Is Your Life Really Predetermined?

I was watching, and enjoying, the series Devs, developed by Alex Garland - if you haven’t seen it, it’s a philosophical conundrum wrapped in a streaming mini-series format, something like Black Mirror or Mr Robot, with a very nice aesthetic to the music and design. Or it’s a standard sci-fi mini-series with pretensions to having something to say philosophically. Anyway it got me thinking, which presumably is the point.

Back in the day I was somewhat into teachers like Ramesh Balsekar, Roger Castillo, Tony Parsons and Lisa Cairns, who all basically go with the idea of a totally predetermined universe - Wikipedia explains: Ramesh Balsekar - Wikipedia

Balsekar taught from the tradition of Advaita Vedanta nondualism. His teaching begins with the idea of an ultimate Source, Brahman, from which creation arises. Once creation has arisen, the world and life operate mechanistically according to both Divine and natural laws. While people believe that they are actually doing things and making choices, free will is in fact an illusion. All that happens is caused by this one source, and the actual identity of this source is pure Consciousness, which is incapable of choosing or doing. This false identity which revolves around the idea that “I am the body” or “I am the doer” keeps one from seeing that one’s actual identity is free Consciousness.

A typical quote from this kind of teacher would be like this one from Roger Castillo:

Roger Castillo - Being Lived: Blog What can I do to gain liberation, should I meditate or not? ‘You’ can’t do anything. All the movements and functioning of the body-mind including thoughts and emotions are happening automatically without ‘anyone’ doing them - ‘you’ have never done anything.

This ultimately may well be true - that the source is One and all aspects of it are essentially illusory when compared to their origin. Something like this is perceived in an experience of non-dual realisation, as detailed in my account of Holotropic Breathwork therapy.

Forest, the billionaire owner of the Amaya Corporation in the series Devs, expertly played by Nick Offerman, appears to hold this same belief. He talks about ‘tramlines’, on which the universe runs, and if something is predetermined, it will happen, whether the participants in the event wish to participate or not. Someone like Tony Parsons would probably use the phrase ‘it is written’, or something along those (tram)lines. This basically takes all personal free will or agency out of the picture. It also does away with guilt, and it is for this reason that Forest is so attracted to it in the series - an incident has taken place in his life for which he , without adhering to this philosophy, would feel great guilt - see how I avoided the spoiler there for you?

So watching the series made me revisit my earlier interest in this kind of belief in a rigidly predetermined universe. Why did I ultimately reject it? Firstly because by removing all possibility of guilt or ‘making a mistake’ from the picture, it opens the doors to all kinds of horrors. If there is no one there and everything is only a dream, then why don’t we just go out and commit atrocities? There is no one there to harm, after all, it’s just life reacting to life. The suffering of ‘others’ must only be another illusion, like our own suffering. The series Devs does go into this aspect of believing in absolute predetermination.

The other reason was that it just didn’t feel right to me. Of course there is no way to prove that everything is not predetermined, the fact that you don’t believe in predetermination might itself be predetermined, but despite that I definitely feel like our choices do matter, and that we could have done things differently. Whether from a universal perspective our choices matter or not is another thing, probably not, as the sun will eventually die and it will be as if nothing ever existed. But from a personal perspective - the person who falls in love, eats ice cream, stubs their toe, crashes their car, kisses their child - these things do seem to matter. And yes, this means we can feel guilty or shameful. But are these not signals simply telling us to ‘do better next time’?

As I say, I have no way of proving, or indeed knowing 100%, that life is not predetermined, but I appear to have a choice in how I experience life, and I choose not to experience it as predetermined. I choose to experience myself as having agency - an ability to increase my own freedom relative to my circumstances, and also the question of conscious suffering comes in here.

Jung said:

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate”.

This relates to a sense in which life can appear to be predetermined, despite our best efforts. I will illustrate with an anecdote. I was romantically involved with a woman who was afraid of being abandoned. She told me when we first met that one of the worst experiences of her childhood had been when her mother had forgotten to pick her up from school. She lived in a city where walking home from school would have opened the possibility of being kidnapped, so understandably she was distraught. Eventually her mother remembered, but she related it to me as the moment when she realised that her mother never really loved her.

I made a mental note to never let this sort of thing happen on my watch. Some months later I was supposed to pick her up from the airport after she had been away for Christmas. Due to a bizarre series of misunderstandings about time zones, and plain ‘bad luck’ (including the fact that two alarms failed to go off for different reasons), I failed to show. She was distraught and accused me of abandoning her because I did not love her. Our relationship ultimately never recovered from the damage done by this incident.

Later on I realised that because of an argument we had had just before she left, I had been carrying a hidden resentment towards her while she was away, a resentment I didn’t even admit to myself (the worst kind). Somehow I had unconsciously willed the situation into being, contriving to undermine my efforts at preparation and failing to understand instructions which normally would have been straightforward.

In this way, by not admitting to myself that I resented her after the argument and failing to resolve it with her directly, I forced the situation to ‘appear outside as fate’. Whether we need to invoke cosmic forces and synchronicities here I’m not sure, but effectively I unconsciously acted in a way which caused another person harm, and because of the resonance with her deep childhood wound, the harm was much more than it would have been had we simply continued arguing.

So despite my best efforts, and my sincere conscious desire to have a healthy relationship, ‘fate’ had intervened between us. At the moment it happened I really felt like there was some sort of predestination involved, so bizarre had been the series of coincidences which prevented me appearing at the right time at the airport.

How could I have handled it differently, and made the inner situation conscious, then?

The keys for me now seem to be honesty with oneself - e.g. admitting that I am resentful towards another person - and conscious suffering.

For me, the difference between suffering and trauma is that suffering, when made conscious, can bring depth and ultimately joy. Trauma is an overdose of suffering with no way to deal with it.

To unpack this a bit, I mean that when the pain of a situation is felt directly, without entering into the story of it, one is making the inner situation conscious, and reducing the need for it to appear outside as ‘fate’. If one is completely conscious and honest about one’s own motivations, and able to deal with suffering as it appears by entering into it without thought, then it could possibly be the case that the need for ‘fate’ to intervene in one’s life is negated.

This is not to say that unexpected things cannot occur, we are not talking about having the power to see the future, or having complete control over one’s destiny, which is surely impossible, but those significant events which are caused by our own lack of honesty and need to project our suffering outwards now have nothing causing them to happen. Suffering is dealt with at source, in the place which Eckhart Tolle calls ‘the pain body’.

Furthermore, we discover that when we encounter suffering directly in this way, we are visited by what religious people might call ‘grace’ - serendipitous experiences of joy and completeness which appear seemingly without reason. This might be called the ‘opposite of fate’, although I suspect that, as Barry Long said, joy is not the opposite of unhappiness; joy is a state of completeness having no opposite.

When we are unable to deal with suffering because there is an overwhelming amount then it often becomes trauma. Our system is unable to process the pain naturally and it builds up, creating negative spirals and tangling us up in its consequences. We start to seek out conflicts and addictions in misguided and unconscious attempts to process the trauma. This, having happened, can take many decades (and, I suspect, many lifetimes) to come out of. The nightmare tells us there is no end to the nightmare.

To prevent suffering becoming trauma we need to deal with it as quickly as possible once it happens, and having understood how this all works, make serious attempts to deal with the backlog of suffering from our childhood and past events if we can. Can we deal with all of it? I doubt it, and in fact we are kept humble and human by the fact that we can never completely escape suffering. What we can do though is to fully accept it, understand the nature of it, and resolve to create as little of it as possible for ourselves and others.

The excellent book by Christopher M. Bache, “LSD And The Mind of The Universe”, goes into how he dealt with suffering on a grand scale during his solo LSD experiments over a period of around twenty years. From the descriptions, what he went through was almost unimaginable, but he quickly realised that the more suffering he was able to experience, the greater became his capacity for joy, both in the sessions involving psychedelics and in his life in general.

Quote from the book:

Padrinho Sebastiao, one of the founders of the Santo Daime religion, expressed it well when he said, ‘Look, suffering is the best thing that exists to cleanse oneself. We suffer, but when we come out on the other side we say, Thank God! . . . Like that old woman in the last works - the more she suffered, the more she gave thanks for the beauty.’

So in this way, by reducing the effects of suffering in our lives, we become freer, and less subject to ‘fate’ and unconscious trauma-generating actions, which could be said to be the only actions which are genuinely predetermined, given that if we do not deal with the suffering at source, we are going to be compelled to act it out in some way. The precise nature of the acting out or what we might call ‘the birth of fate’ may not be predictable, but it is predictable that we will be involved in some kind of harmful episode if we do not take responsibility for our own suffering.

To sum up, freedom and an increase in personal agency come through facing and experiencing our suffering, and conversely, the ‘tramlines’ of a predetermined future appear when we attempt to avoid it, blame others, distract ourselves, or are not honest with ourselves. Many people, probably most are living like this, effectively profoundly asleep. I do not except myself from this state. Possibly the most we can do is have a dim recollection of the possibility of being awake from somewhere deep in the dream.

Another quote from LSD And The Mind of The Universe:

In the middle of terrible suffering I found myself saying, ‘Yes! I can make a difference. Yes! I accept responsibility.’ I was accepting responsibility for the anguish and for trying to make a difference in the lives surrounding me. This shift was fundamental. It reached to depths I cannot now fathom and impacted me in ways I cannot summarize. It seemed a free choice on the most basic of questions. With this acceptance, the torment suddenly changed to positive themes.

Possibly this ‘free choice’ is in fact the only one available to us.

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