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I went through a "wilderness experience" twenty years ago. I don't
recall spending much time thinking about religious matters during my
three-year religious hiatus. Rather I turned my focus to a study of what
made the rest of the world tick: business, psychology and other
practical matters. At the end of this period I relearned in a forceful
way a truth that I had known since I was a teenager: initially, you don't choose
what you believe.
Three Levels of Volition
VOLITION n: a three tiered structure of potential in the Homo Sapien, which like language and other abilities and facets can be awakened to nurture the spiritual growth of a Human Being. It can be simplified in this way: 1) On the deepest level we can exercise our personal sovereignty, stop letting ourselves be programmed by the existing agencies, and CHOOSE to seek the truth of what to believe and CHOOSE our purpose, 2) Based on our belief and purpose we CAN affect our attitude and our will how to be and feel, and 3) We DECIDE what to do. The operation of the latter depends almost TOTALLY upon the first and second levels and external and internal factors outside of our conscious control.
Masters of Destiny
Are we ineluctably trapped in the syndrome described in the banner paragraph above?
Humans like to think of themselves as volitional beings, where if not in total control of their destiny, they have a significant influence on it. Enough influence through volition to generally make the difference. However, this "destiny" for our life on earth is understood to have severe limits put on it by the 'Human condition". Given an average lifespan in western civilization for those that survive childhood of about 70 years, we can through judicious decisions about a long list of things "significantly" affect that number by plus or minus 30%. And since there is no guarantee that a person is not going to die in the next minute, hour, day or year, you can judge this to be significant or not.
It is in this context of severely limited influence that we have on this life that the idea of an afterlife gains a lot more traction. Surely our striving to use our volition properly should have more effect than just 30% of 70 years. Religions that posit an afterlife attempt to maximize this traction, and Christianity takes the carrot and the stick to the extreme with an unimaginably swell eternal heaven and an unimaginably awful and eternal hell.
The elephant in the living room is the overwhelming evidence that our volition doesn't overcome or counter the vast preponderance of factors that tend to control us. These range from our genetic tendencies, traits and characteristics and run through hormone levels in the body, gender, health, and intelligence, to religious and cultural value programming, conditioning, training and habits, all not especially due to our own control. Not to mention the situation that we may find ourselves in, with pressure, whether light or unbearable. Especially eloquent in speaking to this reality is St. Paul in Romans where he says, "...but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate."
The result of all of these factors in pushing us, controlling us is so powerful that humans, from the ancients to modern man, have a tendency to think in terms of god, the devil or demons controlling us. There is a large part of Christianity that believes we can turn control over to some kind of reified Holy Spirit. Modern psychology has come along with a movement that either denies we have any volition at all or makes it very obscure as to where and how it operates.
Nevertheless we also operate under the widespread understanding that we are accountable, and can be held accountable, for our actions and behavior. This accountability also rests on the foundation that a person has volitional control over their behavior. Even though we have many situations where we conclude this isn't so, we have no other handle on accountability outside of a persons actions.
So, we clearly have 3 levels on which we can exercise our volition, or to which we can point it:
A simple analogy would be like we live in our own tree. The roots would be our potential to internalize authority, take up personal sovereignty to choose what to believe, to seek the truth and determine for ourselves what it is, and to choose our purpose and basic attitude of being a constructive human being. The trunk would be our will, a combination of our feelings, attitude, needs desires, ego and emotions. The branches would be our habits, decisions, actions, and behavior. The thing is, we can actually not only prune our tree but if it is in danger of dying from lack of nutrients, we can uproot it and plant it in different soil in a different location. This latter is quite traumatic and destructive unless the "tree" re-grows to an extent greater than the potential it had before.
Much if not most of psychological counseling and psychotherapy are concentrated on and directed toward changing specific behavior rather directly or doing it through changing how we understand and feel about specific things. It seems to be dimly understood that the most powerful solution to changing things across the board lies in changing the foundation or wellspring through taking control of the value and belief system, changing what is believed. This can only be done on the most basic and powerful volitional level by taking personal responsibility and using your volition to choose what you believe.
Choosing what to believe is quite different from getting in touch with what we have been programmed to believe. Most people never choose what they believe but rather expend their energies upon defending what they have been given in the process of growing up. In contrast to retention of what was injected into us, real belief is practically synonymous with understanding and is based upon the inward journey to understand oneself; and it is an active choosing of a position on the major issues (these are issues for which there is no compelling external influence or evidence) and in the extreme being willing to stake your life on your choices. It is pro-active, not passive and is not controlled or determined by “fleeting thoughts, impressions, emotions, etc. Most people have never even done the thinking to identify the major issues, much less are they able and willing to stake their life on their choice.
Finally, we do NOT have to be just complex programmed, externally controlled meat-sticks, but for those that don’t exercise their volition on the CHOICE OF BELIEF AND PURPOSE LEVEL that is largely what they wind up being. This is the essence of the significant difference between being a mere homo sapien (a species of animal) and a spiritually developed human being.