What is free will? (Parts 1-3)

Recently a dear friend shared an article from the Guardian titled ’The clockwork universe: is free will an illusion?’.

The article, as the title suggests, is a discussion on free will, and whether you and I have it, or whether it’s just a kind of illusion. This question of what is free will makes for an entertaining and intellectual discussion, no doubt, however before we get into the specifics of arguing about whether you have free will or not, or what it is, it would seem important to me to actually address the question of who is this you we are talking about.

I’ll break this article, which is my best attempt at conveying my understanding and experience, up into three parts. The first part will begin to answer this question of “Who am I?”. The next bit about looking at existential reality vs our psychological make up. Lastly, we’ll take a look at free will in an indirect way.

Who am I?

This very simple question of “Who am I?” has gripped us humans for millennia as we have tried to make sense of the world and our place in it. There have been an endless number of philosophies, theories, schools of thoughts and religions, (most) with good intentions, that have tried to answer this or at least provide some kind of guidance. When you ask most people this very simple question of “Who are you?” they give all kinds of interesting answers, usually something centred around their identity.

For instance, they might start with their name: my name is Adam Eden. To which an inquirer might say, “Well, that’s interesting – you are, let me see, a collection of only 8 letters? Is that who you really are?”.

Adam might respond and say, ”No, not really. Actually, I’m a gardener.” Our inquirer may further press him and ask, ”So, you were nothing before you became a gardener?”.

To this, Adam might reconsider and say: “Okay, you got me there. I am Adam Eden, Eve Eden’s husband”. To this an inquirer would assume a confused look and say, “So, you didn’t exist before you married Eve? Or, you would cease to exist if you got divorced?”.

Adam, now looking even more confused, is shaking his head and comes up with his life story in response. “Okay. My name is Adam, I was born in the 1970s, went to high school, then university, then got my first job at this garden, where I met Eve, we live in this beautiful house and have two beautiful children. That’s who I am.” To this our gentle-mannered, yet persistent inquirer would press further and thank him for sharing his life story but still insist that by doing so he didn’t get any closer to the truth. And, in any case who had all of these experiences?

This poor sap Adam is looking more depressed than ever, wishing he had never signed up for this “Discover the True You” seminar that was advertised by some famous guru. He is not his name, not his wife’s husband, he cannot even take credit for his life story. Then who he is?

At this moment a light bulb goes off in his head. A stroke of genius. He realises that so far he only remembered his experiences, not those of his body. He thinks to himself, this must be it. He remembers hearing something about this matter business in some metaphysical seminars a few months back.

He blurts out: “I am this body, I’m 1.8m tall, I weigh 80kgs and have blue eyes. That’s who I am.” Our guru, growing more bemused by the minute, completely destroys Adam’s ideas about himself once again. “So you’re telling me, you were not you when you came out of the womb? You were not you 10 years ago when you weighed a little less and had more hair?’ Our guru, once again posits this question to Adam, who by now is dreading the process. Oh, how he dreads it. Oh, how he wishes he had never wasted his money on this damn seminar. They never work anyway.

Here it comes: “Adam, who are you?”

To be or not to be, or some other nonsense

I’m sure, at some point in your life, you’ve asked yourself this question or a variant: “Who am I? What am I doing here? What’s my purpose in life? What is the meaning of this life?”.

If you are like most people, you’ve asked yourself this question and then gone back to eating your dinner. If you were willing to fast a little bit, you’d have started playing with various things like “I’m the body” or “I’m my mind”. If you were willing to fast a little longer until the next lunchtime you’d have seen these are indeed incorrect conclusions to make.

It is very true that you do have a body and a mind – these are like your vehicles in this existence. It might even be convenient to admit that these are all there is to you since you don’t see anything else in your experience. Everyone else around you seems to have a mind and a body too, which is kind of reassuring, as otherwise you’d be seeing ghosts.


Not the body, not the mind

But this is not the ultimate. Both the body and the mind are sort of accumulations that came to you over the years.

Let’s start with the body.

When you were born you were just a tiny baby, and over time, after countless breakfasts, lunches, dinners, desserts (perhaps one too many…I won’t tell!) you’ve accumulated so much food that your body has grown into its present state. You ate a sandwich and it became you, you ate a salad and it became even more of you, not to mention that chocolate donut. That damn thing refuses to depart your waistline.

The body is really just an accumulation of Mother Earth and her bounty over the years. If you don’t believe me, you can consult your mother: what would have been her reaction if the doctors told her there was a 1.8m tall baby growing in her womb, waiting to be delivered. Probably a violent protest, and thoughts that she’d been possessed by some sort of devil.

Perhaps it is less easy to see but the mind is essentially the same.

It is just an accumulation of impressions you had over the years. Where you grew up, who your parents were, how they treated you, whether you read or watched TV, what you ate, whether your first boyfriend dumped you for someone else (that bastard!) and so on. If you had a blue blankie you loved and your mother took it away you’d be one way. If you hated said blue blankie and couldn’t wait for your mother to take it away fast enough you’d be another way. You know, those years they call formative.

Over the years you formed likes, dislikes, preferences, prejudices and, attached emotions to these experiences, creating rigid walls which now form your psyche and personality. You are now a fully fledged adult and exist here on Earth, along with 99% of the population as such. This, as we say, is game, set and match. Today, this is who you know as “you”. Your life now is on an auto-pilot running toward what you like and running away from what you dislike. Feeling joyful if what you didn’t want to happen didn’t, in fact, happen, and miserable if what you wanted to happen didn’t happen.

This might seem ridiculous but that’s how subtle this is. I think by now everyone knows enough popular psychology to have heard about human behavioural patterns. We humans collect and store an inordinate amount of memory right from birth, through every single moment in life, and a lot of it stays unconscious in our experience. For so much accumulation to happen and not to have an impact on our lives would be inconceivable.

So now, we have a body that is just an accumulation of food and a mind that’s just an accumulation of impressions. What are we to do with them? We haven’t even gotten to the dreaded word that starts with ‘e’, aka emotion, (just ask the average man about it), which would round out your psyche. Are we doomed forever?

Not really.

A very important question to ask at this stage is how do you know that you have a mind and a body? How do you know that your body is hungry or that your mind is thinking one way or that your heart feels broken? How do you know? Who sees all of that? Who sees what you see? Who experiences all of that?

If you have a body and a mind (here I refer to the psyche really) – and we’ve established that it is not you per se, but rather that both are in your possession, as something you have or own clearly cannot be you – there must be something larger at work that’s doing the accumulation and gathering. For what you accumulate cannot be you, it can only be yours. You don’t know what it is but there is some kind of larger intelligence that’s doing the work without much of your input.

A guru always takes you for a ride

At this point in the seminar our hero Adam perks back up. He remembers something from another seminar he attended a few weeks ago called “Your First Steps on Your Blessed Spiritual Journey” where the long-haired teacher was saying something about mind, body and the soul. Adam stands up and yells out, “If I’m neither the body nor the mind then I must have a soul”.

Our guru, fully expecting this answer, intends to take Adam for another ride (they always do). He asks Adam to point to where he thinks his soul is. Adam, thinking that he is finally onto something, places his left hand onto his chest and lets out a big sigh. Ooooommmm. He learned this at the previous seminar too.

Our guru lets out a loud belly laugh and tells Adam that even though he is neither a PhD, nor a trained doctor, and even though his education is only from the Himalayas, he is pretty sure that he is touching his chest. At best, his heart or his lungs. And in any case, “Adam, you only have one sole…I have two, a left and a right one. That’s why I’m a guru.”.

Adam does not much appreciate the guru’s wordplay. Once again, our hero sits back down. He concedes that this spirituality business is harder than doing sun salutations in Lululemon yoga pants, or adorning his body with crystals during a cacao ceremony on Bali.

Belief ≠ truth

For millennia, humans have formed beliefs about things they could not decipher. This is a very dangerous thing to do. You can either believe or not believe something but you’re no closer to the truth itself.

There is tremendous potential and value in saying instead, “I don’t know”. I will concede that this is not a very popular sentence in our culture, one that expects, nay, demands that everyone have an opinion about everything. However, unless one has clarity in what they perceive, they can only give their opinion, which is tainted by their likes, dislikes and preferences.

You’ll hear people say, “I’m confident in this” or “I’m confident in that”, but really they don’t have clarity. Operating based on such misplaced confidence has created a torrent of pain and destruction in the world, all of which could have been avoided. By having (over)confidence, we’ve built a world on the outside, one which neglects the inside, much to our detriment.

If you answered the question of “Who am I?” with “I don’t know”, instead of confidently making stuff up, you are one step closer to understanding, and you have a platform with which to proceed further.

Pleading ignorance is a tremendous possibility for exploration, instead of taking someone else’s conclusion, without much clarity or understanding, as the truth. Living by conclusions, instead of by questions, or at least some with kind of reverence for the vastness of the universe and the many things we don’t understand, makes for a very limited life experience.

So back to this question of you.

Poor Adam is just devastated. He is not a body, neither is he his thoughts, emotions or feelings. He can live with all that, but now this guru is telling him he doesn’t have a soul either. That’s too much. What is he then? The devil himself? The guru sees this confusion in Adam and approaches him with compassion. “Don’t make things up which are not in your experience. Don’t add to things. Rather, seek to take away until nothing else is left but the truth,” he instructs Adam.

Fixed vs infinite ways to be

Just look at animals. Their lives, as cute as they may be, are largely fixed. They eat, sleep, reproduce, get territorial and die. Their lives are effectively concerned with survival. They do most of it in a state of unawareness. Admit it though: it reminds you of some humans you know, right?

Humans are different from animals. We have been generously bestowed with the possibility of having awareness. To see that we can see. To be conscious that we are conscious. This is all on top of the animalistic survival instincts with which most people seem to be satisfied anyway. No matter how extravagant it might be, whether you live in a slum village or travel by private jet, it’s still just survival after all.

For this boon that existence has granted us, we’ve largely gone about misusing our lives. Instead of identifying with this, we’ve chosen to identify with our minds and bodies. This is the ultimate fall from the garden, as they say. There’s nothing wrong with living this way, it’s just a very limited life. If you identify with your body and your mind, you’ll inevitably identify with separation, limitation and all the various compulsions both of them have.

For a human who is willing, or one who has had a glimpse beyond the body and mind, this existence has generously offered the possibility to go beyond this very human nature, to something much much greater. In other words, the opportunity to touch this intelligence. If this existence has enabled us to experience this, then it must be that this thing – call it whatever you want, the soul, consciousness, holy spirit, atman (if you’re up on your Sanskrit), or not call it anything – is existence itself. It takes one to know one, right?

Going beyond conclusions

It’s not that this thing is something else, it’s that this thing is who You really are. Because of who You are, You have a body and a mind. Because of who You are, you have a name, an identity, a nationality, a profession, a spouse, a house, a car, children…your life story, in other words. Not the other way around.

Just think about it: what would it be like if your awareness or consciousness didn’t exist? You’d just be floating around in this vast empty space, right? There’d be no consciousness of being and this whole thing that you call life wouldn’t exist. If no one is aware of life, it doesn’t make sense any more, right?

I’m sure you’ve heard the cheesy new-agey quote which goes something like: “we’re not humans having a spiritual experience, but spirits having a human experience”. Please, I beg of you, don’t start saying things like “I’m a divine child of god” or “I’m an infinite being”, because this is not the truth of your experience. Once you’ve extricated yourself from this mess you call your psyche, please do not make any more conclusions. Do not build your house on sand. You might not have the answers and it might be uncomfortable, but at least you are beginning to see.

You can either believe or not, but if you’re sincere enough and your intent is to go beyond the body and mind, because this eternity has at least somewhat opened up to you, gurus, sages, seers, saints, mystics and yogis from the East for eons have told you that you are the highest thing that walked the planet of this earth. But you don’t see it because what you’re looking at. Yours and everyone else’s survival process is not a very high thing to look at.

Compulsion ≠ free will

Back to this free will business. Ask a smoker if they’re using their free will to light up the tenth cigarette of the day. No, it’s the cigarette that is making them smoke. Ask a binge eater why they are snacking after three full meals. It’s not free will, it’s the chemicals and the compulsions of their body and mind. Once you begin to have some kind of realisation or experience beyond the mind and body and their compulsions. and once you set your intent higher than mere survival, then you can begin to talk about free will.

So now, I hope we’ve sufficiently addressed this question of who is the real You. It is not your bundle of compulsions. Rather, it’s that thing (left unnamed for now) that is aware that you have these on your hands. If you can be aware of something, let’s say the unconscious compulsions of your mind and body, it means that you can expand your conscious will to change it, should you be so inclined, right?

What is will anyway

Let’s look at this idea of will. As we have discussed, an animal’s life is largely fixed and they are not really equipped to go beyond their limitations. For humans, the possibilities are unlimited. Will, or conscious choice, is the highest quality we humans have been given to create ourselves and our lives in any way we like. Now that you see or experience that you have a little bit of this will a natural question of “How do I get more?” invariably follows.

A short glimpse into this consciousness, or intelligence, which pervades our entire life can set people free from suffering but it is in breaking the habits of our current personality where the real work and growth lies. It is work, much like an addict has to work to come off heroin, because of conditioned patterns in our bodies or minds. Most people are not addicted to heroin, fortunately, but they are addicted to their minds.

It is effectively like swimming upstream. Not fun, but a little bit is required. That being said, the work is worth it. It is so worth it. And once you set your intention on the highest, i.e. not to make a billion dollars, or have a baby, or get a new job, but to go beyond the need for all of that, everything in life will conspire to help you. Getting clear inside so that something larger can take over your life is so worth it.

When I say it’s worth going beyond the need for all of that I do not mean that you ought to go live on the streets and “become spiritual”. That’s nonsense. I mean that it is crucial to understand why you want or need the things you think you do.

To put it succinctly, and as we have looked at earlier, you have over the years built up certain likes, dislikes and preferences. You’ve built up your personality. Your identity. And every single day, you’re out there to build this personality further and to prove to others that you are really this person. You’ll go to a certain school because of this, you’ll choose a certain partner, you’ll treat people a certain way, find a certain job, a certain house, you eat a certain way etc.

You’re mostly acting out of compulsions, and once again the question of free will is not even in your reach. You need all of those things on the outside so that you can go to sleep at night feeling safe in knowing that you are that person, so that you can feel a little security, maybe a little happiness or a little love but really nothing so special. And all conditional. But really you’re suffering while holding it all together, and when something goes wrong it’s a full blown crisis in your experience. This is what most people use their lives for: to create a limited and largely unconscious life. Is this what you need free will for? Why on earth would you want free will for this? To create more of the same?

As an aside

Between you and me, isn’t this an anti-social way to live? Using the world and other people so that you can confirm to them that you are really so and so (but really you’re confirming it to yourself because frankly they don’t really care) isn’t very nice. People call yogis and hermits anti-social. I see it differently. I think most of the rest of the world is anti-social.

This is a very indirect way to live. It is a very indirect way to feel okay. A direct way to live would be to look at why you need all of those things. What are these deep-seated likes, dislikes and preferences that are taking away from your free will?

Don’t give it names

At this point in your search, you’ll inevitably come across this word ‘spirituality’. Let me tell you, this word, along with ‘consciousness’, ‘mindfulness’ and ‘energy’, is probably the most overused word in our modern lives. What has been done in the name of spirituality is quite terrible.

For me, spirituality is simply realising that you’re neither the body, nor the mind but something much higher than that. That’s it. Once you turn ‘spiritual’ it simply means that you want to know and won’t stop until you realise it. Your aim is at the highest and you’ll not settle for morsels.

You don’t have to give up your job, your family or your business to find yourself, because you are already ‘You’ even though you don’t know it. There is nowhere to go to find ‘It’. It’s a deceptively simple thing but because clarity of perception is so hard to come by there is an entire industry built around it. All to take your money and most importantly your life.

I often get asked: “Where do I start on my path?” The answer to this question is: right where you are. You use your current life situation and turn it into your path, or your ‘spiritual process’ so to speak. You don’t have to give it a name, you don’t even have to call it ‘spiritual’ or go to the Himalayas. You don’t have to meditate, practice yoga asanas, pranayama and so on.

All of these things are wonderful, and can help you tremendously, but what’s more important is your intent. Your commitment to go beyond. Just to simply do the work on yourself. People commit to all kinds of things. To lose 10kgs, to get married, to get a new job. The minutiae of life. Why not make a commitment to improve the quality of your life and how you experience life itself? If you are committed to going beyond yourself, to reclaim your true willpower, life will present you with the opportunities to help you do so.

Start where you are

Dislike your boss? Can’t stand your mother-in-law (that evil dragon!)? Dislike the restaurant you just ate at? Feel too attached to your job title? Don’t bother making conclusions about where these are coming from. Instead make a commitment to yourself that as long as you’re entangled with this minutiae you’re only building your personality and that you are truly intending to go beyond.

It is like in martial arts, say Judo or Aikido. If someone is attacking you, you use their energy against them. You’re simply working on releasing these likes, dislikes, preferences, in other words your ‘personality’, in order to reclaim your will, aka your true power, to touch the very existence within you. It is not about creating another personality. Again, that’s just a bundle of thoughts and emotions. Rather, go beyond it. The spiritual ego is the worst one to build. I’m sure you’ve met so-called spiritual people whose eyes are full of contempt for you because they believe themselves to be more spiritual than you. Like such a thing was possible.

Therapy helps, meditation helps, breathwork helps, authentic yoga helps… These are all wonderful things, but as long as you have these elements of your personality bothering and running (or ruining) your life, I can guarantee you that you will not go anywhere!

It’s called taking responsibility for your life

This is the greatest thing us humans can do for ourselves and the world. If you want to know the real ‘You’, it takes some amount of work, but more importantly an intent to do so. I can assure you it is more than doable. As you do this work on yourself and extricate yourself from this dream that you and society have crafted, you’ll see how lost everyone is.

Everyone has their own morals, ethics, judgements, philosophies, prejudices and believes. Very (very) few people actually know or have clarity. This is the greatest source of misery, agony, anxiety, aggravation and fighting in our lives. You think one way, I do another way and I’m intent on battling you until you see it my way. If you don’t see it the way I do, but you’re not in my way, that’s fine by me too. There are almost 8 billion of us on this planet so if we all want to express our morals and views, and if we all want our needs met, we’ll end up destroying ourselves and this planet.

Oh, wait…

If you saw life clearly, just the way it is, you’d not need any of these. The only appropriate action is to have compassion for others. If you start judging because now you have experienced something others haven’t, you are no better. Instead, identify with your humanity. Very few people are identified with their humanity. If more people would be so, the world would be a different place for sure and you wouldn’t need morals or ethics, because those are just made up things based on individual or collective memory anyway, a product of the intellect, which is inherently limited as a tool. Nothing much to do with life itself.

13.8 billion years in the making

There are two more things I’d like to talk about here to round out our discussion: (i) life experiences and (ii) what do we really know?

First, let’s imagine that you and I are travelling somewhere in a car. It means that existentially I am sitting in the car and you are sitting in the car and we are going somewhere. However, your experience is probably different than mine. You listen to the radio, you dislike the song, the driver in front of you is driving too slow, the road is too long, you’re bored, the AC is too cold, you agree or disagree with what I’m saying and so on. I could be doing the same things or others. The road trip is happening, but your and my experience are very different. We are going from A to B but your mind has criss-crossed the entire alphabet. To make a long story short you bring your personality to the road trip and it colours your experience. You add more things to reality. However, existentially it is really just two people going somewhere. Neither right, nor wrong it’s just what’s happening. Your experience doesn’t affect reality itself but reality affects your experience. Once you can be with things as they are, really just be, and experience and see things in a way to transcend your personality, you’ll see how life happens.

Why is this important?

Because life has been around for over 13 billion years. That’s a lot of zeros. We are here for something like 60-90 years. That’s not a lot of zeros. Life has a long history behind it. We don’t individually, collectively a little more. There is a very good reason the way things are. Once you see clearly and realise that for everything around you (yes, even your mother-in-law!) it took over 13 billion years of everything happening the way it happened for you to be where you are today, you cannot but be in awe of this life. Life did pretty amazing, really without much of our input.

In this existence that’s been created over these years what is it that we really know? If life did all of this on it’s own, why do you think that it needs your advice as to how it should go on? Why wouldn’t you let something larger into your life, and let it take you to your peak? I’m not talking about this law of attraction nonsense (“I’m driving a lambo, I’m driving a lambo, I’m driving a lambo…hey where is my lambo?!”).

Why would you try to break your head and create suffering by telling life what it should do so that you can feel somewhat okay? Do you tell your liver how to work? Your heart how the beat? Your kidney what kind of secretions it should make? Your hair how to grow? Would you like to put your liver function on manual instead of auto-pilot? Seems stupid to me. Are you spinning the very planet we live on? No. It all happens by some higher intelligence. What do you really know? Maybe you have a PhD in physics but what you know is nothing compared to all of life.

Everything that is enabling you to live your life fully is doing its job, so to me, the real question is why aren’t you doing yours? Your role in this life is so minor but you’re still not playing it to the best of your abilities.

Make believe death came knocking on your door today and told you today is your last day. It’s non negotiable. Tomorrow your family, relatives and friends might be a little sad (hopefully, right?) but existentially speaking, life would go on. What would happen if planet Earth disappeared from the solar system? Would the Milky Way galaxy be impacted? No. No one would care. There are hundreds of billions of galaxies (potentially even up to 2tn) each with a million to trillion stars (that we know about). Some seriously large numbers! The universe is beyond vast. Our existence is really insignificant and yet, here you are, worrying about your free will. Or your lack of it. Ha-ha!

Our existence is inconsequential. It’s nothing. Just a blip. Where are all the people who were here yesterday? They’re all topsoil. In the context of this existence, we’re born yesterday and we are going to die tomorrow. To spend (really to waste) this life in suffering, agony, fight, misery and enslaved to something that doesn’t even help us experience the fullness and richness of this life is just plain silly.

The greatest thing we have is that we are alive

Just ask the person who is about to die: what wouldn’t they give to have one more day on this planet? Just one more walk in a forest. One more full breath. One more bout of laughter. One more kiss. We are alive and it is our time to create a conscious planet. So for me, this debate about ‘what is free will and do we have it’ is really unnecessary.

For me, the question is, now that we know that our experience of life is happening largely unconsciously and for most of us it’s terrible really, now that we can see better, how can we wake up and take charge of our lives? How can we collectively say we don’t know where to start but we are willing to try? How can we create what we truly care for? Because this is very much possible.

Viktor Frankl says it more clearly: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I know it’s been quoted a ridiculous amount of times, but he says it so succinctly (and, well, it always helps to quote a real hero). As this space increases in your experience and you identify with it and how to craft a conscious response, and as you respond less and less to the stimulus, your life changes. You begin to take charge of your life. To create it in any way you like.

You’ll go from serving your compulsions to serving something higher than you.

Once you have no ambition in order to build your personality, identify with your humanity and achieve clarity of perception these will enable you to do the most appropriate thing in any given situation.

This is the greatest thing we can all aspire to as humans!