Shining World

Free Will and The Isvara Metaprogram

Sue:  Do we have free will or not?  I find the idea that we do not highly distressing.  It seems to make everything seem so pointless. Why should we do anything if everything is preordained? What’s the point? Even seeking moksa seems like just another futile pursuit. You and James often point out that moksa happens by the grace of Isvara, and grace is earned. But how can that be true if it’s all predetermined, how can you earn anything, or be guilty of anything for that matter, if it’s all up to Isvara?

Sundari: This is an important question; one we get asked often and have replied to often. The question presupposes a black and white answer, and that is not possible. The whole concept of free will is in duality, mithya, that which is always changing and only apparently real. In mithya it’s all shades of grey. However, though the truth seems paradoxical, it is only a seeming paradox once we investigate it from the point of view of the Self. Nonetheless the answer is complex, so I have given you the (very) long one! Make sure you read the whole satsang and take time inquiring into it because it basically covers the essence of the whole Vedanta teaching. If freedom from limitation is what you are after, then answering the free will question is fundamental to self-inquiry and the key to moksa because it cuts to the heart of it all: Who is the doer, the one who desperately wants free will, and why is it so important?

The ability to disidentify with the doer and surrender free will to Isvara, the Field of Existence, is called moksa, freedom from the doer, the limited identity. But to get to that requires certain qualifications, a deep commitment to self-inquiry, a qualified Vedanta teacher to guide your inquiry, and yes indeed, the grace of Isvara. If as an inquirer there is still a lingering identification with being a person it can seem pointless doing anything, even self-inquiry, once you start to understand that we are all just programs subjugated to the Macrocosmic impersonal meta-program: Isvara. Why bother?

Hence self-inquiry is the process by which we investigate our true identity to develop the ability to discriminate between that which is real, the Self, satya, from that which is apparently real, the jiva/mithya. As you probably know, satya is defined as that which is always present and unchanging, and mithya, as that which is not always present and always changing. To do this we must deconstruct what or who we think the person is in light of the teachings of Vedanta which reveal how the person is conditioned by duality (ignorance) and how it relates to its environment, Isvara or the Field. This is no easy task as ignorance is hardwired and Self-knowledge is extremely subtle, which is why one must be qualified for self-inquiry to bear fruit. The qualifications are described in detail in Essence of Enlightenment as well as in many satsangs on our Shiningworld website.

Perhaps the hardest thing to understand is that even though the apparent reality is a meta-construct set up by Isvara, one great big apparition, it has a unique status. It is neither real nor unreal. We cannot say the world does not exist because you can experience it. The question is, who is the experiencer and what is it experiencing? If the Self is non-dual, it cannot experience anything because to do so would mean there is something for it to experience other than itself, which is impossible. There is nothing outside the Self and everything appearing in it is an object known to it, which includes the jiva or person.

All objects owe their existence to Consciousness, and therefore, are conscious by virtue of Consciousness.  So, we can conclude that the jiva is the experiencing entity thanks to the presence of Consciousness.  What is the jiva experiencing? Well, that depends on who you think you are. As this is a nondual reality and duality is merely a superimposition on to nonduality, it must be that all anyone is ever experiencing is Consciousness, our own true nature.  But because the apparent reality is a product of Maya, which the power in Consciousness to apparently limit itself (note: apparently), those under the spell of Maya are identified with the instrument of experience, thebody/mind, instead of the knower of the instrument, the Self. Thus the need for control.

In the apparent reality, Isvara, the creator of the Field, runs the show. But not in the sense we think of it from the human perspective.  Isvara is not a person, or a benevolent or malevolent force doling out retribution or reward for good or bad behaviour. The Field runs on natural impersonal laws or dharmas. It must, to function at all. From this perspective, the needs of the individual are not relevant other than how they relate to the total.

One of these laws is the law of karma which states that all actions have consequences, and we are not in control of those consequences. Another important law is the law of dharma, right action, on the universal and personal level. The universal level are dharmas or laws that apply to everyone. The personal level are the dharmas that govern our personal world. The law of dharma states that we must respond appropriately to what life asks of us on both levels or we suffer. All the natural laws or dharmas are predicated by how the gunas, the three forces that create the Field, sattva, rajas and tamas, play out. The only way to manage these three forces is through knowledge of them, knowledge of universal and personal dharma as well as the practice of karma yoga, the surrender of personal will to Isvara.  

Even though from the big picture point of view everything is preordained, it is still true that grace is earned, that too is a natural law. It is the law of attraction. Isvara is Consciousness wielding Maya so has nondual vision, is unaffected by the gunas (duality) and sees everything as perfect. But thanks to the law of attraction operating in the Field, the jiva can maximize getting what it wants when it understands the law of karma and dharma. As you sow, so shall you reap. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, that kind of thing. Isvara has no choice but to respond to us in like kind because Isvara is the Self and so are we. We can manage the gunas to maximize sattva and attract grace.

But if we have no way to understand reality from outside the box of duality, we suffer because we do not understand the identity between Isvara and us as an individual. The reason the jiva can make a change in the Causal body, or Isvara, is that their common identity is the Self, Consciousness. How this process works is explained at the end of this satsang, where I unfold in more depth the teaching on the similarities and differences between Isvara, what we call ‘System 1’, the Causal body (also called the Total Mind or Macrocosmic Unconscious), and the individual, the jiva or personal unconscious mind (the Subtle body).

Thanks to the power of Maya, the hypnosis of duality, the thorny question of free will has plagued humans since time immemorial. The feeling of agency, which is the freedom to choose and have impact, of being in control, is central to our sense of self. If this is absent it is deeply problematic for most people. Yet ironically it is the need for control that keeps us tied to the small, limited, suffering doer self. Nobody is to blame for this. We are born doers, hard wired to control everything, and we never stop doing, from womb to tomb.  The problem is not doing but identification with the doer and its insistence on getting what it wants that cause suffering. If we are not identified with the doer, the issue of free will is moot because there is no separation between us and the Field.  We know that the Field is a reflection of us and are not deluded by duality. We are what we want.

Lately the free will question is driven by advances in neuroscience. Since the 1980s onwards, neuroscientific research made it possible to observe the physical brain activity associated with our decisions. Neuroimaging offers a clear-cut case pointing to our so-called free choices originating in our brains several milliseconds (sometimes longer) before we’re aware of making them. So how free can they be? These proofs have made it easier to think of our decisions as just another part of the mechanics of the material universe, in which “free will” plays no role. While many scientists believe that this means life is purely random and nothing is controlling our choices, Vedanta disagrees. Read on.

The issue of free will is such an explosive topic it engenders heated emotional responses in some people, to the extent that some philosophers and scientists who post research on it receive hate mail, even death threats. For these distraught souls, the idea that they have no control, nothing does, and there is no meaning to anything is an existential catastrophe. The worst news ever. Yet the difficulty in explaining the enigma of free will isn’t that it’s complex or obscure. It is actually something that is known to everyone even if only unconsciously.

If one thinks about life rationally and objectively, it is obvious that no one is in control of outcome or of the objects of desire. The Field of Existence is so complex, so many factors must be present for anything to happen, nobody has knowledge of all the factors involved in even the smallest event that happens or decision we make. Yet it is mostly denied or simply conveniently ignored. And contrary to what the scientists say, it is also obvious that the Field is intelligent and conscious. If you say that this is not obvious, then how do you account for your intelligence? Therefore, through inference, which is a valid means of knowledge, we can rightly deduce that there must be an intelligent cause behind the creation because we are intelligent, and the Field is intelligently designed.  Only this cause, what we call Isvara, has complete knowledge of and is in control of all the factors in the Field.

However, the need for control, the feeling that we are the authors of our choices, is so fundamental to everyone’s existence that most people do not have enough objectivity to accept this as a fact of life. Even in simple things, like choosing a banana over an apple, it seems absolutely obvious that you were free to choose the apple or the banana, both, or neither. Nothing could be more self-evident, right? But is it?

Lately the chorus of philosophers and scientists who say free will can’t be possible is growing (up to 80% by some accounts). “This sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics,” says one of the most strident of the free will sceptics, the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne. Leading psychologists such as Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom agree, as apparently did the late Stephen Hawking, along with numerous prominent neuroscientists, including VS Ramachandran, the famous Indian mathematician, who called free will “an inherently flawed and incoherent concept”. According to the intellectual Yuval Noah Harari, free will is an anachronistic myth. Useful in the past, perhaps, as a way of motivating people to fight against tyrants or oppressive ideologies but rendered obsolete by the power of modern science.

But if we look over the precipice of the free will debate with the eyes of someone who believes this world is real, we begin to appreciate how an already psychologically vulnerable person might be nudged over the edge into despair and hopelessness. The conviction that nobody ever truly chooses freely to do anything, that we’re the puppets of forces beyond our control, strikes many as cold and frightening, inexorably life-negating. 

By far the most disturbing implication of the case against free will is what it says about morality: that nobody is responsible for their actions, neither in terms of punishment nor, reward. From this standpoint, it seems nobody is culpable or deserving of either good or bad karma. The problem with this thinking is that the individual, whether an ordinary person, philosopher, psychologist, or scientist, taking this world to be real does not understand the laws of karma and dharma.  The laws of karma and dharma are built in, as explained. Unless you are a psychopath or otherwise mentally deranged, you will feel bad if you break dharma. Isvara has wired this into the meta-program, or we would have destroyed ourselves a long time ago. What everyone wants is peace of mind, to be happy. And they seek that above all else, in whatever way possible. Because this is a lawful universe run by certain natural laws which are transgressed at our peril, it also makes it possible to succeed.

A lack of understanding of dharma and karma often means we do not act appropriately. I.e., our fears and desires cause us to make ‘free will’ choices that break dharma, whether personal or universal, so we suffer. Therefore, on the morality issue, while no one is to blame for the way they are made, this does not inoculate us against existential suffering or excuse us from the consequences of our choices. There is no escape from the laws of karma and dharma. To be free of suffering requires that we understand the laws of right action and act dharmically because the highest value for everyone is non-injury.

It is true, humans are run by the unconscious or conscious vasana programs, most of which they are born with or develop according to the karma into which they are born. Nobody makes themselves the way they are or chooses their life circumstances from birth. While many are familiar with the idea of a collective and even the individual unconscious, there is no way to understand this fully without Self-knowledge, Vedanta, the science of the non-dual Consciousness. All means of knowledge available to worldly people are restricted to the apparent reality and therefore limited. Only a means of knowledge that can step out of the meta-program can explain it objectively.

Modern psychology is helpful in understanding our unconscious desires up to a point. But it falls short because it has no knowledge of karma yoga, no knowledge of the gunas that make up the Field and no knowledge of Isvara, which is another name for the Field itself. The guna-vasana-karma chain is beginningless and eternal. Individuals come and go, though the Jiva as a principle is eternal. Did the chicken or the egg come first? The chicken idea is eternal, and the egg idea is eternal. They are out of time. There is no ‘first.’ Neither came first because from the standpoint of the cause (past karma) it is an effect and from the standpoint of the effect (future karma) it is a cause. It is an appearance generated by Maya. Before creation manifests there was karma and after creation manifests there is karma. If you try to figure it out, you will be stymied because the cause and the effect are one. 

The same logic applies to fate and free will. Because of fate free will works and because of free will fate works. It is the same with every duality. Cause and effect, fate and free will, likes and dislikes, body/mind are all mithya—that which is not always present and always changing—apparently real. Cause and effect are mutually dependent concepts. Each influences the other. It is also inexplicable from the point of view of the person because the minute you understand it, it becomes something else. 

When we are under the spell of duality, we do not see that what we take to be real is just a chimera, a mirage. It is considered normal, just life! When we have no means of knowledge to discriminate between duality and nonduality, we do not know that the delusion of duality is the cause of all suffering. Duality traps us inside a very small box and we cannot see outside of it. It is like the metaphor of the fish who does not know what water is because it has never been out of the water or has any way of objectifying what it is always experiencing: water.

The answer in response to your question, ‘Is there or is there not, free will’, depends on one main factor: Who is asking the question? Are you the Self, the unlimited, ever-present, unchanging, and non-experiencing witness, or are you the small, limited ever-changing jiva, the experiencing entity? As a jiva, although it appears as if you are making independent moves and playing the game to win or lose, in actual fact, all moves are already pre-determined. The Field of Existence, also called the dharmafield, is just like a computer game. You can only make the moves, the choices, that are already programmed into Isvara’s meta-computer game.  

Isvara or the dharmafield created the game and is playing it, which is why karma yoga is such an important teaching and the only way to negate the doer.  Karma yoga is the most sensible way to live because it relieves the pressure of getting the ‘right’ result, or any particular result for that matter, because you understand that Isvara, the controller of the Field, gives you the results that are best for you at any given time, whether you like them or not. On the meta-level there is no chooser because the apparent reality is not real. But for the jiva, the answer to whether we do or do not have free will is not an either/or. It is a both/and.

On the personal level, you have limited free will in that you are seemingly free to choose one thing over another, according to your nature or conditioning.  From this perspective, free will gives the person the choice to ‘make the best’ of their lives. Even though the scientist will argue that our good or bad responses to life are tendencies that are also programmed, we do have free will to respond to what Isvara dishes out. How we respond either creates distress and agitation—unpleasant circumstances/karma, or acceptance and peace—pleasant circumstances/karma. In the end, does it matter if we do or do not have free will if peace of mind is the main aim? Who wants to live a life of misery and mental agitation caused by breaking dharma?

It is true we don’t have as much control as we think we have or want to have, but we have a certain degree of free will.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. There would be no spiritual, social, or economic progress possible, no civilization since there would be no reason for it, no possibility of success at anything. We have an inborn nature or programmed predisposition, our svardharma, which means we can work towards our goals, plan, and make choices. We gravitate towards and can choose to live a certain way that is right for us. If we understand the laws that run the dharmafield it is possible to achieve success from the standpoint of the jiva.  If that were not the case, success in anything, particularly freedom from the apparent reality, would never be possible.  If we take the appropriate action at the appropriate time, desired results are often, but not always, achieved. There are no guarantees in the apparent reality because Isvara takes care of the needs of the Total first.

The problem is that although most people’s choices seem to be volitional and individual, they are usually highly predictable and repetitive, thanks to the nature of the gunas. This is because most people, who have none, or very limited Self-knowledge behave like automatons although they don’t think they do.  They think that they are in charge and doing the choosing though their conditioning (vasana’s/gunas) is doing the choosing.

People often ask us: Is free will the cause of karma or is it the gunas?  Well, again, it’s a both/and not either/or. The gunas govern and colour the vasanas which create karma and vasanas/karma reinforce the gunas in an endless cycle.  To understand free will from the point of view of the Self, we first must understand that the gunas, vasanas and karma are three ways of saying the same thing, because nothing in mithya, the apparent reality, can be separated from the gunas.  

Everything that happens does so by virtue of the gunas. The gunas give rise to the jiva, the vasanas and their results (karma). Everything that happens is a vasana and, everything that happens is karma. Just like the gunas, all vasanas/karma are eternal and exist as principles in the Causal Body. They arise from the three gunas namely, sattva (the energy of peace, clarity, intelligence), rajas (the energy of action, passion and desire), and tamas (the energy of dullness, fear and sleep) which are what make up Maya—the dharmafield, or creation.  There are no new vasanas or karma. Just the same old programs recycled ad infinitum by the three gunas.  And the metaprogram in which the guna programs cycle is called Isvara, The Causal Body.

As the Self you may have negated the doer and rendered binding vasanas non-binding, and if you have, your likes and dislikes will be preferences, not commands. And they will be in alignment with dharma. But if we have Self-knowledge, or even if we are just a mature secular person with good values and always follow dharma, there is no guarantee of outcome. The difference between someone who knows they are the Self and someone who doesn’t is that they are fine with whatever result they get.

If you know you are the Self, you are not bothered with free will or outcome because you know not only that Isvara runs the show but more importantly, the show is not real. When Self-knowledge has removed ignorance and you know that your true nature is whole and complete non-dual Consciousness, there is no karma for you. There is nothing to gain or lose, there are no bad outcomes. Just outcomes.

As the Self, samsara, the hypnosis of duality, no longer exists in ‘your’ mind. You automatically see everything from the perspective of the nondual Self, as non-different from you. What is there to choose?  It is all you, the Self, and it is all good.  You unfailing respond appropriately to all situations so you never create unpleasant circumstances. You take everything as prasad, even if unpleasant circumstances present themselves.  You see it all like the movie it is, and nothing touches you. Even though Self-knowledge is not a magic bullet for the ego, which must still transact with this world, it is none the less seen as an object known to you.

As stated above but bears repeating, free will depends on who you take yourself to be. From the point of view of Consciousness, free will is non-existent. From the point of view of the Creator, Isvara/Maya, free will is non-existent because the Creator is not an individual entity.  From the point of all sentient beings, free will is on a sliding scale from almost zero to almost infinity. From the purely human point of view, if there is even a little free will there is a lot.  From the point of view of insentient matter, there is no free will. Where an individual falls on that scale, depends to a very large degree on his or her view of free will itself.  Vedanta says that there is free will if you think there is and there isn’t if you don’t.  People either deny free will exists or defend its existence tooth and nail. 

Most people think they have more than they do and misuse it with reference to their intentions by failing to help themselves when they can. Others manage it judiciously to create dynamic, interesting lives.  Some use it for good and some for evil.  Some see its upside some its downside and others see both.  Inquirers use it to understand the factor (Consciousness) that is beyond the human mind. Fate defines free will and free will defines fate.  Free will is definitely a dualistic mental concept with significant emotional ramifications and is only useful depending on what you want to do with your life. 

All the same, do you want to go limp and leave everything to fate or take the bull by the horns and transform your life? Self-inquiry is about transforming the jiva’s life, not the jiva necessarily, although that does happen by default. After all, moksa is for the jiva because as the Self you have always been and will always be free. What use is Self-knowledge if the jiva is still stuck in its limited identity and unsatisfactory suffering life? The benefits of self-inquiry don’t just ‘happen’. 

We need a burning desire for liberation and the presence of that desire is itself, the grace of Isvara. Vedanta comes to you when you are ready. But if we do not apply the nondual teachings of Vedanta to our life, self-inquiry does not bear fruit. Vedanta just provides a framework, a human toolbox as it were, that gives us nondual vision and allows us to manage the mind. It is up to us to use the toolbox. Isvara does not mind one way or the other and will provide the results either way because Isvara is not deluded about who we are.

The most important point regarding free will is that if you’re completely satisfied with your life, free will is irrelevant, for reasons stated above. But if you’re not satisfied with your life, you can do more than to complain about it.  You can change your karma to the degree that it is changeable, and you can change your attitude toward it if your attitude causes problems. Karma yoga, of course, is always the key.

I have posted a satsang on karma yoga recently and have shortened it here with reference to the question of free will, which is, of course, the desire to control outcome. The reason karma yoga is not easy is that it is a tool to disarm the spoilt childish ego, which wants what it wants when it wants it. The one who demands the right to individuality, that claims to have free will, who wants ownership and does not like to relinquish the idea of control.

However, why should we not want to have control over our experiences? Does it not seem natural that we want to have our desires fulfilled? Yes, it is human nature. But it is not good news for most because why would you want to give up control if you believe that exercising free will, getting what you want, equals happiness? The problem is it should be obvious that not only does getting what you want not equal happiness, wanting to control the outcome is about as nonsensical as wanting to control the weather. Why not be satisfied with the way things are, or just let the future unfold as it will and experience it as it does? If only it were so easy, life would be a whole lot less painful.

Being human, knowledge is power. The main reason our brains insist on trying to control the future to get what we want is that our brains find it gratifying to exercise doing so. Not just for the future or the result it seems to buy us, but for the exercise itself. Knowing the inside track, being effective, having a sense of agency to change or influence things, or ‘to make things happen’, is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed.  To give up our desires or not think about the future requires that we convince our frontal lobe, the part of our brain wired to plan and control, not to do what it was designed to do, and it naturally resists this suggestion.  Desires in the form of mental simulations of the future arrive in our consciousness regularly and unbidden, occupying every corner of our mental lives. Desire is intricately linked to time and control for the express purpose of gaining something we do not currently have.  Much of our behaviour from infancy onward is simply an expression of this desire for control. Most of us steadfastly believe our desires will prevail and fortune will favour us. And if we are blessed, it does, and we get what we want.

What is not obvious to us is that we try to control the outcome because fantasizing about the future can be more pleasurable than acutely living it. Reality seldom matches our expectations. Getting what we want does not make us happy for long because the problem is wanting itself. A fulfilled desire rarely returns the energy required to fulfill it, and the desire soon returns. And even less acknowledged is the reason we do feel good when a desire is met is that it is not about gaining or avoiding the object itself, but the removal of the pressure of desire, which is painful.

The truth is, no matter how hard we try to mine reality for more of anything, be it security or pleasure, it can only give us the basic pleasure and security of existence, no more. It’s true that a successful life is preferable to a miserable one.  But though we may think we experience more pleasure and excitement during high moments when we get what we want or avoid what we don’t want, actually, our pleasure level remains the same no matter our circumstances. In philosophy, this is called the hedonic treadmill. Whatever circumstances befall us, positive or negative, we tend to return to a pleasure/pain setpoint in a short period of time.  Life is a zero-sum.

For most people, the concept of zero-sum is about as unappealing as anything gets. It’s a very bad thing, destroying hope and nullifying goals. What they fail to see is the freedom zero-sum offers.  From the purely dualistic perspective, the good news is that you win as much as you lose, so why worry about anything? From the Self’s perspective, the great news is that nothing ultimately affects you. You are free of karma. There is nothing to gain or lose because we are already complete. Our good or bad karma only affects us if we are identified with the jiva. Sounds like a great deal to me!

Sadly, most people are identified with the body/mind under the spell of duality and cannot conceive of happiness being available any other way than chasing objects to complete them. To them, zero-sum sounds like never getting what you want. Taking that possibility away from them seems to negate the very reason for living. For these people, the feeling of being in control is seemingly so rewarding because life is so unpredictable. It promises to give them the edge over life, a false sense of security. 

Perhaps the strangest thing about this illusion of control is not that it happens but that it seems to confer many of the psychological benefits of genuine control. Much research done by cognitive scientists concludes that the feeling of control—whether real or illusory—is one of the wellsprings of mental health. For most, losing their faith in free will and ability to control things makes them feel unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed, and occasionally, dead. Many suicides are the result of this feeling of utter hopelessness, as are many illnesses. 

To examine free will in relation to the factor beyond the human mind, your true nature as Consciousness requires inquiring into the Isvara – jiva relationship. So, to answer your question on free will, consider this. If this is a nondual reality, which we know it is, then my true nature is pure Consciousness/the Self. The person (jiva) or doer is a reflection of me but not my true Self, just like my reflection in a mirror is me but not me. How can I be a doer? Does free will even matter at all?

Isvara as a reflection of Consciousness created a meta-program (world of objects/fish in the ocean/water) for the jiva to work out its karma. Within this meta program are sub-programs. There are no choices outside this meta program because there is nothing outside the program—i.e., it is not real. This world exists as a thought in Consciousness, in me. Within the meta program choice seems to be one of many sub-programs. But although the jiva as reflected Consciousness seems to make choices, the choice making ability must be a program within the matrix of programs Isvara created.

Therefore, on the one hand, yes, I do make choices when I identify with the jiva and on the other hand, I don’t because they are all within Isvara’s programming matrix. Also, within Isvara’s programming is the program that pushes me towards Consciousness as freedom, the desire to know my true Self while seemingly incarnated. Therefore, freedom is outside the matrix as witnessing Consciousness. But accurately, the jiva is also me even though it is reflected consciousness, but I am not the jiva. Thus, all is Consciousness. Me.

Conclusion: Isvara in the role of creator arose from Consciousness as an expression of it and from Isvara arose the world including the jiva. Consciousness = Isvara. Isvara = world/jiva. Then I as jiva & all objects = reflected consciousness. Removing all objects, including Isvara, leaves just me, Consciousness. So, humanity’s essential nature is the same regardless of whether we identify as Consciousness, or not.  I am not a doer and am a doer.  I have free will and I don’t. Isvara is running the programs, not the jiva. I have never had nor has anyone ever had an original thought/fear/desire. My program to choose the objects of the world or freedom from them is available only as reflected Consciousness. Real freedom is stepping outside the box/matrix in identification with my true Self.

Free Will and the Isvara – Jiva Relationship

You may have heard us use the terms “System 1” and “System 2” when referring to the Causal and Subtle bodies. It is derived from Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Unbeknown to Kahneman (who does not have Self-knowledge), System 1 can be applied as a code term to describe Maya in association with Consciousness appearing as Isvara, the Creator. In other words, the ‘cause’ of the world of objects, the effects, or System 2, the jiva. Isvara, System 1, is what I refer to above as the ‘meta-program”, also called the Causal Body or the Macrocosmic Unconscious. System 1 contains the ‘personal’ or microcosmic causal body (the subconscious jiva mind).  System 2 is the Subtle body, which incorporates the physical body, the conscious mind with its personal subconscious, the 5 subtle and gross organs of perception, the 5 organs of action, the five prana. 

The real usefulness of the terms System 1 and 2 either for the seeker of liberation or the average person (samsari) is that they help to understand why reality is not perceived the way it really is. Isvara wielding Maya (System 1) operates the dharmafield (Systems 1 and 2) in such a way that the conscious mind (System 2) is deluded.  The conscious mind cannot be blamed for this because without Self-knowledge, the person is programmed by Maya (duality) to interpret experience according to its conditioning, the Causal Body, i.e., System 1. It is like wearing a blindfold but not knowing you are wearing one; you think you can see.

We can liken System 1 to an information processor, like a computer. It not only provides the raw material for an experience it is responsible for all experience by setting it in motion and recording it.  System 1 is astonishingly powerful and ‘thinks’ so fast that we are almost never aware of the information until after the fact, if at all. According to cognitive neuroscientists, if we had to apportion actual brain function to the two systems (which they see as the unconscious and conscious minds), System 1 has 40 million nerve impulses per second whereas System 2 has 40 nerve impulses per second.  This means that System 1 is one million times more powerful … and faster … than System 2! 

In contrast to System 1’s computational brilliance, System 2 has only marginal aptitude for creativity.  It is a stimulus-response system, with pre-recorded responses totally predicated by System 1. This clearly demonstrates that System 1 controls all behaviour not attended to by System 2, which turns out to be just about everything that is apparently ‘happening’ in present time! For most people, System 2 or the conscious mind is so preoccupied with predictable thoughts about the past, present, and future, or whatever imaginary problem absorbs it, that it is unaware of the function of System 1. System 2 contributes about 5 percent of our cognitive activity.  This means that 95 percent of our decisions, actions, emotions, and behaviour are derived from the unobserved processing of System 1, the Causal Body. This process is automatic, which is why ignorance is so hardwired, tenacious, and sneaky.

It is believed that of the 4 billion stimuli that are available to the conscious mind at any given moment, only around 2,000 of these stimuli are recorded.  And which would these be? Only those stimuli that conform to the individual’s frame of reference: their conditioning. For all intents and purposes, the remaining stimuli do not exist for System 2, although they impact it in unseen ways too numerous to mention.  As long as ignorance of our true nature as Consciousness, and therefore of Isvara, remains, our ‘fate’ (and free will) is actually under the control of our conditioning or vasana load. 

We call this is called bondage. When in it there is no escape from the relentless pressure of the apparent reality, of being and becoming. Hence the saying: “Life is something that happens to you while you are busy doing other things.”  Or: “Man proposes, and God disposes.” System 1 is always running in the background and is the real lead in the movie of our lives, although most of us are unconscious of this fact.  If we do not have Self-knowledge, we think that System 2, the conscious mind, is making decisions and running our lives.

How To Make a Permanent Change in System 1

Where it gets difficult is to effect a change in System 2, a permanent cognitive shift first needs to take place in System 1, the Causal Body.  The important distinction to make here is that the effects which make the dharmafield are Isvara, but Isvara is not the effects.  Isvara is the cause, not the effects.  The cause does not change, it is eternal and outside of time. The effects change and affect each other, which is why we can render binding vasanas non-binding.

What is so important to understand about the question of free will is this: The only way for the conscious mind, ego, or System 2 (jiva) to effect a change in System 1 is by introducing a change in the intellect which brings about a change in the thoughts, feelings, and the execution of actions in System 2.  This is no easy task because System 1 or ignorance is very powerful.  Think of David and Goliath.  System 2, David, must aim that blow to System 1, Goliath, very precisely. But it is possible, thanks to Self-knowledge.  

The reason it is possible to effect change in the Causal body is that there is a two-way connection between Isvara and the jiva. Even though from a psychological perspective on the relative level or apparent reality, System 1 and 2 are so unevenly matched. The conditioning that runs System 2 can be changed in System 1 where it originates from, through repeated, appropriate action based on Self-knowledge. When it comes to deeply entrenched conditioning or vasanas, it is extremely difficult and requires constant vigilance. What this entails is every day, moment to moment asserting and re-asserting your nature as limitless Consciousness with every thought word and deed.

If no change of thought takes place in System 2, System 1 will continue running unchanged, by default.  Making these changes in one’s thinking in the light of Self-knowledge is what renders binding vasanas non-binding.  All true inquirers soon discover that the application of Self-knowledge is hard work and no walk in the park. It requires taking a stand in Consciousness as Consciousness 24/7, which is beyond both systems. Only Self-knowledge is capable of permanently removing ignorance of our true nature.

The important question to ask, always is:  Who is the knower of System 1 and System 2?  Of course, this is Consciousness, the Self. What does it matter, then, what our apparent nature is, if it is not real, and ‘belongs’ to Isvara? Why bother with it? The only issue with the jiva is if there are residual vasanas causing a disturbance in the mind, existential suffering.

In which case, dedicated self-inquiry with a valid means of knowledge for Consciousness and a qualified teacher to unfold it is the way to remove them.



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