You're right Gulliver, these are tough questions. Here’s my take on them.
As I see it, the problem with the argument of free will vs. predestination is that it is impossible to prove one way or the other. One of the Brother Theophyle
cartoons addresses this issue by having Theophyle intentionally performing an action that, in his mind, is “spontaneous” (that is, an expression of free will), while his friend Rabbit reads from that day’s entry in a cosmic record book that “In a cartoon about predestination, Brother Theophyle will act spontaneously”. A predestined act of free will?
I have come to the position that it probably doesn’t make much difference whether I am wondering about this issue as a result of spontaneous curiosity generated by free will or if I am doing so as an inescapable act of predestination. To that, some say, if life is predestined, then I might as well just sit back and do nothing. To that, I respond, try it. Here as in science, the best way to test an hypothesis is to play it out, set it into motion and see what unfolds.
Consider it this way. Virtually all of the traditions
teach (and my own experience confirms) that the inner and the outer are one and the same. The projections that I call “my life” – everything that seems to me to be “out there” (and by “everything” I mean everyone and everything everywhere, in all dimensions, levels, planes, existences, and so on) – are no more and no less than what I call “me” seen outerly. “Me” and “my life” are mirror images of one another. “Me” and “my life” are simply different perspectives of the same thing, different ways of perceiving my separative perspective of the Universe (“I am me, and you – whatever, and wherever and whenever you may seem to me to be, are not me”).
That being so, the way to change my life is to change me, to change my perspective of myself, of who and what I think I am. My life, being a mirror image of that, will follow suit, does follow suit.
Is the choice to undertake that change in perspective on the Universe (in a word, to become a seeker) a matter of free will, or is each of us predestined to take that step at some predetermined time? For me, the fact is that in some inscrutable way, the answer to that question is, “Yes, both”.
Either way, once we feel ourselves inwardly moved to make the seeker’s choice, the choice to undertake a spiritual path, or once we discover that we have made it, then we are well advised to pursue it with joy, enthusiasm, and devotion. After a bit, we should sit back and observe the results, observe “my life”, and ask ourselves whether or not questions like this one about free will and predestination (and there are a ton of others, all apparently equally pressing, all unavoidably encountered by every seeker) still seem as important to us as they did in the beginning. In the likely event (I say “likely” based on my own experience and what I have read and heard of others’) that such questions increasingly seem to lose their relevance as our embrace of the spiritual commitment grows in depth and breadth, then the thing to do is thank the questions for their part in the process, and walk on.
You also mentioned prayer. As I see it, what is important about prayer is not what I say to God but that it is to God that I say it. That is, prayer is far less a vehicle for Divine Intervention and far more a Divine Instrument to impress upon us the reality of God’s permanent, constant, spontaneous, uninvited, and inescapable (not to mention wondrous, miraculous, and graceful) Presence.
Think of it this way. If God is omniscient (and if God is not omniscient, then God isn’t God), there is nothing I can say to God that God does not already know, and nothing that I can ask for that God has not already considered. But, in one way or another (and what way depends upon the practices and preferences and traditions of the path we are following) we must ask it because in doing so we recognize and acknowledge the role and presence of the Divine in everyone and everything we perceive, including ourselves. I agree with Gulliver here, too, for in this sense, prayer is about surrender, and surrender is what seeking is ultimately all about. Thus, getting back to the question of free will, we need to ask ourselves as seekers: Is our concern about free will a genuine intellectual inquiry or does it simply reflect an effort to escape the implications of “Thy Will be done”, something which every seeker inevitably struggles with?
Finally, as regards free will vs. predestination as well as prayer (and every other issue that arises along the way) remember Ibn ‘Arabi
’s observation: “Thou art not thou, thou art He without thou”. And A Course in Miracles
: “Separation is only the decision not
to know yourself”.