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True Power Lies in Choice

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A couple of thousand years ago, a notorious killer roamed the streets of ancient India. He was called Angulimala, a name which literally translates to "a garland of fingers," in light of his chilling practice of wearing a necklace made from the fingers of his victims. It was his twisted way of keeping track of how many lives he'd taken. Out of compassion for this man who wreaked havoc in the world, the Buddha set out to meet the dreaded Angulimala.

Accustomed to seeing deep terror arise in his victims, Angulimala was both enraged and intrigued by the man who approached him with such calm, "Are you not afraid? I will kill you. You have no idea how powerful I am!" To which the Buddha responded, "Can you demonstrate your power by chopping off the branch of that tree?" Angulimala demolished the branch in a split second. Unperturbed, the Buddha spoke again,"Since you are so powerful, you can surely put that branch back on the tree."

Angulimala was stunned into a moment of insight. In that single instant, he became aware of the illusion of power he'd harbored, and right there and then, he embarked on a journey of change. As legend has it, not only did he stop terrorizing people, he soon awoke to the difference between exerting power in a way that goes against life -- as opposed to aligning with nature and serving life. At an even more fundamental level, he learned and demonstrated that power was about true inner choice.

To be free to choose, we need to first be aware that we have such a choice. Every time I can awaken to the freedom of such inner choice, the tide turns. Consciously choosing becomes the basis for learning and unlearning. Such learning and unlearning are what accelerate my own evolution; anything else is a missed opportunity.

"In nature either you grow or you decay. There is nothing still. There is nothing still. Life is never still. No plant, no animal no river. Can we think of Nature as a metaphor and keep ourselves constantly evolving? Because the moment we stop we are going to decay." -- Anil Gupta

In both nature and in ourselves, there's a perpetual tug-of-war between decay and evolution. On the one hand, the universe inexorably moves towards increasing disorder, marching to the laws of thermodynamics and characterized by entropy. And yet, the very word cosmos comes from the Greek for "order," pointing to a clear arc of increasing self-organization and development.

Each moment places us on the crest of a powerful wave -- we can either refuse our potential to choose freely, or wholeheartedly embrace it. Intellectually speaking, no one would argue that reality is always happening only right now. But are we totally present to our current reality, consciously participating in our evolution? A study at Harvard showed that our minds are actually wandering about half the time. How can we change the pattern of distraction where we often find ourselves trapped?

Perhaps the simplest way is to practice presence, where we are not floating unconsciously into the past or the future. It's not that the past and future aren't "real" or valuable. It's just that they're only a small part of what's real right now. So though the past is an incredible teacher, if I'm not careful, it can also disproportionately bias what's actually happening in this instant. Similarly, the future is only a projection, and perhaps even a useful one, but if I don't see it as just that, it also ends up distracting from the unfolding of the current moment.

Presence is just the starting point, though. Along with being present with what is emerging from moment to moment, to come to a space of learning, I also need to develop the ability to observe the present moment objectively. Such observation creates a pause, and in that pause, I can see that along with the past and the future, I condition my experience in another major way: by imposing the labels of likes and dislikes upon my perceptions. Again, preferences can actually be useful in making wise choices, but when they become unconscious and habitual, then I start to filter all of my experiences through them. It is like throwing a stone into a clear lake, making it difficult to see to the bottom, the root level of our mind. Instead of seeing reality as it is, I get used to seeing reality as I am.

As an antidote, the very act of observation -- even if it's at first just experiencing disorder in the mind -- is a step toward stilling the surface. Eventually, the ripples of reactivity will die down, and awareness will deepen. That awareness builds on itself. It is this kind of silent witnessing that facilitates real learning and yields insight into how the mind works. This kind of wisdom is very practical -- it comes from seeing more clearly which of my actions, decisions, and intentions add to my well-being, and which ones don't.

Such a seeing can enable proactive choice. Between things happening and me responding to them, I can create a space that allows me to make wiser decisions. In remaining present, I can then see the direct effect of even subtle, mental actions. It is this mental activity that first bubbles up as thoughts, which then ripples out into words, and finally into actions. By working at the root level of the mind, I can make much more conscious -- and better, more wholesome and creative -- choices and remain aware of their effects, learning faster and more effectively.

In any moment that I am aware of my present reality at increasingly subtle levels, I give myself a chance to accept that reality as it is, with complete equanimity. That's when the process of transformation starts to take place. Then, even when the momentum of past tendencies tries to assert itself, I feel the effects of it but have the ability to stop adding any more fuel. In other words, in every such moment, I'm undoing unhelpful habits of unconscious reactivity. Each such step accelerates my evolution. In constantly engaging with my dynamic reality, I see that transformation isn't something that happens to me. All I am is a constantly evolving process; all I am is transformation itself.

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