How can you tell the difference between a compelled desire and one from "free will"? Is wanting more knowledge about God or helping others karmic desires that need to be cleared?
You ask an excellent question, one that devotees must ask of themselves daily as they live in this world. For the spiritual aspirant must act in this world; it is not an option to not act. The attitude and thoughts behind the action determine whether they act out of desire to satisfy ego’s craving or whether they act only to serve the will of God. Yogananda defined will as desire plus energy directed toward a goal. We are all endowed with free will by our Creator. It is our choice whether we act only from our own inclinations or whether we unite our will with Divine Will. Yes, we are born with karmic patterns that we can consider as ‘compelling’ us to act in a certain way to fulfill past karma. But what if we are not attached to the outcome of our action? What if we offer every activity to God, allowing God to flow through us? What if our attitude is ‘whatever comes of itself, let it come’ and do not react to circumstances from a place of egoic like and dislike? This is how someone acts who is seeking soul freedom and freedom from incurring any more karma.
We incur karma when our action whether in deed or thought is tied to the thought that ‘I’ am the doer, this is who ‘I’ am, ‘I’ want this outcome, ‘I’ like (dislike) this. That is action tied to the post of ego. Desireless desire leads us to act without ego attachment, without seeking anything for ourselves. It is acting with the selfless desire of only pleasing God. As we tune into our soul nature we become aware of our soul’s desire to know God, to love God, to serve God, to be one with God. These are desireless desires. We act without expectation that we receive back. We act free from any habit. We act as a channel of the Divine flowing through us. Our action, not tied to the post of ego, will have no karmic rebound, no equal and opposite reaction.
God must have channels to work through in this world. It is God’s show not ours. We are the actors on His stage. He is the Director, the Playwright, the Producer and it is a good show, meant for our education and entertainment. The script for our lives includes the particular karmic patterns set in our lesson plan. Our job is to put out positive energy with the highest possible consciousness, in attunement with our Director, God, and act our part without attachment to our role in the play. Let Him act through us with less and less of our own ego trying to control the scene and we will act with freedom and without accruing additional karma.
You ask how we can tell the difference between action dictated by our desires and action that is truly free. Yogananda said the only free will we really have is to turn toward God or away from Him. When our action is controlled by habit, karma, and worldly desires it is compelled. When our action is in attunement with the Divine it is free. When we practice meditation and prayer daily, our consciousness becomes increasingly attuned to the Divine Will and we sense whispers of guidance showing us the way. Action in attunement with the Divine Will carries with it a sense of peace and expansion and is free from emotional reactions such elation, anxiety, resentment, regret, and restlessness. Calm, uplifted feeling in the heart will let you know your will is attuning to the Divine. Our listening for guidance must be continuous. Never presume that you are free of egoic influence. Daily, minute-by-minute, turn your attention to God and resist any tendency to discouragement. ‘A saint is a sinner who never gave up’ is a famous quote from Yogananda.
So you see that it is not what we do in this world but the consciousness with which we do it. Wanting to know God is a desireless desire. Wanting to help others can be a desireless desire if we are not attached to them changing in a particular way but just offer our help selflessly, God helping God. When we act with freedom from attachment to a certain outcome, freedom from worldly desires and increasing openness to be an instrument for God, then any role we play can take us another step toward freedom.