Thursday, January 20, 2011

Nonduality Teachings Aren't Clear On This Issue

There are so many gems that come from the mouths of nonduality teachers and sages.  The eloquence and insights offered by these teachers stop the mind and penetrate the heart.  You can sense that the wisdom they are conveying is from a source beyond the mind.  Their words bring clarity and a feeling of expansion.

However, there is one issue discussed by nonduality teachers that leaves me confused.  I've probably read more than 50 discussions of this issue (some from the most respected sages) -- and heard more than 100 discussions of this issue (in person and through online audio/video), and I must confess that there is still no clarity here.

I think the overwhelming majority of nonduality students remain unclear on this subject, despite the fact that the issue is discussed over and over again.  Teachers offer detailed responses, yet the students remain confused.  The answers offered simply don't resonate.

After the teacher finishes the answer, the student's mind is busy with more questions.  Sometimes the student persists and asks follow up questions, but more often than not, the student eventually gives up, knowing that a satisfactory resolution of the question is not forthcoming. 

What issue am I referring to?

Free will.

There's no doubt that the extent of our free will is a popular topic at nonduality meetings and satsangs.  Even those who have no interest in nonduality engage in lively discussions about free will.  We all want to know how much control, if any, we have over our lives and the choices we apparently make.

I'd go so far as to say that the mind is obsessed with this topic.  I think it's one area where the seeking mind/ego can strenthen and perpetuate itself. Trying to figure out the extent of free will
keeps the mind in seeking mode, always looking for new information or insights that will resolve the question once and for all.  The resolution never happens, so the mind continues its seeking.

I'm not looking for nonduality teachers to come up with a uniform answer on this topic of free will.  Part of the beauty of nondual teachings are the varied ways in which teachers discuss each topic.  There are many common denominators in the discussion of most nonduality topics, but each teacher has his or her own unique expression.

For example, let's say that I have listened to ten teachers discuss the personal identity or the welcoming of all emotions.  Each discussion is slightly different and yet all may resonate with me.  I don't leave the discussion confused.

And yet, I've found that if you ask those same ten teachers, "Is there free will"? or "Do we have control over anything in our lives?" you will get 10 very different answers, and perhaps 11 as the discussion wanders.

I've observed over the years that teachers approach the free will issue from a few different angles.  Some will advance the "puppet" position, namely that there is no free will whatsoever.  There is no individual entity, they say, and therefore no one to make a choice.  Everything arises spontaneously.  Just face it.  The body/mind is nothing more than a puppet or a robot.

Other teachers will say that there is no free will except that we have the ability to choose where to place our attention -- too see ourselves as universal consciousness/Awareness, or to see ourselves as a separate, limited entity.  They will take issue with the "puppet" position.

Yet two minutes earlier in the meeting, these same teachers convincingly stated that the individual has no control over his thoughts, emotions and events -- and that they arise spontaneously. 

So how can this non-existent entity make a choice as to where to place attention?  What happened to the spontaneous arising of thoughts and events? 

I've heard several teachers explain this seeming contradiction by breaking up the inquiry into two parts -- free will from the perspective of the separate entity and free will from the perspective of Awareness or the Absolute.

The limited entity, they explain, does not have free will.  How can a non-existent entity make a choice?  So far, I'm with them.  Makes sense.  However, they go on to say that universal consciousness has free will.  While this might make sense at first, I'm still left in confusion. 

To the mind (at least this mind), free will means knowing the choice in advance.  That's the only type of free will the mind is interested in having.  To say that Awareness or the Absolute has free will is meaningless since the choice is not known in advance.

I realize that using the words "in advance" brings in the concept of time, and many nonduality teachers (and scientists) will tell you that time doesn't exist.  Sorry to inject even more confusion here.

It seems obvious that Awareness or the Absolute "decides" what is to be manifested.  While we could call that the free will of the Absolute, it is an empty or meaningless least to the body/mind organism.  If the body/mind has no control whatsoever, and all is the result of the spontaneous movement of Awareness, why even discuss the concept of free will?

I would challenge you to read the discussions of sages such as Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj on the issue of free will.  Then go read or listen to discussions of free will by the nonduality teachers you most respect.

After doing that, can you honestly say that you aren't confused?  Is your mind quiet or full of questions? Do the "answers" you received bring peace and contentment....or confusion and agitation? 

I have a few more comments to offer on this issue of free will but will save them for the next blog post.