I remember the day when my own spiritual journey became serious, when there was no going back. I’d been attending a group for several months in New York City. There were many discussions about free will, questioning whether everything people do is just the passive result of external influences or if we really make our own free choices. The theme seemed to be that it was possible to earn free will but most people didn’t really have any.
This, of course, raised issues about how to achieve it, and concerns about what this meant for individual responsibility. “Persons are responsible,” the group’s Teacher (I’ll call him A.) often said, “but we are machines and machines are not responsible.” He added, however, that this didn’t get anyone off the hook since people were responsible for remaining machines and not becoming what they ought to be!
Truth be told, I found these discussions interesting but rather dubious. It seemed to me that everyone was making choices all the time.
One night A. was carrying on a dialogue on some topic or other with a woman named Carol, and I was listening intermittently – various thoughts and worries kept passing through my head and distracting me. Suddenly, A. turned to me and said, “What do you think of what Carol just said?”
I snapped out of it, recovered quickly, mentally reviewed what I vaguely knew had been discussed, and said, “I agree with her.” Then I waited for the two of them to pick up the thread and continue their conversation. But instead, A. looked at me piercingly and said, “Why?”
In a startling flash something unexpectedly awakened in my mind and I ‘saw’ what my agreement with Carol had actually consisted of. It was not an impressive sight. For one thing, I considered Carol to be very intelligent – so whatever she said was pre-determined to be automatically agreeable. Second, I had half-consciously noticed that during their conversation A. was ever-so-slightly nodding his head – so I had been subconsciously tipped off that since A. agreed with her she must be right. Third, somewhere in the discussion Carol had said something about Christ, and from that point onward my thoughts had wandered off into sentimental daydreams about Christ, putting me in a pleasantly agreeable mood.
The truth, I realized abruptly, was that I had not even been listening! I had considered nothing; my mind had made no effort to form a rational opinion. I (whatever that might mean) was not really even present. My ‘agreement’ had been no more a matter of my own independent choice than the salivation of a Pavlovian dog. Rather than being a self-generated thought – something I had earned, something of my own – it was merely the automatic result of a previously-acquired belief, a visual stimulus, and an emotional mood.
I must have had a horrified expression on my face. A. asked me what was happening.
“I think I just saw the machine you’re always talking about.” Around the room people murmured, waiting to hear more. At A.’s coaxing I described what I had seen.
“That’s quite an insight,” he said. “How does it make you feel?”
I thought about this silently for a few moments. Finally I realized why the whole thing bothered me so much.
“I think of myself as being really smart,” I said at last. “I’m well-read, educated, thoughtful, intellectual. If it turns out that my mind is just a mechanical device, if I can take no credit for my thoughts or intelligence, then I’m completely useless!”
There was more. If I had no self-generated thoughts, what about feelings? What about actions? Could I take no credit for any of what I called my life? Was I just a pawn of external forces, dreaming my way through the illusion of having a life? Was it all really this pointless and empty?
I decided in that moment that I could not continue this way, I did not wantto pass through life as a mere machine.
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