The freedom of no chooser
(Excerpt from FREE, getting real with life unlimited)
What a confusing title to this chapter. How can there be freedom in no choice?
Isn’t freedom only ever about being able to choose to do or have or say or write anything or go anywhere we want?
It looks like our life is made up of choices.
It looks like the more choices available to us, the more free we are.
The more able we are to go after exactly what we want—the job, the salary, the car, the holiday, the lifestyle, the partner—the more freedom we have.
Well, let’s look at choice for a moment.
All day, every day it looks like we are making choices:
Cereal or toast for breakfast? (If you are in the UK. Fish or tofu if you are in Japan. Netflix or YouTube if you are my children. But don’t tell anyone that).
Exercise or not?
Train to work or drive?
Emails or chat to colleagues?
Lunch in or out?
Finish the work or leave it for tomorrow?
Out in the evening or watch tv?
Bed now or later?
All of these choices look absolutely real. Indeed, for many of them it might look that we are trapped in one particular option. ‘I have to get up now because…’, ’I have to work because…’ ‘I have to/I must/I should...’
And in between them are more apparent choices, infinite choices, that when we consider them look just as real.
And it looks to us that our success, the fulfilment of our potential, our eventual happiness, our freedom lies within the code of these micro and macro choices.
When it looks like we are failing it must be because of the wrong choices we have made and are making. When it looks like we are doing well it seems like we are making right decisions.
When it looks like we are stuck or trapped it looks like we have no choice about what we do. Or it looks like none of the choices available to us are what we want.
Every time we think of ourselves, this is what we are faced with. An apparently real person, real world, real objects, real other people and real tasks. And all of this looks like it has to be navigated through decision after decision, limit after limit in order for us to have more of the good times and less of the bad.
When we think of our freedom from this perspective it looks like there is effort we can put in, states of mind and thinking that we can foster, needs we can satisfy in order to lead a freer, happier, more fulfilling life. And all of this seems to take place within a world of constraints and limits. Limited by our background, resources and character we try to find freedom in a world of limited choice and resources.
So, on the one hand it looks like we are an individual with the capacity for free will. And on the other hand, it looks like there are very real constraints, either personal or in the world, that limit that free will.
Our civilisation is underpinned by this principle. Our judicial and penal system. Our food industry. Our medical and education system. The way we bring up our kids and the way we congratulate or blame ourselves.
We believe we are individuals with free will and the power to steer our lives through the good and bad choices we make. We also believe we are limited by things outside our control.
Well in this chapter we will look at how that cannot possibly be true.
And I’m going to add one more crazy statement into the mix: in the moments when we believe we are an individual with the freedom to choose, we cannot realise our freedom.
And I can hear the sound of books slamming shut and e-readers clicking off and the zero-star reviews on Amazon going up. Because, jeez, we just want to know how to have the resources and options to get more freedom. We don’t need it to get all heavy and confusing.
Stay with this a bit longer, because, I promise you, the only genuine freedom lies in seeing that, from the ‘reality’ of a deciding separate self, no choice and no freedom is ever possible.
Let’s consider our experience.
We do something. Eat a slice of cake perhaps. And it looks as though we decided, freely, to do it. It seems that we are a free agent, making our own way through the world.
But that cannot be true.
A thought comes to mind. (Who or what determines which thought come to mind?) We believe it or not. (What decides which thoughts are believed?) Or another thought comes to mind that gives a different option. Two thoughts, appearing out of the blue, saying two different things. Eat the cake. Don’t eat the cake.
It looks like we are making a choice, acting on our free will. But all that has happened is that two thoughts have arrived. Both from nowhere. Both out of our control. Both appearing within awareness. One of them, ‘Eat the cake’ perhaps (if you are like me), seems to win against the other. The reasons why this thought would trump the ‘Don’t eat the cake’ thought are not visible to us.
Who knows where these thoughts come from? Who knows how one thought rather than another from this infinite melting pot of information seems more believable? There is no transparency of any of the behind the scenes stuff. One moment—no thought about cake. The next moment—thought about cake.
Sam Harris, author of ‘Free Will’ says, “Your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime - by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?”
Where is the freedom in that?
There is none.
It looks like we are doing what we want. Eating the cake. It is presented as a freedom. But when we consider that the thoughts that come to mind appear and are believed without any transparency, acting on them can logically only be about limitation. Believing our thoughts, we are pinned by the mind, by unconscious processes, by the weight of our conditioning and beliefs.
And we call this freedom.
And even more intriguing are the many neurological studies, such as those carried out by Benjamin Libet, that show that neural activity towards an action initiates as much as 10 seconds before we are consciously aware of a decision to act.
In other words, there is evidence that the act is initiated and then thoughts appear to make out it was a free decision.
This is our apparent conscious control over our life. In which it looks like we see the stimulus, assess it and then, with freedom and free will, respond.
But as far as free will is concerned, at worst, our actions are launched before any conscious awareness whatsoever.
At best, our actions are decided by whichever conscious thought (of which the timing, content and format is governed by some process about which we have no idea) seems (for reasons completely out of our awareness) most believable.
Where is the free will in that?
And yet it looks absolutely as though we are a real individual actively making a free choice. And accordingly, we attribute blame to self and other for ‘wrong’ choices and praise for ‘right’ ones. It is impossible in those moments in which we see ourselves as separate and individual to conceive that who we believe we are is not choosing. As the writer Isaac B Singer cleverly says, ‘We must believe in free will. We have no choice.’
But as we start exploring the nature of thought and consciousness more carefully, it becomes more and more obvious that every experience of this apparent self is only ever thought believed from moment to moment.
And it becomes obvious that just as this apparent self is created from thoughts believed, so is everything believed about decisions and choices. So is everything believed about limits and constraints.
The essential element of this experience of self, options, decision and limits is that all of it is created in thought.
The whole entire thing - the idea of self, choices - is all created out of thought that changes from moment to moment. All of it can disappear, reappear, turn into something else with the next thought.
In any moment that we believe this thought-created experience we are temporarily stuck with a belief about who we are and what is important. We experience a lack of freedom because in that moment we can’t see that we are the space in which all these thoughts arise. We can’t see that we are freedom itself.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will." said Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. And as long as we continue to believe this we are trapped, with no experience of genuine freedom whatsoever.
We are constrained within a world of reactions and responses.
We are limited by made up alternatives that look real but which only ever exist as creations of thought.
We see limits and boundaries and constraints that only ever exist in the way they are perceived.
We are trapped in a limited idea of self, itself created in thought, that experiences apparently real choices, all of which are created in thought. All of it transient, insubstantial.
Freedom has nothing to do with the choices we apparently make.
So where is the freedom then if it does not lie in choice? How do we move beyond our conditioned thoughts, beliefs and reactions?
This is where it gets so fascinating and exciting. This is where life completely transforms.
Because if our whole experience of self, life and other is created in thought then any insight, even the slightest glimpse, into the nature of thought and into what we are beyond will inevitably shift reality.
And what are we if we are not the content of thought? We must be the space in which thought arises and is believed. Awareness is the only constant. Awareness is the only non-changing, stable, reliable aspect of our whole experience of life.
Freedom from the patterns, beliefs and limits lies in realising we are the space in which they appear. Anything that points us in this direction, that allows us to hang out in this space takes us closer and closer to the reality of who we are.
And what is this reality? What is the nature of this awareness? How do we know when we are caught up believing transient thought and when we are in the freedom of seeing who we really are?
When we act, move, speak, write, run, play from purest love, we are free.
Free of all the ideas and concepts, the beliefs and thoughts about who we should be. Free of an insecure self that needs the world to be a certain way. Free of believing that we are somehow unconnected and separate from the world around us. Free of conditioning and beliefs handed down to us by generation upon generation.
As Marianne Williamson said, “From a mind filled with infinite love comes the power to create infinite possibilities”.
The thoughts, ideas, fears and insecurities might still be there. They might still look real. But coming from love, we glide through them all and we watch them disappear in the light of our presence.
And we are not talking conditional love here. We are not talking about the games that thoughts play. The seeking that fixes on an object or person and says ‘I need this to be OK’. The type of love that, in Shakespeare’s words, ‘alters when it alteration finds’.
We are talking about something quite different. We are talking about what Emily Dickinson describes as ‘anterior to life, posterior to death, initial of creation, and the exponent of breath’.
We are talking about that feeling deep in the centre of our being, that space of knowing, that freedom of seeing it all, allowing it all. That settled feeling of truth, constancy.
We feel the perfection, the rightness of it, the fit of it. It has nothing to do with decisions or outcomes or need or resistance. We move way beyond the limits of choice, beyond ideas of self and other. And we know that this is who we are.