by James Merryman
The most absurd fallacy in our thinking is the persistent notion that we are somehow free souls, captains in the course of our destiny, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Ramesh Balsekar, the writer and philosopher, said, “We have no choice in being born, and we certainly do not have anything to say about our death, and yet we have the temerity to say that in between these two phenomena of birth and death, during the intermediate period, we have the choice to live as we like.”
Buoyed on the wings of youthful hope, we eagerly enter life anticipating the rewards of a somewhat nebulous future, not realizing that our destinies, likes and dislikes are already being shaped in this world by a hundred different seen and unseen forces, none of which offer any lasting happiness or peace of mind. At least, we console ourselves, we should be more successful than our parents. Most of us finish out our lives, however, in the common pattern of our parents – a lot of pain and a modicum of pleasure, understanding little to nothing regarding its cause or meaning.
I am reminded of an incident that took place between a somewhat disenchanted disciple and his guru. In a disgruntled mood the disciple approached the guru with the complaint that after twenty years of effort, he could see no results from his spiritual practice. The guru answered, “If you could see the change that I have seen in you these past twenty years, you would quit right now!” The disciple couldn’t see the internal changes that were visible to the guru. The pain of an ordinary life of ups and downs had forged a considerable, if not a remarkable, change in the disciple’s character. The whole affair could be likened to an unconscious, bedridden patient being moved from one room to another.
How much control do we have over our lives? Sri Ramakrishna says that we have none:
Everything is under God’s control – it is all His play. He created a variety of things: small, big, powerful, weak, good and bad. Whether a man is good or bad is all His maya, His play. I see that God Himself is the executioner, the sacrificial victim and also the sacrificial block.
How then, do we fit into such a picture? Why do we need to make any spiritual effort at all if God is the executioner, the victim and the block? Who are we? Again, Ramakrishna says that we are toys in the hands of God and nothing more. Peel us back like an onion until nothing remains – body, mind and intellect disappear.
In the end, short of merging our true identity with Brahman, there is little meaning to this spell of birth to death. I am reminded of someone many years ago. A friend of mine, who was a monk, had a sister who lived a dedicated life as a jnani. Some time after her passing, the monk mused aloud to his guru, “I wonder where she is now.” Without a moment’s hesitation, the guru replied, “What was once my disciple no longer exists.”
We have to understand that life is only a learning process – no coming, no going, only the continual sloughing off of this old garment of a body and its trappings. The shedding of the ego is the last impediment to losing our selves in Brahman, our real nature – and it can be terrifying. We are used to our sense of individuality from the beginning of time. It is common for devotees to back off from “The Void” when losing their individuality seems imminent. I know two monks who backed away from the experience out of fear. Thus, a prerequisite for a final escape from the world is total surrender while living in it. There is no other way.