On how we end up where we've always meant to go

To what extent is the outcome of a person's life the result of accumulated choices and actions, small or large, taken by that person, and to what extent is it the result of facts and events that are unrelated to those actions? The question defies simple answers.

Questions about destiny have long fascinated human beings, and turn up in most mythologies and intellectual traditions in some form. Does destiny exist, and if so, what is our relationship to it? Does the course of a person's life have a definite aim (purpose, end, or telos) that is already in place from the beginning of life?

Even if personal outcome does depend largely on personal choices, where do choices come from? Are we truly the cause and architect of our own decisions, or is that an illusion, and in fact are the seeds of desire formed by factors outside ourselves?

Arguably, questions such as those cannot be answered through reflection or observation. We could probably never know with any certainty whether what has happened during a person's lifetime has been due to destiny or not.

. . .

Since the nature of destiny is speculative, there's no harm in offering another view out of sheer speculation.

To consider that view, we look at two components of the human personality. The first is a hidden part that we will call the kernel. This component has no obvious connection to the obvious or apparent parts of the personality.

Note from the author

In this essay I play with the idea that the course of a person's life is shaped largely by the subtle interplay between the person's environment and a part of the person that is deeper than the self.

- Michael Webb

The kernel does not think verbally and it does not speak. It does not constitute a mind within the mind, in the sense of an unconsciousness, and it has no separate will of its own.

It is the core of a person's character or individual nature, a set of unlistable characteristics or patterns of mind that make up the person's style of being or essential way of responding to the world. The kernel stands completely apart from conditioning or acquired responses.

The kernel is probably fully or almost fully formed in a newborn infant. In fact, the personality of an infant reflects that new person's kernel in its purest form, before the experiential, acquired-response structure of the personality has had a chance to develop.

Because the subtlest tendencies reside in the kernel, the kernel is what defines a person's basic inner needs for achieving psychological equilibrium (what we generally call "happiness").

Like the hard seed inside a peach, the kernel embodies the personality's innate potential.

That potential has no predetermined outworking, but the kernel inscribes the meta-patterns, or patterns of patterns, that will influence the probabilities that a particular outworking will be realized over the person's lifetime.

From that perspective, personal destiny lies coiled up inside the kernel at birth.

. . .

The second major component of the personality is what we can call the shell. Unlike the kernel, which is innate, the shell develops throughout life and incorporates experience and learning.

The shell is composed of layers of past conditioning, feelings, and habits of thought. It is the visible part of the personality, the part that speaks, desires, muses, and interacts with the world.

A person's kernel is difficult to know, either by that person or by others, whereas the shell includes all characteristics that are accessible. All that is visible in the personality unfolds from the shell.

Like the shell of a mollusk, the shell-mind is a protective mantle. The shell of the marine animal is not actually alive; a narrow rim of living cells slowly accretes, or adds to, the shell. In the same way, the shell-mind is made up of a slow accretion of "dead" experience.

. . .

The shell preserves what the person has learned through experience, and enables the person to take advantage of that experience. The shell is the conveyance used by the kernel to intrude into the world in order to fulfill its needs and realize its potential.

At the same time, the shell presents the disadvantage of having also accumulated destructive or self-defeating habits of thought and feeling, and for that reason, it often inadvertently resists or reverses the kernel's tendencies.

The expression, "to be one's own worst enemy", accurately describes that problem.

The shell is disconnected from the kernel and tends to stray from the innate patterns implicit in the kernel, going off in various opposing directions.

Because the kernel does not directly control the shell, the shell can in principle interfere with or obstruct the kernel.

Interestingly, the shell can also deliberately align itself with the kernel through conviction. Conviction is to ordinary thought as laser light is to ambient light.

double rainbow

The word "conviction" (like "convinced" and "victory") is related to the Latin verb meaning "to be won over". Through conviction, the shell allows itself to become fully persuaded that the potential enfolded within the kernel will eventually be realized. As that persuasion penetrates the shell, the shell interferes less with the kernel. Conviction, in this sense, is something like what is meant by the expression, "to have a strong inner compass."

Conviction allows the shell to become settled so that it can begin to harmonize with the kernel. As the shell and the kernel become aligned, the kernel silently and indirectly influences, guides, and arranges events in the person's life.

The kernel does this through no particular conscious process, but rather through its characteristic way of subtly altering how the person interacts with the environment.

Over time, the flavor of the effects of those interactions accumulates fatefully.

As the shell and the kernel become aligned, the kernel silently and indirectly influences, guides, and arranges events in the person's life.

There is yet a stranger way through which the kernel apparently brings about a person's destiny.

To see this, consider first that when you look back on the course of a person's life, most movement toward the person's present arrangement in life arrived in sudden leaps.

Between those sharp punctuations, the person may have gone years without any visible movement. Perhaps the person was working steadily but without obvious results, until an abrupt change shifted the person significantly toward the eventual destiny.

Those changes often seem to come about as if by magic, without any obvious cause or connection to what the person has been doing until then.

We hear anecdotes about how a person had a chance encounter with someone whose presence or influence dramatically changed the person's life, or the oft-heard story of a pivotally significant book that seemed to jump off a shelf.

Anecdotes such as those prove nothing, of course, but we're tempted to speculate whether there might not be more to our lives than simple linear cause and effect. If we're careful and honest, we can probably find many cases in our lives where crucial changes took place against all odds.

Let's entertain the speculative notion that the kernel is somehow entangled with the person's environment, so that events occur serendipitously.

The result of that entanglement would make it seem as if the kernel and the environment "conspired" to agree upon the person's destiny through synchronicity.

Such entanglement is not necessarily as farfetched as it might seem at first. Physics describes the strange phenomenon of quantum entanglement.

Once two particles are entangled, random changes in the state of one quantum particle are instantaneously reflected in measurements of the other particle, even if the particles are now at a great distance from each other.

Of course, we rush to point out that the scale of physical events in everyday life is far too gross for quantum effects such as those to play a measurable role.

However, isn't it worth commenting that at least at the quantum scale, nature seems quite comfortable with what we would otherwise label as "magic"?

The kernel is the "outside that is inside," in a sense similar to what is expressed in the Upanishads, "Tat tvam asi" (Thou art that).

Imagine the strange case of destiny-entangled twins, two people who never meet but whose lives mirror each other moment by moment, as if they shared the same kernel.

Let's say one, James, lives in San Francisco and the other, Jaume, lives in Barcelona. Even though they live in different cultures nine time zones apart, the events in their daily lives are equivalent.

Jaume is awakened one night when a neighbor slams a car door. James is awakened by a similar loud noise the same night, nine hours later.

Jaume gets a new job at a travel book publishing company where a friend of his works. Later the same day, James also gets a new job as a magazine editor, and one of his friends works there, also.

Jaume and James eventually die on the same day. The details and contexts of their lives differ, but the underlying significance of each moment in the flow of events for both individuals is correlated.

. . .

The question of destiny usually invites consideration of how a course of life might be successful or not. Most people think of success in the context of competition for limited resources, opportunities, or honors.

Success, in that sense, means winning a greater share of those limited resources. The more the demand for particular resources exceeds supply, the greater the success attributed to the persons who finally capture those resources.

Setting that aside, a different way of looking at success is that it is the extent to which a person fulfills the potential inherent in the kernel.

The kernel is correlated to events in the person's environment, but without any obvious cause-and-effect linkage between the kernel and those events, as illustrated in the imaginary case of destiny-entanged twins described above.

That correlation makes the kernel seem as if it were part of the environment, or world outside, rather than part of one's own personality.

The shell is what creates the self. The feeling of being a self comes from the shell-mind, not the kernel. The kernel is the "outside that is inside," in a sense similar to what is expressed in the Upanishads, "Tat tvam asi" (Thou art that).

Some disciplines, such as Buddhism, lead people to experience the direct realization that their true self is not the feeling of self produced by the shell-mind, but rather the silent, invisible kernel.

The word kernel means "small seed," which is an apt name, because the kernel embodies a person's essence, and a person's essence determines potential, or what the person will most likely become during the course of life.

The particular way in which that potential is expressed is incidental, as with the imaginary destiny-entangled twins described above.

Some people reach more of their potential than others. The shell itself seems to play an important role by choosing to harmonize with the kernel through inner conviction.

When the shell harmonizes with the kernel, the flow of events in a person's life leads to the outworking of innate potential, generally through long periods of focused effort punctuated by occasional rapid shifts in circumstances brought about through no visible cause.

Michael Webb, 2004

home ]