Is Free Will an Illusion? A Guest Post by Joan Tollifson
Turn the question of free will into this inquiry: Is there a choice right now?
Posted June 5, 2013
[I first met Joan Tollifson in the middle 1990s when she was assisting Toni Packer at a meditation retreat. Toni Packer has been called the Zen Krishnamurti, but her unique teaching style defies categorization and she doesn’t like labels anyway. She emphasizes becoming aware of our habitual thinking patterns so that we can shed their conditioning and experience each moment fully just as it is. To use Joan’s phrase from her unsparingly honest and insightful book, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, this is a “moment-to-moment presence that excludes nothing and sticks to nothing.” When I recently came across this article, I wrote to Joan and asked if she’d let me run it as a guest post here. I’m grateful that she agreed. She tackles some difficult issues and then offers a teaching that is inspiring, practical, and easy to undertake.]
The therapist with whom I sobered up from alcoholic drinking decades ago used the model of choice and responsibility—she said I had made an unconscious choice to destroy myself and that I could now make a conscious choice to do something different—and it seemed to work! I sobered up. I stopped drinking, taking drugs, and smoking cigarettes; and my whole life completely changed.
But there was one compulsion I couldn’t seem to stop—fingerbiting (I’ve written extensively about this in recent Facebook posts and in my books). Furthermore, there were other things I couldn’t seem to control as well—for example, sometimes I could be highly self-disciplined, and then at other times, I couldn’t. Sometimes when the thought would arise to join a gym and work out every day, that would actually happen. And then at other times when that thought would arise, it wouldn’t happen.
I found that sometimes I could stop myself before I lost my temper and said something hurtful to a loved one, and at other times, the hurtful remark just poured out. Sometimes when I would sink into depression, it seemed possible to give it the kind of open, nonjudgmental attention that my teachers all suggested, but at other times, this possibility didn’t arise at all, or if the thought of doing this did arise, the ability to relax into it seemed to be absent—the depression overwhelmed this new possibility.
So when teachers speak exclusively from the presumption of free will, I know how frustrating this can be, because I know what it’s like to fail, to be unable to control something that others say you “should” be able to control. And after many years of meditative observation, watching closely as choices and decisions unfolded, I discovered that I couldn’t find anyone in control of ANY of “my” choices, nor could I say how the decisive moment actually arrived when it did, or what flipped the switch from yes to no or vise versa.
Furthermore, I couldn’t explain why I was moved and able to stop drinking while the person sitting beside me in the bar was not, or why I failed on my first several attempts to quit smoking cigarettes and then on the last attempt, the habit never returned—the desire and intention to stop seemed equally present on the first attempt, so what was different on the last attempt?
My father actually explained to me as a child that free will was an illusion, and his explanation—which had to do with the infinite and seamless chain of cause and effect—made complete sense to me back then. So the re-discovery or confirmation of this absence of free will through meditation and nonduality was never a big leap for me. And during my years with Toni Packer, as I watched the unfolding of apparent decisions, choices and actions, it became utterly clear that our apparent freedom to choose is only ever the apparent freedom to do whatever this bodymind is compelled (by all the infinite forces of nature and nurture) to want to do (or to “freely choose”) in this moment.
The commonly held illusion of free will (and the illusion of the somebody who has it) is reinforced whenever life moves in the direction we apparently chose. For a few very lucky people, this happens quite a lot. These people tend (perhaps understandably) to come to the conclusion that anyone can freely choose to go from rags to riches, or from addiction to recovery, or from sickness to health, or from depression to happiness, because—after all—they did it. They chose to lose weight, and they did. They chose to dedicate their lives to social service instead of to being serial child molesters, thieves, or compulsive gamblers. They choose to “take a time out” when they get very angry at their spouse instead of yelling at or beating that person. They choose to be productive, to lead good lives, to do the right thing. Or so it seems to them. And society at large confirms their conclusion.
But for those who are not so blessed, the illusion of free will and the widespread belief in it is a cruel joke and potentially a source of endless self-hatred, shame, guilt, blame, and a deep sense of being a miserable failure or a worthless bum who didn’t try hard enough, or who “made bad choices,” or in some cases—consider the child molester or the serial murderer—maybe even the very personification of evil.
So are we completely powerless? Yes and no.
During those years with Toni Packer, in addition to directly confirming the absence of free will or of a separate self, I was also discovering something else. While everything in the virtual reality we call “the world” appeared to be the result of infinite causes and conditions, I was discovering that in the absence of thoughts, stories and concepts, what remains is very fluid. And the open awareness beholding it all seemed to be unconditioned and absolutely free. I saw that the whole universe begins anew in every instant and that there is an undeniable power right here to act. But that power isn’t the separate self or the thinking mind, and it doesn’t work the way we commonly imagine that it does. Thus it also became clear that “I have no choice” is a story that doesn’t entirely hit the mark either. There is no “I” in control of this power to act, but at the same time, there is no separate source apart from this beingness Here / Now.
I discovered firsthand that there IS something that can be done, or that can happen—and neither the active nor the passive voice really captures how it arises or how it moves. It is an effortless effort that has been variously described as surrendering, stopping, resting in the natural state, being fully present in the Now, doing nothing, or allowing everything to be as it is. It is the absence of our usual goal-directed, intentional, willful activity. It is a letting go, an absence of grasping. This non-action or effortless effort cannot be brought about on command, and there are times when it does not seem to be available, or at least, it doesn’t happen. But in some sense, it is always a possibility because it is nothing more (or less) than waking up to what is always already fully here.
Thus, I would say that “I can choose” and “I have no choice” are both partially true and equally false. One formulation gives us a power we obviously do not actually have, while the other denies the ability that can only be found right here, right now to act. No words can capture the actuality of how life moves.
If we believe everyone has free will, it will be a set up for disappointment, frustration, false pride, guilt, blame and the desire for retribution. As the Advaita teacher Wayne Liquorman loves to say, if we had control over our lives, wouldn’t we all be doing a much better job of it? Wouldn’t we all be happy, healthy, rich, successful, enlightened and in love?
But then, if we pick up “I have no choice” as a belief or a dogma—without fully understanding that there is no independent, discrete, separate and substantial “I” to either have a choice or not have a choice, and without understanding that no map is ever the territory it describes—then that half-baked belief may disempower us or serve as a kind of excuse by which we avoid or deny the response-ability or power to act that is undeniably Here / Now. If I insist that I cannot raise my arm because there is no one to do it and no choice about whether or not it happens, so I’m just going to sit here and wait for grace (or the universe, or God, or some imaginary separate Source) to raise my arm for me, I’ll have a long wait—that would be a silly (and very dualistic) misunderstanding of what this “no choice / no self” pointer (or map) is trying to describe.
So the clearest expressions I’ve come across point to the place right in the middle, the placeless place that is inconceivable and ungraspable, the place that is not one, not two….not this, not that…the place that you cannot grasp because it doesn’t hold still.
Instead of asserting that there is or isn’t free will, maybe a wonderful koan to live with is: Is there a choice right now? Not to THINK about this question, not to regurgitate the answer we already believe is true, not to stick to one map or another, but to live with this question as a living koan, a living exploration….to not know in advance what the answer in THIS (completely new) moment will be, but to look and listen and see. So, for example, as you’re about to light the cigarette, or bite the finger, or reach for the second piece of cake, or say something hurtful to your friend, or sink into depression, this question might arise: In this moment, right now, is there a choice?
And then see. Be open to the unknown. There is no right or wrong answer, and the answer for one moment may not be the answer for the next moment. Is it possible to not turn whatever reveals itself into a fixed belief or a solid conclusion? It’s so easy to become dogmatic, to fixate, to grasp, to assert. But the truth is always in that wordless realm that cannot be pinned down or boxed up in any conceptual package.
© 2013 Joan Tollifson and Toni Bernhard
Toni is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers (Second Edition) 2018); How to Wake Up (2013); and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness (2015). All of her books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.