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Advaita (non-duality), Free Will
and Karma (Audio)
May 25, 2009
New Visitors: It is recommended you read from the beginning of the archive, as previous
lessons are prerequisite to this one. The first lesson is, "Why
Q1: This question hit me halfway through my asana practice the other day. I
am trying hard not to grasp for answers, but I keep coming back to this as I
think it may hold a key to an opening.
"Who is it that chooses?"
It is easy for me to quickly snap to the answer of "it is the silent
awareness that chooses" but is it really? Perhaps it is when I am not
identified with "myself" or "my ego" and am abiding in that inner silent
awareness but that is definitely not 24/7 in anyway yet for me. So in these
times when I am NOT feeling myself to be the silent witness, I assume it is
my "ego" that is making the decisions right? Well, again I am not so sure
here either. To me this brings in the topic of Free Will. And whether or not
it really exists. Or to what degree.
I am of the opinion (I call it an opinion but it is really a knowing that
can't be proved) that God is in control of everything. That there IS a
master plan for humanity and we are all fulfilling our destinies as we
speak. But we all have the opportunities and ability to make decisions and
to control the direction of our lives. I realize that this likely indicates
that time is not linear, or is really not there at all, and that God knows
each and every action we will make before we make it. So is this really Free
Will? Yes we can do what we want, but what we want, and will want, is
already known by God, therefore there really are no "decisions" to make as
they have already been made by you (as God). Does this mean we lay back and
let life float on past us? Is it pointless to try and create a destiny of
our choosing? Will God's plan only supersede those of our choosing? Do we
really have any choices at all? Is every choice already made for us? Do we
really have ANY control over our lives or do we just THINK we do? Is it
pointless trying to make decisions when not abiding in the silent witness
state? Will those decisions only serve as barriers to God? Sorry for the
barrage of questions and thanks for any feedback.
A1: Choice is entirely relative, depending on our state of consciousness and
point of view.
If we are living mostly outside stillness (non-relational), we make all our
choices and live with the consequences (karma). The choices are ours,
because we see ourselves as material beings. Our reality is defined by our
state of consciousness, not by an outside force, including God.
If we are living increasingly in stillness (relational), we make our choices
just as we did before, except they are gradually merging with the divine
flow and becoming stillness in action. There is karma here too, aligning
with the divine flow coming through us.
If we are a pure advaitin, having fully realized the non-duality of life,
then choices are going on outside the field of our Self. In that situation,
action, karma, even God, are perceived to be outside what we are. The
advaitin regards all this manifestation as a veneer, an illusion playing on
the unmanifest Self behind it all, even while engaged fully and
compassionately in it. It is a paradox. By then, choice is not an essential
part of life. The advaitin is not concerned. Life flows, and choices keep
happening, but are transcended because he/she has transcended.
So it isn't that choice is ever going to be out of our reach. It is we who
eventually evolve beyond the field of choice!
We cannot play this game from the point of view of a state of consciousness
we are not in yet. In other words, it is not useful to take the point of
view of an advaitin if we are operating outside stillness, or even engaged
relationally seeing ourselves as increasing stillness in action. We will do
best to be honest about where we are and operate from there. As soon as we
project in mind outside our present reality we are nowhere (out of our
"now"), and this is where the difficulties arise.
Therefore, it is much better to be fully living the life that is before us,
while engaging in practices and moving steadily toward higher stages of
consciousness. We will be making choices along the way, even when our choice
is active surrender to the divine flow coming through us, and finally
choosing non-duality, where we see the choices occurring outside our
essential nature which is eternal stillness.
When we reach the advaita (non-dual) stage as an ongoing direct experience
in our life, we see that all is happening automatically, and we are the
eternal awareness (void) behind it. But this cannot be imagined. Those who
try and live it in the mind will be in a disconnected state, worse off than
the "unenlightened" person making an honest effort to move ahead by every
The suggestion is to be where you are, make the best choices you can for
betterment, and by all means, enjoy the ride!
Q2: So if I understand what you are saying correctly, you are corroborating
what I was saying about the "decider" being different depending on the state
of mind (either abiding in the witness or seeing through the ego)? One being
relational and the other non-relational? And when abiding in the witness,
decisions are seen as what they are, the natural flow of existence, and when
seeing life through the ego we are seeing "ourselves" as having control
which is actually a complete illusion?
So can a "pure advaitin" make a decision that will create negative karma
(even though we all know that they likely wouldn't)?
A2: Identified awareness (ego) isn't an illusion at the point it is
occurring. It is a condition of consciousness. It is as real as what we are
perceiving in the moment. If that is what we are at a point in time, I don't
think it is wise to label it as "an illusion." We can only play from where
we are. If we negate where we are, we've got nothing to work with, and will
be prone to get stuck in that mind set.
Ultimately, it is all an illusion, but what good does it do to dwell on
that? Without the dawn of the witness, it will lead to mental paralysis,
because it cannot be solved in the mind. It can only be solved in stillness.
Effective self-inquiry dances along the edge of this.
Can a realized advaitin create negative karma? He/she would not make the
distinction between positive or negative, and would not claim to be creating
anything. The point of view is that the entire universe is going on by
itself within him/her/it. This point of view is totally confounding to
anyone but another realized advaitin. It takes One to know One.
Fortunately, yama and niyama (restraints and observances) are operating in
the grand illusion of the universe, according to the degree of presence of
the witness, which includes the realized advaitin, of course.
Q3: Yes, this makes lots of sense. I didn't really mean that the "ego" is an
"illusion" though. What I am meaning to ask is not "Is the ego an illusion",
but more is "control" an illusion. Do we really have ANY control over
anything? Even if we AREN'T "pure advaitin" as you call it, and we are
making decisions from our "identified awareness", aren't the decisions we
make just an illusion of control, regardless of how we "see" it? In reality,
aren't the decisions we make just us thinking "we" are making a decision
(whether we "know" this or not)? Can any decision be "good" or "bad"? And if
it can't, isn't the idea of making a decision an illusion itself? Everything
just Is regardless?
Isn't being aware of the illusion a way of "seeing through" it? From the
above perspective there is nothing we can do to drop the illusion other than
our practices. I don't know if I concur with this. I'm not suggesting
"dwelling" on anything, but merely suggesting inquiring into the reality of
things often seen as "real".
Sorry, again my words are not communicating what I am trying to ask. I
didn't mean "Can a realized advaitin create negative karma", I meant, "Can a
realized advaitin's decision have a negative karmic outcome?" Or are you
meaning to say that no outcome can be negative?
A3: If an inquiry into "illusion" promotes an expansion in consciousness
(more peace and happiness in life), then it is in stillness (relational). If
it becomes a mental proclamation about life being illusion, and only that,
it will not be in stillness (non-relational) and will lead to misery in
life. That is the edge, and we are all obliged to find it for ourselves.
The realized advaitin does not recognize karma as being positive or
negative, or karma at all. All actions and choices are seen as instinctively
played out within their field of awareness, like a dream. If you apply all
these questions to the dream state, it is a pretty good analogy for the
advaitin's point of view about life. That is assuming the advaitin is not
one of those people who is obsessed with their dreams, which would be a
On the other hand, someone may consider what an advaitin does to have a
"negative" karmic effect. Like pushing beginners into premature
(non-relational) self-inquiry leading to lots of misery. Kicking the dog,
whatever... But the advaitin would not consider the consequences of their
actions. They just act instinctively. It is the natural presence of yama and
niyama in the enlightened that guides their actions and they do not even
think much about it. They are no longer discriminating like the rest of us.
This is a life of dispassionate outpouring divine love. Of course, we may
not know the true condition of an advaitin. They do "fall" from time to
time, depending on how strong the foundation of inner silence underneath
them. There is the matter of intellectually derived enlightenment that must
be constantly maintained, versus enlightenment steeped in inner silence (the
witness). The latter is a far more reliable advaitin than the former. One
must be maintained, and the other just is. So, the question may be, which
advaitin can you trust? We can't know for sure. The good news is that the
guru in you knows...
So, is control an illusion? Only to the extent that life is an illusion. Of
course, in an absolute sense it is illusion. So, in the absolute sense,
control is an illusion, as are choice, free will, and all that happens in
the name of the individual or personality, including karma. From that
perspective, even the personality is an illusion. That is the absolutists
view, and if it is not known from the perspective of the witness, it will be
the greatest illusion of all. It is little more than the ego trying to put
advaita in its pocket. It doesn't work. The only affirmations of this nature
that have any value at all are the ones we can release into stillness. This
is the samyama effect, the act of letting go an intention or an inquiry in
stillness. True samyama and true non-duality cannot be put in the egos
Regarding self-inquiry, there are many angles we can take once we have found
our "edge" where the witness is present (relational), and also know when we
are not being honest projecting our inquiry into a web of thoughts that bear
no relationship to stillness.
You mentioned in your first question that the inquiry, "Who chooses?" may
hold a key of opening for you. I have given you a long-winded answer, but it
is not really the answer you need for an opening. It is just a lot of words
coming from here.
If you put the question to yourself and give it all the attention that your
spiritual desire (bhakti) is generating, and release, then a more profound
discovery can emerge. The essence of self-inquiry is in asking ourselves our
most burning questions in ways that can bring us home to the truth. In
this case, it may be helpful to ask, "What chooses?" release it, and
continue to inquire. What
is the truth about it? Is
it karma that chooses? Is it our thinking mind that chooses" Is it God's
Whatever we might suspect as being the chooser, we can ask what that is. "What
is karma?" "What
If we pursue this intently and with honesty, releasing in stillness, we will
inevitably end up in the same place, which is the direct realization
that "I am choice," "I am karma," "I am mind," "I
am free will," and,
yes, "I am God's
Arrived at by relational self-inquiry, these are not affirmations. They are
not conclusions of the mind. They are beyond affirmations and
conclusions, beyond the mind, which includes the human conception of the
will of God.
Rather, these are direct realizations of our state of Being.
It is our awareness, present as the witness, that is the essential
constituent of all these things. That is the "What" that is behind all
perceptions. So, you can ask, "What is love?" "What is truth?" "What is
active surrender?" "What is a worthwhile career?" It applies to anything
that you can inhabit with your bhakti, and release in
You can reduce every inquiry step-by-step back into your unconditioned
awareness. Thus you find that you are the essence of everything.
But don't take my word for it on any of this. Find out for yourself. It is
the only way you will find the truth. It is as near as the awareness you are
experiencing right now.
This is very different from saying that "I am my body," "I am this
personality," etc., on the level of the mind. It is 180 degrees the other
way. When we say "I am the body" and "I am this personality," what we are
really saying is "This body is me" and "This personality is me," which is
imaginary, of course. Through sincere and determined relational
self-inquiry, what we arrive at instead is, "This
a manifestation from what I am"
a manifestation from what I am."
Having reached that level of subtraction with the inquiry, it is no longer
the thought of it, but the direct perception of it. The thought of it is a
departure back into duality, though in time we can remain in the non-dual
experience and have the thought as well. That is the difference between the
thought and the direct perception.
With the direct perception comes that sense of expansion that is unique to
direct cognition of the pure awareness of Self being realized as also being
the objects of our perception, the objects of our inquiry. It is also the
objects of our perception being found to be within the pure awareness of
Self, which is dissolving of the duality of the witness as
separate from the
rest of our world. Both the witness and the world dissolve into each other
to become unity the direct experience of non-duality. We become awake to
what we are by finding out what is not our essential Self through
Over time, this process of dissolving via direct inquires that have the
greatest relevance for us (charged with our bhakti) will lead to an abiding
union, which is moving on from abiding in inner silence witnessing the world
to our inner silence becoming the world in our everyday life. It is personal
and impersonal at the same time, and overlapping with all we have undertaken
in the lessons especially the cultivation and movement of our inner silence
outward, the refinement of our perception that comes with the rise of
ecstatic conductivity, and our ongoing desire (bhakti) to live in absolute
freedom, which occurs in the joining of these aspects of our nature in
We will be wise to honor where we are now and work from there, so we will
not waste our time getting stuck in circular thinking about advaita
(non-duality), and take the steps necessary to move ahead. These are the
choices we can make through our sincere desire (bhakti) for liberation,
leading to the elevation of all karma to divine outpouring. That's why we
attend to our twice-daily practices, and engage in self-inquiry when we know
it is able to operate relationally in the witness. As we have always said,
it is a step-by-step process, with prudent self-pacing as needed along the
The guru is in you.
Lessons Topic Path
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detailed discussion on the practical
utilization of self-inquiry in relation to the condition of non-duality,
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For detailed discussion on the
transcendence and transformation of karma, see the
Bhakti and Karma Yoga book.