Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pulling Strings

We have a saying in the law business: We are deemed to intend the natural and probable consequences of our acts. In other words, defenses like "Sure, I hit the window with a sledge hammer - but I didn't actually expect it to break!" don't cut it.

Sometimes I picture the universe as having absolutely every single point in space-time joined by a string to absolutely every other point. Any movement, anywhere, affects us. Everything we do - and think, which is a form of action - to some extent affects everything else.

Because of the infinite complexity of this interconnectedness, we generally move almost totally blind to the radiating consequences of our actions. Nevertheless, we place great store in feeling in control of our lives - that when we turn the steering wheel to the right, the car will go to the right and not into oncoming traffic.

I noticed that I had been thinking about the string analogy recently when I had an urge to eat something nonvegan.  It goes like this:

Taking a roast chicken from the supermarket shelf pulls a string that goes into the storeroom and magically pulls another roast chicken out onto the shelf to take its place. Each roast chicken in the storeroom is connected by a series of strings to a live chicken. As sure as night follows day, whenever a roast chicken leaves a store in a shopping cart, far away and unheard, a wretched chicken is dragged out of a house of misery into a slaughterhouse, whether we want to think about it or not.

Remembering the string analogy helps me choose actions that don't naturally and probably lead to suffering ... or does it? If every action is the result of the sum total of the influence of every other action, everywhere, do we even have free will?

My inclination is to fall back on "I don't know - does it matter?" and just carry on acting as if I do have free will, one step at a time.

I was taken with Kokyo Henkel's post Karma, Free-Will, and Determinism over at Sweeping Zen:

A bodhisattva is one who is willing to play the game of appearing as a sentient being who is in control of herself and living in accord with other sentient beings, completely willing to receive the effects of karma, even though ultimately the set of conditions we called “me” that did the action is not the same set of conditions called “me” that receives the result. The freedom of the bodhisattva is that by seeing the illusory nature of free will, they are willing to receive whatever effects come.

Suffering exists.

The laws of cause and effect exist.

We can't control them, but we can unreservedly throw ourselves into them.

And act, when we feel a pull ... on our heartstrings.


  1. Very thought provoking :) It's humbling actually to realize that we are not all separate, self-sufficient entities with control, but that we are all intricately connected through the "cosmic matrix," if you will. Kind of like the neutrons on an atomic level that bump into each other causing reaction upon reaction, and not realizing it. And yet some of us do come to have some level of consciousness that allows us to see at some point what impact we are having on others, while others stay unconscious of this all their lives. My husband and I discuss the free will thing a lot, like: is there a difference between control and choice, or is choice just another form of control, i.e. does the idea of choice just give us a *sense* that we are in control... Do we really have a choice or are we really just reacting from our conditioned responses ("the set of conditions called me" in your quote) type thing...And to take it one step further, *who* is really choosing? Mind benders for sure :)

    I like the quote by Henkel, and am inclined to see the truth in that; "that by seeing the illusory nature of free will, we are willing to receive (?allow) whatever comes..." and respond consciously...

    1. Thanks Christine. It can definitely be a thought provoking subject. When I try to analyze free will, it feels like my brain is chasing its tail :)

  2. I love this post David! In a not so thoughtful a way, I too have imagined that the roasted chicken customer stands at the cash register exchanging coins for that life... Everything we do does have consequences! But we also live in a culture that tries as hard as it can to shield us from every responsibility we might have. The thrust of it seems to be to keep us "entertained" so that we never stop to think where our lives and our (in)action leads.

    Especially as consumers - from chocolate to chickens --- We're discouraged from examining our choices. Most relinquish this knowledge so, so willingly. Anything rather than own the part of it that exists because we made it so! :/ Your words are so true!

    I really like the string analogy - I'd like to think that enough advocates for peace will eventually "cut their ties" to those that harm others. You provided an excellent pair of scissors to do just that! Thank you David! ;)

    1. Bea, thanks so much for your kind words. I completely agree that those with a vested interest do their utmost to distract/deceive us - unfortunately, very successfully. As I'm sure you do too, I know lots of people that are the very model of kindness and that are clearly fond of animals, but still eat and wear them. I love your concept of cutting ties. Cutting them not only frees the poor abused sentient beings at the other end, but also gives us a little bit of joy when we sit down to a meal or put on our clothes.

  3. David, I've missed calling by here – I've still not worked out how actually to be notified when you post a new blog, so it's more by luck, etc.

    Anyway, it was certainly worth calling by tonight: one important and challenging book review, one post that made me smile, and one very inspiring image - pulling the strings. At first I thought you were going down the Indra's Net route - an image I find very useful and apposite, but your taking it in a different direction really woke me up. Oh yes. WHO are we tugging on each time we are unmindful? (And yes indeed who is the 'I' who is tugging?) Thank you, as ever.

    1. Thanks for your kind visit, Roselle - I have the opposite problem - you've been so prolific with wonderful posts over at qualia and other wildlife that I'm running to catch up - but I'm getting there! :)

  4. PS - I've just worked out how to get notifications. Am I really dumb, or was your 'follow by email' ALWAYS up there?? Or maybe I'd rather not know...!

  5. Hi David,
    Wonderful thought; so true, and such a good analogy - an image that will stay with me now. Someday, maybe, instead a suffering tug, we'll all be gently plucking these strings,with mindfulness and grace, resulting only in beautiful music.
    But for now, yes, me too, I think I've caught your "my brain is chasing it's tail" syndrome :)
    Thanks for another thoughtful post.

    1. Hi Susan - thank you. What a beautiful image of plucking the strings to make music! It conjures up images of harmony with nature and the music of the spheres. Marvellous!


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