No God, no Brahma can be found,
Creator of Samsara’s round;
Empty phenomena roll on,
Subject to cause and condition.
I just dropped in, to see what condition my condition was in. — Song lyric
One day, in the middle of a three-month intensive meditation retreat, a friend of mine tapped me on the shoulder and motioned me aside. He had a wide-eyed, astonished look on his face. When he was certain we were alone he broke the vow of noble silence and in a shaky voice whispered to me his great revelation: “It’s all so completely conditioned! All we can do is wake up in it!”
People who practice meditation are often shocked when they begin to experience the power of their past conditioning and the limits of their personal freedom. In meditation we discover how much we are like robots or automatons, reacting blindly to the world; we find that our minds have minds of their own and act independently of what we will them to do. Deeper in meditation we also begin to see, on a molecular level, how each moment is conditioned by the preceding moment and how each phenomenon is conditioned by a previous phenomenon and so on, backwards in time, ad infinitum, until finally we come to question whether we have any freedom of choice at all. We begin to wonder if all we can do is “wake up in it!”
Man is a machine. All his deeds, actions, words, thoughts, feelings, convictions, opinions and habits are the result of external influences. Out of himself a man cannot produce a single thought, a single action. Everything he says, does, thinks, feels—all this happens. Man is born, lives, dies, builds houses, writes books, not as he wants to, but as it happens. Everything happens. Man does not love, hate, desire—all this happens.
—G. I. Gurdjieff
We can never know for certain to what extent we are free: we have no ultimate reference point from which to judge the amount of freedom that exists in the human situation. However, based on many subjective inquiries and mounting scientific evidence, it seems safe to say that we attribute much more freedom to ourselves than we actually have. The common delusion is that we are acting independently from moment to moment, completely and continuously in control over our thoughts, feelings and behavior. Even though we may acknowledge the extent of our conditioning, it is usually not an integrated awareness, and we almost never remember the truth of the matter. Just like forgetting to “be here now”—we constantly forget how unfree we really are. Furthermore, most of us act as though we believe we have control over our external circumstances—control over everything from the behavior of our families to the weather to the national economy. We carry guilt and shame for failures we couldn’t possibly have been responsible for. We gnash our teeth and struggle to be in control of things that are often far beyond our control. The illusions we have about our own freedom cause us to suffer a lot of frustration and pain. And in the end, these illusions help to keep us enslaved. If there is any hope for freedom, we must first be aware of the nature and extent of our slavery. If we don’t understand the knots, we will never be able to untie them.
Do you think I know what I’m doing?
That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself?
As much as a pen knows what it’s writing,
or the ball can guess where it’s going next.
Billions of years ago an explosion occurred which set enormous forces into motion; out of that explosion came the spin of the atoms and the contour of the molecules that would eventually grow into huge galaxies of burning stars and suns, each locked into some inexorable course. We are each a part of that great celestial movement and cannot alter or affect its destiny. As part of it we are helpless, completely at the mercy of its evolution. If the cosmos has purpose and importance, then perhaps we can claim some for ourselves. If it has no meaning other than its own existence, then we can only assume that we too are just along for the ride. If the universe eventually thins out into nothing, then it takes us with it. If the universe collapses back on itself to start a new cosmic cycle, then in some form or other, we too may be reborn. There is no way we can escape the hold of the physical elements which bind us to the destiny of all matter.
The illusion of freedom is a close relative to the illusion of self. Because we believe ourselves to be separate entities, we are convinced that we act independently. When we begin to see the interrelatedness of all things, we also begin to understand the limits of our freedom.
Contemplating the mechanism of our own minds and gazing morosely on the chemical action and reaction that equate with consciousness and personality, we seem directed toward the dark conclusion that free will is but a concept designed, like Santa Claus or God, to shield us from the unacceptable truth. The truth, we are terrified of learning, is that we are chaff in the wind . . . .
—Jon Franklin, Molecules of the Mind
The latest evidence from the biology laboratories has got each of us shackled to a genetically determined future, bound by the chains of our DNA molecules. Our cells seem to be programmed with information that decides how tall we will grow and how strong our teeth will be; what illnesses we are likely to contract and, to some degree, how long we shall live. It is as if we were born into some spy novel, given a secret code, and as the plot unfolds our identity is gradually revealed.
At birth each of us is given a face that we must carry with us, whether beautiful or not, with a thick head of hair or a nearsighted squint or lopsided ears—features that effect how the world looks at us and therefore how we look back at the world. On the physical level, from the moment we are born we are already what we will become: assigned to a face and assigned to a form. On the physical level we are not free to be ourselves. We are forced to be ourselves.
Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its self-love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe . . . The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to descent from the animal world, implying an irradicable animal nature in him . . . But man’s craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present day psychological research, which is endeavoring to prove to the ego in each one of us that he is not even master in his own house . . . .
Glemph. Why did I just write the word glemph? Why didn’t I write smelth? Is it because my mother would have wanted me to write glemph? Or is it because she forbade me to write glemph? Maybe I saw the word glemph years ago in a comic book and it has stuck in my mind. It could be that simple. Or, possibly, it has been predetermined for billions of years that I would just now think of and write the word glemph. Maybe my glemph is a very important part of the great cosmic plan and we don’t yet understand its significance. Or else, in another language, back in prehistoric onomatopoetic times, glemph had some meaning, like, “Hey, got an extra stick of gum?” Now, out of the collective unconscious or the racial memory, the word glemph arose again in my mind. But did I choose to write the word glemph? Was it somehow an independent choice of a separate entity acting freely in the universe? Probably not. In fact, I have no idea who or what is writing all this stuff right now but I suspect that it is not really “me.” Maybe I am just a medium for some silly spirit entity who is using me to type this out. In that case, I do have my fingers in it. But that is all. Glemph.
A person is never himself but always a mask; a person never owns his own person, but always represents another, by whom he is possessed. And the other that one is, is always ancestors . . . .
—Norman 0. Brown, Love’s Body
All of us ingest our parents and spend the rest of our lives trying to digest them. We eat them whole, from their genes to their judgments. We eat their values, their fears, their moods, their worldviews. Even if we rebel against them we are formed by that rebellion. Their voices are always echoing inside of us. Whether we love or hate them, honor or denounce them, they are always with us. We never leave home.
The little human being is frequently a finished product in his fourth or fifth year, and only gradually reveals in later years what lies buried in him.
— Sigmund Freud
We are stuck inside of personalities that psychologists tell us are almost completely formed in our earliest years, long before we could decide who we wanted to be in this lifetime. So much, they say, depends on how our mother wipes our ass. Could it be that the way we relate to our feces determines how we will relate to our species?
There are so many ways of looking at conditioning; so many ways to take it apart. Volumes have been written about how we are programmed to conform to the values and fashions of the society we are born into. No matter how hard we try to transcend it al!, we are undeniably creatures of a materialist, speed-tripping, post-modern late-twentieth-century civilization, with all of its confusions and contradictions.
I used to think a lot about “geographic determinism” and how our perception is shaped by the terrain that surrounds us. Maybe that’s because I was born in Nebraska, where flatness is profound. From the beginning my world was flat: The land was flat, the accents were flat, the culture was flat. I couldn’t wait to leave Nebraska. Since then, no matter where I am, I am always convinced that life is elsewhere; somewhere that isn’t “flat.”
Cosmic, geologic, biologic, psychological, cultural, political—so many forces shaping who we are—and we haven’t even considered the possibility of past life influences on this incarnation. So, why do we have this profound conviction that we are free and independent beings with an undetermined destiny that is important for us to shape and control? Can we now make a case for some kind of personal freedom? Do we see any light at all?
Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, follow along with things the way they are, and make no room for personal views—then the world will be governed.
The Taoist sages say there is freedom, but they get there by going around through the back door. Taoist freedom is, in a word, “acceptance.” One becomes free by having no preferences and by following “the Way,” the course of things. One needs only to live simply so that one can be attuned to the larger forces: One needs only to be quiet so that one can hear the harmony and the direction of events. It sounds contradictory to us Westerners to think that one gains freedom by becoming more accepting of what happens, by “giving up” control, but the Taoist sees no other choice. The only freedom is in the mind. The struggle is to stop struggling. All you have to do is get to know the flow . . . and then go with it.
Be empty, that is all. The Perfect Man uses his mind like a mirror—going after nothing, welcoming nothing, responding but not storing. Therefore he can win out over things and not hurt himself.
The Buddha also believed that freedom begins in the mind, but he set forth a more detailed and active approach to achieving it. The Buddha’s path to freedom is based on his understanding of the laws of karma that got us all into this human form in the first place—this puzzling incarnation. He describes a chain reaction of cause and effect that flows continuously through an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. It is the wheel of samsara. “This existing, that arises.” On and on it rolls. The Buddha called it the chain of dependent origination. “This existing, that arises.”
At the beginning of this chain of dependent origination the Buddha places ignorance—the BIG IGNORANCE. The BIG IGNORANCE is the ignorance of the laws of the universe, the laws of nature. The BIG IGNORANCE is the first cause or necessary condition, and out of it comes the desire to take form, the desire to come into being. Basically, “I am stupid, therefore I am.”
If you were not ignorant (if there were no ignorance) you would understand that once you take form you will be subject to the laws of change, and because of changes you will have to suffer—loss, old age, sickness and death. And because you never learn, you will keep on going through these incarnations, these endless rounds of stuff to do: food to be prepared; desires to overcome; things to put away. The suffering may not always happen in the form of shopping for shoes, but there will always be something wearing out or causing blisters. Taking form—just being matter—”Aye, there’s the rub.”
“There must be some kind of way out of here!” said the joker to the thief.
The reason the Buddha is smiling is because he claims to have found a crack in this chain of dependent origination: He says he discovered a way to get off of what Jack Kerouac called “the wheel of the quivering meat conception.” The Buddha says he found a way to break free. The chisel is, of course, mindfulness, and the weak link in the chain comes between vedana and tanha, between the arising of sensation and the beginning of desire or aversion. If you are awake—if the mindfulness has been sharpened—then you do not have to react in the habitual way to the sensations or thoughts that arise. When you hear the bell you don’t have to salivate like Pavlov’s dog. You can cut through the flow of conditioning. With the power of mindfulness you can create a critical gap—a space between the stimulus and response where it is possible to have some degree of choice. According to the Buddha, we can achieve this much freedom, at least from our own conditioning; we can at least choose how we respond to the world. We may not have any control over where we were born or the violent windstorm that blows the tree down on our house, but we can develop some control over our attitude toward these events. According to the Buddha, that is where our freedom begins. All we can do—and all we need to do—is “wake up in it.”
Greed can neither be abandoned by bodily acts nor by speech; but it can be abandoned by wisely seeing it. Hatred can neither be abandoned by bodily acts nor by speech; but it can be abandoned by wisely seeing it. Delusion can neither be abandoned by bodily acts nor by speech; but it can be abandoned by wisely seeing it. Delusion can neither be abandoned by bodily acts nor by speech; but it can be abandoned by wisely seeing it.
According to the Buddha, freedom is possible, and all we have to do is be aware of our own conditioning from moment to moment. He says that by being mindful we can change our attitude from greed or hatred to one of equanimity and with great effort we can rid ourselves of delusion, and eventually we can stop creating new karma and new conditioning, and then perhaps, if all the elements are ripe, we can maybe even get rid of the BIG IGNORANCE. At the end of the path, says the Buddha, there is even more than freedom. There is liberation.