“The mental and the material are really here,
But here there is no human being to be found.
For it is void and merely fashioned like a doll,
Just suffering piled up like grass and sticks.”
~ Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification)
Free will is a tentacular issue. It permeates our life in a very intimate way, like very few things do. Any action that we might engage in, any decision we take, any thought we think, bear at their core the question of their ownership. If we believe in free will and don’t exercise it for all sorts of psychological reason, then the road is open to guilt, shame, regret, self-loathing. Could things have been any different? What if I had not made that choice? What if I had taken a different decision, if I had been more courageous, if I had followed my heart? Well, it is not any different if I feel I have exercised my free will; I could be left with the same regrets. Is it even possible to not exercise our free will, if we leave aside the unchangeable circumstances we are in? Is not free will our nature no matter what? Or conversely, can we ever, at all, exercise our free will? Maybe there is no such thing. Who is here, deep down, to exercise free will? Is there not only a flow of life on which we superimpose a continuous stream of hectic, frantic thinking? What is it?
I was watching a mountain torrent the other day during one of my walks. How miraculous to see the water flow down unquestionably, directed left or right, split up by a stone. If you had been a water drop placed here, it is left, but more there and it is right. Who could imagine such a droplet having any kind of choice? The river would sometimes divide itself in three little currents, forming islands. Sometimes you could be dragged sideways in a stagnant little pool, or rushed about in a forceful cascade. What struck me was the absence of resistance, and the fact that no matter the direction, no matter where you were dragged into, how slow or fast, smooth or jumpy, water was water and you would find yourself downstream at exactly the same place than any other drop of water that you might have judged as having a more harmonious or lucky course. Are we not such a drop carried, or literally swept along, in the stream of life?
Free will is intimately connected with the seeking of happiness. It betrays the presence of a separate self that desires to find happiness in objective experience. Anything we do, we choose to do in order to alleviate ourselves from the excruciating pain of living. We want peace, relief, and in order to have it we develop a strong sense of doership, we feel we have to make it happen, to find it no matter what, be it in destructive behaviours. This is the problem with free will. It is driven, oriented by desire. Krishnamurti remarked: “What is the meaning of will? … Is it not desire? … Desire accentuated, heightened, strengthened, which we call will. … Now, can desire ever be free?”
“Is there need of any choice at all? Does a free mind choose?
This is not a verbal statement, you have to go into it,
you have to live it daily, and then you will find out the beauty of it,
the vigour of it, the passion, intensity of it.”
~ J. Krishnamurti
When we think — for it is here just a thought — that we are a ‘me’ exercising our free will, there is something that feels small, limited, closed. The feeling of freedom is not evident. The separate ‘me’ is never free, for it is eternally engaged in a quest to either protect or fulfil itself. The sensation of freedom is rather felt in these precious moments when we have let go of any ownership, stopped clinging to our lovely and proud idea that we are somebody. In the space that is thus created lies the very freedom that we previously sought by exercising free will. Who is this ‘I’ who supposedly has free will? In answering this question lies the key to the riddle.
Everybody has experienced how little input or will is sometimes necessary to make big, spectacular changes in our life. And conversely, how sometimes we can get stuck for years, not making the simplest, most obvious change. Life is unpredictable, and this alone should warn us on how little free will is truly exercised. As Jan Koehoorn once wrote, “If there was such a thing as free will, everybody would be happy.” For even in imposed external circumstances, we could choose to have only happy, constructive thoughts, and shun all negativity.
Of course, it could be argued that the absolute belief and reliance on free will, and what we sometimes call will power, can lead people to great achievements. If a particular body-mind has the energy and clarity — unblocked by psychological ailments like shyness, etc — to exercise that power, this can lead one to realise various dreams and projections, and thus experience some degree of happiness. But this can end in great distress when one fails, or when the favourable circumstances come to an end. This is obviously not a recipe for, let alone an expression of a happy and peaceful living. Only through right understanding can we find the happiness which we conventionally sought in objective experience. One may stay a simple person living quietly, but this will in no way be a hindrance to a life of peace and unbound happiness — the happiness having been found where it truly resides.
Even if one would consider that there is such a thing as a little ’me’ in charge, the doer, the one who exercises his free will, takes decision, what a poor choice or stand that would be that our life was led by an agent that is at best immensely conditioned and limited, and above all feels that it is separated from experience. Separation can never be the place where clarity flowers naturally. Separation is the necessary requirement for the belief in free will, or the doer, to arise. But that is an invention, a thought superimposed on the reality of experience. One could say that the sense of having free will is the born child of the separate self. It is the child of a barren parent though, for this self, under the scrutiny of investigation, is found to be non existent.
“Actions do exist, and also their consequences,
but the person that acts does not.”
So the one who claims to exercise free will is not there. What is left is the very consciousness that we are, our aware sense of being. And in consciousness, the idea of free will falls away. Free will is too much saying for awareness. Awareness is empty, allowing, unconditioned, a perfect ’is ness’. It has no agenda. This being said and understood, it is a form of will — Schopenhauer did call ‘will’ this something that is the origin and substratum of everything. For consciousness has its own inbuilt necessities, it is infinite, eternal, free. It is God’s will. And to live truly for a human being is to marry his will with the will of god. In other words, to realise his true nature as pure consciousness. By believing in and exercising our own separate apparent free will, we block any other possibility or vision. This is a veil.
We have an eternal choice at hand, which is sometimes referred as the ‘open door’ or the ‘first freedom’. The belief in free will is a hindrance for exercising this choice, for it strengthens the illusion of a separate self. It is hardly a choice though, more like a ’seeing’. This choice might be the only true free will that we can ever exercise. But it is exercised on God’s terms and premises, which is also our own when it is seen. It’s a free will that can never be exercised from the vantage point of the illusory self. In that, it is a sacred will, a relaxation, a letting go of the controlling ‘I’ — the ‘I’ that thinks it knows — and a diving into the spacious presence that supports us and everything.
To claim to be the doer of our actions is only the thought of a swollen ego. Are we not grandiose to think that we are creating our own destiny with this instrument called free will? Do we have all that power that a petty little thought-character can direct the course of things, praise itself for the successes, and blame itself for the failures? Be big where you’re in your good right to be, in awareness, in the infinite expanse of your true self. Your believed sense of self, which feels separate and thinks it has to fight its way out of everything, is nothing but petty and small. Worse even, it is an invention of thought. Just think of the chain of billions of laws, processes, and events that have gathered to produce the littlest event in our life. How could we move even the minutest part of it? “Reason it out.” said Ramakrishna. “Are you the body or the flesh or something else? At the end you will know that you are none of these. You are free from attributes. Then you will realize that you have never been the doer of any action, that you have been free from virtue and faults alike, that you are beyond righteous and unrighteousness.” In the timeless moment when we are established in the pure light of awareness, how could we even care about having free will or not? We’re just present and driven by a force that we couldn’t even dream of comprehending, let alone think that we are driving it! But it doesn’t mean that we cannot exercise our innate freedom when the need comes — on the contrary! — for we have an infinite amount of freedom at hand.
When it is the separate self that has the thought ‘there is no free will’, this can lead to fatalism and indolence. If one feels to be a separate self, it is better to exercise one’s apparent freedom to choose, rather than saying there is no free will. For it is like superimposing the belief that there is no free will on a believer in free will. This could only lead to conflict and delusion. Everything that comes from a thinker is bound to be false, for this is the outcome of a conditioned knowledge acquired from past experiences. But when, as Krishnamurti put it, the thinker becomes the thought, it frees us and allows us to be the witness, the watcher, consciousness itself. At that moment, the assertion ‘there is no free will’ acquires a wholly different significance and perfume, not something that is arbitrarily believed. Only when the enlightened being has the vision — not the thought — that there is no free will, does life indeed flow. And our true being doesn’t interfere with the flow — for being is flow — and this non-interference is true freedom. “In the absence of thoughts, stories and concepts, what remains is very fluid.” remarked Joan Tollifson. All the while, though, one retains the impression that one chooses and acts out of free will. This impression of personal free will is experienced, not as a reality, but as an expression of the freedom that is the core of our true being.
Of course, all this being said, we have to live our lives and make choices. We cannot wait for a revelation to descend upon us and inform our decisions. We have to take the best possible decisions by trying not to base them on the cravings of a non existent, limited self — but rather on behalf of the true self which is our being. Decisions should be a direct expression of our true being of peace and happiness. They are not meant to produce peace and happiness. Decisions should not be the cause — or producer — of happiness. Nor happiness be a consequence — or outcome — of any decision. It’s the other way round. Happiness should really be the cause of decision; and decision a consequence of peace and happiness.
“But do you know the attitude of one who has realized God? He feels:
‘I am the machine, and Thou, O Lord, art the Operator.
I am the house and Thou art the Indweller.
I am the chariot and Thou art the Driver.
I move as thou movest me;
I speak as Thou makest me speak’.”
~ Sri Ramakrishna
The question of free will, it seems to me, can be used as a path. As Roger Castillo proposes, “Sit back, relax, with no regrets in the past, no expectations in the future, and no complaints in the present.” But he subtly warns us: “That’s not a prescription or something to do – it’s a description that at some point we find that that’s how life has been lived. It’s not that I have to create that way of living.” By adopting the position of the watcher and letting yourself being lived, relaxing the grip on being the doer, we find some ease and relief. With that relief, with that sense of benevolent indifference, we alleviate our sense of being separate and have a glimpse of our true nature. This can have very effective effects, for we are being pushed to see how life, through this body, can enfold and be acted out naturally, without the input or participation of a separate self being the orchestrator. It is a subtle practice though, for this witness can easily be the separate self in disguise. But in truth, being the witness or abiding in presence is the only possible way to see the mechanism of life, to see that the observer is the observed. As Krishnamurti remarked wittingly: “If the observer is the observed what need is there for decision at all?” This is the position from which he could say: “I don’t mind what happens”.
To believe we make ‘mistakes’, ‘bad choices’, and have a personal, individual responsibility, are a direct emanation of the belief in a separate self and breeds endless confusion and conflicts. It betrays our belief in a self that exists inside our body-mind, and which needs particularly favourable circumstances to find peace and happiness. It doesn’t mean that actions do not have consequences. They do, and sometimes in the most ruthless way. But these are the result of a more fundamental mistake and responsibility: to have taken a mere bundle of thoughts and feelings to be our real self. Maybe the only real free will there is, is when one lives fully what is here and now, the ‘what is’. The re-enactment of past events, and the playing back of old memories and conflicts, is what is often judged to be the ‘me’ thinking and acting, holding the show, while the show is in fact being played by a reality that is largely beyond our reach. You want free will? Exercise it where it truly lies, in being fully aware of all that is. This is the truly empowering factor of life, for you will be given a chance to see where and when you are truly present, and where and when you need not to be. I love this little story that summarizes what a true expression of free will truly is:
“A pilgrim approached a sadhu who was resting on the banks of the Ganges and asked him, ‘I heard that you are an enlightened saint who is capable of performing miracles. What miracles can you do…?’ The sadhu replied: ‘When I eat… I eat… when I drink… I drink… when I walk… I walk, and when I sleep… I sleep…’”
So it is the most potent decision you will ever take, or the best expression of free will you will ever have — and it’s really a simple move: to stop clinging to the self you believe to be, to release the grip. To use an Indian mythological theme, you are the chariot, not the charioteer. Miriam Louisa Simons wrote eloquently: “This is the ultimate paradox – our absence is the presence of the freedom and creativity we seek! (…) Life took a spin around the Labyrinth [of life] and the ‘me’ you believed yourself to be was its taxi. En route you lost your belongings but the taxi travels on. Only now, you’re wise to the fact that Life – aka – Grace is driving. And it’s wearing your very own name on its cap!” I presume that it could be said that there are three stages: when we feel to be a separate self located in a body, there is the belief in having free will; when we realise that we are the witness, the consciousness behind every experience, then we see that we don’t have free will; and when we come back to the world and fully invest the field of experience — which is the Tantric approach — then we exercise total free will. But with the difference that this free will is really only God’s will — or life’s flow — that we have freely assumed ours. We are free! Ridden from the burden of free will or not free will. We just are and act and love unconditionally. Unbound by anything. Naturally and unquestionably ourself.
“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.
For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ, who is your life, appears, then
you also will appear with him in glory.”
~ Colossians 3.2-4
Text by Alain Joly
Paintings by Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
Read this beautiful essay by Miriam Louisa Simons, ‘On Labyrinths, Grace and the Via Creativa’.
– ‘The First and Last Freedom’ – by J. krishnamurti – (Rider Book)
– ‘Death: The End of Self-Improvement’ – by Joan Tollifson – (New Sarum Press)
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