What does it mean to have ‘free will’?
It’s a phrase that is used very casually, as though it carries an identical meaning to us all. It’s particularly important if you want to pursue a path of mystical self-development, since the whole idea of ‘will’ is a central concept of work on the self.
What is will? We take its very existence for granted, but we should be clear in our own minds as to what we mean by it. We could say that will prevails. It is a kind of force that determines what happens next – as much as that is under our control. We will return to the subtlety of this point at the end of this short post.
It would be useless, as King Canute is reputed to have done, to exercise our will to hold back the incoming tide. Actually, Canute was a wise ruler and was trying to show that the divine right of Kings had limits… History can have a cruel ‘will’ of its own. This does imply a certain amount of wisdom about how we use our will: we have to know what is possible, or potentially so, whether or not we have the force to succeed. This, in itself is curious, as it implies we have some foreknowledge of our likely success in the exercise of our willed force. Do we, then chose to fail when exercising ordinary will power? Or is there some form of higher ‘seeing’ that knows what can be done, uniquely, in the personal now?
We can say we are successful in using will – for example in not having that heavy pudding that will add more weight to our already- January rich waistlines; or we can say we failed to exercise our willpower in refusing it. This is curious, since it implies that we are, somehow, split beings: one part doing the ‘right’ thing, the other the wrong or weaker one.
From a cultural point of view, this is serious stuff, since the very idea of will seems to be bound up with doing the ‘right’ thing, rather than the prevailing of a chosen and pleasant course of action (having the pudding). The cultural derivation is obvious: we live in societies that consider themselves to have a code of proper conduct. There are rules and expectations governing everything from personal hygiene to political and humanitarian conduct. It is not easy to go against any of these ‘norms’ and stay an accepted and respected member of that society.
In the human definition, to have a will implies that the entity wishing to use will is alive. Aliveness is a whole topic, in itself; but its origin as a concept begins with organic persistence. An entity is alive because it persists; and in a self-renewing form that gives it an identity. This is true from the single cell, right up to the most complex organisms, such as mankind. Something with an identity can belong to a family, and then its will is expected to conform to the expectations (and receive the praise) for actions supporting that group.
There are two things to carry forward here: the first is the mystery of the dual approach to our will: the having or not having that pudding. The second is the simple truth that any real form of mystical development requires the individual to step outside their ‘tribe’ and attempt to see things from a different (and hopefully truer) perspective. No harm is intended with the latter, but it can be painful to arrive at a set of values that are, from the new perspective, more ‘grown up’ that those inherited from the family or, more likely, the tribe.
The idea that we have conflicting wills is not simply that of organic hunger versus waistline and looking good. When we begin our mystical path, we begin to sense a more subtle world; one which has a very different set of (very gentle) expectations. These carry no prohibitions save that of belonging to something we have selected as an individual, rather than that received from a group.
Here, we can see a trap: a mystical training organisation that expects you to absorb its dogma without question is not behaving in a truly mystical way. Self-discipline is always a part of good things, but there is a fine line between dogma and a rigorous basic training. The western mind, with its industrialised psychology, is not very good at following group-disciplined paths.
A few years into our training, we may encounter the final consideration of will: that the universe is vividly alive, and that this vast life-force has a will of its own. If we have been successful in making our training our own and not just someone else’s dogma, there will have developed the first stages of a new level of consciousness in which the highest level of our will finds itself attuned to the needs of this vast intelligence. Then, the perception of will at all levels becomes a very different vision. We begin to see that the greatest freedom of will is to belong to something that works on a vast landscape of all-mind and that belonging to this is no loss of individuality at all.
Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via low-cost supervised correspondence courses.
His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com