Zen freedom

Free will and fate are both illusions. The trick is learning to sail with the prevailing winds of life

by 1600 1,600 words
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A Boat in the Sea by Arkhip Kuindzhi,  c.1875. Oil on canvas.

A Boat in the Sea by Arkhip Kuindzhi, c.1875. Oil on canvas.

Tim Lott is the author of The Scent of Dried Roses (Penguin Modern Classics) and Under the Same Stars (Simon and Schuster).

There is a line in J G Ballard’s book The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) that strikes at the heart of the issue of free will versus fate. Ballard writes: ‘Deep assignments run through all our lives; there are no coincidences.’ It is an arresting line — and no doubt many of us at one time or another have felt just this way about our lives, that they have a fated quality to them ­—­ but just what these ‘deep assignments’ consist of is unclear. The issue of free will versus fate might, for many people, feel a little rarefied, and irrelevant. Yet it seems to me it is absolutely crucial to how we approach the countless dilemmas that confront every one of us each day.

Perhaps it’s peculiar, but this question has vexed me for as long as I can remember. At one point in my life, this challenge pretty much sent me crazy. In the late 1980s, when I was studying history at university, I found myself grappling furiously with the question of why things happened — this question being, really, at the heart of all historical analysis.

Why did the Russian Revolution happen in 1917 rather than the ‘first time round’ in 1905? What caused the Second World War? Was it ‘larger historical forces’? Or just individuals making individual decisions? And, at the same time, in my own life — after I had split up with my then long-term girlfriend — I was left asking, what had I done to make that happen? What did I have to do to get her back? Was it in my control?

After three years, I was no wiser than when I started. Did we choose freely? Or were we just victims of larger historical, social and biological forces? It was impossible to tell. What I did realise was that philosophers had been struggling with such questions for thousands of years, but were no closer to understanding the answer than they were when they started out. Today, the consensus among most modern physicists, chemists and biologists is that free will is impossible — it is simply an illusion generated by a consciousness that is itself illusory. This explanation didn’t satisfy me. After all, if consciousness is an illusion, who is generating the illusion, and who is perceiving it as an illusion? For me, mechanistic determinism­ — that there is a sort of fated cause and effect at play in the universe, with no room for choice — raised more problems than it solved.

Consider your breathing: are ‘you’ breathing, or is breathing happening to you?

It also just felt wrong. I felt so sure that I could decide whether or not to drink the glass of water in front of me that I would find it impossible to be convinced otherwise. That direct experience of reality is valid, particularly since it also takes into account the fact that I might drink the water without consciously choosing to, without thinking about it first.

At the same time, it seemed impossible to believe wholeheartedly in free will. At one level, I intuited that there were paths that you just ‘had’ to take, even if you didn’t want to. When I decided to leave my publishing company to go to university later on in life, it felt like something I had to do. When I ended my marriage, I felt I had no choice — but of course, in theory at least, I did.

More objectively, there is no doubt that we are profoundly affected by our genes and brain chemistry. We are created by our social and parental environment, shaped by the language we speak, and fashioned by the things that happen to us, accidentally or otherwise. Our character is subject to so many forces beyond our control. How can any choice, then, be said to be free?

It was only after I finished studying history (or to give it another name, ‘Western notions of cause-and-effect’) and began to study Zen Buddhism that some kind of meaningful answer began to occur to me. No one could resolve the question of free will versus determinism because, fundamentally, it was the wrong question. The real question was not: Do I have a choice? Rather it was: Who is the ‘me’ that’s asking if I have a choice?

If there is no ‘I’ to make a choice, then there is only one process going on — that of existence as a whole. No one­ — no fate, or brute circumstance — is pushing you around because there is no one to be pushed around. Or to put it another way, you are both simultaneously the one who is doing the pushing and the one who is being pushed. To think of this process in another way, consider your breathing: are ‘you’ breathing, or is breathing happening to you?

Of course, this is no simple solution. It merely shifts the focus and takes us on to another equally dense philosophical question: Who am I? Individuals in the West tend to consider themselves as a sort of ‘first cause’, an isolated ego that somehow acts on ‘the world out there’. We see ourselves as struggling against our external world, as that same world struggles to dominate us. And it feels, for some, like a fight to the death.

The view that there is no ‘you’ for things to happen to is a hard, even painful one to accept

But what if, for a moment, we entertain the possibility that there is no ‘me’. No ‘I’ who can act freely or be fated to become X or Y. What if, as Carl Jung suggested, the ego is simply a complex of the unconscious, a mere concept, and as such quite powerless? This might go against everything we have ever been taught, both overtly and subliminally, but to me, it seems and feels convincing. After all, can you show me your ego? Where is it? How can you be so certain that it exists? It’s not a tangible sensation, like ‘love’ or ‘fear’. Rather, it’s an idea that perhaps we don’t even realise is an idea, so much do we take it for granted. Maybe it’s just an abstraction — like the number three.

If you take this admittedly large leap – that there is no such thing as the you that ‘you’ imagine yourself to be – then what? Then ‘you’ at the deepest level are simply one particular expression of everything else that is going on. Or as the Zen writer Alan Watts put it: ‘Will and fate are two aspects of the same thing. Life lives you, you do not live life. Everything that happens is “of itself so”.’

What you do is what the whole universe is doing now. In the same way, a single wave is something the whole ocean is doing — you cannot point to a discrete end or beginning of a wave. You are experiencing different aspects of one thing happening, not separate events linked by cause and effect. Imagine a dance between two people that looks so seamless you can’t tell who’s leading and who’s following. Is it the ‘you’ who is called ‘Tim Lott’ or ‘Joe Doakes’ or whatever, or is it the sum total of everything that’s going on? Ultimately, what’s the difference?

But where does this leave you? ‘Free’ to do whatever you want to do? Possibly. Or perhaps its means you’re absolutely unfree. It depends which way you look at it. The view that there is no ‘you’ for things to happen to is a hard, even painful one to accept. There is only a continuum: you, everything. There is no such thing as progression in time, with one cause pushing a certain effect. This is also an illusion.

For some this could be a terrifying prospect. But for me this is a good arrangement. It involves a universe full of surprises rather than a dead machine, as the determinists would have it. And neither is it a factory of regret, guilt and anxiety, which tend to be suffered by those who believe in free will too much. It leaves existence as a profound mystery and, without mystery, life would be intolerably boring.

 Let your brain do the work without interference, just as you let your liver or your heart do their jobs

When I am faced with a difficult choice now, I neither make it nor don’t make it. As Zen teaching has it, I try to await the condition of being ‘choicelessly aware’. At some point, the choice ‘just happens’, in the same way that your breath ‘just happens’, when you’re not thinking about it. Let your brain do the work without interference, just as you let your liver or your heart do their jobs without interference. Don’t let your ego — your centre of conscious reflection — get in the way. In other words, you are trusting ‘nature’ — or if you prefer, your unconscious — to make the choice for you. Nature is not always to be trusted, but it is a better bet than so called ‘rational action’; it contains a wisdom that is far deeper than reason.

If you think too much about a choice, it is bound to go awry. The same instinct that governs, lightly, your decision whether or not to go out for a walk should be the same instinct that decides whether or not to stay in your marriage. It is not motivated action. It does not involve a cost-benefit analysis. It just recognises when, and if, the door of action is open, and suggests whether you might want to walk through it — or not. What happens next is not a matter of reason, but only of courage, and faith.

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  • ramesh rghuvanshi

    Philosopher Spinoza wrote " Men believe themselves to be free,simply because they are conscious of their actions,and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined"Most people don't know their unconscious mind because it is buildup between at the age of one to three.At that time our memory is not developed no one remember the fact their life up to age of three.Recent research in neuroscience say that our entire life governed by unconscious mind. Fortunately one incendent happened in my childhood at the age of 18 month and my father narrated to me in written letter.He wrote your mother was sick by T.B., he admitted her in hospital with doctor`s instruction he snatched me from her abruptly . Impact of this incident was so horribly shocked me I suffered by PTSD. My unconscious mind draw a conclusion of this incident that I want to help my mother to reduced her suffering but my father don't tolerated my love to my mother and wanted to killed me.With this unconscious mind I am living from last 78 years.I was unable to serve my mother this trauma constantly torching me day and night.I am suffering this guilt feeling.This guilt leaded me to become publisher writer, .when ever I evaded my destiny my guilt feeling arose tremendously. it torching me to do my duty write books publish books.All my activities of life choosing wife,residence all were decided by my unconscious mind.My conscious mind dancing on tune of my unconscious mind.I wrote 30 books in my mother toung Marathi all are exploring my unconscious mind.With my experiences I can tell I have no freewill.I can describe how my unconscious mind governed on my conscious mind

  • Paul

    This leaves me with the nagging question of good and evil. If as the author suggests, we should merely "trust nature" without conscious reflection, what prevents one form committing acts which are harmful or deadly to oneself (even that word seems useless now) or others? Could someone who commits a murder or instigates a war simply say, "I trusted nature and damn the consequences?" Or, in fact, are "consequences" simply "life happening"? What is the place of past experience either in our own lives or as observed in that of others? Should we not reflect on those?

    • ramesh rghuvanshi

      Don't make so cheap idea of free will or unconscious governed on consciousness. in that limited field man have bumper chances for his personal development ,fulfill the ambition .He is responsible for his deed and misdeed.On the contrary . he punished himself for his mistake,guilt feeling made him suffered.

    • http://www.facebook.com/edwin.lee.5836 Edwin Lee

      Although I accept personal responsibility for my own actions and tacitly expect the same from others, I've long had a difficult time with the concept of evil. Frankly, the label seems to give too much meaning to tragic consequences and fosters shallow, counterproductive thinking about complex relationships and finding constructive, workable improvements. Calling something "evil" doesn't answer anything, just as saying "God did it" doesn't answer anything.

      • George Watson


        You are far too optimistic.

        There are very, very, very evil people out there and they know they
        are evil and they rejoice in their evilness and they know they could
        have chosen other than the evil acts they freely chose.

  • John

    How is "there is no me" different than neuroscience saying consciousness is illusory? And how is the "choice just happening" different from not having free will? Won't the choice just happen in a deterministic, mechanical universe? Zen Buddhism seems to be saying the exact same thing as contemporary materialism to me. It's just that Buddhism explains how to live with such knowledge.

  • BobbyLip

    No wonder the marriage ended. Who could live with such blather? Yes, many things are apparently unknowable. Why do you--yes, you--have to prove it, especially by stringing vagrant words and thoughts together, more or less at random? The time I spent reading this so-called essay is the most egregiously I've wasted today. I'm going to settle down now. Sheesh!

  • Amenemhat1

    What about physical and chemical laws? We are not exempt from these laws of physics. So it's either God set everything up in advance (highly unlikely) or these physical laws play out accordingly. There needs to be room for individually to understand what it means to be 'free'

  • stat6

    This is the first article on Aeon I've read that I've really disliked. It reads like an undergraduate's diary entry (failed marriage excepted), full of half understood ideas and casual dismissals of science as something nasty and inhuman. I'm pretty sure there's no scientific 'consensus' on free will, by the way. And there's much philosophical disagreement about whether or not free will and determinism are incompatible, so your discussion of 'free will versus determinism' is premised on a pretty shaky assumption, which you would have done well at least to acknowledge.

    • Andru

      It's an article on his own philosophical viewpoint regarding the
      struggle he is or was having in himself. It's a personal viewpoint.. so
      I'm not sure why it needs to be derogatorily referred to as an
      "undergraduate's diary entry". I'm assuming an undergraduate's diary
      entry is worse then a graduates?

      You sound kind of like a douche.

  • plainbill

    A splendid article, alas for a special audience it seems, but thanks so Aeon for presenting it.
    It is like picking up a book in Japanese; if you can't readJapanese you are picking up a book in a foreign language. Here is a book orrather in this instance a fine article, perhaps full of profound and wonderfulteachings and pure truths, but those commenting can't read the script, so it'smeaningless.
    One of the deepest truths of Nature is that everything changes,
    including the impersonality of the body-mind; - so that neither of them is
    really “me” or “mine” they have only provisional reality.There isn't really this person but
    rather we are one of the constituents in the immensity of Nature. When this comes within your understanding,then you let things happen-trusting your nature, as Tim reminds us. When you let things happen as they will and you watch them happening with out becoming entangled in them. We ride on in the sea of reality just as a duck rides the waves. He doesn’t just follow; his whole life is one with the wave.

  • SPQR

    The special audience for this article is those who don't enjoy bearing responsibility. Without intent there is no crime. Without choice & will there is no virtue or honour. According to Lott we are bobbing around on life's ocean without a care. Did Lott's wife make a choice when she turned back to gaze upon Sodom, or did she just fall into becoming a pillar of salt ?

    • http://www.facebook.com/edwin.lee.5836 Edwin Lee

      I wonder how "mental illness" fits into your theology? Defects in specific parts of the brain, for example, can render a person incapable of inhibiting destructive impulses. (clear biological cause for some sociopaths). Are people with these defects morally responsible for their actions? Does moral responsibility even have meaning for them?
      I suggest that a sociopath is a danger which should be removed from society, whether or not "guilty" of destructive choices. That conflicts with your "without intent there is no crime".

  • smilyle

    Just because there is an ocean, doesn't mean that there is a a droplet of water.

  • smilyle

    Just because there is an ocean, it doesn't mean that there isn't a a droplet of water.* Its a Both/And and an Either/Or at the same time. People make it seem that the question of free will versus determinism has to be answered in absolutes. We have free will, but it is limited. We are determined by forces, but can influences those forces at the same time.

  • http://twitter.com/beckbeat georg beck-millan

    Everything is real and unreal. It's utterly beautiful and meaningless.

  • http://twitter.com/EcoHustler EcoHustler

    Great article. I went to a talk at the house of contemporary sage Wayne Liquorman AKA Ram Tzu. His car in the drive had a bumper sticker on it that said: "Pro Choicelessness"

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Brodix-Merryman-Jr/1226942995 John Brodix Merryman Jr.

    Let your brain do its job, but there are different parts of the brain. We tend to make distinctions using the left, linear, rational cause and effect side of the brain, while the right, non-linear "intuitive" side makes the connections. So when we "think," we tend to be concentrating on particular details and points of focus, but then isolate them from context. As entities in a complex environment, individuals have to both process the environment and chart a path through it. So we have that parallel processor of the right brain that absorbs lots of immediate contextual information, to which the linear processor of the left brain then has to organize the relative importance of and chart a particular path through. We do have to both float in the ocean and navigate a path through it. Think in terms of a baseball player hitting a fast ball; He is so good at it, that it is instinctive muscle memory, but he reached that level through much practice. As complex organisms, we exist as the current state of literally a billion+ years of evolutionary "learning," so while our instinctive responses have developed throughout our lives, they are also deeply wired into our elemental being and both sides are seamlessly connected. Life doesn't begin at birth, or conception, it is all one organism that is at least a billion years old, if not eternal. Each of us is an open circuit back to the dawn of life, yet in every generation we all sprout up and die, like cells of a larger organism, constantly regenerating. As energy is conserved, creating new form/information requires writing over/erasing old.

    A large part of the problem with putting ourselves in context is that we think of time as the present moving from past to future along a narrative path, yet the larger context is non-linear. The reality of time is that it is the changing configuration of what exists, the energy, that creates and disperses form. Not the present moving from past to future, but events going future to past. For example, the earth isn't traveling a fourth dimension from yesterday to tomorrow. Tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth rotates. Time is an effect of action, similar to temperature. Time is to frequency, as temperature is to amplitude. Now we do personally experience time as a progression of events, but then we still see the sun as moving across the sky, even though it is caused by the earth spinning the other way.

    When we view time as a progression forward, we are distinct from context, much as a ship moving through water is distinct from and pushing through its context. When we view it as an emergent effect of action, then our actions are a seamless part of the whole. The puppet pulls on its strings, giving meaning to the puppeteer. Yet when we are just at that dimensionless point of the present, we cannot change the past, or affect the future.

    So focus when you have to and let your mind expand out when you can.

    The problem with monotheism is the spiritual absolute would be the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell. It just happens to be politically convenient, since it validates top down authority. Remember the polytheists first formalized democracy, as when the gods argue, it is reflected in the politics.

    In the east, they view the past as in front, because it is known, while the future is behind, since it cannot be seen.

  • kelvin jones

    I have never read anything better that explains the totality of the human condition than Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica, which covers everything you attempt to understand here, and so much more...

  • sam

    nice article. Vednata, Buddhism and Vaidic world concept are arriving to correct the follies of the Western civilization.

  • Tom

    This seems tightly linked with the Ancient Greek idea of thumos. A great article and one I will think more about over the next days.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698746285 Rexx Vernon Shelton
  • Bob

    It makes no sense to make a prescriptive argument (in this case to change the way you choose) in an article that the universe is deterministic. Prescription and determinism are not compatible, akin to saying that this is how you can stop a force that is unstoppable.

  • Nick

    Excellent article.

  • http://www.barnabyandersun.com Barnaby Maichael Andersun

    This line particularly stood out to me in this article:

    "It involves a universe full of surprises rather than a dead machine, as the determinists would have it. And neither is it a factory of regret, guilt and anxiety, which tend to be suffered by those who believe in free will too much"

    This really struck me. I had not realised it so directly that it was my strong attachment to MYSELF as a free-will agent that was at the source of my regret and anxiety.

    All my grapling with anatta, the idea of no self, for many years hadn't touched upon this aspect. This article has given me more impetus to look at life from the view it is living me, simply because there will be less agitation, and perhaps, great scope for peace and happiness.

  • http://www.facebook.com/billiechan.me Billie Chan

    determinism encompasses free will… the decision making and struggling or failure to do so are all included and affected by the chain of causality. this article is another illustration of anthropocentrism, human being as a part of the nature isn't qualified to assess itself on the same level as it does to nature.

  • George Watson

    Wow - what a self-centered essay.

    You would not have chosen to leave your wife if she alone had the cure for
    the cancer of the spine you were suffering from, or was very wealthy...
    likewise if you are denied information essential to your making a choice
    you will make the 'wrong' choice...

    It may well be that our sub-conscious knows what we truly want and do
    not want and thus quieting the brain/ego allows us to listen to our deeper
    emotions... that hardly requires whatever Zen pro-offers...just some quite
    time alone and self-honesty.

  • Matt0wen

    Nice article, shame about the predictably snarky comments.