Esoteric psychology teaches that free will – in our usual modality of being – is an illusion. We are of course so very deeply convinced of the reality of free will as something readily available to us in day-to-day life that we find any talk of the lack of it to be utterly fantastical to us. We have impatience with such talk – it seems ridiculous, our everyday experience contradicts it, and the whole idea of ‘free will being an illusion’ tends to sound rather disempowering, to say the least.
Generally speaking, most of us would laugh at the suggestion that we have no free will – we would dismiss the notion out of hand. When we do laugh at the suggestion that we have no free will (when we discount and dismiss it) we do so involuntarily, however. We don’t have any choice in our dismissive reaction, which puts the joke right back on us! If on the other hand we did have the freedom to carefully and sincerely examine the proposition that we have no free will, without bringing any of our randomly-acquired assumptions into play, without automatically prejudging the matter, then – paradoxically – this would in itself constitute an act of free will!
It’s generally the case that we do have some kind of prejudice regarding this matter of questioning whether we have free will or not. Our mechanical (i.e. unfree) thinking tells us that we do, and we automatically swallow everything this mechanical thinking process tells us! The usual way of things is that we have some kind of prejudice regarding everything! Another way of putting this is to say that everything makes us react. We react by labelling what is happening to us (or whatever it is that we are perceiving) in the way that we’re predisposed to labelling stuff, by evaluating our situation in the way that agrees with our hidden agenda for evaluating stuff, by producing a stream of thoughts about this situation (a commentary) which puts it in a context that makes it familiar to us. Our ‘prejudices’ tell us how to react and when the appropriate ‘trigger’ comes along this gives us the opportunity to act out these prejudices…
This ‘reacting’ (this automatic ‘acting out’ of our prejudices or conditioning) is what we understand to be ‘free will’!
I do what I feel I want to do, and so – as far as I’m concerned – I obviously do have free will. Because I never question that what I feel I want is genuinely what I want (and that it is not just my programming, my conditioning, my inbuilt biases talking) this provides me with a perfectly good and eminently plausible substitute for free will, for genuine volition! If I can do what I want to do (or think what I want to think) then by definition, I must have free will! Or so the argument goes…
If I ever questioned if what I feel I want is really what I want (or if what I think is what I genuinely want to think) then this would of course put a rather different complexion on things. If the day-to-day thinking process is mechanical (i.e. based on reflexes rather than true volition) and if I swallow everything that this thinking process tells me (i.e. my thinking tells me what I want) then this puts a very different complexion on things. When I think about the question as to whether I have free will or not then the answer that my thinking comes up with is that I do, and that the question is a stupid one. But if my thinking isn’t free any more than my doing is (if it is only telling what it is pre-programmed to tell me, what it is set up to tell me) then my ability to know if the question is meaningful or not is jinxed right from the start. If I’m thoroughly brain-washed then of course I’m not going to think that I’m brainwashed! If my thinking is inherently prejudiced, then I’m never going to spot this fact. As David Bohm says:
…the general tacit assumption in thought is that it’s just telling you the way things are and that it’s not doing anything – that ‘you’ are inside there, deciding what to do with the info. But you don’t decide what to do with the info. Thought runs you. Thought, however, gives false info that you are running it, that you are the one who controls thought. Whereas actually thought is the one which controls each one of us.
So if thought controls us in the way that David Bohm is saying that it does then very clearly we don’t have any free will. We imagine ourselves to be free only because our unfree thinking tells us we are, and because we automatically take it that we are whatever the mechanical system of thought tells us we are.
In order for me to see that I am not my thinking (and that when I think something this is not a free or true expression of my will) I would need to have developed some sense of myself that has not been created (or ‘conditioned’) by my thinking mind. This however is trickier than it sounds because the sense of ‘I’ (the sense of who I truly am, underneath the conditioning) is not a positively defined affair like the mind-created self-image is. We are so used to the positive sense of ‘self’ that the negative sense of self – the unstated or unconstructed self – is something that we find it very hard indeed to get a feel for. The suggestion that who we really are is ‘the unstated self’ is extremely perplexing for us. The negative self is a profoundly baffling concept for us – all the more so because it isn’t a concept! The negative self is a conceptual discontinuity not a continuity. It’s what Amit Goswami calls the ‘inviolate level’.
The system of prejudices and reactions that we are subject to (the set-up as it stands) has a kind of a purpose, a kind of a function, and that is to generate and maintain what we have called ‘the positive sense of self’. What is generated is the perception of a purposeful doer, someone who is ‘in the driving seat’, somebody who is definitely there and who gets things to happen, someone who has definite ideas about what should and should not happen. This perception of a purposeful (or positive) self is who I think I am – it is the self who I believe to be me and who I believe to possess ‘free will’.
There are several ways in which we could try to explain why this purposeful or positive self (this ‘effective controller’) can’t have free will. One is to say that the positive self isn’t who we really are, and if it isn’t who we really are (if it is only a mind-produced image with no real existence of its own) then how on earth could it be said to have free will? Another way to get at this same point is to say that since the purposeful or positive self is something very definite, something that has been asserted (so as to say that ‘I am this but not that) then this inescapably means that there can be no possibility of freedom in this set-up. I don’t get to be exhaustively defined and yet be free at the same time because to be defined is to have all the freedom taken away from me.
This isn’t something we tend to see very easily, if at all. We see freedom as something that proceeds from (or applies to) a fixed basis so that the ‘fixed basis’ in question – which is the positive self – can then ‘do whatever it wants’. What we don’t see is that if I am starting off from this fixed or defined basis, and I never question this basis (as I won’t if I understand freedom in the superficial way that we have just outlined) is that no matter what I do or where I go on this basis, I will be always bringing this limited and limiting basis along with me. I’m encumbered with it and I can’t see that I’m encumbered! The thing about a definite statement (a statement that can’t be any other way but the way that it is) is that it has nowhere else to go. It can only keep on asserting and re-asserting itself, and this constant assertion and re-assertion is its ‘freedom’. This is the ‘lower analogue of freedom’. The positive self is ‘the rule’, and the freedom it worships, the freedom it constantly seeks, the freedom it makes so much of, is ‘the freedom to obey the rule’.
In maths, if we have a definite statement (a defined starting-off point) then this statement can be transformed in various ways according to the laws of logic (i.e. it can be re-stated or reformulated) but nothing essential will change in the statement as a result of any of the logical operations that are carried out on it. This is the whole point of logical transformations – the point is that the original set of proportionalities has to be preserved throughout. If this isn’t the case then chaos (or randomness) has entered the picture and chaos/randomness isn’t logic! In a logical (or linear) transformation the original pattern of relationships doesn’t change at all because logic means that this freedom (the freedom to deviate from the original defined set of proportionalities) has been taken away.
The positive self isn’t any different in its essence from a defined statement or position in logic. What the positive self is essentially composed of is, as we have said, a set of prejudices – it is made up of a set of prejudices that we originally acquired on a ‘random basis’ but which are now set in stone. The whole point about prejudices is that they are not given up easily – the whole point is that they are passed on and on relentlessly, that they are stated and re-stated relentlessly. The way that the positive self gets to be the positive self is by hanging on to its prejudices, its preferences, its ‘likes and dislikes’, not letting them go. The set of prejudices that make up the positive self were originally random, as we have said, but now they are fixed and if the positive self is to continue as a ‘going concern’ it must defend this fixed set of prejudices for all that it is worth…
Every time I act out one of my prejudices I am defending my fixed sense of self and this is why I am so very forceful, so very unreflective about it. I can’t afford to be flexible here – I can’t afford to reflect on what I’m doing. If I let go of my pattern of biases I let go of myself. Then there would be no more positive self. But what would happen if I did let go? What would happen if I stopped taking these unexamined biases (or rules) so very seriously? What is life like if you go about it in an unprejudiced way, without defending a position, without defending a fixed pattern of thinking the whole time?
Initially, we start off from the defined position which is the positive self, which is as we have said a situation in which we are compelled to act out a whole range of mechanical impulses, a whole range of automatic reflexes, as if this ‘acting out’ where the same thing as our free will, the same thing as our true volition. By acting out these mechanical impulses, the automatic reflexes, we defend and perpetuate the fixed pattern of thinking that is the positive self. When we are able to successfully act out our prejudices, therefore, we feel pleased, we feel gratified, and when we are prevented from successfully acting out the mechanical impulses that arise from these prejudices then we feel annoyed, upset, out of sorts, dismayed, downcast, demoralized, defeated, and so on…
Such is the life of the positive self. There really isn’t any more to it than this, no matter what we might like to think! This is as much freedom as we have – mechanical freedom, which isn’t actually any sort of freedom at all. We have to make do with the analogue of freedom which is a very peculiar state of affairs (even though we are so very familiar with it that we don’t see it as being at all peculiar). The ideal situation for the purposeful self is that of ‘successful controller’ because when it is successfully in control then it is effectively maintaining and perpetuating itself. This situation is known to the positive self as being ‘a winner’ and there is nothing better, nothing more important than this! The other side of the coin is, then, the situation of being an ‘unsuccessful controller’ (or ‘loser’) and as long as we take this ‘failure’ seriously enough (and feel bad enough about it) then this state of affairs is also effectively maintaining and perpetuating the fixed pattern of thinking.
After all, no matter whether I define myself as a successful or unsuccessful controller, I am still seeing ‘control’ as the central important issue. I still think I ought to be in control! No matter where I see myself as a winner or as a loser, I am still taking the game with the utmost seriousness, in other words. When I fail to act out the set of reflexes that governs my life, my outlook, I feel bad as a result, but just so long as I then go straight into bemoaning and bewailing the fact that I have failed, and keep saying to myself and others (over and over again) what a terrible state of affairs it is, I am still acting out the core reflexes. I am acting out the mechanical impulse to self-recriminate, I am acting out the compulsion to bewail and bemoan my situation, I am acting out the automatic reflex to keep on saying how terrible it all is – and so I am preserving and perpetuating the pattern of reflexes after all!
This gives us a clue as to how we might go about ‘undoing’ all of this – we can’t deliberately not react because this too would be reacting. In this case we would only be ‘reacting against our reacting’ and that wouldn’t do us any good at all! We’re caught either way. This is the predicament we’re in, not having any free will. There’s no escape from the loop. Instead of free will we have mechanical reacting, so no matter what we do or think we’re only ever perpetuating our predicament. We’re trying to undo the pattern of mechanical reacting but we’re only making matters worse – we’re only digging a deeper grave for ourselves. The only way out of the predicament (the predicament of having no free will) is to give up on purposeful doing altogether! So if I do fail to act out the impulses successfully and I simply observe this ‘failure’ (and the feelings that come up with it) without trying to change anything, then I’m not feeding back into the loop. I simply witness what is going on for me – and if I feel that I can’t be an impartial witness (if I feel that I have to try to change things in accordance with my preferences) then I witness this too…
Of course we could equally well apply this to the enjoyable situation of being successful in acting out the mechanical impulses, and witness how this makes us feel, but this tends to be harder because impartially witnessing when we are pleased and gratified by success somehow detracts from the pleasure and gratification! In practice, therefore, it could be said that ‘freeing ourselves from the mechanical pattern of our reactions’ means learning how to tolerate failure more often than it does learning to tolerate success! We observe things not working out as we would have liked with good grace – with interest, even. This is the Buddhist virtue of equanimity, upekkha, which is one of the ‘Four Immeasurables’ or ‘Unbound States’, (along with Compassion, Loving Kindness, and Sympathetic Joy). With regard to this virtue, therefore, Pema Chodren says,
To cultivate equanimity we practice catching ourselves when we feel attraction or aversion, before it hardens into grasping or negativity.
So we could say that the way to become free from the imprisoning unconscious modality in which we continually mistake mechanical thought and behaviour for our own true volition is to refrain from either celebrating our own success when we manage to effectively act out the impulses, or bemoaning our failure when we can’t. We don’t have to change ourselves to become unprejudiced since the prejudice was never ours in the first place – it belongs to the fixed pattern of reacting, to the false-self system, to the rational-mechanical introject, that we have haphazardly indentified with. All of our rational thinking, all of our concrete goals, all of our purposeful doing belongs to this ‘fixed pattern’, to this mechanical ‘false self’…
Thus, instead of ‘purposeful doing’ (which is only reacting) we don’t do – we refrain from indulging in either the pleasure of gratification and self-congratulation, or the pain of disappointment and self-recrimination. Whatever is happening, we just observe it happening, without continually commentating and evaluating, without falling into the trap of thinking that it is unacceptable for things to have happened the way that they actually have happened. And if we fall into the trap of being unaccepting, we impartially witness ourselves falling into this trap, instead of automatically bemoaning (or complaining about) the fact.
Once we go down the road of ‘not doing’ (or wu wei ) then what this means is of course that we stop protecting and perpetuating the positive self to the degree that were beforehand, and so with time it takes up less and less of our attention. As we feed it less with our attention (and our obedience) it shrinks and progressively gives way to other considerations – it ceases to feature so prominently, it no longer dominates. The feeling that we have to try to be an ‘effective controller’ at all times diminishes and instead of the perception that we are this controller (either successful or unsuccessful) there is another perception – something that is a lot harder to understand, a lot harder to get a handle on.
In the first case – in the case of the positive or purposeful self – the perception is (as we have said) that it is definitely me that is doing everything. This can have a pleasurable aspect in that I can look forward to having effective control, and feel great satisfaction from exercising it, or on the other hand it can have a painful and distressing aspect in that I can suffer anxiety about the possibility of me not having effective control and experience acute disappointment and regret at not being able to exercise it. The illusory perception of being an effective controller makes me feel good about myself, and the flip-side of this illusory perception makes me feel bad about myself. These are the two sides of the purposeful self – the euphoric and the dysphoric side! Both are ultimately the same thing because both are based on the illusion of the positive self actually existing when it doesn’t…
The positive self feels that it is an actual ‘agent’, in the sociological sense of the world, such that all the glory belongs exclusively to it if it succeeds, and all the ignominy and disgrace attaches to it if it fails. One way lies praise and self-congratulation, the other way blame and a whole heap of toxic self-recrimination! The positive self ‘takes on too much responsibility’ either way; this is therefore a case of inflation – either of the pleasurable or painful variety.
We can also say that ‘control’ or ‘purposefulness’ is all about copying – it is all about the transcription of whatever set of biases, whatever set of prejudices, it is that we happen to have in our heads, into the outside world, into tangible or measurable reality. It is all about making sure that there are no surprises, no deviations, no errors in this regard.
The negative self, however, is not like this at all. The negative self is without prejudice, without bias, so how can it be concerned or preoccupied with copying its prejudices? Since all purposeful activity comes down to this (i.e. it comes down to the copying or transcribing the pattern of prejudices, the pattern of biases), this means that the negative self does not operate on the basis of purposeful or directed behaviour.
For the negative self, then, there is no feeling of being a solid, self-existent ‘agent’ that is exclusively responsible for all of its actions (or lack of them). There is no on there sitting behind the driving wheel, pulling all the levers and pressing the buttons. There is no looking forward to being a successful controller who will receive the glory and there is no anxiety about being an unsuccessful controller who is to be saddled with the ignominy of failure. The negative self is ‘beyond success and failure’. It is not greedy to win and neither is it afraid of losing – it is free from all such wretchedly nonsensical business. It is unencumbered with apprehension of either the pleasant or unpleasant variety, and because of this lack of encumbrance the negative self has huge perspective on everything – it simply acts, or doesn’t act.
The positive self on the other hand has no perspective on things at all other than what stands to be either to its advantage or its disadvantage (i.e. what it likes and what it doesn’t like, what it wants and what it doesn’t want). And this is no perspective at all since these notions of advantage and disadvantage, loss versus gain, etc (which are so important to it) only seem as important and as pressing as they do because of the positive self’s absolute lack of perspective!
When I identify with the positive self then I know who I am and I know what I want or don’t want. Crucially, we can say that the positive self always knows what it is going to do (or what it wants to do) before it does it (or fails to do it).
The negative or unstated self on the other hand has no likes and dislikes, no prejudices with regard to ‘how it would like things to be’. I don’t know who I am at all and neither do I know what I am going to do before I do it!
‘Knowing what I am going to do before I do’ it is infinitely sterile – but the ‘plus side’ is that it does afford me the possibility of personal satisfaction / dissatisfaction!
Not knowing what I am going to do before I do it, on the other hand, is endlessly creative – but I can’t take any credit for this creativity!
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.