How Free Is Our Will?

By Nivard L. Vas

What is the will, and who or what exercises it? According to the dictionary, will is a mental power deliberately used to decide what course of action to take. Philosophy describes it as a faculty of choice, wherein we have decision-making capacities in which to exercise our freedom of action. In the theosophical description, will is a neutral power that can be directed upwards or downwards by the mind. It belongs to the plane of consciousness and intelligence where we find faculties such as altruism, compassion, love, and forgiveness. In theosophical literature will is not limited to humans, but is found everywhere in the universe. It is a force of the higher spiritual faculties, and to better understand it, we will need to examine other qualities, such as intelligence, desire, imagination, and discipline.

We and everything around us have a divine heritage. The ancient wisdom tells us that the Absolute periodically differentiates and then periodically withdraws the differentiated into itself. To do this it uses the force of divine will. Everything in the cosmos has in potential the powers of the Absolute, but on various levels. Free will exists for every monad, however great or small, in infinity. A monad is a center of consciousness, an immortal emanation from the heart of the universe. In this view the universe is ensouled consciousness, and consciousness is omnipresent.

When we look at the smallest living organism, we are astounded. Even a microscopic mass of protoplasm shows growth, feeding, breeding, and motion. In comparison, humans are complex, and the only way for us to solve life's riddle is to examine ourselves and witness how far the will penetrates our consciousness, revealing itself to our inner senses. When we observe ourselves we find that we are not only flesh and blood, but also a "complex of desires, passions, interests, modes of thinking and feeling, opinions, prejudices, judgment of others, likings and dislikings . . ." This complex bundle of qualities belongs to the mortal self. When observing ourselves further, we find an immortal self in us which is "pure, passionless, rightly measuring the proportions and relations of things, for whom there is . . . no present, with its phantasms, falsities, and half-truths: who has nothing personal in the sense of being opposed to the whole of related personalities: who sees the truth rather than struggles logically towards it . . ." (*C. C. Massey, "True And False Personality," The Theosophist 1:6, p. 140). Both the mortal and immortal consciousness have free will; for fundamentally they are not two different entities, but one monad. We can look on free will as the amount of spiritual energy and intellect that the evolving monad has grasped through inner growth. It can be increased, and the monad can change its future through choosing to modify its future conduct.

The old Hermetic saying, "Behind will stands desire," implies that will is a force set in motion by desire. Desire is central to the human constitution, and depending upon a monad's spiritual development, desire can either ascend to the spiritual or descend to the bestial. For example, desire in animals is an instinctive force because they have not yet developed their self-awareness sufficiently, while in humans it can be either an intuitive or an intellectual force. The majority of mankind seems to live in and by desire, and often mistakes it for will. Desire is continually changing and unstable, however, whereas will is steady and constant, a spiritual force in our being. In our daily living we often don't have enough will power to follow one path for a week at a time, let alone a year. Our wills are asleep and our minds weak due to lack of exercise. Because we generally depend on outside assistance, our inner self or spirit has no chance to emerge and soar. Therefore, to succeed in life it would be wise to discriminate between desire and will, and make will the leader in our efforts.

Both will and desire are creative forces, forming us and our environment. We make ourselves in the image of our desires, but we could create ourselves in the likeness of the divine through use of our will. We have a twofold duty: first to awaken and strengthen our will by taming and using it, making it the absolute ruler within the body; and secondly to purify our desire. To achieve this we need tools to work with: knowledge and will. Knowledge gives us a basis for growth and attaining wisdom, and will stimulates spiritual growth when applied unselfishly.

The chasm between mankind and the gods is one of the evolution of consciousness. Is it possible for us to imitate the gods? Yes it is: Jesus, Buddha, Pythagoras, Apollonius of Tyana, and others made a start. What holds us back from becoming like them? Buddhists say that ignorance is the root of all suffering, while theosophists point to selfishness. To imitate the gods we must both understand the world and ourselves as they are and learn to forget ourselves, live for others, and apply our will for the good of humanity. Unselfishness should be practiced with discernment and justice. A difficult job, one would think, which hardly seems possible to achieve in one lifetime, but difficulty should not be an excuse for not trying to follow the path of right thought, right feeling, and right action. In this way we will in time obtain fuller knowledge of what we are, our consciousness, and its future.

Besides will and desire, we have other important faculties, such as imagination and discipline. Imagination is a power which, used by the will, calls forth creative forces and their products. Pythagoras called imagination the memory of preceding births. It can be used for the spiritualization, and also for the materialization, of images conceived in the mind, and to bring about the results we desire, whether good or evil. It may become our master, chaining us to the illusions we have created, or if we can direct this power and resist its suggestions of fancy, it can become a powerful instrument in shaping our lives and destiny.

I believe that two-thirds of our ailments and fears are the result of our imagination. We have a divine heritage and can bring out the divinity within us through altruism. As G. de Purucker said, "love is the cement of the universe; it holds all things in place and in eternal keeping; its very nature is celestial peace, its very characteristic is cosmic harmony, permeating all things, boundless, deathless, infinite, eternal. It is everywhere, and is the very heart of the heart of all that is" (Golden Precepts, p. 111). The dream of brotherly love is not new; for centuries people have been trying to establish it. Jesus and Buddha tried, people today are trying, and I am certain it will be achieved, for "Where there's a will, there's a way." As Teilhard de Chardin remarked: "The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness . . . the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire."

Discipline is a word we associate with training in self-control, and see as a restraint on our freedom, but as Swami Ranganathananda observed, "It is the slave who resents all discipline; the free man welcomes all opportunities for self-discipline. . . . [It] is the way to achieve strength of will, breadth of sympathy, loftiness of character, and consequent all-round social and spiritual efficiency" (The Message of the Upanishads, p. 202). Discipline frees us from the slavery of our desires, and is essential to human growth:

Watch over your thoughts,
or they will become your words
watch over your words
or they will become your deeds
watch over your deeds
or they will become your habits
watch over your habits
or they will become your character
watch over your character
or it will become your destiny.

Will is truly everywhere for all to use, and we should use it with intelligence and learn to control our desires. For who is responsible for the way we are? No one but ourselves.

We are universally bidden to practice high ethics for their own sake, since they bring good into the world and give birth to the godlike powers of the human soul. Sermons may do for the hour or so that they are listened to, but in the teachings of the ancients -- the practice of pure morality and the development of will power -- lies the key to the Absolute. When I first came to live in Holland some 25 years ago, I received a birthday card with the words, "The important thing in life is not where we are, but the direction in which we are going." The will has a lot to do with which direction we are going. We have a free will and need to discipline our desires by using our imagination in altruism and brotherly love, for imagination coupled to the will can create a better future for all.

 (From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)

Karma Menu

Everything is flowing -- going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks . . . While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood in Nature's warm heart.
By forces seemingly antagonistic and destructive Nature accomplishes her beneficent designs -- now a flood of fire, now a flood of ice, now a flood of water; and again in the fullness of time an outburst of organic life. . . .
This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls. -- John Muir