Vanity thought #1617. False necessity of freedom

Yesterday I talked about how choice is only an illusion that appears under certain conditions. I don’t think I understand it myself in full yet so I’ll continue with the same subject. Today I want to look at choice in politics because in that area practically everybody already agrees that it’s an illusory concept, albeit from a different perspective.

In case you don’t follow – there’s an understanding that no matter who campaigns for presidency they all are going to do the same thing when elected to office. Sure, some policies will be different and some might affect millions of people but there are many other urgent problems facing society that are going to be dismissed or forgotten. It’s easy to understand why – modern politicians campaign on what excites, not what matters, and on what wins them the vote, everything else is secondary. They also tend to control the flow of public discussion so that vested interests behind them remain untouched.

This election cycle in the US has Bernie Sanders to campaign on this exact issue – politicians have become so beholden to big businesses that they refuse to address income inequality and a host of other related problems that affect lives of ordinary people. His opponent for Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, happens to be exactly the archetype of what he is railing against. He energized large sections of the public so it doesn’t really matter if he fails this time, the ideas have been planted into the public consciousness and politicians will have to eventually address them.

This is not the kind of illusory choice I had in mind, however. Perhaps a better illustration would be China. Typical western position is that China needs democracy and freedom. They block Facebook and Twitter there, imagine that! They need opposition parties, they need genuine elections, they need openness. They can’t go forward without proper democratic institutions supporting their society. Chinese themselves don’t listen, however.

One of the most popular arguments against democratization of China is that they have proved that they can lift a billion people out of poverty without democracy. They can also point to India that can’t accomplish anything because all big projects get bogged down by legislation and litigation. Everybody has got rights to oppose everything until they personally get paid and they use these rights to the tilt. This democracy is an insatiable beast that devours country’s resources leaving Indians with third rate infrastructure and skinny cows walking the streets. They constantly squabble with each other and will never become a respectable country because of that.

There’s probably a lot of truth in this objection to democracy but what interests me from the perspective of choice is that Chinese aren’t interested in democracy in the first place, they just don’t know why they need it.

Their lives are filled with exciting stuff as it is. They have careers, they think about families, they think about buying houses and cars, they think about appearances, they think about their social life, they think about justice and fairness, they think about degradation of the society, they think about sacrifices for the nation, they think about all sorts of stuff. Democracy, however, just doesn’t occur to them. Why do they need it? They can’t find a place for it in their consciousness. They honestly don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

Those who decide to investigate quickly come to the conclusion outlined two paragraphs earlier – democracy is not worth it. Or they look at elections and general politics in supposedly developed countries and they can’t take it seriously. To them it doesn’t look anything like what is promoted by their democratically minded well-wishers. One of their well known apologists, forgot his name, once said that in Chinese system someone like Obama would probably rise to a level of a city boss, not higher, judging by his abilities. He meant to say that Chinese government pays attention to meritocracy and not to empty talking. Maybe he was a bit harsh on Obama but Trump or Cruz for president? Or another Clinton? Or even Sanders who even most Americans think is out of his depth, never mind his good intentions?

To these sharp and inquisitive Chinese democracy does not offer only freedom and choices as westerners tell them. They don’t even want choices, they are thinking in terms of what needs to be done and who is the most suitable person to do it. What’s there to choose? Once you know what you need and who is available it becomes a matter of matching people to jobs for the best outcome. If you still can’t decide it means that you lack understanding of the issue. “Choice” becomes a symptom of indecisiveness or outright ignorance.

When you approach issues from this perspective, when you realize that you can’t make a decision because of lack of knowledge, asking random people on the street looks simply stupid. If you need to ask someone then ask someone more knowledgeable than you.

Likewise, ordinary people know their abilities and limitations and do not bother offering suggestions to people far more experienced and knowledgeable then them. They also know that people do not make random choices but are guided by rationality and common human interests. They understand “corruption” because if they were in that same position they’d behave in the same way, too. Everybody got to look after himself and his family and all those dependent on him. Everybody has got some greed and lust and they don’t expect their leaders to be saintly but only good enough for their positions – thanks to the meritocracy system they believe exists in their country. Once that meritocracy is gone it will be a different story, however.

Some say that there’s no meritocracy there because you’ve got to embrace prescribed political ideology and so bright people who don’t pledge allegiance to communist bosses do not get promoted. Chinese answer to this is that if these people can’t get along with the party they aren’t very bright to begin with.

We think communism is about control but for Chinese communism is about looking after their country in the best way possible. Generally, there’s only one best way and anyone who thinks he can manage one and a half billion people better is delusional and is not taken seriously.

Once again, method of governing isn’t a matter of choice but a conscious, well thought of decision. One can propose alternatives, sure, but they should be working alternatives, not “we could fix this road if we had two party system”. The communist party isn’t going away and merits of two party systems are questionable anyway. There isn’t a single country in that part of the world where it works, not even Australia and Japan where no one bothers to remember names of their Prime Ministers anymore, they don’t stick around long enough to guess right next time someone asks you about it.

What I meant to say today is that in politics choice is an illusion brought out by ignorance. Those who know their stuff are not concerned for choices, they hardly ever encounter genuine dilemmas and they are not going to ask random people how to solve really complex problems. Democracy as it’s taught in schools offers them nothing worthwhile and they do not care for it.

No one is free from doing the right thing, from doing what needs to be done, it’s not a matter of choice or freedom but of knowledge and discipline.

Vanity thought #1616. The illusion of choice

In the material sense choice is accepted as a good thing, one must always have choice, that’s what separates us from the dictatorships. In dictatorships people cannot choose their leaders and, consequently, their lives become so bad that they can’t choose what they read, watch, wear, and even eat. The state strips them off their choices and controls every aspect of their lives. Choice and personal freedom are the first things that impress these people if they ever make it to the free and democratic societies.

On a personal level we need choice to properly enjoy ourselves. Our tastes are different so we need a variety of sense objects and if we can’t choose what we want our senses remain unsatisfied. The easiest way to experience this unhappiness is when our favorite brands are our of stock or when our favorite TV shows are in the midseason and we have no choice but to watch reruns or inferior shows we don’t like.

The whole market economy is then built around satisfying our choices. They don’t want to leave people unhappy and unfulfilled in their sense gratification, they strive to fulfill every our desire and, generally, we can rely on markets and democracy to do their jobs.

Another kind of unhappiness results from us not knowing what we really want in the first place. That’s the angst of the teenage years when people are simply not ready to enjoy their destinies. They have too much stuff interfering and demanding their attention and it all looks very attractive and overwhelming. There are also restrictions on what they can actually enjoy so lots of their temptations can’t be fulfilled and it frustrates them to no end, often leading to a deeply philosophical view of life.

Fortunately or unfortunately it doesn’t last very long, novelty wears off, the avalanche of temptations stops, they try enough things not to ask for them anymore, and they are left with a manageable amount of choices that they can actually take. Philosophy then takes a back seat to sense enjoyment.

This, btw, is another proof that karma and jñāna are two sides of the same coin – when one is happy in his sense gratification he becomes karmī and when bad karma comes along he becomes jñānī. Jñāna is theoretically better because it leads to realization that the world is full of suffering and we need a radical solution, not scratching the itches which brings only a temporary relief before coming back even stronger. So it’s good for teenagers to become philosophers but it’s usually not enough to take them all the way and they find balance between karma and jñana in becoming “mature and responsible” adults.

In Kali yuga becoming mature and responsible is nowhere near enough to save one from hell, however. It’s these “mature and responsible” people who start devastating wars or commit despicable acts of terror in the name of a higher cause (like spreading democracy or Islam). They build slaughterhouses and choose atheism over religion, they gamble and drink, and they become slaves to their sexual desire. The fact that they do it in moderation, as opposed to alcoholics or compulsive gamblers, does not save them from their sinful reactions, they just get slightly less of them and go through a slightly better version of hellish life.

Back to the topic of choice – it’s not markets and democracy that provide it but our karma. The purpose of the material world is largely to fulfill desires of the living entities trapped inside it. Whatever we want, the universe provides. It doesn’t happen instantaneously and we have to work hard to get desired results and at any given moment everyone is at a different stage in the circle of karma. Some people’s desires are about to be fulfilled and others destiny is not yet manifest.

From the perspective of the first group they have choice but it only means their karma is just about to bring results, they fully earned it already. From the perspective of the second group they are still not clear what they want and what they are going to enjoy in the future. The fruit of their karma is only ripening and they can’t predict its taste yet.

To them it looks like they do not have the opportunities to enjoy the world in the same way as the first group does. They know possibilities exists but they can’t access them. It might manifest as a lack of money or some other physical limitation like being born in a wrong country where they can see good life in the movies but can’t experience it where they live. Do they have a choice? Yes, the “free world” would tell them – set your goals, work hard, be smart, and you can immigrate to America or Europe, or you can move to California, or you can get into that prestigious college, of you can get that coveted job.

If you think about it, it’s not really a matter of choice, though. They just say the obvious thing that people in those positions have a greater range of sense gratification but there’s no choice in how to get there. You have to work hard as prescribed by the authorities and you have to satisfy the authorities to earn your promotion or earn sufficient funds to make your move. It’s not a matter of choice, it’s a matter of surrender and service, which are quite the opposite of what people have in mind when they speak about choices.

Once your karma is earned in full and becomes ready to fructify your desires come very close to their fulfillment which to you looks like a “choice”. I mean to qualify as a choice in this sense you have to have a very short time between realizing what you want and getting the result and results have to be pleasant. If there’s no immediacy and by the time you get to enjoy your fruits you forget that you wanted them the illusion of choice disappears.

If you open your fridge and realize you don’t want to eat anything that’s in there you don’t think about it as a “choice” anymore and you’d rather want something else from the supermarket. At this point the availability of “choice” depends on whether you have money and time or a car to get you there. Maybe you’d have to wait for the weekend to make a trip to the farmer’s market or to some specialty store. Maybe you’ll have to wait for your paycheck, maybe you’ll have to wait for a promotion to be able to afford things that you want.

In the meantime the current content of your fridge is the reflection of the state of your desires at some point in the past. Everything that’s in there was once desirable and was chosen over a myriad of other supermarket options. When you were picking these things off the shelf you thought you were exercising your choice but because there was a time lapse between this choice and actual sense gratification it didn’t work out as expected.

What I’m saying is that “choice” is an illusion, a mental image that appears when we look at the world from a conditioned entity perspective. The law of karma does not allow for choices and there’s no randomness in the universe to provide any possibility of a choice. We are not the controllers here but rather controlled so we don’t make choices, only the Lord does because He can tweak the universe to suit His will at any moment.

And if the counter argument is that we can choose our desires then that is also an illusion. Our senses become attracted to sense objects automatically and the control we can exercise in directing our desires is done by another material element, intelligence, which is shaped by external factors like society, educational system, and previous experiences. Contrary to our illusion we’ve been trained like Pavlov’s dogs to make certain choices and are totally predictable in our behavior in front of that supermarket shell – whether it’s avoiding sugar, carbs, fat, gluten etc.

Our relationships with the Lord are a slightly different matter and I don’t want to start discussing the role of choice there today, time to wrap it up.

Vanity thought #1452. Pseudochoice

We think that we are torn by choices and that we can make rational, guru and śāstra based decisions about our spiritual life. We can decide which service to take, whether to become preachers or pūjārīs, whether to marry or stay celibate, whether to stay loyal to ISKCON or seek spiritual advice elsewhere. One can open any book about Śrīla Prabhupāda’s life and find countless examples of such freedom where he as a guru gave this freedom to decide to his disciples, and he even occasionally allowed them to override his advice on these matters. Even atheists observe that making choices is the foundation of our lives, that our choices define us.

We also know that we are simply tossed around by waves raised by the modes of nature and possess only an illusion of free will. To that we say that only devotional service brings freedom and so devotees can make free choices while everybody else can’t.

Earlier this week I’ve argued that even the heads of our society, the sannyāsīs, are not as free to choose how to lead their devotional lives, that they are forced to accept roles of kings and renounce renunciation by the demands of our preaching mission. I won’t go as far as to cynically claim that they took the roles of leaders because that’s what they actually wanted, to rule and control, renunciation rhetoric notwithstanding. There could be some truth in this claim but we’d rather not think of our best devotees in such an unflattering way.

If freedom of our heads is doubtful, what is the freedom of our tails, the “hoi polloi” torn between urges to eat and steal glances at our female population? None whatsoever, rhetorically speaking. It’s all just karma and illusion.

Our managers are trained to engage us according to our nature, to put right people in the right places. Where is our freedom in that? We can only voice reactions to their decision, which are actually reactions of our minds. They don’t even need to be verbal as pleasure or disagreement can be expressed perfectly by bleating, grunting, or mooing. “Oh, he doesn’t like that,” the manager can see right away and give us some other engagement.

Of course we can also take initiative and offer suggestions about what we really want and what engagements agree with our nature, but is there freedom in that? We don’t get to decide what our nature is and what feels good to our minds. Sometimes we might not be very clear about what we want but that’s not freedom, it’s just confusion caused by contradictory urges, which we still can’t control.

Even when talking to our authorities we aren’t free in our expression, we must follow the protocol and there are limits to what we can admit in public, including things we don’t admit even to ourselves. Sometimes we are truly sincere but quite often both sides know that there are certain things better left unsaid no matter the sincerity, and most of the time it’s a negotiation, meaning one hopes to get a better value out of the agreement than the other side suspects, that both sides come with hidden motives they don’t disclose on purpose so as not to be taken advantage of.

Skillful negotiators know it very well – how to find a weak spot and gain leverage, whether it’s a secret one would make big concessions to keep or whether it’s an irresistible attachment he’d give an arm and a leg to maintain. Our ISKCON managers can be master manipulators this way, too.

The easiest way to control your men is by exposing them to women. Once they are sold on the prospect of interacting with females they’d take whatever position that would keep them closer to that alien species. When they come to complain about this or that later on you can always bring “but you wanted to be here” card and remind them that their women are still attainable. They’d do anything for that hope of association and would go away with “I suppose you are right, this service is what I really want” admission of defeat.

Who thinks these poor sods have any freedom? Let THEM think that, but the bosses know better.

Devotees who are already in relationships are a lost cause in terms of seeking freedom. They must work to maintain their families and children, money is an external object to them, they must get it from someone else and that someone will always dictate what needs to be done in exchange. Our “freedom” here is only to seek a more benevolent dictator but even then our choices and abilities to approach them are limited. Regardless, family is practically a life long commitment and commitment means loss of freedom even in the conventional sense. We must work, there’s no choice.

And then there’s this self-fulfillment cause. We must find ourselves and live to our full potential. Who told us we need that? Why do we accept this mantra unchallenged? People can offer an easy explanation why self-fulfillment is necessary – “you must find yourself because..” Wait a minute, as soon as “because” gets involved you have forfeited your freedom, your actions become conditional on whatever comes after that “because”.

At the end all this self-fulfillment business comes to seeking pleasure, it just feels better to live this way, and we are pleasure seeking entities by our constitution, it’s just what we do and there’s no freedom in that. We can’t deny our nature, we’ll always seek pleasure no matter what.

And so we will act to find that pleasure in all circumstances, as men we would seek women, as women we would seek men, and there’s a much greater gradation to how we want to control the world, whether we want to build stuff, control what other people think, or destroy stuff built by someone else that yet another else decides to be illegal. Some of this is available in ISKCON, some cravings can be successfully substituted, but if one has a calling to be a butcher or a fisherman then there’s nothing we can do about that.

Spiritually speaking, that’s not who we are, those are just false identities that have taken over our lives and dictate our wants and needs. We might fulfill them, we might not, spiritually speaking it makes no difference. Self-fulfillment is a long term project, what we haven’t finished in one life will be continued in the next, and we have such a variety of desires that some of them will remain unsatisfied.

In fact, we are caught in this endless, externally imposed dissatisfaction loop as there’s a big delay between forming the desire and it bringing karmic results. Quite often we don’t even want the fulfillment anymore when our karma finally fructifies. Well, that’s because we’ve already been overwhelmed by new desires that contradict our earlier ones and this brings us pain. “That’s not what I wanted” and “I never wanted that” are our go to excuses, which are simply our short memory and pathological lying to ourselves.

The whole thing stinks to high heaven and the message from our ācāryas, from Prahlāda Mahārāja to Bhagavad Gīta to Śrīla Prabhupāda, is simple – endeavoring for happiness in the material world is unnecessary, it will come on its own just as distress comes uninvited in due time. We don’t have to make any efforts to find it, it will find us. Intelligent people take to chanting of the holy name instead because this endeavor is the most profitable in every respect. It might not always feel this way in the beginning, but neither do decades of training to achieve success in any other field. It’s always a sacrifice, for everybody, we just have to pray to the Lord that He keeps us interested, keeps us going. In my experience He always delivers.

Vanity thought #757. Choices, choices…

It’s that free will again…

Let’s talk about choices. Our life consists of choices but most of them are so obvious we don’t pause to even think about that. Most of the time we are free to implement our will, too. Like if you want to go to the toilet no one usually stops you. Is this will free, though? Do you get to choose when your bladder tells you it’s time? No.

Some choices are more difficult and pose significant dilemmas. Should I do this or should I do that? Does free will work in those situations? I mean after we accept the fact that possibilities are limited, and not by us but by external forces, are we still free to choose from this limited set or not?

Most of us feel that we are, indeed, free to choose. Some of us make a living off that illusion. Mind reading and mentalism in general thrive on this assumption about our free will. A typical example would be “name a vegetable” trick. There’s no way you can predict what vegetable that person would choose, right? Wrong.

Give them a somewhat taxing exercise, like quickly doing some simple sums, and then pose your vegetable question without giving people time to gather their wits. Asked like this, out of the blue, 90% of the time they’d choose “carrot”, you can write it on the piece of paper before hand, put it on the table, and open it at the end of the trick to the surprise of the audience.

Another example like that is “orange kangaroo in Denmark” where you ask people do some little math, make sure that in the end they get to number 4 (don’t need to ask for the answer, just prepare the formula that always ends in 4), associate that number with a letter of the alphabet, in this case D (because you already know they got 4), and ask them to think of a country that begins with that letter. Most people would think of Denmark, alternatives are pretty rare.

They would feel it was their choice but in reality it isn’t, and you can take it even further – ask them to think of an animal that begins with the last letter of that country, and most people would choose kangaroo, then ask them to think of a color that begins with the last letter of that animal, and most people would choose orange (what else?). Then you can deliver your “What nonsense, there are no orange kangaroos in Denmark!”

The underlying principles of these tricks, and they can get very complicated, is knowing how people’s minds work better than they do themselves. Theoretically, there are other countries beginning with D and there are other animals beginning with K but if you play your audience right and don’t give them a chance to undermine your suggested train of thought you’d be right more than enough to make a living out of it.

What I am driving at is that the fact that we feel we have a free choice does not equal to the fact we actually have a free choice. It’s not obvious to us but it might be very obvious to someone skilled in this “mind reading”, and there’s no one better at that than the Supersoul within our hearts.

That’s why when Krishna says He knows past, present, and future, I don’t doubt that He knows the choices we will make, too.

But what if we dismiss such tricky situations and set up a pure mind experiment? Will it show a chance of free will?

That’s a thought for another day.

Vanity thought #756. Born in the wrong place

Having nothing better to do with my life I want to explore implications of “free to choose your next body” interpretation of how free will works.

So let’s say you have lived your life and then, just before dying, you happened to see a black man and you had a crazy idea. Boom, you are born as an African-American. Apart from that you also carry all your other interests from the previous life. How would that work out?

Let’s say you diligently go through the education system and grow up as an ordinary man, just that you are not white, and, as a black man, people don’t treat you quite the same. Police are a bit more suspicious, and so are some white neighbors, and in other neighborhoods you aren’t as welcome as you’d like. “What is all this?” you wonder. “I don’t deserve any of that.”

If the freedom of choice idea is true than you are right – you didn’t deserve any of that, this baggage that comes with the color of your skin isn’t yours, but since that’s what you thought at the end of your previous life you have got to experience it now, no escape.

Some would argue that it works both ways and you can leverage “white man’s guilt” to your advantage. Maybe it would make you life easier – but you didn’t deserve that either, right?

What if you were born as a Muslim? Some people would immediately assume you are a terrorist at heart. In India some would resent your very being for all the cruel stuff your ancestors did to Hindu worshipers five-six hundred years ago. How is it your fault now, however?

My point is that I just don’t see how your next life can be totally disconnected from your current one, just on the strength of a freaky mental image that flashed through your mind at the moment of death and you liked it. Was it your free will acting up? I highly doubt it.

As we are all born into some sort of society we carry that society’s karma on our shoulders. That’s a fact of life. Buddhists don’t believe in group karma but in everyday life it’s simply undeniable. A lot of your rights and opportunities are defined by your citizenship, for example. Or by your gender, or by your race. It’s not a matter of choice and so it shouldn’t be a consequence of free will either.

Speaking of gender – what to do with all those confused individuals who cannot determine their sexuality? Are they examples of free will gone bad – after years of preparing yourself for next life in a male body you are suddenly inserted into a female one.

Is “free will” a sound explanation of how you can wind up in a body that doesn’t suit your internal perception of yourself? Could be, but most likely it’s all nonsense and you were destined to suffer from indecision – male-female, actor-accountant, brahmachari-grihastha and so on.

Many people make such choices early on but there are some who are just in a perpetual state of flux, being torn between choices about this or about that. Maybe that’s their karma – inability to decide or inability to fit somewhere, the feeling that they don’t belong.

I realize that the examples above do not necessarily follow from “free to choose your next body” and so proving them wrong does not prove that the proposition is wrong, too, but they are interesting options to explore in themselves.

As far as our free choices go, I’d like to quote this verse spoken by Narada Muni in Srimad Bhagavatam (SB 4.29.65):

Therefore, my dear King, the living entity, who has a subtle mental covering, develops all kinds of thoughts and images because of his previous body. Take this from me as certain. There is no possibility of concocting anything mentally without having perceived it in the previous body.

We don’t get to choose our previous lives, so where would the freedom to imagine things that will determine our next life come from? Narada Muni is extra persistent here – there’s no possibility of such freedom.

One could argue that even if we have only two choices the freedom to choose is still ours. Okay, that’s the next level of understanding what “freedom” means, as in “you can choose any color you like as long as it’s black.”

I’ll talk about it later.