What if we receive, rather than direct, the course of our lives?
Before easing the burn, do you contemplate the finger best suited to scratching your forehead?
What about the thought you’ll next think?
What about whether you find these sentences over-reaching, boring, or neutral?
Thoughts arise unbidden. Although I feel I direct the general flow of thought, I can’t predict or choose how something will affect me.
When deciding on lunch options, I can’t account for why avocado and curry paste on fried eggs sounds more appetizing than a grilled cheese sandwich.
Sure, I might intellectualize, citing the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric versus the insulin spike induced by my choice in bread, but that’s a post hoc confabulation. There are times when I eat cake or cookies. The liabilities of these desserts are just as clear in those moments. Things just strike me as true, and I can’t get beneath them.
There are a few ways to glimpse this absence of free will for yourself. First, move one of your legs.
Can you explain why you moved the left and not the right? If you contemplated between the two, why did you ultimately decide to move one rather than the other?
You might say that the left is more shapely, you like it better, and therefore recruit it more frequently. But did you really create the sensibility that inspired you to believe this reasoning was sound?
We might experience the sense of being able to choose between two options, but we can’t choose the choice that strikes us as best.
Another experiment: conjure up an emotion. Feel it as closely as possible.
Why did you choose anger and not regret? Fear and not depression?
With precise attention, our lack of free of will becomes apparent. Nevertheless, notions of being able choose are ingrained to the extent that the actual nature of experience blurs.
We feel a sense of being able to stand and fetch a glass of water or veto the decision at will. Yet this ability to choose is also an illusion. We cannot determine the moment the urge becomes unassailable.
We cannot decide when our thirst becomes so aggressive that our cracking lips and dry throat will demand that we forget about notions of holding out and we’re pouring a glass.
Similarly, no one chooses to begin a day in a cranky mood. Sure, we feel we decide to do things that make our lives better or worse. But your inner life occurs downstream of a series of decisions, influences, and vectors that you, as the present witness to your experience, did not choose.
If we had the kind of metaphysical freedom implicit in conventional notions of free will, why would anyone choose to experience grief, depression, or a sudden and unexpected “bad mood”?
Here, you might say that life loses meaning if we don’t feel emotions appropriate to experience. For example, people usually feel justified in their sadness when a pet dies. An argument that we choose feelings based on their appropriateness implies some agent beneath the surface of consciousness, directing us toward emotions that are more or less noble.
However, a chooser hovering somewhere within our heads wiser than our passing moods would itself eliminate free will. If you were so wise as to decide to feel grief because life would lose meaning without it, the aftermath of the hardest days of your life, days when you were slamming books, yelling, and throwing a fist at the person you love most would probably be bad enough for you to opt out of such grief. That is, if you had freedom of will.
If you accept the absence of free will, you will become much more forgiving, not only of yourself but of other people. Your productivity will improve — you’ll stop pushing futile efforts. Instead you’ll make time only for that which aligns with your natural inclinations and strongest aspirations. Your relationships will get better. You will stop feeling obligated to participate in activities that strike you as chores.
Here are five ways that accepting your lack of metaphysical freedom can help you.
1. You’ll develop kindness toward yourself. You didn’t pick your grandparents, the subjects that caught your attention and the ones that didn’t, your tastes, health, talents, inhibitions, or desires. Realizing that you are the receiver rather than the author of who you’ve become makes it easier to view yourself as a third-party observer. It becomes natural to show compassion toward your resistance to get up before the sun, your 9 to 5 position, or your irritation with your second cousin in Alaska.
This isn’t an abdication of responsibility: it’s important to clarify your motivations with reflection, and to use them to stay aligned with efforts that make your life function. However, you can also realize that there are historical forces that create your distastes and inclinations. This can become an invitation to give up the war. By acknowledging that your particular childhood, education, and exposure to specific forms of media are going to make some tasks more compelling than others, you can look for opportunities that enable you to act naturally rather than in a way that’s coercive to yourself.
2. You’ll cultivate a greater degree of empathy for others. Just as you are subject to conditions you didn’t create, so are your friends. You can minimize feelings of anger or desires to seek revenge when you recognize that your friend didn’t choose to be inclined to dominate conversations. His early experiences of being made to feel ignorant when articulating himself to his father is the reason he’s lecturing you about botanical knowledge housed in physic gardens attached to hospitals and religious buildings. It’s not because he wants to prove he knows more than you do.
There is room to consider that the things he does to get you flustered correspond with an architecture of understanding that may look completely different than yours. The way to resolve the conflict is to accept that you’re both in a perpetual state of emergence. You can explain the origins behind your reactions and he can explain the constraints of his talkativeness — why it happens, what it’s for, and what it means.
3. You’ll invest in projects that serve you. With a greater willingness to become witness to, rather than the dominator of, your inner life, you will develop a sensitive ear for the projects and activities that will create a feeling of inner alignment, rather than pursuing those things that leave you exhausted or regretful. Author and people-whisperer Robert Greene calls the pursuits that come most natural our primal inclinations. When you realize that your panel of influences and talents make you inclined toward web content editing, for instance, and not early childhood education, insurance, or medicine, you embrace your life path. You stop forcing yourself to do work that promises only security or prestige. Pushed toward projects that feel natural, you’ll experience greater success. Your inclination to put in the work will be a natural side effect of who you are, not a heroic effort of force. You don’t have to get behind yourself and push.
4. You’ll find better friends. Embracing your lack of freedom will also encourage you to spend time with those who matter most. Does a sense of obligation ever inspire you to spend time with people? Do you feel sheepish about saying no to events because some part of you fears ending up isolated? Without free will, you can accept that voice that says I’ll have to take a train, and then I’ll have to talk about how I’ve been, and then I’ll need to offer them money for driving me home, and I disagree with much of what this person stands for as an indication of the ways your past made you sensitive to interactions that just don’t feel right. If you trust that friendships worth having result in interactions that flow of their own accord, you won’t act from a place of scarcity. You’ll trust that your disinclination to see certain people carries an important message about where it’s best to direct your energies.
5. You’ll feel the Tao in action. The Tao, or the way, refers to the harmonious workings of the universe. Writer Wayne Dyer equates the Tao with the wisdom that resulted in our gestation and eventual birth. Unlike the scheming ego that worries its plans will fall through or that its reasoning is flawed, our birth process happened without our negotiation.
In the same way, we can take the leap to trust the present moment. Instead of getting out of bed when exhausted, ingesting six cups of coffee before we realize that our heart beat renders it impossible to sit still, we can trust that we’ll sleep as much as our bodies require. And with rest, we’ll take care of our obligations when we’ve rested, and from a balanced, more pliant mind.
Many people assume that without free will we’re subject to a predetermined fate. But look at it this way: even if I don’t have a deep, penetrating power to direct the course of my life, no one can say what my future looks like in this moment.
As a matter of experience, there’s no difference between the future unfolding as it always already would have versus my having complete control.
If it were possible to know how our lives would unfold, the richness, excitement, and meaning of experience wouldn’t go away simply because we know how things turn out. Our interest in listening to our favorite music or movies show that it’s possible to get embedded in the isolated elements of a story even if we know how it ends.
Fully embracing that who you are is the product of your previous exposures can help you cultivate compassion, and in the process, live in a tranquil, self-forgiving way.
You can even be cheerful as life unspools, knowing there is a ceiling on what you can change. Your experience is to be witnessed, not commandeered.