What makes your soul different than the soul of say the ocean? What makes you who you are? The miraculous thing about our existence here is that we experience ourselves to be separate from one another. You are you, I am me and there’s some space in between. Being an individual is so intrinsic to who we are, that it may never occur to us to think about what it means to be one.
To understand what an individual is, perhaps we can compare with something that is not an individual. It would be hard to speculate on another animal’s individuality and how much their souls or consciousness might be like ours. But if you believe like I do that a mountain has a soul or an ocean or the wind. What makes the difference?
The ocean flows with the principles of nature. It cannot decide not to come to shore this evening, or that its going to go North for the winter. It is not an individual. In the times when birds are flying in a flock and they all move the same direction, they are not individuals deciding which way to fly. I would also argue that a salmon during spawning season cannot make an alternative decision to driving upstream to mate.
We humans are also animals, and so we can also be driven by instinctive behavior and nature. But it seems that we also have the capacity to make a different decision, even when we are in situations that should be controlled by instinct. We can run into burning buildings. In a group of people running from danger, a cameraman can decide to stop running and take pictures.
So if you compare the situation of the salmon who must go up stream, and the cameraman who really should be running from that explosion, you can see that there’s a difference in each of those being’s capacity to choose. During the time when the salmon is driven upstream, he is living solely from an innate drive to do this thing. He is not an individual at that time, and he is not capable of making his own choices. In other words, a being is an individual to the extent to which he or she can make his or her own choices.
This is a foundation piece for understanding your path of spiritual growth. Understanding how much of your life revolves around your ability to choose is a type of enlightenment. The extent to which you think that life or the outside world is in control of your choices will correspond with this as well.
I want to make sure you don’t mistake choice with control. Choice is about what is internal and control is about what is external. Most of the time in this life we aren’t in control. A lot of times the belief that we have control is really just an illusion. Often your choice may only be whether to let a situation make you unhappy. In an extreme situation the choice can resolve into whether to struggle or surrender… in some cases whether to try to live or to let go and die.
You can probably see that an abuser saying his wife made him angry and that’s why he hit her, is not seeing the truth. He hit her because that is how he choose to respond to the situation. His choice is influenced by a complex mix of how he was raised, how much he has been injured, and how much he has worked through those injuries; but it is still his choice. There are much more subtle examples of this type of belief in our own lives.
Aside from grief, which is in a separate category of experience… how often have you responded to a situation and told your self it was the situation that provoked it? You got angry because that guy cut you off. Anyone would. You never got your dream off the ground because the situation wasn’t right, so you were never given the opportunity.
I’m not saying that its not OK to get angry when someone cuts you off in traffic. It is a natural response. The other part though, is that it’s always a choice. Yes you didn’t get to start your business because you were raising kids, this is true. But you choose your children because ultimately that was what mattered to you the most. If starting the business mattered more than the raising of your children you would have done that, and let that business take up a larger space in your life.
Nor am I saying that there’s always that many choices available to you. The choice may be shitty. It may be no choice at all. But the decision arises from within you. It comes from who you were in that moment. It comes from what you were able to know and understand at that time. As you grew and changed you began to make different choices. And each choice you made, taught you something about yourself and the world around you. Your choices are both formed by who you are, and they are what have made you who you are.
There is a story of the Buddha* as he is becoming fully enlightened. He sits under the Bodhi tree and the demon Mara attacks and tempts him, trying to move him away from the tree and thus his Buddhahood. Mara attacks with spears and the spears fall to the ground as flowers. Mara tempts him with things of the world such as his beautiful daughter and the Buddha is not moved.
Most of the time when this story is explained, the Buddha’s cessation of desire is emphasized. But this story also illustrates how the Buddha has become enlightened because his choices arise from within him. Those choices are no longer centered or influenced by the external world. He is fully an individual. This is an apex example, and perhaps a state no real person could be in all the time and still be in the world. But the story shows the full potential of how it is possible to choose to respond to what is happening to you. The spears thrown at the Buddha are nothing but flowers to him. Temptations such as sexual desire no longer influence his decisions.
So if we aren’t quite at the Buddha stage, or even the pre-Buddha stage of our spiritual growth… what do we do with this information? The purpose of this topic is because you want to move in the direction of owning your own choices. You want to try to shift your belief that the external made the choice for you to seeing that you made it yourself.
To begin to understand this, you have to set aside the reason you made the choice and try to see that a choice was made. You try to see that the choice was made by you. The reason you made the choice deserves your compassion. You did the best you could for who you were and what you knew at that moment. Understanding why you made the choice can help you see where you can grow and change. But the reason did not make the choice for you. You made the choice.
As this awareness and belief increases in you, so will your ability to own your choices and make them in more powerful ways. An increase in this type of awareness with compassion and without self-judgment is in itself a move towards enlightenment.
To be clear, the goal is not to change your choices. Thinking you have to change your choices to become a better or more acceptable person brings you back towards judgment and wanting to have control. It is the awareness itself that is important, so having compassion for yourself eases the way.
* There are more than one Buddha because any individual has the potential to become Buddha, and others have done so. But this particular Buddha, born as Siddhartha Gautama, is the one most often referred to when one says “The Buddha.”
Lauren Torres – Lansing, IL
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