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