It was day three of a seven-day meditation retreat and I was busy sabotaging my practice by wallowing in guilt. At the mid-week interview with the meditation leader I complained about these negative thoughts: “I don’t know why I do this to myself.” 


“But are you doing it?” she said. “Are you doing it?” 


Well, no. My thoughts were basically thinking themselves, assailing me when whether I wanted them or not. The more closely I observed myself, the more I came to the conclusion that I had ridiculously little control over the thoughts and reactions that drove me into various states and actions. 



"A man can surely do what he wills to do, but he cannot determine what he wills,” Schopenhauer. 


Thoughts spring up unbidden, often in reaction to something someone just said or did to us. We may tell ourselves that our habitual reactions reflect well-thought-out principles we’ve crafted for ourselves. However, if we look “upstream” we can see how our childhood, our genetics, our training, how well we slept or ate— all play a huge role in the roles we play with others and ourselves. “Who am I taking myself to be?” is a question I sometimes use to wake myself up to the fact that conditioning and performing for others is a larger part of my behaviour than I like to think.


The ancient Greeks and Romans, strangely, accepted this fact more easily than we do. For them, the gods were the uncontrollable forces working behind the scenes, causing us to think and act in certain ways. And even the gods were subject to the impersonal and mysterious whims of Fate. The question was not how to escape one’s destiny—since various myths showed every such attempt merely ensured the ordained outcome—but how to face it with dignity. Like the ancients, we are vulnerable to both outer reality and our own inner landscape. So how do we face our fate with dignity? 


I think, by learning to trust it. For Fate wraps itself around an overlooked but profound inner freedom. Though observation reveals that thoughts and actions can arise without our permission, it also shows us that “the mind always finds its way home.” If we try to meditate for instance, it may seem like a fairly frustrating endeavour—we notice right away how it’s impossible to concentrate on the breath continuously. But that frustration is evidence that we do, in fact, notice when we get off track. If we take time to notice our noticing, we see that the mind has an inborn tendency to “wake up” and come home to itself.


That is the first step to a kind of freedom from the actions and the mental states our thoughts may seem to ordain. In fact those very thoughts, if we pay attention to the ways in which they affect us, can become “mindfulness bells”—sharp reminders that we have lost awareness, allowing the mind’s natural homing tendency to come into play. And when the mind is home, simply witnessing the present moment, there is a chance for an even deeper fate to rise to the surface.


That deeper fate is what Pema Chodron calls “The love that will not die.” It is our natural instinct to be happy, and what makes us truly happy is the kind of tenderness for ourselves and care for others that is born from the unbiased awareness of a mind at home with itself. When that sense of loving ease is threatened, we sometimes react with unskillful actions—not because we’re uncaring, but simply because we haven’t figured out how to care. 


Take the moment Susan Boyle made her debut on “Britain’s Got Talent.” Her unprepossessing appearance caused some in the audience to sneer, but the majority simply looked distinctly uncomfortable. The truth is, we don’t enjoy seeing someone fail or be embarrassed. The sneering was simply a displacement of that discomfort, a less-than-skillful defense against it.  When Susan surprised everyone by belting out “I Had a Dream” with skill and confidence, the response was one of relieved ecstasy. People wanted to feel happy for others. 


When I remembered that my conflicts with my parents were painful mainly because deep down I wanted to love and appreciate them, I was relieved of some of the burden of hating myself for being angry with them. And the more I sought to learn about them without judgment, the more that anger softened. As I was able to love them and myself a little more, I felt myself coming home—to acceptance, to ease with my own reality.


Could it be that our ultimate fate is to come home in just this way? The process is not so much difficult as it is easy to overlook. We have the chance to be witnesses, to trust that beneath the roles we play, we truly do have hearts of gold. And we truly can come home.