rich site, I discovered that Professor Sobottka (or just "Professor Stanley" as I like to affectionately think of him) is a big fan of Ramesh Balsekar, a former President of the Bank of India who became enlightened after studying a book called The Open Secret by an Irish aristocrat who went by the somewhat silly-sounding (for an old white dude) nom de plume of Wei Wu Wei.
I swear, you can't make this stuff up. It's too funny. Divine consciousness has a really goofy sense of humor.
("Therefore Prajnaparamita is the Great Magic Spell, the Spell of Illumination, the Supreme Spell, Which Can Truly Protect One from All Suffering Without Fail")
What I find really compelling about The Open Secret, and what Mr. Ramesh Balsekar and subsequently our pal Professor Stanley must have found really compelling - is the doorway to nondual contemplation that's opened with the very simple and radical idea that we actually have no free will, and thus no responsibility or control over our thoughts and actions.
I know that I've heard this idea expressed before - but for some reason this week it's hit me at a great depth and I just about can't think of anything else. Or rather, I'm not thinking about it. I'm being thought.
Now the notion that we have no responsibility, control, volition or free will may at first glance just sound scary, creepy, or like another hippie excuse for not working and burning a lot of Nag Champa.
The thing is - the more I reflect on it, the more I find that my own personal sense of volition and responsibility doesn't really bring me anything other than guilt, pride, and anxiety - i.e., suffering.
And of course - when I'm suffering, I'm way more likely to shirk work, act bitchy to self and others, and generally be a jerk.
So weirdly, the more I relax into the notion that I'm not an independent, separate volitional individual but rather just a choiceless wave in the ocean of the universe whose thoughts, decisions, actions, and perception occurs without any will of my own - the more I notice myself becoming cheerful, kind, and productive.
I know this sounds paradoxical.
I was a teenage junkie
It's a paradox that I'm familiar with from my years in 12 step recovery groups. You see, at one point in my tender young life I spent a lot of time shooting heroin.
These days I'm mostly so goody-two shoes and wholesome that no one would suspect it of me, but yes, friends - I was teenage junkie. And no, it was not as fun or glamorous as it sounds.
The thing about my shooting heroin was this: as long as I told myself that I had any choice in the matter - that I could stop when I wanted to - that I could use less - that "I" was in anyway in charge of my substance use - well, the less capable of stopping I was. It was almost as if my thought that I had choice in the matter kept me hideously stuck.
The first step in 12 Step Recovery programs is "We admitted we were powerless over [fill in the blank - alcohol, addiction, over-eating, emotions, codependence, sexual acting out, gambling, debting, etc. etc. etc.] and that our lives had become unmanageable."
So finally when I was beat-up enough by my addiction to be willing to accept spiritual instruction from chain-smoking yinzers in church basements, I accepted that I actually had no choice about my addiction, and no control. I couldn't stop, I couldn't use less, I was not in charge, I had no way to halt myself and would just keep using until it killed me.
(This is an illustrative sample image of a chain-smoking yinzer, in case you do not have the great good fortune to be from Pittsburgh and have not encountered this phenomenon)
Basically, I admitted that I was really and truly fucked.
My only hope was that something a lot more powerful and benevolent than my own will and choice (something known as a "Higher Power," or, more generally, "God") would be so kind as to cosmically intervene and stop me from doping myself to death.
As it turned out, this Higher Power did indeed intervene - and I stopped getting high. But it was immensely evident to me that it was not "me" who got myself clean. "Me" was an idiot who relentlessly and compulsively sought drugs every day of her life even when she knew she wanted to stop and hated herself and what she had done to her life. "Me" was not capable through her own will of going two hours without a hit, let alone going through withdrawal, attending meetings, and talking to a sponsor.
However, when I admitted the totally screwed uselessness of the "me" - i.e., that I had no choice in the matter of my using - that admission was enough to open the way for a Higher Power to come in and take over and make my life much, much better than I was making it.
I'm pretty happy that I don't exist
With the help of this Higher Power thing, I've been clean for almost 10 years now.
So having had this rather dramatic experience of how admitting my powerlessness and volitionless-ness actually made my life way way way way better, it's not too hard for me to understand that the more I'm willing to generalize this state of non-control, probably the better my life can get.
I begin to detect that the sense that I have any control or volition AT ALL is itself the core of the disease of addiction - because as long as I imagine I have control, I usually am constantly "proving" to myself how very in charge of my experience I am by seeking to maximize my pleasure and minimize my pain in life.
And, clever dove that I am, I can find ways to maximize my pleasure with career success, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, cookies, men, money, accomplishment, shopping, self-righteousness and just about anything else that can ring my neurochemical bell. None of which are bad in themselves - but all of which get to be pretty whack when I attack them with my self-will.
This compulsive seeking to maximize pleasure and minimize pain is what the Buddha called "attachment" or "clinging" and told us was the source of all suffering.
Meanwhile, when I let go of the illusion that "I" am in charge of my thoughts or actions, this compulsive pleasure-seeking and all its accompanying guilt and anxiety falls away. Hence, it becomes a lot more easy to accept the simple joys and pains of the present moment. As a bonus, all the jerk stuff I do to get my own way and all the damage I do to my health falls away, too.
So, ironically - the less I believe myself to be in charge of my own thoughts, decisions, and actions, the more kindly and "responsibly" I behave.
Perhaps this is because to be "responsible" is to be "able to respond" - and when I'm not in the delusion that I'm a separate ego, this bodymind that I am is able to respond a lot more efficiently to the unfolding happenings of the world.
A bit about me, Carolyn Elliott
I coach magical, creative people to live turned-on, ecstatic lives rich with genius and electricity. I’m the author of Awaken Your Genius: A Seven-Step Path to Feeing Your Creativity and Manifesting You Dreams (North Atlantic / Random House). I also lead the Outlaw Court, a secret Facebook group where outlaws are hugely supported in rocking their magic and bringing their Things into the world – if you’re magic and you know it, you’re welcome to to join the Outlaw Court.