Whose Will is it Anyway?

So we’ve chosen to let go of ego, small “s” self, and the attachments that drive us relentlessly to the pleasure and away from the pain we experience under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  And we’ve embraced the Lord of Life, the capital “S” Self of the Upanishads under the Tree of Life.  Furthermore, we did this as a free will choice.  It seemed like a good thing to do.

But who did it, if not my ego self?  And who are we, or, in fact, are we at all, once we have made that move?  These are not small questions or little fears (ego fears, admittedly).  I remember when I was in high school, early in my years as a follower of Jesus, and I read a lot of the things Paul had to say in the New Testament about “Not I, but Christ.”  It troubled me that I had been given a brain and the ability to think and to write, and then, at least as I understood it, I was being told to throw all that out the window and somehow someone else was going to live in me and witness on street corners and say embarrassing things I didn’t want to say.

And then I went to college and took a philosophy course from our college president, a Harvard trained philosopher and a true follower of Christ, and learned that in the Eastern religions a person really arrived, achieved nirvana or enlightenment, when the self was completely annihilated and merged into this formless unitive mass.  I still see the circle on the chalkboard.  OK, supposedly it was blissful, but if I didn’t exist, how would I know?  I mean, how attractive is that?

Not long after, what with the busyness and confusion of early middle age, I just let it all go pretty much numb.  But the question of if not me, than whom, continued to poke its head up and nag me every now and then.  Am I mine or am I someone else’s?  Or am I even asking the right question?

Hamlet, as it turns out, pretty much nailed it in his simple and eloquent conundrum:  “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”  Or even better, Billy Crystal’s wonderful impersonation of Sylvester Stallone doing Hamlet:  “To be, or what?”   The answer, friends, is in “being,” not in “whoing.”  The answer is in the “am” more than in the “I.”

There is a good bit of speculation that Jesus studied under spiritual masters in India, Egypt and perhaps even with the Druids of the Celtic Isles during the many years of silence.  Someday he might tell us.  Whatever, much of his behavior is consistent with this thought.  When James and John asked to be seated at his right and left hand in glory, he responded that true leaders serve and are not served.  And his final act of teaching for his followers was, as a leader, to set aside the “who” thing and engage the “be” thing of washing their feet.  He consistently rewrote his “I” as “to be.”

In the Hindu classic, The Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna adopts a similar stance.  He is not the mighty warrior.  Rather, he is the charioteer – the servant and counselor of the very human Arjuna, who is struggling over the “I” issues of the tasks that have been set before him.  There is no more profound and lucid explication than the Gita, when it comes to detachment from outcomes (the “I”) in favor of full engagement of the satisfying acts of service that represent our true nature (the “be”).  This is rich and joy filled reading.

Gerald May, the late psychiatrist and author who founded the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, in his profound book, Will and Spirit, asserts that we find meaning in life when we abandon “willfulness” (the “I” stance) in favor of “willingness” (the “be” stance).

And if there remains any doubt, in the clearest identifying statement of the Biblical narrative, God declares to Moses (Ex 3:14, NRSV), “I AM WHO I AM . . . . Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”  God/Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source is not “who.”  GCSMS “is.”

So whose will is it anyway?  The answer is to detach from the struggle of the question and TO BE, in action, who we ARE, created in the image of God.  We are not “Who (ego).”  We “are (Self).”  Our true nature and satisfaction is to act, to serve, to be accordingly, with every cell and atom of our creation.

Today’s scripture, from the Gospel of John Lennon:


Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

© Two Trees in the Garden.  All rights reserved.

The Way Between the Trees

It’s a nice idea, the thought of letting go of addiction to pleasure and aversion to pain, the thought of moving away from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and moving on to our true gift and home in the Tree of Life.  But how do we accomplish that?

We accomplish this by practicing, practicing and practicing some more letting go of our judgments and reactions to people, things and events around us and replacing these reactions with deep understanding and compassionate service.  History  and the great traditions provide us with vivid and powerful examples, examples worth emulating.

In 3073 BCE, the Hindu author of the Srimad Bhagavatam wrote about Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu:

Whenever truth is forgotten in the world, and wickedness prevails, the Lord of Love becomes flesh to show the way, the truth and the life to humanity.  Such an incarnation is an avatar, an embodiment of God on Earth.

Some three millennia later, Jesus is quoted as saying (John 14: 6-7, NRSV):

I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father also.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.

These are not competing, but rather mutually affirming statements.  The point of both of these writings, one from over 5,000 years ago and one over 2,000 years ago, is that incarnations have always happened to demonstrate the way forward, the way between the trees, the way to true life.

What is an incarnation, an avatar?  It is someone in the image of God, God in the image of someone.  And if what our Hindu author says is true, you can bet there were not just two.  In fact, when would that be, when “truth is forgotten in the world, and wickedness prevails”?  Or more accurately, when would that not be?

You, my friend, were created in the image of God.  When you choose the path of a good and strong guide, when you practice letting go of ego and attachment, when you practice compassionate service of others, you, too, become the way, the truth and the life.  You are that exemplar of the path.

And don’t get lost in the divinity trap.  Was Krishna divine?  Was Jesus divine?  Yes, yes!  And you were born with that same Buddha nature – created in the image of God.  There is neither pride nor shame.  And worship of them in our traditional sense is foolishness.  True worship is to follow, to practice, to become, to be the way, the truth and the life for the next person, created like you in the image of God, just behind you on the path.

From the Mundaka Upanishad, Part III [1]:

1Like two golden birds perched on the selfsame tree, intimate friends, the ego and the Self dwell in the same body.  The former eats the sweet and sour fruits of the tree of life (read here “knowledge of good and evil”) while the latter looks on in detachment.

2As long as we think we are the ego, we feel attached and fall into sorrow.  But realize that you are the Self, the Lord of life, and you will be freed from sorrow.

3When you realize that you are the Self, supreme source of light, supreme source of love, you transcend the duality of life and enter into the unitive state.

4The Lord of Love shines in the hearts of all.  Seeing him in all creatures, the wise forget themselves in the service of all.  The Lord is their joy, the Lord is their rest; such as they are the lovers of the Lord.

The Upanishads, Introduced and Translated by Eknath Easwaran, 1987, 2007, The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation

© Two Trees in the Garden, all rights reserved.

A Different Free Will Choice

Classical Christianity presents the basic free will choice in life to be acceptance or rejection of the salvific act of the death of Jesus.  With acceptance comes redemption from original sin and admission to the resurrection and life everlasting.  Rejection leaves us on a road to eternal damnation.

But the two tree metaphor of the Garden of Eden offers a different possibility.  Remember that in this view, the first tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, no longer represents the universal fall of humanity, but rather a simple metaphorical descriptor of our natural coming of age.  The bite from the apple symbolizes the essence of our maturation, our discovery and awareness of our individuated self – our ego. 

We become aware that we are in some way separate from and have power over others and our environment.  Initially this awareness feels pretty good.  We can exercise it to strengthen our relative position in life.  Having more, comparatively, than another, we feel safe and secure.  Somewhere deep inside, in fact, we think we might truly, with material enhancement, just continually better our lot in life.  Seems like a good path to follow.

But somehow an additional awareness comes with that bite, the awareness of our mortality – and it scares us all the way to delusion.  In fact in the legend of the Buddha’s life, his father was so afraid of mortality that he tried to protect his child prince from any possible exposure to old age, sickness and decay.  Inevitably, however, accidental exposure finally created the crisis that set Siddhartha on his quest for the answer to suffering, which culminated in his awakening or enlightenment.

We remain inclined, however, to hold to the material road.  We believe that enough wealth and power will conquer not only our discomfort and our fear, but ultimately death itself.  It seems such a silly and obvious illusion, but look at history.  Look at the world around you.  Look at yourself.

In fact the Jesus sacrifice idea just seals the deal.  I can have my cake and eat it, too.  As long as I am marked by my faith in the redemptive Blood of the Lamb, that death thing is taken care of.  So the obvious course is to stay attached to the comfort path for now, and just let Jesus know – you know – you are so grateful he died for you.  Sometimes I imagine 75,000 Christians in a packed stadium.  It’s halftime at the Super Bowl and the ultimate show is Jesus headed for the cross on the fifty yard line while the ecstatic and screaming crowd rises to its feet and starts the perfect wave.

Not even Jesus believed this stuff.  He makes it clear in Matthew 7:23, “I never knew you.”  His call was the same as the Buddha’s, the same as all avatars and true saints in all times and places.  It was the call to grow up and, in essence, to choose the Tree of Life, to let go of attachment to the illusion of separation and the false security of power and wealth.  It was a call to claim the original truth of creation:  You already live forever.  This is just a growing phase.  Engage it and learn.  Meet the distractions. And then know and trust that you are created in the image of God.  You breathe the breath of God.  Your true spirit is one with Love.  Flow gently through your life, with compassion and joy, free from attraction and aversion, free from the illusion of avoidance and the very fear of death.

Whew!  Time for a scripture break!  Lawrence Ferlinghetti, beat poet of the late 50’s and early 60’s:

Christ Climbed Down

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck crèches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
in a Volkswagen sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody’s imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carolers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings

from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind published 2008 by New Directions

© Two Trees in the Garden

Free Will and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

You know, I think the name is truly apt:  The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.   This tree in the garden was not itself good and evil; it was about knowing, becoming aware, feeling, sensing and distinguishing.  And what is the natural response to awareness?  It is, of course, just that – response.  The bite from the proverbial apple was no big deal.  The real event was our response to the flood of awareness that came with that taste:

  • I am a distinct individual.  Oh my God, I have to protect myself from extinction.
  • That feels good.  Oh my God, I want some more.
  • That hurts.  Oh my God, I want to avoid that at all costs.
  • I have no clothes.  Oh my God, how embarrassing.
  • There is only so much of that.  Oh my God, I need to hoard it.
  • I have power.  Oh my God, I have to control someone with it before they control me.
  • I am good.  Oh my God, I can never be good enough.
  • I am bad.  Oh my God, I must be horrible.
  • I am afraid!  Oh my God, I don’t want you to know because I’ll look weak!
  • Oh my God!

Becoming aware of me, the natural response was to think it was all about me.  I am autonomous.  True.  In my embodied state, I have a certain temporal sense of individuation.  Does that mean I am isolated?  Well, I can certainly choose to see it that way.  And therein lies the real issue:  the power to choose, or free will.

Our Creator made us aware.  And our Creator made us capable of response.  So where and how does free will kick in?  The traditional second millennial Christian view would say that we played our card – and make no mistake, the traditional view holds that the woman started it – we played our free will card in a defining way when we took the bite from the apple.  It was all over.  We chose to be fallen, and every baby born since that bite is a fallen human being, born of the sin of Adam and Eve.  And unless they make the free will choice to accept the redemptive blood of Jesus, they remain stuck in that fallen state and, sadly, bound for hell.

But I see it differently.  Free will is our Creator-bestowed power to choose, now and every day, our own response to the knowledge of good and evil that came with our Creator’s gift of human awareness.  Will we respond to all that comes to us in life from a separated, ego-centered perspective, or rather from a Spirit-connected, relationship-oriented place of generous and expansive trust?  On a daily basis, will we choose to be isolated in ego or to be bound together in love?

Fortunately, while the whole Adam and Eve saga was unfolding, the Creator was also talking on the other side of the world, unbeknownst to the authors of the Biblical text, about the concepts of attraction, aversion and attachment.  These concepts, originating in Buddhist writings, presented a different possible free will response to the knowledge of good and evil.

In this context, the knowledge of good and evil was granted, but things went a step further.  Somehow in the enlightenment of the Buddha, there came an awareness that our slavery was not to our inherent fallen nature, but rather to our own choice – to our everyday free will choice – to follow, to become attached to our attraction to desires and our aversion to pain and suffering.  We allowed ourselves to become slaves of our sensations in an effort to please and, we thought, protect our individuated selves, at any cost to ourselves and to those around us.

If you haven’t noticed, East and West begin to come together in this picture.  Ah, beware the heresy of syncretism!  Yes, yes, let’s let the blind ones describe the elephant at all costs.

But back to free will and the problem of attachment to attraction and aversion.  Somehow, like Adam and Eve, we do not see the lie and the separation in this choice of attachment.  Well what to do, what to do?  There is an answer, a free will answer, but it’s different than the one of at least second millennial Christianity.  Check back next week.

© Two Trees in the Garden