If you haven’t noticed yet, there is one spiritual teacher who I respect more or less unreservedly: his name is Alan Watts, and I’m terribly sad that he’s been dead for decades, because he is the kind of person I would have loved to meet and talk with.
One of his tenets, however, used to trouble me very deeply -- he postulates that it is impossible to change oneself, and by extension, his views regarding free will differ quite significantly to my own. I hasten to add that he passes the solipsism test with flying colours, because his lessons consistently include caveats that he is expounding his personal conclusions above all, rather than dictating what one ought to think.
The first reason why I found his opinion troubling was because hell, it’s Alan Watts, and when he’s talking, I’m listening. I don’t agree with everything he says, but the fundamental premises that underlie his belief system are remarkably congruent with my own. Therefore the self-improvement issue is not one I consider seriously just because I think Alan Watts is such a great guy, but because I share a similar species of intuition to the one on which he builds his own conclusions. (In addition to cognitively following his reasoning, of course.)
In other words, he doesn’t have to do a lot of persuading to bring me round; I can see, from his own point of view, where he is coming from.
My own belief is that, through a persistent and decisive application of effort, it is indeed possible to make deliberate long-term changes to one’s value system and patterns of behaviour. I would be the first to say that some changes represent a natural evolution of self, an inevitable consequence of deciding simply to keep learning and growing as a human. But in other cases -- whether it is overcoming an addiction or improving one’s strength or emotional resilience -- I maintain that the final change is a result of a person’s application of their will and hard work.
For a while, I wondered whether my inability to let go of this conviction and see the light of determinism, so to speak, was a symptom of denial. I suspected myself of simply being too weak to face a reality over which I essentially have no control. Mind you, I never had any illusions about the idea that there are some things we have no hope whatsoever about controlling -- it was more that I couldn’t honestly accept that we are helplessly carried about on the currents of fate and the only choice we truly have is whether or not we admit this to ourselves.
There is also the paradoxical side-issue of what aspect of self one wishes to change. If I am an individual whose nature is to continually change and adapt in measure of my own increasing comprehension of life, then I would be the first to say I am not likely to become static and stop evolving, thereby altering my nature. But then, if I continue to change and grow, just as I always have, then I am not diverging much from the essence of what it means to be me, am I?
In the face of my uncertainty, as I questioned the very foundations of my belief system, it was as if I received personal reassurance from the universe that I was right to trust my initial impressions. When I come across these confluences of meaning that I couldn’t possibly dismiss as accidental, when I am supplied with information so specific that it could not reasonably be interpreted as anything but a manifestation of the infinite, I can align myself naturally with the idea that the magic I believe in really does exist. And I am unable to surrender to the opposite view in the same way.
The conclusion that enabled me to reconcile Mr Watts’ views with my own, was basically that both lines of argument are true. His approach is consistent with his experience of life, while my approach is consistent with mine. Ironically, this reinforces a different view that both of us support unanimously: reality is very much what you make it, if only in the sense that it is an interactive phenomenon which depends on perception to fully exist. “No matter how hard you beat a skinless drum,” says Mr Watts, “it will make no sound.” He continues that it is the interaction of the skin and the fist that enables a beat to exist in this analogy.
By the same token, I assert that in his reality, it was impossible to change oneself, while in mine, that possibility exists. The million-dollar question, then, is: what reality will you choose for yourself? Will it be one of these two options… or something entirely different again? If there are as many dimensions as entities who perceive them, then one thing is certain: we live in a wonderfully diverse reality, filled to bursting with possibilities.
And I for one am intent on doing my utmost to actively engage with those possibilities, for better or worse.