On The Saying, ‘I Am Not The Doer’

Believing ourselves to be people, we care about free will. We care about free will because we care about the capacity to choose this rather than that, to live this way rather than that way.

The alternative seems to be some version of determinism, and this can be scary, or scary sounding, because it can come to seem as if I am nothing but a being buffeted about by forces greater, or more opaque, than I am. In which case, I want to know that my life is up to me, in salient respects, at least so that I can rest assured that I’m not an object of domination.

This–I don’t want to be dominated–is the negative side pointing to what I wish to avoid. But what of the positive side? I also want free will because I want to believe that I’m the free doer behind every deed, for if I’m the doer behind every deed, then I can take responsibility for my existential choice of life.

Therefore, it can sound jarring, to say the least, when Advaita Vedanta teachers say, “There is no doer, and there is no deed. There is only doing.” The spiritual teacher Francis Lucille has a refreshing take on this common saying.

He suggests that it would be better to begin by setting aside this utterance in order to set one’s sights on discovering that what one ultimately is is the Source. For if one begins with “I am not the doer,” then one could swiftly fall prey to the materialist paradigm. One could believe that one is a material entity subject to some materialist form of determinism, the upshot of which would be that this view would do nothing to dispel the palpable fear of death. On this materialist view, when the material entity I mistakenly call I perishes, so, I believe and feel, do I.

For this reason, Lucille starts with the converse:

Therefore, “I am not the doer” is not the ultimate understanding, because it does not imply that consciousness [the ultimate nature of reality–AT] is impersonal [i.e., not identical with the human person, i.e., with the mind-body composite–AT]. Ramana Maharshi discovered that there is no death when his body died at the age of sixteen. He discovered that this “I am-ness” is eternal. Of course the corollary of this is, “I am not this little doer.” Therefore, if it [that is, this common saying–AT] is understood as a corollary of a bigger experience, of the experience of silence, of presence, of eternity, it is all right. (The Perfume of Silence, p. 141)

Notice the order of Lucille’s higher reasoning. First, discover who you really are. Next, see that the corollary of this understanding is that “I am not the doer.” When the latter comes, it comes out of peace, not out of resignation or fear. Accordingly, the corollary is able to find a more secure place in one’s clear vision of the cosmos. As a result of this nondual understanding, the existential concerns surrounding the desire for free will and the fear of death fall away together.