I Went for a Walk. Or So It Seemed.

I'm cat-sitting for friends who are galivanting around France for a couple of weeks. Talk about an invitation you can’t refuse: taking care of Mendel the cat is an opportunity for me to have something that’s very hard to come by: a spacious place to stay in New York City that’s both quiet and free.

It’s also just half a block away from Prospect Park: 585 acres of green fields connected by a network of forested paths and encircled by a picturesque three-mile loop. It's a great place for going on long mantra meditation walks, which is what I've been doing every morning this week.

But was it really me who was walking?

(Oh boy, here we go: Look out – here come the “deep thoughts”!)

Asking basic existential questions is hardly new. The most basic of those questions seems to have been asked and answered: "Cogito, ergo sum”: the act of doubting our existence proves that we exist. Thank you, Descartes.

We exist, but do we do? By which I mean, when we act, who or what is acting? Is it really as simple as “I act, therefore I am . . . acting”?

The answer may appear to be obvious: “When I do something, I’m the one who’s doing it. Duh!”

“Not so fast”, says Krishna, who calls this seemingly self-evident conclusion into question in this verse from the Bhagavad-gita:

"One who is bewildered by the influence of false ego thinks, 'I am the doer of activities.' The truth is that all activities are carried out by the three qualities of material nature. – Bg 3.27

(The deep thoughts are getting deeper. Okay, down the rabbit hole we go.)

This verse comes up a lot in discussions about how yoga philosophy deals with the question of free will: do we have it or has our agency been hijacked by the influence of the three qualities of material nature: luminance, passion, and darkness?

The question of whether or not we have free will is directly tied to the concept of egoism, one of the five obstacles to the experience of yoga that Patanjali lists in his Yoga-sutras (YSP II.3).

Egoism is different from egotism. Egotism is having an over-inflated sense of self-importance. Egoism is mistaking the instruments of perception – our mind and senses – for the person who is perceiving.

Egotism is a problem, too: a corollary obstacle that arises from egoism. If we solve the problem of egoism then the problem of egotism gets solved with it.

Solving the problem of egoism begins with acknowledging that our existential condition is that of a “divided self”: a spiritual self whose existence is beyond doubt and a material self whose existence, though valid in a relative sense, is questionable. As Thomas Merton put it,

“There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first-person singular.”

I’ve been contemplating this a lot lately. As a result of my ruminations, I've begun to develop a practice of positive self-messaging, a systematic process of internal monologue that's helped me gain mental and emotional clarity about the different features of my "divided self".

It's not an exercise in trashing my "superficial, external self", what we might call our "lower" self: it's a way of increasing my sense of identification with my transcendent self while simultaneously acknowledging the value and potential of my materially constructed self from a position of compassionate detachment.

Which brings us back to the question of free will: how much agency do we really have? Here’s how I understand free will in relationship to the Bhagavad-gita verse I mentioned a moment ago:

  • As long as we’re under the influence of egoism, we don’t have any agency because egoism deactivates our capacity to exercise free will. As such, we get swept up in the currents of the qualities of material nature in the same way that a riptide carries a doomed swimmer out to sea, but we think "I am swimming".
  • When we become aware of a distinction between a materially conditioned self, “which we commonly identify with the first person singular”, and a “transcendent self” who can step back and observe the influence of the qualities of material nature, our latent capacity for agency is reactivated: free will is a function of knowledge.
  • At this point, our free will consists of being able to choose between clinging to the materially constructed sense of identity we’re so familiar with, relinquishing our free will once again in the process, or reacquainting ourselves with a spiritual identity we’ve somehow become estranged from, expanding the scope of our free will in the process.

We know that our spiritual identity exists by virtue of our own conscious self-awareness, consciousness itself being a symptom of the spiritual person who experiences life in the material world.

We also know that our material identity exists because that’s the version of ourselves that we’re currently aware of.

Now, the questions are, “How does reacquainting ourselves with our spiritual identity expand the scope of our free will?” and “How can we leverage our awareness of our material identity in such a way as to raise the level of our awareness of our spiritual identity?”

Let's jump in together and see how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember to take the red pill on the way down.

Image courtesy of gigi_nyc