We live in an age of machines. Not industrial machines that blow steam and rumble with cranks and levers like old men ascending a hill. Our machines are code-based algorithms and lightweight robotics. All on the verge of sentience. Like the movie The Terminator, the sky-based AI becomes self-aware. Though many of us are up in arms about preventing artificial intelligence from taking over the world, we rarely ask ourselves the question of whether we, too, are machines. Are we robots just carrying out our programming? Kurt Vonnegut opened one of his novels with a story about a man in Indianapolis of his youth plagued by the last stages of syphilis, called locomotor ataxia, which prevented him from controlling his own body. He looked like a first-generation robot, with jerking movements and halting steps.
The Unexamined Life
On reflection, the prospect of being a programmed machine completely at the mercy of my destiny had occurred to me periodically as a young adult. I don’t know what first triggered the notion that we might not have free will. The possibility that we might not be in control. What the Hindus call nondoership. But I remember one lovely fall day in Atlanta around dusk. I had just left work and was wheeling home in my beautiful bright red top-down Jeep Wrangler when the idea that I had no free will hit me like a meteor. I veered to the roadside and sat in my Jeep, hands on the wheel, gazing out into the leaf-strewn road. I suppose it stopped my mind. I couldn’t fathom the consequences. Until then, I had organized my entire life, assuming that I was the master of my destiny. I crafted my thoughts, directed my actions, and captained my fate. But what if I was wrong? And it was about when I had been liberally quoting Socrates on the unexamined life. Hypocrisy has its ironies.
Unquestioned assumptions are always damning. To begin any sentence with, I assume, is an indictment in itself. J’Accuse quickly follows. I didn’t figure anything out on the side of the road that day except perhaps to briefly recognize the power of the possibility. Not long after, I read a long story by Mark Twain called Man is a Machine. As I recall, it was a conversation between two men. One convinced the other over about 100 pages that nothing he thought, did, or achieved was his own doing. Everything had come from without. His body is from his parents. His knowledge from his schooling. His success is from opportunity. And so on. At every turn, the man was shown he could take neither credit nor blame for anything in his life. It was a remarkable work. Unheralded. Unknown, in fact. Instead of ransacking that text for its deeper wisdom, schoolchildren were forced to digest Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, fair enough in their own right, but they offered nothing on the level of Man is a Machine. Sometime later, I went on a Kurt Vonnegut binge. Like so many others, I read his books in a mad frenzy, speeding through ten to twelve of them back to back. My favorite was Breakfast of Champions. The novel’s protagonist is Dwayne Hoover, a Midwesterner and Pontiac dealer who suspects that people are robots, programmed biological machines.
Decades later, the idea stirs in my soul. More and more, life takes on the appearance of an involuntary routine. Not humans choosing to perform rote habits day to day but programmed biological organisms simply carrying out their instructions. I hoped one day soon, the truth of it would sink into my bones, and I would be liberated, as the Advaita Vedanta teachers indicate as a prerequisite of awakening. Of course, eastern wisdom is never anything less than confounding, though often perfectly simple on the surface. If there was no ‘me’ sailing the ship of the self, then who exactly would see the truth of our essential powerlessness? Without agency, after all, we are at the mercy of fate.
I recently read a line from Advaita teacher Ramesh Balsekar:
Just accepting that there is nothing this organism can do to achieve enlightenment. Can you imagine the sense of freedom that arises from this one acceptance?
It was so true—and yet the body-mind organism longed for a technique, a tool, a mantra, a creed, something to open the door to total freedom. But I could do nothing about that longing either. The sages had made it clear: acceptance happens of its own accord; you can’t make it happen. Some call this “grace.” Others say it is “the functioning of totality.” It comes to the same, a mystery of agency beyond our comprehension.
Papaji biographer David Godman highlighted the subtlety by which the sense of an autonomous self wheedles its way into our lives. Godman said that Ramana Maharshi distinguished between meditation and self-inquiry, which he recommended as part of the Advaita tradition. Ramana drew a line between the two practices, not some eternally binding division but simply a reference point. He said meditation is outward facing and is a focus on an object. The breath. A mantra. And so on. Identifying an object presupposes the existence of a subject that perceives the object. The subject is the false sense of self that we take ourselves to be. The ‘me.’ Focusing on the object solidifies the subject. The point of Advaita is to rid oneself of the false autonomous self—the “false sense of authorship,” as spiritual teacher Wayne Liquorman puts it.
Ramana then said that self-inquiry is inward-facing. It focuses on the subject we believe we are. It asks you to investigate the sense of authorship that you think of as your will. On investigation, it disappears. It is revealed as a falsehood, a mirage of the mind. It’s not unlike the ignis fatuus, a Latin phrase that means “foolish fire.” In the Middle Ages, the ignis fatuus was “a phosphorescent light seen at night over marshy ground.” Villagers and travelers were frightened by the light. Was it a thief in the night? An otherworldly presence? It was none of those things. It was just a light produced by the combustion of gasses bubbling out of the marsh. The autonomous self is like that. We take it for something fanciful and grand, but it is nothing of the sort. In fact, it is never more than an appearance to which we assign great importance, an ignis fatuus that leads to flights of imaginative fancy.
For this reason, Godman said Ramana recommended self-inquiry to those who would accept it. Turning inward and asking the questions the philosophers asked. Who am I? What am I? Where am I? But the world shrugs and moves on, gazing at itself approvingly in the department store window, obsessed with appearances. Yet the investigation can be so revealing. Do I think my thoughts, or do they arise in my mind? Do I determine my actions or suddenly find myself in motion? Hunger occurs to me. The action of seeking food and devouring it follows. From one perspective, the body is free to do as it pleases. But it cannot decide what it wants to do. It is compelled. Arthur Schopenhauer said, “A man can do what he wants, but a man can’t want what he wants.”
On we go. For the rationalist, the hedonist, the ideologue, the discovery that one’s essential egoic self is illusory is anathema. A pulsing center of action replaced by a cipher? It’s like signing over power of attorney to a stranger. One can imagine the haste with which such notions are discarded. For most of us, life is an accumulation of experiences and a tireless effort to reshape the world to our liking. The Bombay sage Nisargadatta Maharaj would tell these hedonists that the world is an illusion. “Treat it as a dream and be done with it!” he would yell. Go inward, into inner space, and use the tool of self-inquiry to find out what you are. “How will I know what I am?” a student would inquire. Maharaj would tell them what they were couldn’t be defined. Definitions are limitations, and the Self is unlimited. It is enough, he would say, to know what you are not. Chop away every false identification. What remains is what you are.
Gain & Loss
The author Leo Hartong notes the difference between the search for meaning and the experience of awakening:
The search consisted of acquiring information and experiences, while awakening was and is revealed in the dropping of concepts and expectations.
Hartong elucidates a key insight in the search, one also noted by Saint Augustine in his mystical commentaries on the nature of God. He said that in humans, virtue was the absence of something, but in God, virtue was the presence of something. It is the absence that Hartong speaks of, which in the awakened state is presence. A recognition of the manifest world as the potentiality in the unmanifest absence.
Eckhart Tolle, sitting there on stage during his satsangs, diminutive and hushed in his pedestrian sweaters, often opens his talks by assuring the audience that they will gain nothing. He even encourages them to leave if they feel dissatisfied. The idea that nothing is to be gained is a proposition that alarms and infuriates the rational mind, particularly in our modern consumer culture, where we anxiously seek out the next purchase, experience, and round of applause. Consumption to distract from being, approval to fortify the fragile ego, ever in a state of alarming decomposition.
Tolle later points out that while you won’t gain anything, you’ll likely lose something. Misconceptions. Illusions. Expectations. Addictions. One of the best quotes I have heard from Liquorman makes the same point:
Having a belief that you are not the doer is not the same as not having the belief that you are the doer.
The former is the presence of a belief. The latter is the absence of one. It is also an absence in part because since definitions are limitations, the universality of our being can’t be defined. It is something like Saint Jerome’s notion of God: a circle whose center is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere.
The bane of consumer society is loss. The goal of consumer society is gain. The sages here advertise the opposite:
Freedom lies in letting go.
The forfeiture of control is really no sacrifice since you never possessed it to begin with. The conundrum is that it must simply happen to you. There is no clear-cut path. Krishnamurti said that truth is a pathless land. Probably because there is nowhere to go and no one to do the going.
Jason Hirthler is a writer and digital communications professional. He lives in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.