Sunday, April 4, 2021

A Short Story: Imperium Sine Fine

    Imperium Sine Fine is an extract from a larger work that I began in March of last year. This particular piece seemed to stand well on its own though references are made throughout to the larger work. However, it is a work still in progress and, as so happens with any creative endeavour, the final product, including this piece, may be entirely different when all is said and done.

    Many other titles may be appropriate: "In the Aftermath of the Birth of That Which Came Slouching Towards Bethlehem", "Out With the Old, In With the New", or "The Best of All Possible Futures". In any case, it is a mythology for a time which has yet to occur but seems inevitable and unavoidable. But as we say, "All things must pass." Let me repeat that: ALL things must pass. 

Special thanks to MD for feedback and editing.

See you around!   


Imperium Sine Fine

(by Daniel Hagen)


 

    You stagger up the mountainside, tenderly clutching the newborn child in your arms. In the sepulchral sky above you, there is a crack, through which the soft glow of sunlight crowns the mountaintop. You have no hope for yourself any longer and are beyond fear; you have lost everything except for this one purpose: Keep the child alive.

    Looking back on the desolation below and all around you, you realize that whatever hope exists for the child is as weak, fragile, and vulnerable as the child itself. Looking upon the infant, you see clearly now that it is human but also not; it is something new, unique in the universe. You may have failed in your stewardship of the earth, but you would gladly die not to fail this child. It is all you have left.

    You reach the summit and as behind you, so before you; the world is nothing but ash and dust. The skeletal remains of the Great Tree are limned with the faintest glow of the sun. The sun still lives, but the tree is dead.

     The child, who has been strangely quiet ever since you first lifted its tiny frame into your hands, gurgles as if to speak to you and raises a tiny hand towards your dust-covered chin. It smiles and looks into your eyes as if to say, “All is not lost.”

    The babe has grown since you first chose to take responsibility for it, nurtured—somehow—by your will to keep it alive. In your arms, it turns its head and, with its other hand, seems to gesture towards the base of the tree.

     The hole in the sky above you widens, and the mountaintop is bathed in the sun’s golden light. You think of all the time and energy spent—Wasted!—in pursuit of riches and glory; such a vast empire of beauty and wonder was gifted to you as your birthright, and you laid it to waste.

     Your heart is filled to bursting with sorrow, and in your grief, you fall to your knees and weep bitterly as you cling to the child. It has grown further, no longer held aloft in your arms but now standing—a bit wobbly perhaps, but standing nonetheless—as it puts its arms around your neck to comfort you. It kisses your cheek, paying no mind to the tracks of your tears streaking your grime-covered face, and babbles again as if to say, “All is not lost.” Turning towards the tree, the child draws your attention to where your tears have left a small, ashy puddle at its base. Taking your hand in its own, it points down and says, “Look!” 

     A great gust blows across the mountaintop, a cloud of ash lifting up and away into the grey and lifeless distance. As you watch this cloud recede from your sight, it appears as a swarm of locusts or a murmuration of starlings—somehow alive—swooping and swirling, twisting and turning, dancing…

    Again, the child calls to you and tugs gently on your hand. It continues to point down to where the pool of your tears encroaches upon the base of the tree. The faintest flash of color, neither grey nor gold, catches your eye.

    The tiniest green shoot, as weak, fragile, and vulnerable as the child when you first found it, has somehow grasped on to life. Somehow, a seed has taken root in the dust and ash you had made of the world. It seems more wondrous to you now than you could have ever imagined; you had taken such things for granted for so long that you forgot how even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant sign of life was truly an incomprehensible miracle. You have seen reflected in the universe—in all its vast, frightening emptiness—just how small and seemingly insignificant, and yet miraculous, you yourself are, just as you saw reflected in all its cosmic violence how the violence you inflicted upon yourself may simply have been a penance, necessary for you to accept the burden you carry now, complete in the fullness of love for both yourself and the universe of which you are a part. Yes, you have seen the universe in all its wonder too, and the mystery of whatever else—or whoever else—may yet wait for you out there remains.

     Well, not for you.

     But for the child…

     Perhaps.

    For now, the miracle of the still living or reborn tree is all the mystery you need. How it should have come to survive in this wasteland, you cannot imagine. And, as with the child, you would gladly die never knowing the answer to that particular question as long as you can keep it alive.

     The child burbles again, beaming up at you, as if to say, “See, I told you so.”

    You hug the child tightly to your bosom, whispering gentle words of gratitude in its ear, and then kiss the crown of its head. You would not be here to witness the possibility of being reborn if not for this child, nor would you have been prepared to do what you must do next.

     Taking the child’s hands in your own, you look intently into its eyes and say, “It’s time to sleep now, child.”

     It casts its gaze downward, a sad expression on its face for the first time you can remember since you found it wailing in the burnt-out rubble of your ruined dwelling, half buried in debris, poking miraculously out of the ground much like the little green sprout before you. The hole in the rock face had caved in but not before birthing this inexplicable life form—somehow human but somehow not, somehow new and yet somehow the sum of everything you were through the ages, back unto the primordial chaos from whence you came. The child nods in reluctant understanding and kisses you once more upon the forehead before stepping back, waiting patiently but expectantly.

    With what little you have at hand to work with, you build a small, low shelter of charred rocks and blackened branches on the other side of the remains of the once Great Tree. It looks as much like a cairn as it does a cradle.

    You take the simple cloak that you had wrapped around your shoulders upon leaving your shattered home and beckon the child towards you. You begin to swaddle the child in the torn and sooty garment as tightly as you possibly can. “I love you,” the child tells you in its loose pronunciation and soft, mellifluous voice. As you wrap the last of the cloak around the child’s head, leaving only its face visible, you look into its eyes and reply, “I love you, too.” You want the child to know that you mean it, though it does not matter if the child knows it or not, because you know you do.

    You hug the child again as you lift its enshrouded form off the ground and then place it gently within the humble shelter you have built for it. With the child safely ensconced in its second womb, its temporary tomb, you weep once again—a mixture of elation and mourning—knowing you will never see the child again, never live to see what it may become or what it may yet accomplish.

    A quake and low rumble greet your tears as they are drawn downward and absorbed into the earth’s ashy bed. The shoot begins to grow again but stops as soon as the quaking does.

     You have no more tears.

     The well has run dry.

     There are no more joys, no more sorrows, left in this world to move you.

     You have only one thing left to give.

 

   There, on the mountaintop—a golden crown sitting upon a sea of desolation—you fashion a crude blade from the same charred rock and blackened branches you used to build the child’s crèche. There are no more animals to sacrifice—no more sons or daughters to offer up. There is no one left to take your place, no one left to atone for your sins. Either you die or the child dies, and if the child dies, you will truly be forsaken. The child must live, and in order for the child to live, the new tree must be born, and for the new tree to be born, you must die.

      And so…

    Gripping your primitive blade, you press its roughhewn tip into your forearm, grunting and gasping at the pain as you do so, until the tip tears through skin and muscle and your blood begins to gush forth, a choked ejaculation of agony forced up from deep inside you and out of your gaping mouth.

     Gasping for air, that tender thread which keeps you tethered to the earth, you sputter:

        “Drink. This is my blood.”

        You swoon slightly and drop down to your knees as you hold out your forearm to the base of the dead tree, where its gnarled roots cradle the shoot. Again, the earth quakes and groans. Pieces of the dead tree crumble down around you, sending up puffs of ash as they hit the ground. You are reminded of the powder you found in the mortar on the workbench, how the powder was thrown up into the air when you cast the mortar disdainfully back down again. The memory reminds you again that you had forsaken your duty, turned your back on the natural law, and are now paying the price.

       The shoot continues to grow, becoming a slender sapling as a rain of carbonized boughs fall and shatter around it. With a mighty crack, the trunk of the tree splits open, and as another gale roars across the face of the earth, a cry—not of anguish but of release—pours forth from the heart of the once Great Tree.

        The child, larger now, sleeps undisturbed.

        Pale and faint, you wrench the blade from your forearm, crying out as you do. A fountain of blood, thrust up by the blade’s removal, splatters across your face and body; the chain that shackles your mind to your earthly vessel has been severed.

        But you are not yet done.

       The tree, blasted once more by the hot winds of the barren planet, cries out again, this time in consolation for the earth it leaves behind. The interior of the trunk crumbles away, leaving a gap in its cracked frame just large enough for you to crawl into. 

    Cradled within the dead tree, you take up the blade once more and proceed to carve off pieces of your flesh from your other arm, your legs, your stomach, your breast. You offer these pieces up to the earth, your hand—increasingly tremulous in its effort to hold both blade and bits of flesh—emerging from the now blood-soaked fissure of the tree. 

     In a hoarse whisper, audible to no one but yourself in the confines of your sanguinary space, you croak:

       “Eat. This is my body.”

      You barely notice the earth heaving around you, all sound growing dim to your ears. You feel like a baby being rocked to sleep. You barely notice as your head lolls backwards, the carapace of the tree falling away, and your eyes are cast upwards towards the golden sky above you.

       You wonder, Is that a patch of blue?

     You do not notice as your body is raised up into the sky, higher and higher.

       Yes, I believe it is.

     You do not notice as your vision distorts, bending and blurring around that single point in the sky above, kaleidoscopes, and fades to black.

       You do not notice that you are smiling.

       You do not notice that you do not notice.

       It is done.

 

*                *                *

 

      When the child awakens, it is no longer a “child” but nearly fully grown, having emerged from its cocoon into a world renewed but still raw. Though new to this world, the child knows that in a way, it is as old as the earth itself, formed of the ash and dust not only of the earth but of the sun, the moon, the stars, the entire universe—flesh, bone, and billion-year-old carbon.

     The child looks up into the re-arisen tree, scanning its leaves and branches and getting to know its mother and father, entwined together as they are now, at one.

       The child looks across the still scarred hills, valleys, and plains. The sky is blue this way, but rainclouds are rolling in from the other direction. Soon, the rivers will flow again, and the lakes will once more be teeming with water and life.

    Like a gathering of the elements or the forces that form and hold together the universe, the child focuses and collects all the parts of itself—each in its own place, each in its own time—and sets off down the mountainside in search of mystery.   

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

A Finger Pointing to the Moon: An Essay on Reflection, Water, Darkness and Light

            By Daniel Hagen

"對永恆的冥想 - Meditation on Eternity" (2001) by Paul Chiang (江賢二)
            The night is an interesting time to be out in the world—fearful and mysterious, exciting, and perhaps even a bit dangerous. It’s that element of the unknown—and the fact that we lose the faculty that most of us rely on to tell us what’s happening or to warn us of danger, namely our eyes—that either draws us into the night or makes us shy away from it. The night can also be quite beautiful, tranquil; when the moon is full, night takes on a whole new dimension, more alluring because of the full moon’s infrequency and the manner in which it gives light to darkness: a different kind of illumination. One may perceive a kind of wholeness in experiencing the light of the full moon—light that is shared by the sun and moon, symbols of man and woman interchangeably, and with all living things that would see it.

            I remember a night many years ago on Mackinac Island, nestled in the waters of Lake Huron between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan, late in the month of September. Unlike my hometown of Dallas, very few human lights pollute the Northern Michigan sky, especially on an island surrounded by miles of water in every direction. The nights were usually quiet at that time of year, late in the season, when the weather would begin moving towards winter and most of the island’s visitors stuck to the restaurants and bars a half-mile or so down the road from where I was staying.  

            On restless nights, I would go walking on one of the dozens of trails that criss-crossed the island (it’s mostly parkland, after all), but on this particular moonlit night, the water called to me. Down the hill from my occasional home, the Mission House, was the Shoreline Trail, which meandered along the water’s edge, around the mini-golf course and large front lawn of the Mission Point Resort. The trail is a perfect place to walk when in a reflective mood, and the universe was in accord on this night.

            A small inlet of water sits in front of mini-golf course, where treaties still allow the native peoples to come and dock their vessels. Just beyond this little cove and off the trail, the tall grasses and bushes part just enough for one to walk comfortably to the island’s edge. Standing upon some of the larger rocks in the shallow water, I looked out across Lake Huron and up towards the sky, the moon a living presence despite being composed of lifeless rock and dust. Although many miles away, the moon felt near to me, close at hand—the smiling face of a loved one offering to anoint the sores of my soul. Like an outstretched hand, the moonlight reached down to the furthest edges of the lake. At a distance, the light on the water looked like television static, but as it moved towards me, the light became like a cascade of stars or the flashing of diamonds as it rolled across the lake’s surface, transforming into wide bands of light that broke up amongst the rocks at my feet. I bent down to accept the moon’s offering, and like an ablution of ancient times or the animist cultures of today, I washed my hands and face in gratitude. 

from the "銀湖 - Silver Lake" series by Paul Chiang (江賢二)
            The moonlight swam beside me as I returned to the trail, which continued along the island’s edge; reminiscing on it now, it was the kind of scene in which the Elizabethan English would likely have envisioned nymphs splashing, teasing and beckoning lonely travelers to join in their games, to follow them into the darker, unlit water. No nymphs called to me that night, though my eyes drank in the scene and my gaze searched the far horizon. South of Mackinac Island lies Round Island, uninhabited by people, though home to few things of note: a lighthouse, rattlesnakes and a mass cholera grave from earlier, less prosperous times. Beyond Round Island is Bois Blanc (or ‘White Pine’) Island—colloquially known as Boblo—where many people have built cabins; small on the edge of this island, I could see a few scattered bonfires, clear in the night despite the distance. Lights of various kinds dotted the horizon as well as they normally did—lights from the red and green buoys, more distant lighthouses, the glow of towns and cities both in the United States and Canada, and others too distant and indistinct to make out their source—indistinguishable light. 

            I followed the Shoreline Trail to its end, where it leads one around the island’s water filtration plant (the tap water on Mackinac Island is quite good), and rejoins the island’s main road, the M-185, probably the nation’s only highway without an auto fatality, which is hardly remarkable considering cars have been prohibited on the island since 1906. As I continued walking, my thoughts flew back to my own past. When I was six years of age, I traveled to Peru with my mother and older brother Dale; there, at the very end of our trip, an embarrassing incident led me to hide under a bed, and my mother had to come and find me as a cab was waiting to take us to the airport. As we drove to the airport, my imagination ran wild, thinking that I had not, in fact, been found by my mother, that I had not actually gotten into that cab, that I never boarded the plane that took us back to Dallas. For years after, a part of me wondered if the whole of my life was not simply my imagination making up my entire existence.

            I continued walking and I grew up as I went, thoughts of Peru—and the belief that I never left it—becoming a memory of a memory growing ever more distant. Only light came closer.  I thought about how I, the youngest of five boys, used to sit between my parents at the dinner table—a custom that had gone on for many years. I had become so habituated to the custom that I could not remember when I became old enough to exert my independence and decided not to continue it any longer. Though older and more independent—I thought as I walked past the imposing silhouette of the cliff, Lover’s Leap—I was not satisfied with how far I had come. Even now—as I have continued to grow—I have desired to never be afraid of telling the truth of who I am and the things I have done, but have I fallen short of this goal? Can the light ever reach the darker places within me if I don’t expose them myself? 

The Wheel of Life
            A quote from The Shawshank Redemptioncame to mind: “The Pacific has no memory.” Andy Dufresne says these words while speaking to his fellow prison inmate, Red, about settling down in a village on the coast of Mexico, a place where his past could be left behind. The theme of the ocean and memory was part of my own work as a composer in college and has revealed itself to me in a variety of places and permutations since then. The title of a book by a deceased Buddhist lama is Make Your Mind an Ocean. In the physical world, the ocean is deep, dark and impenetrable. Is my mind any different?  Am I afraid of what I might find if I look down into its depths? Or worse, am I afraid of what I won’t find? No one can answer these questions for me. No one can walk the path for me. No matter what sage or sign may present itself as I walk upon my path, it’s just a finger pointing to the moon.

            Nearing the Mission House, I could hear music coming from the Round Island Bar; a band was playing Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.”  The night is as dark as we make it out to be, and our lives, as luminous as the waxing and the waning of the moon.  Let me be the full moon and you be the sun, so that we may dance together in the light that we share. 


Thanks to MD and LG for feedback and editing.

The art featured here is by Taiwanese painter, Paul Chiang, whose work has been used without permission; the photos were taken by myself. His website can be visited here.



Friday, January 29, 2021

Free Will: What is it and do we have it?

by Daniel Hagen

"Bewilderment" by Vin Scheihagen

               The nature of free will and its very existence have been discussed among scholars and philosophers at least since times of antiquity in both eastern and western societies. Today, it is a topic for study in the sciences as well among physicists and neuroscientists alike. I am certainly more philosopher than scientist in this respect as I have more experience in simply living and observing life around me than I do in any of the labours of the hard sciences. The following is the personal observation of one raised in a Christian household and culture, in which the concept of free will was largely taken for granted, who became a Buddhist and has developed a closer relationship with his own mind through the study of Buddhist philosophy and meditation. It is not my intention to present a definitive answer on the question of free will for the world but rather to answer the question—with the knowledge and experience I have—for myself. For you, the reader, may it inform and be of service to your own search for answers to the question of free will.

 

The Conversation

 

            As our young son was taking his bath, my wife lay on the sofa staring up at the ceiling. We had been together long enough for me to know when something was weighing heavily upon her mind.

            “Is everything okay?” I asked.

            “Oh, I’m feeling a bit melancholy,” came the unsurprising reply. I should add that I also know that when my wife is in a certain mood, it is best to leave her be to sort through it on her own. So with that in mind, I cautiously inquired further: “Any particular reason?”

            She went on to tell me that she had been thinking about a friend who had died some years ago. A couple years before we met, my wife lived and studied in France. It was there that this particular person had befriended her, invited her to her dorm to talk, and helped her acclimate to life at the university. As they were both Taiwanese, my wife expressed sincere gratitude at the memory of this young woman and the assistance she had provided.

            My wife went on to tell me she had met this friend again after some time apart to find that she had changed drastically. Her appearance had so altered that my wife was moved to ask if she was all right or unwell. The friend simply stated that she had been under some pressure and left it at that. A few weeks later, she was dead. This young woman, while living in France with an older man, had fallen to her death in what was declared a suicide. Though my wife had heard rumors here and there over the intervening years as to the possible causes and conditions that would lead to her death, she had no certainty as to what had actually happened.

            Fourteen years later, the memory of her friend’s death troubled my wife so greatly that she contacted other friends who had also been in France at the time and were likewise acquainted with the young woman. One thing that troubled my wife in particular was her inability to remember the young woman’s name. None of her other friends, when asked, could remember either, though as some small comfort, my wife was eventually able to find she had written the young woman’s name down in one of her journals.

 

            So it was that my wife and I began discussing the purpose of life and how each of us comes to make the choices in life that we do. Do we have the freedom to choose our own paths in life? Can we change the course and direction of our lives when they appear to be going in a direction we don’t like or that makes us unhappy, afraid, resentful? What is it that allows some of us to live our lives in relative ease while others suffer tremendous hardships? Do we really have a choice at all? Do we have free will?

            I had only the previous evening been having a similar conversation with a friend I was visiting. He expressed dismay at the feeling that human life seemed ultimately pointless in the grand scheme of things. He, like myself, was troubled by the enormous division in our home country, the US, as evidenced by the recent presidential election. We were both disturbed by the level of support given to a man we considered to be immoral, self-centered, and clearly inept, not to mention the willingness of so many to either give into delusional conspiracy theories or willingly and knowingly traffic in falsehoods. It is to the detriment of society, if not humanity as a whole, that so many have such a slender grasp on reality, and when so many are actively exploiting our irrational fears and ignorance, one can’t help but wonder what hope there is for our species.

            Meanwhile, my son was drawing a picture on my friend’s daughter’s easel-board, which we dubbed “Polyphemus” owing to its resemblance to the one-eyed Cyclops of Odyssean lore. My son, at the time, was just shy of 4 years old, so the interpretation was entirely ours.

            My wife is currently in the final year of a Master’s degree, studying to become a guidance counselor. As such, her work as an intern brings her into close contact with both the elderly, lonely or troubled in their twilight years, and the young, detached from parents and peers alike. Much like the memory of her friend in France, the conversations she has with troubled people on a daily basis lead her to question the purpose of life, given that it seems so inexplicably difficult for some but not others. Of course, it is clear that we all have our crosses to bear; no one’s life is without suffering. Every age of human life and every period in human history has had its hardships, and our time is no different in that regard. And yet, we live in an age that is also unlike any other. Ralph Ellison, in a 1967 discussion on the merits of public television, stated that “as the American people becomes aware of itself, it discovers itself. We do not know as much as we should know about who we are, what we are, and how we differ.” This awareness now applies to all of humanity; we are learning more about ourselves every day, through TV, film, literature, music, social media, and of course the sciences. We increasingly understand what makes each person what they are and why, though the totality of any one person remains a complex web of genetics, heredity, environment, culture, physiology, neurology, psychology and so forth. So where, if anywhere, does free will lie? 

 

Different Lives, Different Conditions

 

            In addition to the sad tale of my wife’s unfortunate friend, I would like to present two other life stories. Indeed one could examine any human life and see only a part of the vast tangle of causes and conditions that make that person what they are. No matter what we may discern from the visible aspects of any one life, no matter what information may be available about them, and provided we are able to separate fact from rumor, the actual workings of all other minds apart from our own are forever obscure in their totality. Even our own minds, as I will get into later, are often obscure to us for a number of undeniable reasons, though one reason is of particular significance. The two people whose stories I will relate were different in significant ways, but each story presents particular questions about the nature of free will and the mind.

Huang Hua-cheng

            Recently, my wife, our son and I took in the final day of an exhibition on the life and work of Huang Hua-cheng (黃華成), a Chinese-born, Taiwanese avant-garde artist and playwright. At the forefront of the avant-garde movement in Taiwan in the 1960s, Huang was not well understood by his contemporaries. As a result of the difficulty and frustration in expressing and promoting his ideas, much of his work has been lost, left unfinished, or unproduced, and he made a living primarily by designing book covers. His uncompromising attitude to his work apparently made him difficult to live with; he was divorced before he died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 61. I was personally struck by his 1965 play The Prophet, which reflected many of my own thoughts about art and commercialism with such prescience; the world moves so quickly now that all art—whether music, literature or the visual arts—is in a constant state of surpassing and being surpassed to the point that art has, in a very significant way, lost any real meaning. Huang stated, “Art will rot, and is actually rotting now. New art is always better than old art.” But at the same time, in The Prophet, “Man is sick of surpassing others, and even more sick of surpassing himself,” and also, “I want to erect that immortal milestone.” The name of the exhibit was given in English as An Open Ending, but my wife explained that the Chinese title more appropriately translated as “unfinished”.

Lisa as a child & prior to execution
            Regarding the second life story, I recently read about Lisa Montgomery, a woman who, at the time of writing, is set to be the first woman to undergo execution by the United States federal government since the 1950s. Her crimes are undeniably horrible: She stole a baby from the womb of a woman eight-months pregnant, killing her to do so. While one may rightly say it was an evil act, we should also recognize the evil that was done to Lisa Montgomery throughout the course of her life. She was born in a troubled household to a mother that did not care for her, and she was abused physically and sexually throughout her youth. Her stepfather allegedly raped her and invited others to rape her repeatedly before she was 14. What’s more, when her mother learned of the abuse, not only did she do nothing to protect her daughter, she threatened her daughter with a gun. These are but a sampling of the litany of horrors visited upon Lisa Montgomery consistently and continuously throughout her young life. What possible choice could a person like this have in the course their life takes when they have been so brutalized? What kind of mind could such a person have? 

            What do these two stories say about free will or the lack thereof? Huang Hua-cheng was an artist. Why? What compelled him to pursue the path that he did? Did he choose it or did it choose him? Could he have chosen a path less fraught with difficulty? Could he have relinquished his persistent need to push the boundaries of art? Could he have done something entirely different with his life? Could he have avoided his cancer or made different lifestyle choices? As someone who has studied and created art, I can understand how an idea can grab the consciousness of a creator as if willing itself to be born, and I have also travelled a path that has made the creation of art a painstaking, laborious and seemingly fruitless pursuit. Huang Hua-cheng is still remembered and his art still lives. Would that be enough to have satisfied him? Would he accept that he had fallen short of erecting “that immortal milestone”?               
                Those of us who have not suffered the abuse that Lisa Montgomery suffered should count our blessings. For all that society preaches on the virtues of responsibility and respect, what could Lisa Montgomery have known of such things? What was the responsibility of her mother, her father, her stepfather and others that abused her? Moreover, what kind of respect could she have had for herself, much less for anyone else? Did anyone in her life nurture the humanity that existed within her, or was that humanity so thoroughly snuffed out at an early age that there was no hope of reviving it? Others imposed their wills upon her—upon her body and her mind. If she had a mind of her own, would she not have done something to protect herself? And yet, how could she have protected herself when she was only a child? It was not her responsibility to teach her mother how to love her daughter. It was not her responsibility to have to protect herself from sexual abuse. And who made the choice to tell her that she had a right to love herself, to be loved, and not to be abused? No one, apparently.

 

The Sense of Self

 

            So do we have free will? The answer seems to be, at the very least, variable. No will can be entirely free, as all choices are dependent upon whatever causes and conditions make up the present moment. The Buddhist concept of karma is relevant here. Karma literally means ‘action’; it is a popular misconception that karma refers to the result of one’s actions—a result that rings of poetic justice to those who do wrong and of heaven’s proper reward for those who do right—but no, karma is action—specifically, the actions we choose to make, be they words or deeds. Thus, free will appears to be the ability to choose our karma, but as mentioned, our karma, or potential action, is always dependent upon whatever is happening in the present moment and can never be otherwise. A wealthy American may be able to consider whose services they want to employ to design their outfit for, say, the Met Gala, whereas a Sudanese refugee may be forced to consider doing terrible or dangerous things simply in order to survive. Free will, in this respect, would appear to be a luxury.

            Regardless of wealth or poverty, a person’s free will may be more or less constrained by any number of other factors: duty or obligation, societal norms or taboos, parental expectations, mental or physical capacity, etc. What’s more, our wills are subject to the whims of our most basic needs: hunger, fatigue, sickness, the need to evacuate our bowels, and so on. But could we say that, despite or even in spite of such constraints, one individual can have more or less free will than another? Or even none at all? To be clear, having no free will at all is not simply to suggest a person who is enslaved but rather something more fundamentally broken in a human being—a person incapable of considering and who can only react. Lisa Montgomery may be such a person. 

A total lack of free will, of course, could also suggest a person who is comatose or in a vegetative state. However, even then, we should consider the phenomenon of locked-in syndrome; consider the story Jake Haendel, who despite being apparently comatose spent several weeks fully conscious and aware of his situation. It is entirely possible that an enslaved person may have a freer mind than the person by whom he or she is enslaved; based on the Buddhist concepts of the mind, desire, and aversion, it is almost certain that the mind of a person who can “rationalize” slavery exists in alienation to itself. Regardless, an enslaved person would indeed require a strong sense of self to endure such inhumane and degrading circumstances and remain convinced of their inherent human value and dignity. It is such a sense of self—an authentic and unfiltered sense of self—that may be at the core of one’s capacity for free will.

            Most of us will understand the reference to this “sense of self” by another term: ego. Like karma, ego is largely misunderstood; someone who has “too much” ego is arrogant, self-centered or even narcissistic, whereas someone who has “little” ego is weak-willed, indecisive, a sheep. It is often believed that the purpose of Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism is to dissolve or even annihilate the ego, but not only is that a bad idea, it is impossible to actually do. The purpose of Buddhist practice, for example, is not to dissolve the ego itself but rather to eliminate the misconceptions and filters that form around the ego and that we think of, mistakenly, as the self. These misconceptions can range from destructive mental habits to self-misconceptions that are based on mistaken concepts of culture, race, or religion that prevent us from experiencing inner peace and a clear perspective on our true natures.

            What the “self” is, whether soul or spirit or simply consciousness, is another discussion, but it may be appropriate to suggest that the ego is the “sense” in “sense of self”. Like the other five senses, the ego is a portal through which stimuli enter. (Neurologically speaking, the ego would seem to correlate with the amygdalae, which filter out and focus our attention on the various stimuli as necessary, primarily determined by that which we desire, fear, or are indifferent to.) It could also be said that through our actions and words as well as the functions of our body, stimuli are also transmitted out of these portals. Though this may be more obvious for some senses than others, what is most significant is that the mind is a portal operating in both directions. In Buddhist philosophy, the mind is the sixth sense. We can readily accept that the ego has a role in processing stimuli such as those received through the nominal five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Taking a step further, we can also accept that such stimuli may produce a response or reaction, whether fight or flight, aversion or desire, or something in between. So what is it that exits out of, or rather through, the ego? Thought.

            That thought exits through the ego rather than out from it is an important distinction to make. This is perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions of the human mind: that thoughts are birthed from what we think of as our “self”, the ego. They are not. Thoughts emerge from “below” the ego, from what is typically called the subconscious. But here’s the crucial part: The ego can be “detached” from this “field” of the mind from which these thoughts actually grow. The ego is not the field; the ego observes stimuli and reacts depending on our personal conditioning and how closely the ego is laid upon this field of the mind.  Too close and the ego may mistake these thoughts for authentic expressions of the self rather than for what they essentially are: the spontaneous bubbling up of mental flotsam and jetsam: products of memory, association, dreams and nightmares.

            The ego, as part of the conscious thinking machine, may and often does make use of these bubbling thoughts and put them to creative purposes. How creative or destructive these thoughts become for us depends on our proper use and understanding of the ego. The better our understanding of the ego, the more free will we may have.

 

            Meditation, for example, especially meditation that is focused on observation of the mind, body and/or breath as opposed to meditation focused on a chosen mental object—a deity, mantra, or other symbolic focus—is a way of training the mind so as to “put some distance” between the ego and the field of the mind from which thoughts arise. This practice involves having or developing equanimity—a sense of balance and non-judgment— toward the thoughts that arise so that they may pass away of their own accord; a thought grows from this “ground” and if we choose not to tend to it—to water it, so to speak—it will die away naturally. Better still, we may become more attuned to the thoughts that actually matter; thoughts that arise from fear, anger, sadness, desire, joy and pleasure are not necessarily good or bad. Fear can be rational as much as joy can be irrational; knowing the difference between the two—whether a feeling is rational or irrational—is a very valuable kind of knowledge indeed.

            Increased awareness of the interplay or relationship between the ego and the field of the mind gives us the means to better and more honestly know not only ourselves but also others, not to mention the whole of the world around us. For example, your friend may love a song that you, for whatever reason, loathe. It is not necessarily the point of increased self-awareness to explain why you do or do not like something, though it may help to. It may also help, however, to understand that as you yourself connect to different things than others, so too do others connect to their own preferred things: a song, a book, a painting, a place, and so on. By more fully understanding what you yourself connect to and why, you may also begin to appreciate—though not love or even like—what others connect to and why. At the very least, you will likely understand that there is little point in worrying about what other people like—unless it is potentially harmful—when you can spend more time enjoying what you like for yourself. This is just one way in which free will is enhanced by a well-developed sense of self.

 

The Garden of the Mind

 

photo by Daniel Hagen
           It seems to me that there is always a purpose in life, crystalized in the choices and actions of any and every given moment. These karma are, for the most part, simple, mundane, and largely inconsequential, be they putting one foot in front of the other, grasping an object with our hand, or closing our eyes to sleep or simply shut out the bright glare of the sun. Consider even these simple (and often unconscious) actions, however, and you may realize that not everyone can make even these choices.
            So it may have been for my wife’s friend, Huang Hua-cheng, or Lisa Montgomery, that owing to the circumstances of their lives, some quantity, quality or fundamental ability to exercise free will had been lost. Just as I, in my life, have felt compelled to follow certain paths—as were in my nature to follow—so am I compelled to write this now. The difference may simply be that I “walk” this path willingly; I have chosen it as much as it has chosen me. I am acutely aware of how grateful I should be to have the life that I do. Furthermore, as much as I’ve struggled at times to find my purpose in life, I realize that my life was always meant to unfold one way or another; whichever way the wind blew, I would inevitably find purpose as long as I was willing to accept the purpose that life had bestowed upon me, however joyful, terrifying, or ordinary that purpose may have been.

            I can consider myself lucky, but not everyone—perhaps a considerable number of people throughout human history—has been so fortunate. As mentioned earlier, our own minds are often obscure to us, and one of the most significant reasons for this has been studied in the field of child development. Recent studies have shown that the first three years of a child’s life are critical and have long-term consequences on their personalities, development, and ability to relate to and interact with others. If this is true—and it seems entirely plausible—what does that say about free will? All children begin life not only without self-awareness but also absolutely dependent upon the people who happen to be around them. Typically, a child is raised by its biological parents, but there is no guarantee that the child’s parents will be good parents; even if they are basically decent, they could also be incompetent, uneducated, impoverished, burdened with physical or mental difficulties or poor health, any of which could make raising a child difficult. (Ironically, these same conditions may provide a child with the opportunity to develop strengths they otherwise would not.) A child, through no fault of its own, may also be born with physical or mental challenges; likewise, a child may be born with traits that are at odds with its parents’ or society’s belief system, such as being born with a “taboo” sexual preference; even a physical disability or albinism may be seen as the result of superstitious belief in some cultures.

            Of course, a child’s parents may also be objectively bad: physically or mentally abusive, negligent, cold, selfish, or otherwise emotionally unsupportive or distant. Regardless of wealth or status, a child with such parents may have plenty of material possessions, access to good schools, and potential security in financial or societal terms but remain just as flawed as any child born in poverty and even, in a sense, be spiritually worse off for all of the distractions such a materially-rich but ultimately superficial life may bring.

            Finally, a child may be born and raised by a single parent or left with no parents at all. One good single parent who has reasonable resources and support is better than two bad ones, of course, but what of a child who has no parents? Maybe relatives step in, maybe they don’t. Maybe a child is adopted, maybe shuttled through a series of foster homes, maybe raised in an orphanage … maybe in a wealthy country, maybe in a poor one. Maybe a child is made an orphan by war and left to survive or die in a refugee camp. 

            The point is this: No child has any choice when it comes to the circumstances of its birth. No child has any control over who, if anyone, will raise it. And yet, we are all formed in significant ways by these circumstances and in these times that are entirely beyond our control and, in those very earliest years, beyond memory and conscious awareness.

         An infant has no free will.

         In other words, if free will exists, we are not born with it.

    If free will exists, it must be such that it develops with the emergence of consciousness just as only a fully grown tree can bear fruit.

        Consciousness, or at least one’s sense of self, is affected, if not shaped and formed, by circumstances present from the time of birth and, in fact, even before it. (Even in utero, the growth of an embryo/fetus is affected by the health and circumstances of the mother.) In summary, a consciousness may become free or develop free will, but such development is not guaranteed, as we are all to one degree or another saddled with a number of restrictions or limitations that prevent the consciousness from experiencing a complete sense of freedom. 

 

From the Primordial Ground

Polyphemus by J.H.W. Tischbein
            Polyphemus, it may be said, was born to be the man-eating monster of Homeric legend, but even this is uncertain. The Cyclopes of earlier stories, the children of Uranus and Gaia, created and gave to Zeus the thunderbolt in obeisance to the king of the gods. Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, however, lived not among the gods but in the “world of men” with others like himself, uncivilized savages who had no regard for the gods of Olympus. However, there are no monsters in the “world of men” anymore. The children of the old gods and the Titans of creation were all destroyed in the age of Hercules, or so the story goes. Now the gods themselves are no more than stories, hatched from the minds of human beings long forgotten, long since returned to dust and scattered who knows where. The only monsters are those that are born, live and either thrive or perish in our own minds. Whether we become monsters and whether our minds are free to confront and challenge the monsters within us is not always up to us. We may not be born monsters, but we can all too easily be molded into them from the same clay from which the old gods first molded humanity.

           We are all born from the same primordial ground, from the same dark, distant, eternally opaque “beginning”. We are all born in darkness, our very own conceptions belonging as much to the chaos of universal creation as those of the multitude of stars, nebulae and black holes spread throughout time and space. At the same time, although we are born ignorant, absent of self-awareness, and helpless, we are also born with the potential of everything that “the ancestors knew and have transmitted to us as seed.” (Amadou Hampate Ba) But just as no seed can grow if something in nature does not exist to nurture it, no human life can be lived with any free will if it is not taught how to develop it.

            As father to my own child, I have a significant part to play in the person my child becomes. If my sense of self is resilient and truthfully engaged with reality, I may yet help him to become a man, a human being, with his own sense of self built upon a solid foundation of clear understanding. I also do not know in what ways I may yet damage him and his sense of self; I can only hope and pray that I do not. I can only try to do my best. As long as I have any free will at all, there, but for the grace of God, go I. 


Special thanks to MD and LG for suggestions and editing.