Jul 31, 2022
Martin Goodson

The Limits of Human Will

The Hidden Art of Spiritual Transformation

In the quest to rid the culture of old superstitions, we may have lost an important way of interacting with the unconscious.



Last year on holiday, I visited the site of a megalithic standing stone, the largest standing stone in Britain which can be found by the church in the village of Rudston, North Yorkshire.  This stone stands eight metres high and dates back 3,500 years. The stone stands austere, and pock marked by its long vigil, and in those indentations offerings of coins have been pressed and around the base lie flowers and votive candles; a pagan sight in the local churchyard!

Inside the church, there was a donation box for the upkeep of the building and times given for services, offered to God. In such places it is not uncommon to find notice boards with requests for prayers to be said for someone in need, afflicted with illness or with an exam pressing; in the Catholic church, mass can be said for the souls of the departed to speed them on their way to heaven. 

In Japan, a devotee goes to a Shinto shrine, puts money in the box, rings the bell and claps to attract the attention of the deity before offering a bow and perhaps a request for something.  In Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and elsewhere the laity offer food, clothing, medicine and other essentials to the Buddhist sangha and hope that by these actions  merit will accrue.

The idea of making an offering in order to gain something in return is as old as humankind itself and evidence of its history can be traced back to prehistory. There are myriad ways in which this type of devotional act can be performed but there are some common elements in all of them and careful instructions about how it should be performed for a successful outcome.

As babies, we start life with no real sense of autonomy; the continuation of life depends totally upon others.  Apart from the most basic life support systems, the welfare of the new-born and the small child is out of his or her own hands and continues to be so for some years.  However, as the child develops, all being well the sense of an autonomous self develops, , until in adulthood the individual can function and look after him or herself.  But as well as having a sense of one’s own autonomy, the individual is also aware of the limitations of his own will power too. This sense of limitation is a cause of anxiety for the self for the very obvious reason that it undermines this very sense of the autonomous self, by reminding it of its ultimate dependence upon things beyond and outside its control. If I lose my job, experience the breakdown of a relationship, suffer ill health, lose mental functioning, discover that my children have minds of their own and will not do as told, or find myself sitting in a traffic jam having carefully planned the route then the spectre of loss of self appears on the horizon.  Such events act as an uncomfortable reminder that there is a power or powers beyond myself which for good or ill hold me in their palm.

This worrying, yet inevitable, thought is nicely illustrated in the following tale:

A young man of profligate lifestyle dies and finds himself standing before Yama, the Lord of Death in Indian mythology.  Despite the awesome stature of the great deity and the fact that the young man stands naked and trembling before him, this youth is bitterly angry that he has been taken so early in life. 

He complains as such to Great Yama who, uncharacteristically, offers to allow the young man to have a few more years on earth.  But the young man is also upset that he was taken so suddenly and without warning.  So, Yama offers to send him three omens to warn him of his impending demise.  Happier with this agreement, the young man agrees and is sent back to his life on earth.

The years go by and the young man becomes middle-aged, and in all that time never once did he think to change the way he lived, not once did he stop to consider that it would all come to an end and he would find himself once again standing before Yama. 

Finally, the day came and there he stood before the Great Lord of Death and yet again he complained bitterly about being taken too soon… “And what is more you promised me three omens!”

“And I sent them!” replied Yama.

“That is a lie, you did not send them.”

“Oh, but I did!” Yama replied most sternly. “Did you never, in all your time on earth, see an old man or woman?”

“Why, yes of course I saw many such persons.”

“That was my first omen to you. Did you never see a really sick man, in mortal danger of succumbing to disease and illness?”

“Yes! That is quite a common sight to see,” replied the young man, now beginning to feel a little uncertain of the ground upon which he stood.

“That was my second omen to you,” replied Yama in a voice like distant rolling thunder. “And in all your years have you never been to a funeral or seen the body of one in whom all life has departed?”

“Yes,” replied the man in a near whisper.

“That was my third omen to you. I have kept my side of the bargain and now so will you too!”

Dharma Centre

We have just launched our online Dharma Centre. All are welcome...

Join our Community!


The virtue of generosity, charity or giving. Your donations are welcomed.

Learn more