Do we have free will?
This is a question that has caused me great consternation over the years. So much so, that I have changed my position on it several times.
I grew up in a family that didn’t have much money, but had lot of intellectual chatter. My father was a very active Rosicrucian, and his brothers followed him into this for a while. Many were the evenings when one or more of his extended family would visit and we would debate till the wee small hours . . . Lovely memories, and I remember, even then, being perplexed when people said that there was really no such thing as free will.
As a younger man, intent on wresting control of my life via success in the business-facing side of Information Technology, I made a good living from making things happen. It was obvious to me that we could choose to do things, and, by doing them well, increase the probability of success by applying intelligence. After all, that was the purpose of having intelligence in the first place. I took it for granted that a shared (but not always used) ability to ‘look into the future’ to see what might happen, based on memories of previous experiences was one of our primary mental tools.
I don’t think anyone would argue against that. But it does start to reveal the seldom investigated anatomy of the human mechanism for will, free or otherwise.
We make choices – as we think it, exercising our free will from a combination of what is presented to us by the Universe – our daily flow of life’s events and out responses to them. Some of these are pleasant, some not so. Our most basic response to these lies at the subconscious instinctive level. I seldom stop to debate the matter of free will if I pick up something hot by mistake – my instincts take over to protect the organism, which is their job, and I drop the hot object.
I could choose to keep hold of it, if I prepared myself. It is said that trained Fakirs can walk over hot coals in this way, extending the body’s ability to cope with their absolute confidence that they can do it. I cannot comment, as I have only had such reports third hand. I like to think that we have untapped potentials like this, but I remain skeptical until I can speak with either experience or proof.
Generally, my ‘lower’ level mind – and its protective programming, built from (mainly) painful experiences, can be left to do a fine job of looking after me. In most circumstances I do not want to interfere with what is saving my life.
How about further ‘up’ the stack of my intelligence? Do I have control of my reactions to non-threatening things? I like to think I have, but if I really study my behaviour, I can see that most of my responses – my conditioned reactions, cut in as soon as I encounter a repeated situation. Sadly, this imprints me with the stale responses of my personality and robs me of the power of each moment to reveal itself as something different, challenging and wonderful. The Silent Eye’s three year course focusses on the reasons for such programmed responses as part of the first year’s work. It’s a fascinating journey, which we take as a continued inner meditation through a very new landscape . . .
If I work at it, I can change my reactions to events at the level of the personality, but it takes a lot of work. We do not do this by shutting off the old devils of conditioned reaction – we do it by holding them up to an inner light of deepened and empowered consciousness. When seen in this way, they lose their power and become transparent, though they will never disappear. It is said that each human trait is like a coin. The coin has two faces, and our behaviours reveal much about what lies beneath – this is often something wonderful, child-like and hidden – something that simply needs to be given life.
Quite clearly, then, I do have the ability to change my conditioned responses to things – so what can’t I exercise my will against? Well, the really big things in life would be one example. We don’t exercise choice in the conditions of our birth and family – at least not in a way that is part of the consciousness of the personality. We do, though, as we get older, recognise that there were patterns of learning that we went through, which have changed us. You often hear people saying, “But I wouldn’t go back to those days, I’m happier with who I am now.”
That’s an interesting sentiment. We have swapped our younger days for that growth, in the constant trade of life for experience, and yet we wouldn’t have those days back. There are some situations where that is different, of course. Huge mistakes can haunt us for a long time – but there is learning in that, too.
So the picture of the real freedom of choice and will in life changes as we move along that journey. Seen in this way, our exercise of ‘small will’ seems less significant. What really matters is to make our selves into a little ship that can both weather storms on the seas of circumstance, and take glorious pleasure in what unrolls before us, – a landscape far bigger and more wonderful than anything we could create with our human mind.
Is that our free will? I’m still deciding – but it no longer worries me that I do not have a rigid answer . . . We live in an intelligent universe that has far more ability to decide what’s good for me that I do . . .