Are you charting your life path? Or is God?

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Phillip Halling

Free will vs. Determinism

While I was away, a friend left me a copy of Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita, by Ram Dass.

I probably should have taken that as cue to read it right away, but it sat on my nightstand for several weeks. Yet, now that I’ve picked it up, I’ve found it overflowing with valuable insights and lessons.

A master storyteller, Ram Dass retells tales from the Gita, making them relevant to our everyday lives, as well as sprinkling in a heavy dose of anecdotes, including humorous reflections on his own pursuit of spiritual contentment.

One passage that really got me thinking was about the choice between free will and predetermination. Put simply, it begs the question:

Do you really call the shots or does God have a predetermined plan for you?

Ram Dass points out that we’re used to answering this question in an absolute manner. We either believe in free will and our ability to dictate the nature of our lives—or, we believe that God or a divine source has carved out a path for us, perhaps predetermined by the laws of karma.

Ram Dass argues that:

 “…on this issue, we have to deal with the paradox that both of these opposite realities exist simultaneously: free will and total determinism.”

Ram Dass believes that “there is a plane of reality on which you think you are a free agent.”

You decide what to have for breakfast, what exercise to class to attend today, who you should date and what career you should pursue.

However, he also thinks we co-exist on another plane where our choices, both big and small, are dictated by “a long chain of prior events that absolutely predetermined your decisions. So that long before you made a decision, it was already decided.”

In other words, while we think we’re making our own decisions, fate has trumped us by predetermining our actions for us.

The great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson shared this belief in a preordained path but had a slightly more proactive take on it. Quoting Emerson, scholar Richard Gelhard said that Ralph Waldo believed in a “subtle order of divinity which lay beneath and behind the manifest world.” This greater order of things meant that “human beings don’t have power…the universe does; it is full of power; flowing, waiting and accessible. An individual who understands the laws of power can move into its flowing and allow it to wield its instruments.”

In other words, by going with the flow of life we can tap into an unseen power and use it to help guide us down the proper path.

In an essay titled “Spiritual Laws,” Emerson wrote that there was “guidance for each of us” that could help us “hear the right word.” He believed this higher power was self-evident if we stayed alert to our surroundings:

“A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us that a higher power than that of our will regulates events; that our painful labors are unnecessary and fruitless; that only in our easy, simple, spontaneous action are we strong, and by contenting ourselves with obedience we become divine”.

In another passage, Emerson more passionately states his belief in a divine source that can comfort and guide us:

“Belief and love—a believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man…it has so infused its strong attachment into nature that we prosper when we accept its advice.”

The question of free will vs. determinism can be tough to wrap your head around, but it circles around my belief that there is a personal path for each of us to follow. If we listen to our intuition and the divine guidance we can find within, we will be nudged along in the right direction. To help us, signposts, clues and unexpected coincidences will appear along the way to verify we are on the correct life path or to help point us in a new one.

(But as Care of the Soul author Thomas Moore pointed out in a recent tweet, we must be ever vigilant: Intuitions and insights are like small, faint arrows that shoot past our awareness, unless we are alert and pay attention to them.)

Like Emerson, Ram Dass also believed in the power of intuition to help guide us. In this passage from Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita, he instructs us to start using this inner sense of direction:

Begin paying more attention to the inner voice of our intuition, because that’s the clue to what we should be doing. We start to listen to the tiny, intuitive whisper that the Quakers call “the still small voice within.”

Of course, you can always choose to make decisions based strictly on your own intellect and ego. You can be the primary decider of everything you do in life, including where you live, how you earn a living, and who you choose as your friends and lovers.

But for me, it’s a little more comforting to know that, when needed, divine assistance is available.


Editor: Brianna Bemel

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Tom Rapsas

Tom Rapsas is a blogger on inspirational and spirituality issues for Patheos, Elephant Journal and his own site The Inner Way. A long-time spiritual seeker and student of philosophy and religion, his influences include Thomas Moore, John Templeton, Napolean Hill, Ralph Trine and Ralph Waldo Emerson. A resident of the Jersey Shore, Tom lives with his wife, daughter and nine cats. He’s the author of Life Tweets Inspirational & Spiritual Insights That Can Change Your Life, which is now available for Kindle and as a trade paperback. His next book, the spiritual fable Thaddeus Squirrel, will be published in 2014. You can reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @TomRapsasTweets

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anonymous Jun 24, 2012 1:10pm

[…] […]

anonymous May 31, 2012 8:33am

[…] How each human chooses to spend their time is their choice of free will. […]

anonymous May 30, 2012 12:25pm

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anonymous May 30, 2012 9:21am

Parmahansa Yogananda stated is was 25% your efforts, 25% guru efforts and 50% God. I think that was his percentages. He also said it is true God helps those who help themselves. His advise, "I will think, I will will, I will act, but guide Thou my thinking, will and actions. Also you can feel when you have gone the wrong way, by your whole being. There are situations that we are in that seem impossible to change, or patterns that repeat. This may be the strong hand of karma. Anyone having a cosmic consciousness experience realizes the majesty of God and the insignificance of the small self. But the love of God in these ecstacies allow the tiny human to know that all is as it should be, all is well, and that the tiny human is precious to God, God is not only vast, He is intricate, intimate and loving. I believe God also comes when the human spirit is in an intensity, passion, yearning, spiritual pain, deep love, even grief agony. It has also been said that when God is going to touch you, you will first be under the shadow of His hand, therefore the "dark night of the soul" as described by many saints.

    anonymous May 31, 2012 2:16pm

    Thank you Nikki for sharing, I found your passage from Yogananda enlightening. (I regularly read his "Laws of Success", a tiny book that is jam packed with wisdom.) ~Tom

anonymous May 29, 2012 11:59am

It's always an interesting topic. But sometimes it is too easy to focus on the concept of a path. I tend to think of path is what is formed in your wake as you move forward. The more powerfully and authentically you do that the more than path is apparent behind you.

Just my insane .02

    anonymous May 29, 2012 3:20pm

    Hi Michael, yes I agree with you on the fact the path is often hard to see, and I myself often feel like a blind man on it, taking tentative steps forward. Yet, through the guidance I mentioned in this piece, I'm usually assured I'm heading in the right direction which gives me the confidence to keep moving ahead. Thanks for your comments. ~Tom

anonymous May 28, 2012 11:13pm

This is really interesting, Tom. And something I've learned in the past years to do, because, too many times I would have a dream to do something, and then be confronted with the everyday situation where I didn't act on my intuitions. I'd always end up thinking to myself, "well, if I had just done (x–that I was thinking of saying/doing), that would have had magical consequences."

So I follow now…and it mystifies me the way I get to see syncronicity working. Not everyone believes in it, so you have to be careful how you speak about it, but, what an amazing trip to follow the path of the divine–the gifts in the everyday! I think it's just identifying the visions and acting to manifest what you "know" instead if reaching or waiting for something you want. Just have faith in the vision. We all have them. That's it!

ps. Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore impacted me greatly in my 20's…..

I think we're on the same page.

    anonymous May 29, 2012 3:17pm

    Hi Joanne! Definitely sounds like you are on the right path and have the gift of being able to tap into your intuition for guidance. As you mention, I think a lot of people either ignore this gift or have lost the ability to access this part of themselves because they're moving too fast and don't take the time to slow down (through meditation, prayer and/or contemplation) and look within.

    I also started reading Thomas Moore many years ago when his first book came out, and have been following him ever since. He has put out many gems since then including books on how the soul relates to work, sex, love, sickness–all great stuff. Recco'd highly if you ever find yourself with some down time.

    Thanks for your comments, love your work! ~Tom

anonymous May 27, 2012 5:20pm

From a Christian perspective, this is the question of Calvinism vs. Arminianism (Determinism vs. Free Will). I lean toward the Arminian view however it may be that it isn't an either/or situation. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." And as Forrest Gump put it, "Jenny, I don't know if Momma was right or if, if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."

    anonymous May 29, 2012 2:51pm

    Thanks for your comments, Roger. The Forrest Gump quote put a smile on my face–and feels right on target to me. ~Tom