the problem of choice

There is no question of failure [in yoga], neither in the short run nor in the long. It is like    traveling a long and arduous road in an unknown country. Of all the innumerable steps there is only the last which brings you to your destination. Yet you will not consider all previous steps as failures. Each brought you nearer to your goal, even when you had to turn back to by-pass an obstacle. In reality each step brings you to your goal, because to be always on the move, learning, discovering, unfolding, is your eternal destiny. Living is life’s only purpose.
— Nisargadatta Maharaj, “I Am That.”


One of the central questions of a mortal life is how to contend with the problem of choice. If we were immortal, there would be no issue, as we would have an infinite number of experiences and an infinite number of choices to make and re-make. How do we decide whether to go this way or that; whether to follow the white rabbit or study Latin; whether to eat the blue pill or the red pill?

When faced with the problem of choice, how are we to know if we are making the “right” choice? Of course, the conceit of choice is that there might be a wrong or right choice, and yet we torture ourselves with regret and grief if we feel we have made a wrong choice. The process of regret or of wishing for a different choice in the past, from the yogic point of view, is creating unnecessary suffering in our minds.

One approach when facing choice in the present moment is to have a measuring stick - some guidepost to measure one’s actions. Is this action or choice leading me closer to my goal or further away? If you were Alice (whose mantra is “curiouser and curiouser”), then you would make the choice that led you down the most curious path, as she does. If you are Neo in the Matrix, your mantra might be something like "knowing or experiencing the truth behind human existence", in which case you would obviously make the choice that takes you out of your comfort zone, in order to peer into the underlying truth of existence, however shocking or painful. If you were a yogi whose goal is that of liberation for all beings, you would try to make choices in the moment that do the least amount of harm to the least amount of beings. So what is the call of your life? What is the mantra of your life? What is the goal?

The scriptures and later writings of realized yogis give us the opportunity to see each choice, each step along the path as an opportunity for growth, for life. If we see even our supposed missteps as a part of a longer journey in which no individual step was wrong in itself, but each was necessary to further the journey, then we can begin to let go of the particular longing to know how things would have turned out had we made a different choice in a pivotal moment.

This is sometimes expressed as the “guru principle” or the “enlightenment principle”: the idea that each and every step, each and every choice, experience, encounter with another has led to the very moment where we stand now — and that all of those moments and people have served us on the path to our ultimate goal. Even when - and perhaps most especially when - we have taken a misstep and had to grope our way around an obstacle. There is a traditional mantra which acknowledges this and shows gratitude and appreciation for all of the experiences of life ranging from pleasant to painful. Known simply as the “Guru Mantra,” this verse gives us a way of understanding the present as the cumulation of all past experiences.

Guru Bramha, Guru Vishnu, Guru Devo Maheswara
Guru Sakshat, Param Bramha
Tasmai Shri Gurave Namaha


It means, “I recognize all of the creative forces, sustaining forces, and even the destructive forces as being pivotal to my growth and evolution — from the teachers that I can see, to those teachers who work more mysteriously — I surrender myself to the idea that each experience has lead me to where I sit now.”

This is not to be confused with the more New Age understanding of the forces of the universe operating in magical ways to deliver some cosmic message to me, personally. Instead, this means that whatever happens, whatever chaos the universe brings, we engage in a kind of self reflection that leads us not deeper into our own self-involvement but beyond the limitations of self. For example, if I have to wait in a post office line, the universe has not conspired to teach me a lesson about patience. Rather, when I encounter a circumstance that challenges my patience, what do I choose to do with that? How do I let it affect me, and how do I react? It is a bit of a subtle distinction, but, to the New Ageist, one assumes the personality self to be the center of the complex and chaotic forces of the universe, as opposed to understanding our situation as an opportunity to either bring us closer to awareness or deeper into denial.

The self does not identify with success or failure — the self understands that success and failure are relative and related, that they are the very warp and weft of life. Learn from both and go beyond. If you have not learnt, repeat.
—Nisargadatta Maharaj, “I Am That.”

Artwork by KlarEm; Source: thelookingglassgallery


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