In the Presence of Choice

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The recent announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden has a lot of people talking. The range of opinions, emotions and analysis among my network of friends covers the gamut from compassion and regret to exuberance and congratulations. Many people feel divided in between, and a few are apathetic. Some people are terribly concerned that he’s in fact still alive, if only in the memories of his own people, whose vengeful hearts mirror ours; others are convinced that we’ve been tricked by our own government and he’s still alive in some isolated village or cave, or deep inside the bowels of the CIA; while others believe he had been laid to rest years ago by unknown powers, and that we have been fighting a ghost with a thousand deaths to give.

What I want to point out is that the man, Osama bin Laden (even as I pronounce him so) did not live or die among us in the way a pet or family member lives or dies, through accretion and surprise, as if pieces of our own souls were mingling for a time before taking leave of our common body. No, “Osama bin Laden” lives and dies, for as long as we make “him” in the range of opinions, emotions, and analyses we construct to keep him alive, or send him time and again to his turnkey grave. And it’s this that I want to reflect upon – the power that we have to create the world we respond to, through actions and inaction in different kinds and levels and layers of sequence, until the weight of those actions and inactions keep us tethered to our seats in the theatre of our world. On occasion we can feel the teeth of the trap -- the sting of cause and effect running from this one event back through the past eternity, and forward toward another future one. Kierkegaard wrote about a “sickness unto death”, the self as “relation relating to itself in relation”, and human existence as a balancing act between the possible and the necessary. This is basically a contemplation on the problem of karma, and the possibility of freedom and choice in the role of will and action.


I want to propose that in between cause and effect, there is a great deal more spaciousness than people realize in which to choose, regardless of the intensity of the situation or severity of the occasion. I would like my friends to understand this. I would like our leaders to understand this. I would like everyone anywhere who has picked up a gun for a cause, framed in good or vengeful terms, to experience this for a long, long moment. I want people who call the shots in the boardroom, and make the deals on the streets, who are paying off or getting off a sentence, school term, mortgage or marriage, to experience just how big, empty, weightless and, well spacious this space can be. It’s very very big, and in all directions empty and infinite. And yet our fission-reactor self with its continuously, cyclically repeating, relating to relating to relations, fills it up, easily, compulsively, mechanically and completely. Or so we think.

The Buddhists like to talk about “elaborations” which are conceptual overlays onto “naked phenomena” which is the same as “primordial awareness.” Without elaborations, phenomena and awareness are no longer experienced as separate either as different levels, as for example, when we consider interpretation as something that overlays experience, or side by side as reflections, as when we experience the separation of immanent & transcendent realities or relative & absolute truths.

If I disembowel the story of bin Laden’s death of all conceptual, interpretive, or idealistic elaborations – what am I left with? Try it. Do your thinking in the usual way, and see what few aspects of what arises could exist on its own without elaborations, and which are nothing but relation relating to itself in relation. Notice that you cannot experience some actual occasion called “the death of bin Laden.” Consider that only what you are actually experiencing is the only concrete reality – and everything else that threatens to crash in and fill this space are elaborations of all kinds. As you systematically put aside the elaborations, you might feel the quality of the space that they occupied. For me, this spaciousness has a purposeful quality, the quality of wanting or waiting to be filled, and feels like a reminder that “nature abhors a vacuum.” This is what it is like to be in the presence of choice – there is a strong expectation of a response from us. It is a kind of calling forth of rightful action in the presence of choice.

Now I know some of you will be getting judgmental right about now reading this. I hope to show I’m not going with it where you expect me to go, just being at this station of non-elaboration as a temporary experiment in how to create space and be in the presence of choice. Because, without conceptual elaborations, “bin Laden’s death” starts to feel like rarified air, and if you allow it to, it will give you a Rocky Mountain high.

That though, in a nutshell, is where I am going. There’s the possibility that we’re afloat, without wings and untethered, in a great sea of oxygen, and we find it impossible to breathe. Maybe this is a conditioned state of forgetfullness, amaneisis, as Plato said. We are born free, but we go about everywhere in chains. We like to say “freedom is not free” and so we go about like an old man who pays too much to insure his money, until he has paid out more than he has saved.


Chogyam Trungpa talked about space and the possibilities of being astronauts, floating freely without the possibility of falling in. Remember that scene in Apollo 13 where the instruments have all gone down and it becomes impossible to discern which way is up, down, right or left. The astronauts can see the earth over there through the window, but they don’t have a clue what over there means. Absent any elaborations (the thread of memory stored in the instruments that lay down the path that led them here to this coordinate in time and space) they were completely lost. And therefore, Trungpa would argue, completely free.

Falling back to earth, we find that there is gravity, there is cause and effect, and we trace the paths of our lives, individually and collectively, like the instruments on the space capsule, through meaningful narratives. I only want to point out the enormous region of space that is always there, in between the “cause” and the “effect.” We learn from scientists that even the most solid objects are made of atoms, 99% of which is merely space. I want to say that it’s the space that indicates in the theatre of atoms, that there is choice. With that much space, there is always enough room to choose “where no electron has gone before” from among the infinite arrangements of virtual states that propagate to the extent of the universe. This notion of space and choice may or may not be merely a metaphor, and I am tempted to say that choice at the atomic level is what makes randomness evident, or statistically real. The philosopher Roy Bhaskar says that even human action comes from no-where (which is the same as space, no?), that even after all is said, something still is done – and that something is always a spontaneously occurring event.


The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that reality arises through a series of moments which feel into the past moment as they feel for(ward) the next moment. This process of feeling traces of existence from past actualities to future possibilities is the fulfillment of both karma and choice – the same as Kierkegaards “balancing act between possibility and necessity.” For Whitehead, the action in-between was nothing at all like the tight wire between the physicists’ cause and effect. Rather, Whitehead thought of this feeling-process—which he called “prehension” – as incredibly sensitive, provocative, and loving; and he construed it as the long, long moment of possibility, freedom and choice, in the timeless space of becoming, before the actual occasion is concretized into being. Rearranged this way, all cause becomes some agent’s choice – and the spaciousness in between is the choice-field each agent roams.

If you look at your life, at the small, non-important pieces that go unnoticed, unlike the overdone “death of bin Laden” thing, what are the elaborations you add to, let’s say “going to work.” Do you say “I have to go to work today, even though I don’t want to” ? Or do you say, “I choose to go to work, because… even though today is painful in this respect.” The former choice of terms takes all the space in between the causes (I have to) and the necessary evils that prevail from them. The latter is a reminder. Someone is choosing, lots of people are choosing to make this particular arrangement of you going to work today. This is the phenomenon of space. It creates the possibility for action. We go to work, even though it is an inconceivable impossibility that we do so. We give birth to children, elect politicians, eat out, and read the newspaper, even though on closer inspection, it all seems to be an impossible dream.

In Glimpses of Space – a transcript of one of Chogyam Trungpa’s seminar The Feminine Principle, we hear Chogyam speaking about Generations of Astronauts with his wonderful basic insight and humor:

The metaphor is being in outer space. If you are an astronaut, for instance, and you decide to step out of the ship, you find that you are neither pulled nor pushed in midair. If you are high enough for planets, you find you are not falling down and you are not falling up. You are just swimming, floating in outer space. You are not going to hit anywhere; you are not going to be in any particular danger. Nevertheless, there is the biggest danger of all, which is the danger that you want to hang on to something while you are still floating. Sometimes you wish that you might have contact with the nearest planet so it could create a magnetic field for you—so you could commit suicide, crash onto that planet. …

We usually try to make sure we don’t end up in the loony bin, hopefully—or end up in something worse than that, whatever that may be. More courageous people are trying to make sure that they are getting somewhere beyond simply trying to prevent themselves from getting into the loony bin, making some kind of success beyond that level. “Now that these problems are solved, whew, I don’t have to go to the loony bin anymore. That air is cleared at last, fantastic, bravo—and then I want to go further, progress further.” Further what? What is going on there? It seems to be impossible. There’s too much space. Fantastic space! Gaps of all kinds! If we want to get to the nearest planet we can’t even lay hands on it.

Further what? You are busy reading books, trying to get quotations. You have interviews with your teachers and meditation masters and whatnot, here and there. You take courses, of course, and you get busy, getting the whole thing rolling. But then, if you are intelligent enough, and not caught up in spiritual materialism, the whole thing you have been doing—trying to hold onto something or other—just disappears. You just float along in space somewhere. You are not coming, you can’t say that; you are not going, you can’t say that. You are just somewhere there—you can’t even say that! (p. 469-70)

Absent conceptual elaborations, relations relating to relations, and everything else going on under the main tent of the “cirque de self” – there is a lot of space, and it is my contention that this spaciousness is the field of choice. Be aware, however, that this spaciousness is not the same as “empty” – because this spaciousness is also provocative, and so everywhere there is becoming into being. This accounts not only for the phenomena of karma, cause and effect, but also for the deep purposive nature of existence. Thought of in this way, in the presence of choice, we discover multiple teleological streams at all levels of agency. Absent elaborations, there is only the space and the choices being made in it. We mistake the elaborations—the reasons—for the causes, and forget that all cause is foremost choice. More precisely, all cause is the confluence of multiple teleological streams of agency in the universe, physiosphere, biosphere and noosphere.

In From Science to Emancipation, Roy Bhaskar avails himself to questions and conversations about his work. He likes to talk about the relationship between master and slave, creativity and emancipation, and something like the basic ground state that he calls “the cosmic envelope.”

If you look empirically at the way the world is going, then there is no hope. But let us look at it in another way. The world, capitalism, the structures of oppression, evil, violence and hatred, could not survive without our good nature, our love, our creative work. The totality of the master-slave relationships depends entirely on the creativity of slaves. The ugly, false, vicious depend entirely on the true. It could not exist for a moment without the true, the beautiful and the loving. Nothing could be sustained. We could exist without the social structures that are oppressing us. They could not even exist without us. So they depend on us because we not only represent, we are essential ingredients of the universe. We are at the basic, fundamental level of the universe, we have the power—that level which I have called the cosmic envelope, the strength of the binding force of the universe—embodied within us. Remember capitalism and all those terrible social systems that oppress us, including those which we have internalized as our angers, hatreds and greeds, which repress us internally, they all depend on our freedom, our creativity, our love which is our greatest strength and on our sense of equity … and our sense for right action. And they could not survive for a moment without us and our powers (p.255)

Finally, Bhaskar brings us to the possibility of becoming emancipated and emancipating beings, in the condition of realization. This seems to be a very basic condition, what Trungpa might call “basic sanity” from which to choose, when choosing seems impossible, given that we are free-floating in the spaciousness of our own freedom. He writes about exiting the crucible of space-less cause-and-effect, and entering the primordial spaciousness of freedom.

I think it is important to say here very specifically what we have to lose to become enlightened or realized. First, we have to lose our ego, because, being in our ground state, we would see that our freedoms were indivisible. Secondly, we need to be intellectually more generally mentally clear, that is have no fixations, no prejudices, no preconceptions; in a way everything that we know in-built into our being, so that our minds are as free, clear, empty, flexible and creative as possible. Thirdly, we have to be emotionally clear; and this is very difficult one to work on because more of us have problems with one or more emotional states, anger, jealousy or whatever. So no ego, a clear mind, a pure heart, and then, fourthly, a healthy and energized body; that is, we need to be as balanced and healthy as we can. But there’s a fifth condition, we need our ‘psychic being’ to be clear too, that is, free of all traces and residues of the past, which include karma from our past in this life and, if we believe in them, our past lives; but also our past in the form of the residues or scars of our experience buried in our unconscious—we need to transform our unconscious into consciousness, and like our karma¸ clear it, release it, let go of it; get totally free of our past. … When these five conditions are satisfied we’ll be a realized being. But it’s very important to appreciate we still won’t be free so long as there is heteronomy outside us which constrains our action; so ultimately we can only be free in activity, only fulfill our ground state potential in a society in which everyone is free. There is thus a direct link between my own freedom and everyone else’s. (p/263)


I would like any of you who have read this far, and are willing, to re-think your previous opinions, emotions, and analyses on “the death of bin Laden” by scaling down through the conditioned causes to the edges of space and the absolute freedom lurking there, for you to choose, once again, the story you will tell yourself, the story you will be in speech and action, and the place you will choose at the table of karma, cause and effect. Any way you choose, will be a terrible and creative act that imprints itself upon the cosmic envelope which binds us all as a totality, as a whole with a history. Whether what you choose to think, be or do when in the presence of choice, opens or closes space, will be the only difference. We are all free-falling already.

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  • Comment Link Scott Payne Friday, 20 May 2011 02:14 posted by Scott Payne

    Bonnitta, this is a very interesting piece. I like how it felt experimental in terms of how you chose to express the ideas within and what it is that you decided to focus on.

    The presencing you expressed can be a bit challenging to wrap one's awareness around. And yet I feel like you did a good job in translating it into the written word.

    What arose for me as I made my way through your piece was the following quote from the movie Waking Life:

    "The reason why I refuse to take existentialism as just another French fashion or historical curiosity, is that I think it has something very important to offer us for the new century. I'm afraid we're losing the real virtues of living life passionately in the sense of taking responsibility for who you are, the ability to make something of yourself and feel good about life.

    Existentialism is often discussed as if it's, a philosophy of despair, but I think the truth is just the opposite. Sartre, once interviewed, said he never really felt a day of despair in his life. One thing that comes out from reading these guys is not a sense of anguish about life so much as, a real kind of exuberance, of feeling on top of it, it's like your life is yours to create.

    I've read the post modernists with some interest, even admiration, but when I read them I always have this awful nagging feeling that something absolutely essential is getting left out. The more you talk about a person as a social construction or as a confluence of forces or as fragmented of marginalised, what you do is you open up a whole new world of excuses.

    And when Sartre talks about responsibility, he's not talking about something abstract. He's not talking about the kind of self or soul that theologians would argue about. It's something very concrete, it's you and me talking, making decisions, doing things, and taking the consequences. It might be true that there are six billion people in this world, and counting, but nevertheless -what you do makes a difference.

    It makes a difference, first of all, in material terms, it makes a difference to other people, and it sets an example. In short, I think the message here is that we should never simply write ourselves off or see each other as a victim of various forces. It's always our decision who we are."

    This notion of responsibility is, for me, a complimentary note to your focus on freedom. When we surrender into a space of real freedom with regards to our experience of reality and life, the free fall you describe is additionally attended by a sort of grounding. Or at least that has been my experience.

    We have the freedom to make choices and those choices translate into the kind of responsibility that Solomon describes in Sartre's system. That responsibility is not born out of obligation with regards to pre-existing obligations and roles, but rather from the acknowledgement of freedom we exercise in how we choose to live. We cease to make appeals to forces beyond our control and locate the impetus for action in our ow field of being.

    This strikes me as a very different notion of responsibility than that with which we generally work. And I agree with the quote that there is an exuberance that arises from the empowerment towards which it points.

    The complimentary element of what arose for me in this quote and your own piece has to do with facing into the question of how we might live and not flinching or attempting to escape from that question.

    I wonder how this notion of a differentiated but complimentary and, ultimately, connected notion of groundedness squares for you with the ideas you've expressed here.

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Friday, 20 May 2011 10:30 posted by Bonnitta Roy


    What a wonderful follow-up to my own thoughts! In the article when I write "Now I know some of you will be getting judgmental right about now reading this. I hope to show I’m not going with it where you expect me to go," -- this is exactly the caveat about not thinking in terms of some kind of escapist bliss, in the presence of this experiencing of spaciousness. The caveat of the Rocky Mountain High and existing on rarified air.

    The experience of spaciousness is counter-balanced with the experience of this space as not empty, but provacative (of choice, of action). The experience of spaciousness is something like when you have worn a cast on your broken arm for many months, and then you have it removed, and your arm rises as if weightless. It has to do with habituated responses taken into a new environment.

    The responsibility comes in when we experience the totality that we are (and I would expand this from Bhaskar to include humans and non-humans alike), and that we have a "history" -- which is the same as karma, which is the same as non-linear systems having an irreversible arrow of time.

    In "From Science to Emancipation" Bhaskar has a wonderful sentence : "The higher the abstraction, the deeper the immanence" -- as part of his "test" for concrete-ness. When we truly experience freedom and choice, only then can we become fully responsible beings. When we don't truly believe we have choice, then we can't truly accept responsibility.

    In a very real, concrete sense, to choose is an act of courage. To be courageous requires what Trungpa would call "basic sanity." To act requires grounding, participation, responsibility.

    Thanks for the feedback. Much appreciated.

  • Comment Link Peter Sheerin Friday, 20 July 2012 16:46 posted by Peter Sheerin

    Thank you, Bonnitta, for an impressive and striking piece. I happened upon this site and recognized your name. Congratulations for your success.

  • Comment Link Steven Brody Sunday, 22 July 2012 05:02 posted by Steven Brody

    Bonnita, beautiful piece. Just now seeing it. I remember the experience of "getting" what Bateson was saying when he described 'punctuating the stream of events', and how all meaning/interpretation is just another punctuation. And tied to his Learning Levels, punctuation at Level 3 constitutes deconstruction of self. Very heady stuff. Bateson said he could only get his head around Learning 4, but not beyond that.


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