We are compelled to do as we choose to desire
“Am I really free?” We may get this situation when we try to change ourselves for the better and realize how difficult it is, realize how easily we tend to relapse to old habits and attitudes.
The subject is complex with many nuances, but a general answer is: We are free to choose our desires, but having done so, are compelled to act according to those desires. Here’s an example.
Imagine a vast ocean with three currents going in three different directions. Suppose a boatperson is trying to navigate the way through such an ocean. Once a boatperson chooses a particular current, its force pushes and drags the boat. Our situation is similar – we are souls in the ocean of material existence, the human body is like the boat for navigating the ocean and the three modes of material nature are like the three currents. The Bhagavad-gita (14.05) indicates that the modes bind all living beings, no matter how powerful they may be. These modes propose different kinds of desires. Once we choose a particular desire, the mode that induced the desire takes control of us just as the current takes control of the boat that enters into it. Of course, a determined and skilled boatperson can resist the current and choose a different trajectory. Similarly, if we are determined and skilled, we can resist the dominant mode and act differently.
The heart of the determination and the skill is the humble devotion that enables us to take shelter of Krishna, who resides as an infallible shelter beyond the range of the modes. When we anchor ourselves to Krishna through bhakti-yoga, he becomes our guarding and guiding anchor for resisting the current and making wise choices – choices that set us free to progress towards real happiness.
"Material nature consists of three modes – goodness, passion and ignorance. When the eternal living entity comes in contact with nature, O mighty-armed Arjuna, he becomes conditioned by these modes."