For the longest time, I have been witness to a debate in my head over which of the two is stronger, Fate or Freewill.
It all began very early in my teens when after a particularly difficult spate of misfortune, I often heard elders tell me to “grin and bear it” because it was my “karma” or destiny. This advice, although wise and well meant, was not very helpful. God had not yet granted me the serenity to accept the things I couldn’t change.
Moreover, the belief that somehow there is inevitability in situations on account of deeds from past lives, was very defeating. I call this “fatalism”. Growing up and looking into the faces of long suffering people around me, I fought the hopelessness in their eyes. The law of Karma seemed like an escape for the weak minded.
At first, I believed this was an Eastern approach to life, then learned later that accepting suffering as a punishment for one’s “sins” is not new to people on this side of the planet either. The language may be different, the sentiment, the same: embracing suffering stoically for a God who wanted you to bear it.
In any case, my own struggles with fatalism took a new turn when a friend gifted me Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. The author’s theory of Objectivity and the role of the human intellect fired me up. It was all about the indomitable human will that could change anything it set its mind to and upon reading the book, I believed I could and should take on the world.
Faced with two opposing ideas, one that believed everything must be accepted and another that believed everything must be challenged, I looked for a way to unite Fate and Freewill, that were now at battle in my head. Finally, a simple quote by none other than the great Master Ramana Maharishi brought about a reconciliation and relief. His teaching was simple: “Fate is what occurs to you; Freewill is what you do with it”.
Viewed from this perspective, acceptance of one’s fate simply meant an admittance of what had already happened. Acceptance ends denial and resistance to what is, leaving one thereby free to go ahead and do whatever one chooses as a response to what has occurred.
This made sense to me and all was well. But that was many years ago. As life has unfolded, however, and dealt me more difficult challenges, I have realized that this wisdom while being simple, is not always easy.
For most of us, our experience of identity comes from our outcomes. As a student, my grades validated me, as a mother my children validate me, as a teacher, the size of my classes validate me, and so on. Our sense of wellbeing is sustained by success and non-successes spin the mind out of its comfort zone. We keep asking and analyzing why and why not, continuing to ruminate on our perceived failures as if such rumination could magically change reality.
When Fate leaves us with an undesired outcome, Freewill struggles to make it go away, keeping our life cycling around the past. Until we move completely outside the circle of past events, accepting them and not using them as reference points, we still hand fate its victory.
Freewill then, is not all that free because human beings, attached to a certain identity, fear failure and hang on to desired outcomes to validate that limited identity. Unless we trust failure and see it as an invitation to see ourselves in new ways, we cannot get out of this cycle.
Pema Chodron, the great Buddhist teacher puts it beautifully when she says “ Karma is your life giving you all that you need to learn to open up further.” Seen this way, Karma or Fate is a doorway to freeing your will, not imprisoning it. It is not a life sentence but a life opportunity.
The Bhagavad Gita, wisdom teachings of Hinduism, tells us that embodying this wisdom is a process that takes practice through a discipline called Karma Yoga. This is a practice of doing everything as best as we can, remaining unattached to the outcome and dedicating our efforts to the Divine Mystery.
Doing this regularly and training ourselves to remain open through all outcomes brings about deep shifts in how we view our cause-effect paradigms and also in how we see ourselves.
In the last few years of running my studio, I have tried to practice this teaching, regularly venturing out with new ideas and allowing the perception of defeat and failure to drop away. I attempt to maintain an attitude of openness and surrender although it has not always been easy or successful. What I have found through many interesting bends and twists along the road, is that beyond Fate and Freewill, there is a third, which I like to call Divine Will, which operates in mysterious ways within a realm of infinite possibilities. As I let go, things unfold revealing the bigger picture, a plan beyond my limited mind and interventions in unexpected ways. The greater my openness and flexibility, the greater the surprises.
Practicing Karma Yoga or the Yoga-of-Action-Without-Attachment truly opens us and our world up to living, seeing and being with wonder and new-ness. Letting go is not giving up, it is a choice to trust the flow of life. Serenity to accept what one cannot control is surrender, not in defeat or resignation to a God who wants us to embrace suffering stoically, but in faith of the unknown possibilities in life. Doing your part and allowing things to unfold as they may, is not fatalism but an active choice that recognizes we are co-creators of our world and invites the participation of the Universe. In God or Divine Will, as they say, anything is possible.