Dhammapada

Why you don’t have free will (and why that doesn’t matter)

image of robot, lacking free will

Free will is “the unimpeded capacity to choose between different possible courses of action.” We tend to believe that everyone has free will all the time, except under certain exceptional conditions, such as being hypnotized, or having a mental illness. I’m going to argue, however, that we don’t have free will, and that this doesn’t matter, because free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Free will is an important concept to us. Moral philosophers, religious teachers, and politicians have pointed to it as essential for personal morality as well as the flourishing of civilization. For example, Kant said “a free will and a will under moral laws is one and the same” and that if “freedom of the will is presupposed, morality together with its principle follows from it.” And Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, that American values are “rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”

The opposite of free will is determinism, which means that we’re wholly conditioned and aren’t responsible for our actions, even if we think we are. Determinism is a bit of a scary concept.

We believe that if we don’t have free will, life is deterministic. And if that’s the case, we’re less than fully human. If life is deterministic we’re not able to take responsibility for our lives, but are living in a purely conditioned way, like robots.

Problems with the concept of free will

The problem is that the concept of free will doesn’t seem to match up with how things actually are. For example, the American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet did an experiment a long time ago. He asked people to perform a certain action, like pressing a button, at random times of their own choosing. The important thing was that they were to do this action as soon as they thought of it.

Libet used EEG to monitor subjects’ brains as they did this experiment and found that there was a burst of activity initiating the pressing of the button. This took place something like three tenths of a second before the participants had their first awareness of any conscious will to act.

So that’s a challenge for the idea of free will, because free will is the experience of choosing. But what Libet saw was that something that was not experienced consciously was pushing people to make a choice. It’s a bit like asking someone to jump into a swimming pool at a random time, but behind them some hidden person is actually pushing them in. What seems to happen is that just after the person has been pushed, they think, “OK, I’ve just decided to jump.”

As observers to this event, we can see that the person who thinks they decided to jump didn’t actually jump. They were pushed. Which means that they only thought they decided to leap. Which means that they only thought they had free will.

Another more recent experiment, using more sophisticated MRI equipment, asked people to perform an action with either their right or left hand. In this case it was possible to see activity taking place a full five to six seconds before the action was taken. This activity allowed the scientists to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, which decision would be taken. So that’s even more challenging.

You might want to imagine the decision-making process as being like a whole line of hidden people behind the person by the pool. There’s a whole chain of shoves, with someone at the back of the line creating a domino effect, until eventually the person standing at the edge falls into the pool, saying, “OK, I just decided to jump in!”

This doesn’t leave much room for the conventional understanding of free will, which involves conscious choice. And since free will is seen as crucial to morality, this is very jarring.

Why the free will concept is so cherished

I gather that the concept of free will arose as part of Christian thinking. In that model, God put us on earth, and will ultimately judge us based on what we do here. For example we’ll be judged  based on whether we accept or reject the existence of God, and on whether we follow his will.

Imagine a God demanding that we make certain decisions and punishing us (for eternity) for failing to do so. And imagine that he’d created us without free will. Such a model would be cruel and arbitrary.

Anyone believing that God wants us to make choices pretty much has to believe in free will.

Free will is not a Buddhist concept

Now, Buddhism doesn’t talk about free will.

So what does Buddhism talk about? Well, Buddhism’s certainly not deterministic. The essence of Buddhist practice is that we are able to make choices. For example, the very first chapter of the Dhammapada, a very influential Buddhist text, is called the twin verses, or “The Pairs,” because most of the verses are, as you’d expect, in pairs. Each pair presents a choice: Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy. Buddhism’s entire ethical system revolves around making choices between what is unskillful (what causes suffering), and what is skillful (what brings freedom from suffering).

Aren’t the ability to choose and free will the same thing? Well, no. The freedom to chose is not the same as “free will.”

Buddhism talks about conditionality. Everything arises in dependence upon something else. What arises is dependent on what existed just before. Choices arise dependent on what existed at the time of choosing. And so our choosing is never unconstrained. If “will” exists, it can never be entirely free.

The Buddha pointed out that it doesn’t work to say, “Let my consciousness be thus” and expect that to happen. You can certainly have that thought — for example, “I choose to be happy right now, and to stay that way for the rest of my life” — but it won’t work. Being happy forever is not an option available to you, because your mind is conditioned, and the conditions affecting your happiness can never be entirely under your control.

You might be able to make choices that affect your well-being in a positive way, but you’re always choosing from a limited menu. You can’t meaningfully decide to be happy, but you can make choices that nudge your mind in the direction of happiness. You can choose to do things that leave you feeling less unhappy, or maybe even just a little happier. You might, for example, choose to drop a hateful thought, or choose to relax your body, or you might choose to cultivate a loving thought. These things all make a difference. But the menu might not, at any given time, even include the option, “be happy.”

This clearly isn’t teaching determinism. It’s saying that although we can choose, we can only choose from a limited menu. Free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Having chosen, we change the conditions that are present for the next choices we make. That’s important, as we’ll see in a moment.

We have a limited capacity to choose

Often, it’s not just that we don’t have many options to choose from, but that sometimes it’s hard even to make a choice. We might not recognize that we’re able to drop one thought, to relax the body, or to cultivate another thought. At certain times we might lack mindfulness and not even realize that options are available. At those times we really are like automata.

To make a choice requires mindfulness. Choosing requires that we stand back from our own mind and see the choices available to us.

Mindfulness might allow us to recognize, for example, that we’re acting out of anger, and to see that the possibility of being kind or patient is also open to us. And if we see that those options exist, and that they have different outcomes — one that brings more conflict and misery, and another that brings  more peace and happiness — maybe we can make that choice.

But sometimes we’re not mindful. Our conditioning can be so strong, and our emotions so powerful, that we aren’t able to stand back. We’re just swept along by a tide of emotion. The conditions that allow us to choose just aren’t there.

Wiggle room

When we are mindful, it’s a very precious thing. It’s then that we have choice. We can choose not to do things that will make us and others unhappy in the long-term, and we can choose to do things that are for the long-term happiness and well-being of ourselves and others.

If we keep making these kinds of choices, we change the pathways in our brains, which creates long-term changes in how we act. We become kinder and less reactive, for example. This spiritual work is the real meaning of the word “karma,” which in fact simply means “work” or “action.” Karma is action that changes who we are, for better or for worse.

Mindfulness gives us some wiggle-room amongst all the constraints of conditioning that hem us in and restrict our freedom. And by exercising mindfulness and reducing our reactivity we’re loosening those constraints. We’re using our wiggle-room to create more wiggle-room.

Choosing is never conscious

Libet showed that we only think we make conscious choices. Choices are made, or they begin to be made, up to five or six seconds before we are consciously aware of them.

There’s a part of our mind that, when decisions (say, to jump in the pool) erupt into conscious awareness, immediately says, “I decided to do that.” I call this part of the mind “the plagiarist” because it’s trying to take the credit for things it didn’t do. The plagiarist’s voice is what we take to be the voice of the self. We’ve been hearing that voice our whole lives, and we automatically believe it. This is the reason we believe that decisions that are made unconsciously are actually conscious decisions. And this is why we believe we have a self that is consciously making choices.

That decisions happen unconsciously is not a problem for Buddhism. In fact it’s something that Buddhism is happy to accept. Indeed, tecognizing that the plagiarist is deluded, and that there is no “self” making decisions is a key insight in Buddhist practice.

As long as choice happens, it doesn’t matter that decisions start unconsciously, long before they erupt into conscious awareness. As I’ve said, that’s how all decisions happen.

And it doesn’t matter that our decision-making is conditioned and not entirely free. That’s just how things are. Everything is conditioned.

“The Pairs”

The important thing is that the decisions that are made take into account more and more our long-term happiness and well-being. That is, it’s important that wise decisions happen — decisions that widen the degree of wiggle-room we have for making further wise decisions.

So to come back to very ordinary experiences — we keep catching ourselves (as long as mindfulness is present) reacting with states such as anger and anxiety. We keep recognizing that those ways of being create pain. We keep letting go of angry and anxious ways of thinking and behaving, and instead seek love and calmness. And we keep recognizing that the result of doing this is that we become happier.

Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy.

And in seeing the two sets of consequences available to us — painful or pleasant — we give mindfulness an incentive to make an appearance.

Keep doing this over and over again, and we become more free, and happier.

But what’s happening isn’t the result of decisions being consciously made. Our belief that decisions are consciously made is a delusion. And what’s happening is not “a self” taking action. Not only is there no free will, but there’s no self to have free will.

Instead choices are making themselves. And if this happens with the awareness, “Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy,” then we find that, more and more, skillful actions result.

The plagiarist is very convincing, though. It’s not easy to see through its lies. And again, that doesn’t matter. At first all we want to happen is that we make choices that liberate. Let go of anger, and cultivate love, and you’ll be happier and freer to make further skillful choices in the future. If the plagiarist keeps saying, “I did that,” then that’s a separate problem we can tackle later. (In fact, right now that probably doesn’t even seem like a problem.)

For now, just keep valuing mindfulness and the freedom to choose that it affords us.

This article was originally written for supporters of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative. Supporters of Wildmind get access to more than 30 online courses I’ve developed, as well as other articles and guided meditations.

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“Being in the moment”

chain_clock_blur_10(403).jpgOver and over again, you’ll hear Buddhist teachers talking about the need to “be in the present moment,” but interestingly this wasn’t something the Buddha emphasized much. There are one or two scattered references that are similar to the concept of being in the moment, like this one:

They don’t sorrow over the past,
don’t long for the future.
They survive on the present.
That’s why their faces
are bright and serene.

In many ways the language of “being in the moment” is useful, because so much of the time we’re unmindfully caught up in thinking about things from the past, or things that might happen in the future. But actually we only have this present moment. Even when you’re thinking about the future or past, you’re focusing on thoughts that are arising right now. You’re always in the present moment.

The problem implicit in what the Buddha says above isn’t actually to do with the past, present, or future, but with how we relate to memories and our thoughts about the future.

First, we tend to get obsessively caught up in thinking. It so happens that much of our obsessive thinking is concerned with things that took place in the past or with things that will or might take place in the future. But it’s also possible for us to obsessively think about the present, like “I wonder what she’s doing right now?” or “I wonder if he doesn’t like me?”

The Buddha tended to treat the past, present, and future in the same way. For example, in verse 421 of the Dhammapada the Buddha says:

He who clings to nothing of the past, present and future, who has no attachment and holds on to nothing — him do I call a holy man.

Certainly, we can think about, say, the future in an anxious way, but we can also think about the future in an objective or metta-ful way. For example the Buddha said things like:

While you are performing a bodily act, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily act I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?’

So we’re actually meant to think about the future! Similarly, there are good reasons to think about the past, and the word we usually translate as “mindfulness” is sati, which primarily means “memory.” The Buddha made the connection between mindfulness and the past quite explicit: “…the monk is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering and able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago.”

Our mindfulness can include reflecting on past actions, as with this piece of advice:

Having done a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’

So thinking about the future is unhelpful when longing or anxiety are involved, and thinking about the past is unhelpful when there’s sorrow involved, but it’s perfectly possible to think mindfully about the past or future. It all comes down to the quality of attention that you bring to anything you’re aware of. It’s whether craving, aversion, or delusion are present that’s important.

The problem with the language of being in the moment is that often people think there’s something wrong with thinking about the past or future. As we’ve seen, that’s far from being the case — as long as we’re paying attention to thoughts of the past, future (or present!) without attachment, aversion, or delusion. But the false impression given by the language of being in the moment also leads people to think that it’s wrong to have goals and aspirations. Since Buddhist practice doesn’t in fact teach us to “be in the moment” in a literal way, the “problem” of goals and aspirations isn’t in fact a problem at all. Of course we’re to have goals and aspirations. The Buddha was very keen on striving, and his last words were, “Strive diligently.” We’d never make progress if we don’t have goals and aspirations.

What’s important, again, is the quality of attention we bring to those goals and aspirations, particularly regarding whether there is craving, aversion, or delusion involved in them. If we grasp after attaining goals, or experience aversion because we haven’t met our goals, or have goals that are deluded, then that’s obviously unhelpful. But we can also have appropriate goals and work toward them without grasping or aversion.

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The book that changed my life

dhammapadaIn the late 1970’s, between finishing high school and going to university, I opened a small book of ancient verses, and my life changed forever.

I’d been interested in Buddhism for years, but my local library only had one book on the subject — a rather dated “Teach Yourself” guide to Zen Buddhism. I’d read the book, and found it both intriguing and baffling, but struggled to get a sense of what difference Buddhism would make to my life. And I was looking for something life-changing.

One early autumn day I accompanied my parents on a shopping trip to the nearest large town, which was the possessor of that rare and precious thing — a book shop. I’d inherited a love of reading from my father, and so the two of us went (more or less) one way while my mother went hers. And after a period of browsing, I happened across a slender black-spined volume: “The Dhammapada.” I can still see exactly where in the book shop, on which shelf, and where on the shelf the book sat, as clearly as I can see the book now on the desk in front of me.

I’d heard of the Dhammapada, and knew it was an early Buddhist scripture. I knew it was the real deal — the teaching of the Buddha — as opposed to being merely about Buddhism. And sitting in the passenger seat of my parents’ car, waiting for my mother to return from her bargain-hunting, with my father beside me listening to the droning incantation of the days’ football results, my eager hands slipped the slim book from its paper bag, and skipping past the introduction I read the following words:

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows him as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that draws the cart.

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows him as his own shadow.1

These clear and simple words were revelatory. We have choices. The key to happiness and suffering lies in the quality of our thoughts, words, and actions. Reading these verses, I knew I was a Buddhist.

Inherent in these few lines is everything we need to know about what it means to live a Buddhist life. We can find out for ourselves, through experience and observation, which thoughts, words, and actions lead to suffering and which to joy. These choices lie before us in every moment of our lives: the skilful or the unskilful; joy or sorrow. Which are you going to choose? In every moment you make choices that change your life. Choose wisely.

1. Despite the fact that these verses had a big effect on me, this is a terrible translation!

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The Dhammapada: “one of the greatest psychological works ever written”

Dhammapada Fronsdal

The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Fronsdal. Available from Amazon.

Jonathan Haidt, who studies morality and emotion, at the NYU-Stern School of Business, discusses the Buddhist classic, The Dhammapada, on Five Books:

The Dhammapada is one of the greatest psychological works ever written, and certainly one of the greatest before 1900. It is masterful in its understanding of the nature of consciousness, and in particular the way we are always striving and never satisfied. You can turn to it – and people have turned to it throughout the ages – at times of trouble, at times of disappointment, at times of loss, and it takes you out of yourself. It shows you that your problems, your feelings, are just timeless manifestations of the human condition. It also gives specific recommendations for how to deal with those problems, which is to let go, to accept, and to work on yourself. So I think this is a kind of tonic that we ambitious Westerners often need to hear.

Is there a specific saying that you particularly like?

There are two big ideas that I found especially useful when I wrote The Happiness Hypothesis. One is an idea common to most great intellectual traditions. The quote is: ‘All that we are arises with our thoughts, with our thoughts we make the world.’ It’s not unique to Buddha, but it is one of the earliest statements of that idea, that we need to focus on changing our thoughts, rather than making the world conform to our wishes.

The other big idea is that the mind is like a rider on an elephant. Buddha uses this metaphor: ‘My own mind used to wander wherever pleasure or desire or lust led it, but now I have it tamed, I guide it, as the keeper guides the wild elephant.’ That’s the most important idea in The Happiness Hypothesis – I just adapted the metaphor slightly. What modern psychology shows us is that our minds are like a small rider on the back of an elephant: the rider doesn’t have that much control even though he thinks that he does.

And once you accept that you are much closer to understanding happiness?

Exactly, because it helps explain why you can’t just resolve to be happy. You can’t just resolve to quit drinking, you can’t resolve to stop and smell the flowers – because the rider does the resolving but it’s the elephant that does the behaving. Once you understand the limitations of your psychology and how hard it is to change yourself, you become much more tolerant of others, because you realise how difficult it is to change anyone…

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