Actually, You Probably Don’t Use Your Free Will

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What does Free Will Even Mean?

Do humans have free will? This is one of those great questions of the ages. I am not going to claim here that I have an answer, just some thoughts, and opinions on the topic. You have to make up your own mind about it. Nor am I going to claim that my particular thoughts on the subject are original. They probably aren’t, and certainly, some of them have been heavily influenced by the Eastern Philosophy that I have spent years reading.

So let’s refine this question. Does everyone have free will?

My answer? No.

Now once, when I was a young Catholic teenager I said this to one of my youth group leaders. She came over and punched me in the arm and said, I just expressed my free will, didn’t I? Being a young teenager and not really having the ability to articulate what I was saying, she won the argument. But if I was going to back now, I would argue, that what she did wasn’t an act of free will, but a reaction to a particular kind of external stimuli.

When I say that not everyone has free I am not going to make a claim that particular group is more capable of this than others, I don’t think that could possibly be true. What I mean, is that the majority of people are not present enough, not mindful enough to actually express their free will. They are just mindlessly reacting. That’s not will, that’s cultural programming and instinct.

Most of what we do in life is not of our conscious choice. Most of what we do is a reaction. What does that mean? It means that without the space and presence of mind to stop and actually make a conscious choice, we aren’t acting of our free will. Instead, we’re caught in a net of cause and effect. Someone with a true conscious choice, with true free will, can break free of the old patterns of cause and effect and completely change the game.

What do I a mean? Let’s use a fairly common example of a reactionary situation. I will use this example because even if it has never happened to you, you have certainly heard of a situation like this or seen it on tv or read it somewhere.

Imagine being held at up at gunpoint in the middle of a parking lot. It’s broad daylight. How do you react? I’ll give you a moment to think on it.

You are probably thinking, well I would just give the mugger what they want and they would go away. Maybe you have a background in combat or martial arts and you figure, I’d kick his ass. Maybe you are a gun-toting 2nd amendment stand up and fight kind of person and you would draw your gun the second you had a chance. No matter what you would do, all of those things are reactions, not choices. They feed the same tired old cause and effect. They don’t make things better, they just continue the status quo, the cycle, the pattern.

A rection is something that arises from emotions, from stress, from neurological patterns that you have spent a lifetime building. X input will result in Y reaction. It is why there are all kinds of mental games you can play with people’s thoughts. It’s how cold reading works.

But here is an article with an example of someone who was present in that situation, who did make a conscious choice. NPR A Victim Treats his Mugger Right

I’ll summarize for you real quick so you don’t have to go read it unless you want to. Basically, a mugger threatens a guy with a knife and as the mugger is walking away he offered the mugger his coat. They end up eating dinner together and the Mugger gives back his wallet and leaves his knife behind.

There is a difference here. This person with enough space and presence was not only able to change the course of the game but drastically alter it so that they were creating something entirely new. It is only in a true conscious choice that the space for real change can begin.

Now you might say well hell, what if the guy just killed him? What if it ended badly for both of them? No one said that free will is a safe course or a safe option. In fact, true transcendence of the simple reaction to any situation requires a large degree of courage and fearlessness. It requires that you leap into the unknown and accept that all situations are impermeant, that yes, you may die, but so what?

Your reaction is probably something like, but what about my family? What about the consequences of my death? What about all the things I will miss out on? Maybe I would have more time if I act a certain way? I am sure that you, like most people, fear death. This is a reaction, not a conscious choice.

But death doesn’t give a shit. It can come for you at any moment and in fact, for most of us, it will catch us completely off guard. It will sneak around the corner and end you and you can’t do a damn thing about it. You aren’t invincible. You will die. Playing it safe probably won’t help you. For example, a family member of mine was murdered working third shift at a convenience store when he was only a teenager. What does that mean? Nothing. Rationalize it with any theological argument you want, death is still coming for you.

It is good and right to contemplate this. You cannot truly live, you cannot truly have free will, you cannot be liberated from stagnation without accepting death as a concrete thing.

True free will is risky, it is dangerous, but it also contains in it a true power to remake the world. True free will is also hard work. It is uncomfortable and messy. You make lots of mistakes and you have to own up to them. But the amazing thing is, true free will is also what allows us to experiment, what allows people to come up with amazing solutions to complex and seemingly impossible problems.

It is the unthinking, unfeeling masses that bring upon terrible conditions in the world. Millions of people are starving in the streets and yet, nearly half of all food in the United States is discarded. We waste half our food

War, poverty, homelessness, so many of the ills of our world come from the lack of the exercise of our free will. Most of us just try to get through our day, apathetic to the consequences of our actions, of the things we do or use.

One of my current favorite authors, Anne Leckie, has a fantastic quote in her book Ancillary Justice. “Luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish. You’re free to enjoy its benefits without troubling your conscience.”

So how do you become more conscious? You have to create a space of self-examination. You can do this through various activities. The easiest and most powerful way is meditation. It doesn’t matter which kind of meditation you do but the purpose of meditation is self-reflection. It is creating the space in your brain and in your experience to stop and act consciously. Meditation is training your brain to do just that, to have the focus and the presence of mind to detach from simple reactions and transform them into conscious choices.

The thing is, it doesn’t start happening overnight. It takes a long time for people to transform. Think of this way, if you are 20 years old, you built up 20 years of habits around the way you think and react. You create mental impressions and ideas of how to react based on certain situations. There is also a cultural level to this as well. By the way, this is what Karma is about. The concept of Karma is entirely misunderstood in the West. If you want to read a different piece I wrote over on Quora on Karma you can find it here.

So what does this all mean? Well as I said in my last entry, if you want freedom it requires discipline. Anyone can do this, but few actually embark on it. As humans, we can do better. We need to do better. We will do better. The world is ours to remake, if we can only be a little more conscious.

 

On Discipline, Desire, Suffering and Transformation

Dune Quote

Driving in Traffic this morning and listening to an audiobook I came across the quote above. I had to rewind the audiobook several times and listen to it over and over. Partly cause I was completely stopped for a good few minutes and needed to focus on something else for my sanity, and partly because I was just so captivated. Why? There’s so much to it. It is one of those small deep truths that we rarely fully understand. It is a kind of precious gem.

Ask yourself, what are you trying to achieve with your goals? What are your dreams and aspirations? My guess is that it has something to do with freedom. Most of us, in a capitalistic society, are chasing money, some out of survival and some out of sheer desire. But why are you chasing money? Freedom.

This could be freedom from harassment, freedom to travel, freedom to sleep in, freedom to spend time with your family, the freedom of owning a home, or many other things. But it always seemed to me, that the more we chase freedom the more we are caught in a web of desire.

Frank Herbert, the author of arguably one of the greatest science fiction novels (and I believe the best selling) integrated a lot of Zen ideas into his work. This is partly because he was fascinated by Zen and partly because he was a huge fan of the 1960’s Zen teacher Alan Watts.

For those of you who aren’t Buddhist, the core idea of Buddhism is the four noble truths. Now hold on, before you click away, this totally relates, I promise.

1. Life is dissatisfying and we suffer. This isn’t nihilistic, just an observation, like a doctor saying, hey you should probably stop eating copious amounts of sugar, cause it’s gonna cause problems.

2. The cause of suffering is clinging to stuff or trying to pin your happiness on something outside yourself. The problem with this is that stuff changes or disappears and good or bad, nothing lasts forever. Yes, even grandma’s eternal fruitcake or that Mcdonald’s sandwich that has been sitting in the open air for ages. Eventually, they will pass away, though probably not in my lifetime.

3. There is a path out. By the way, there are 2500 years of evidence that these methods do work. People have radically changed themselves through Buddhist practice and meditation.

4. The last of the noble truths is a series of practices and methods for the cultivation of discipline to get out of this sense of dissatisfaction and suffering. This is known as the 8-Fold Path.

So what does all this have to do with freedom and discipline? Well, if you are chasing after freedom, you’ll never find satisfaction. Either, you will, at some point, lose that freedom or you will always be chasing after more. It may also be the case that what you thought would bring you freedom, may actually only be freedom in perception, meaning that it wasn’t as good of a deal as you thought. That fixer-upper you bought because you were inspired by one of those reality tv-shows… you probably understand this pretty well.

If you really want to change your life, if you really want to find greater peace and internal freedom, then you must cultivate discipline. You would be amazed how one small act of discipline can change your life. I like to say, a little bit every day goes a very long way.

In the interest of transparency, I am not the most discipline personed in the world. Also, I haven’t been a formal practitioner of Buddhism for terribly long, only about 2 years. But I have noticed a significant change in my attitude and my ability to work with difficult situations.

But, I’m not saying you should run out and check out Buddhism. What I am suggesting is that if you want to make a real significant change in your life, find a way to establish some discipline. You see, what you will notice when you make a commitment to some kind of discipline is that it will start to spread to others areas of life. Shit, I just cleaned my bedroom because a few things were out of order. I would have never done that a year ago. I’m normally a two-pile kind of guy, one of clean clothes, one of dirty.

But look, it could be something small. Perhaps, like me, you want to be a writer and you make a commitment to write at least 500 words a day. By the way, you are reading my daily words right now. Or maybe you want to learn a language, you could download an app like Duolinguo and spend 15 minutes on there every single day. For me, it began with making a commitment to meditating. As of writing this I am currently on a 123-day streak of daily meditation and attempting to get to a full year.

I know it’s hard. I know you are tired from working multiple jobs and having a family. Believe me, I know all those things intimately. I’ve done both and still sometimes do. That’s why you need to create some accountability while you build a habit. Make a team on Duo-Lingo. Join the ‘My 500 Words’ Facebook group and post daily. If you want to get in shape, find a friend and sign up for an event so you have to train. I did this back in 2014 and signed up for a century-ride. It was a painful first ride attempt because I wasn’t as disciplined as needed. I have since learned my lesson.

Community is crazy important in establishing discipline. In fact, the Buddha recognized this 2500 years ago when he told his adepts that one of the most important things (we say one of the three jewels) is a community (Sangha). Community is there when you are too tired to continue. They are there when you just want to say, to hell with. They remind you what you are doing it all for. By the way, having a loving and supporting partner is also a bonus, but if you are like me and don’t, friends are also excellent at this. Tell them to bug you about it.

Of course, all of this is just advice. There is no shame in living an undisciplined life. Not everyone has the opportunity or the ability to make a radical change. Sometimes the conditions just aren’t there. Personal transformation isn’t easy, it isn’t comfortable and sometimes you are going to hate it. But that is how you know it’s working. If you find discipline, you will ultimately have to confront things about yourself that you don’t like. But this is the price for true freedom.

Feel free to share your stories about discipline or what you have been trying to build a habit around in the comments below. I am happy to discuss this more.

 

Beneficial Flame

Beneficial

There are moments in our lives when we feel the fire of rage.

All is in a fog, all is unclear, all is distorted. Yet in the center of that rage, we believe that there is clarity, that we know what the right course of action is.

We confirm our truth.

We allow our preconceptions to build on perception and solidify. It becomes tangible. To us, there is a kind of beauty in that anger. We lust for it.

Like a flower, it seems to have bloomed from some place righteous, some place justified. And those who will be the victims of our rage will receive their just reward.

Yet after, what does it make? How was it of benefit? Did the flame burn truth into the brow of our enemy?

Most often, anger burns the one who wields it, like one who lit a match and held it too long. Scorched fingers.

Patience douses the fire with water.

Sit in the center of the flame and watch it. Let it burn but do not feed it.

Sit in the center and whisper the sacred syllable, Hung.

Watch it transform.

Watch you transform.

Give it space.

Rest in Mind.

The Mastery

The Mastery

The Mastery

It’s all there,

What we once were,

What we are.

It never left the heart.

I assure you.

 

Patient Shadows can abide in darkness.

And As we walk forward on the grated metal path,

Can you hear that echo against your feet?

It means you’re moving.

It means you’re making progress.

But what progress is needed,

When it’s all there already?

There’s no need to deny it.

I assure you.

 

Patient Shadows burn in the brilliant light,

They don’t mind.

There’s no pain.

I assure you.

 

Do you see the path yet?

It’s outlined,

it’s obvious

What’s the matter?

Don’t you trust it?

Your eyes don’t deceive you.

It’s safe,

I assure you.

 

The shadows is in you,

Why do you run?

Turn,

Stop.

Smell the sweet scent of the flowers.

Or the Fucking Roses.

Does your heart quicken?

It should.

There’s no puzzle,

No pieces missing.

It’s all there.

I assure you.

 

But don’t listen to me.

Maybe I’m a lying bastard.

Look up,

Walk the path,

See the shadows,

Smell the roses,

Find the fuck out for yourself.

That’s the only way you’ll know.

I assure you.

Of What Mountains Are Made

 

Of What Mountains Are Made

Of What Mountains are Made

Heartbeat,

Heartache,

Heartbeat,

Heartache,

Round the circle,

It forms from further away.

Shadows casting nets,

Masking my face,

They don’t let me see through their gaping holes.

All I see is the rope that binds me.

It’s is a beautiful rope and bares further inspection.

See the weave?

See the loom that made it?

See the origins of the great net in which we are bound?

Bound or unbound?

We need only stand.

We need only move.

And the weave unravels.

You have a choice,

Heartbeat

Heartache

Heartbeat

Heartache

Are they different?

Obscured

Content

“Content” For a larger version visit the Photography and Art Page

We walk winding paths, 

Obscured by trees. 

It is an arbitrary obscuration. 

Only one path exists. 

The path goes round and round. 

Until we sit in the center, unmoving.

 

 

We seek, we search, we long to fill whatever that empty feeling is inside of us. And all we seem to be able to do is turn on the TV, listen to loud music, or drown in our variety of distractions. We all seek refuge somewhere and through something.

And what are you hiding from? What are you looking for? How far have you traveled? On what does all your happiness rest? Soon it will be gone.

We do nothing but build glass houses. It is only a matter of time before what we have built shatters, before we find ourselves in another chaotic mess. And of course, you will die one day. All is impermanent.

There you are, I am, laying naked, cold, lonely, and weeping. This is all so familiar. Round and round and round we go… where do we stop? Some of us never do.

Some do stop the cycle. Some only pause between intervals, take a few breathes and then continue. In those still moments, they might see that when everything else is stripped away, there is only honesty. We can choose to turn to it, to ourselves, or we can shut our eyes and walk away, continuing to ride yet another round on the rollercoaster.

If we don’t want our world obscured, we must turn into ourselves with terrifying honesty. The truth is dangerous and frightening but it is necessary for peace. We have built so many ideas and theories, many of them do nothing but mask our honesty. It is only when we turn inward that we truly turn outward and see the world through fresh eyes. In Zen this is called beginners mind, because we must always start at the beginning, always with the eyes of a child. Then there is joy in knowing all things pass with time.