Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Joan Tollifson - Do we have a choice?

One neuroscientist calls the sense of being a self with agency a neurological sensation. But if we watch closely as choices and decisions unfold, we can see that it is all happening by itself. There is no little helmsman, no self, no “me” inside our head sitting at some giant control panel pulling levers or authoring our thoughts. Our desire to get drunk or sober up, go into therapy, take an aspirin or march for civil rights is all an expression of the totality, as are the outcomes of all such actions. Our emotional reactions and ruminations, our thinking, our apparent successes and failures—this is all happening by itself. The little “me” who seems to be authoring my thoughts and making my choices is not actually doing any of that because that “me” is nothing but a mental image, an idea, a thought-form.

That “me-thought” arises spontaneously either before an action or after an action, taking credit or blame. “I should do that,” or “I did that.” In any moment when that thought-sense of being a separate and vulnerable “me” is absent, nothing is taken personally. We are no longer concerned about outcomes in the same way. We are no longer plagued by guilt, shame, blaming others, or the anxiety of thinking we might “get it wrong” and “ruin our life.” We are simply doing what life moves us to do, as is everyone else, which has actually always been the case. We naturally have compassion for ourselves and others being just as we are in each moment. And the “we” in all these sentences is only a grammatical convention. The sense of separation is absent, and even when it shows up, it is only an appearance. No wave can ever go off in a direction other than the one in which the whole ocean is moving. We are all a movement of the whole, not isolated agents capable of going the wrong way.

But this gets very subtle. It doesn’t mean becoming passive, or picking up the belief that “I” have no free will, that “I” am a helpless robot being pushed around by the universe. That belief is still centered around the idea of a separate entity, a self, now believed to be powerless. That is delusion. Our urges, interests, actions—and our sense of choice—are all part of how life functions and moves. And we are not separate from, or other than, life itself.

The capacity to make better choices can obviously be developed through education, athletic training, psychotherapy, meditation, yoga, and in all kinds of ways—all of which happen choicelessly, even as it appears that “I” am choosing them.

There is a palpable shift that occurs when attention drops out of the thinking mind into stillness and presence. When that happens, in the light of awareness, there is an increase in responsibility (response-ability), the ability to respond rather than react, to move in a more wholesome—holistic, whole, intelligent—way. This is the beauty of meditation, psychotherapy, various forms of inquiry, and somatic practices such as Feldenkrais, Continuum or yoga. They bring awareness to where we are stuck and show us what else is possible. We become less ensnared in old conditioning, and a new range of possibilities opens up. The habitual me-system is no longer always running the show. We are no longer totally a slave to conditioned neurology. We (as awareness) have more choices, more possibilities, at least sometimes.

Of course, this shift out of thinking and into aware presence happens choicelessly, in that there is no “me” who can bring it about by an act of independent will. But this shift may indeed require an apparently intentional move that we call a choice, a movement that itself arises choicelessly. The possibility of taking a time-out when we’re angry, of not lighting up a cigarette when the urge arises, of choosing to meditate when we feel upset, is only there when it is. Whatever happens is always a movement of the whole. But our functional sense of agency is part of that larger movement, part of how the universe, or consciousness, functions. In a sense, we have no choice but to act as if we have choice.

We can’t land on either free will or no free will because both are conceptual abstractions of a living reality that cannot be captured in any conceptual formulation. The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing. Therefore, it’s so important not to get fixated on one side of a conceptual divide between two abstract ideas, such as choice or choicelessness, self or no self, practice or no practice, effort or effortlessness, because neither side is totally true. It’s very easy to turn what begins as a genuine insight into a limiting or oppressive belief, a new fundamentalist dogma that we then cling to and defend.

from my newest book, Death: The End of Self-Improvement (available from Amazon)



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