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Do We Have Real Choice?

December 10, 2017



One of the primary questions that has puzzled philosophers through the ages is this: “Do we have real choice?” Is there such a thing as free will, or is everything predetermined? As an intellectual exercise, I would say, this question is pretty much useless, but if we drop it down to the experiential/intuitive level (the only place that can provide a real answer) then I see a source of guidance in it that may teach us something about how to live skillfully—if we are willing to disregard our assumptions and follow where that guidance may lead.


For a great while I remained stuck in the same confusion that many have over this question, wondering which of the two possibilities it could be. I can see now what I could not then, that the very approach is flawed. It has conditioned mind attempting to see into the mysteries of Life, and that is never going to happen. Conditioned mind lives apart from Life—that is it’s entire reason to be, and its essential function—and can only see itself. The dualistic nature of the question gives away the presence of the social conditioning behind it, as does the disorientation that has followed it over time. Whenever you have a question that cannot be resolved, whenever there is a pair of mutually exclusive opposites, you can know that you’re interacting with conditioned mind. That’s a good thing to remember not just in terms of philosophical issues but also in regards to the sorts of things that arise in everyday life. Within Life there is always an answer. The solutions Life provides are not intellectual and cannot be understood by conditioned mind (though it will pretend to understand); people identified with conditioned mind will tell you that the information that Life drops into the moment is absurd, but it isn’t. It’s just beyond the capacity of reasoned thinking to comprehend.


The thing that always troubled me about the free will versus determinism dispute is that my experience suggested an answer that my logical mind said was impossible. It is absolutely my experience that I have the power to make free choices. It is also my absolute experience that everything that happens is “meant to be”: when I look back over all that has occurred and see the thread of compassion and guidance that has led me all the while I simply cannot doubt it. Now, both of these “experiences” are technically interpretations of experience, and as such can’t truly be relied upon. The best answer to the question, then, really is, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” There is something useful in it, however, and so I’ll press on anyway. I would propose that the second-best answer to this ancient question is not one or the other—not free will or determinism—but both.


I remember distinctly the moment when I got that. I was at the monastery, walking down the path towards the west end of the property. I wasn’t thinking about the question, or about anything at all—a key prerequisite for insight, you know—and suddenly the answer just popped into my head out of nowhere: it’s both. We are both free and guided in every moment of our lives. Both are true and real. These are not mutually exclusive opposites, but two sides of a coin. Sometimes I experience one side of the coin, sometimes the other, but these are mutually supporting facets of the mystery we all experience in this life. Isn’t that amazing? What a strange and wonderful world we live in that such a thing could be!


A while back I heard an interview with a prominent physicist who was attempting to describe the bizarre mechanics that exist at the level of subatomic particles. At this level, he said, many of the laws that we normally see in nature do not apply, and often are invalid. He noted that the dualistic assumptions of science will lead much of the time to false conclusions, both in the tiny world he studies and elsewhere in nature. And then he said a most interesting thing: often the answer to an either/or question is “both”. I felt so validated when I heard this: yes, that is what my experience says. It defies logic, but that only indicates the illusory nature of human thinking, not of the true laws of nature: we think thoughts, not reality.


So where does this leave us in terms of our everyday life? What does this teach us about how to live skillfully? The reader will have to determine this for himself/herself, ultimately, but I’ll tell you what it suggests to me. I must take absolute responsibility for myself: for all my thoughts and actions, for all my feelings, and for everything that occurs to me. Everything I experience is me, and I cannot hold anyone or anything else responsible. At the same time, I must follow the Guidance of Life in everything I do. Each moment to the best of my ability I must accept the step that Life is putting in front of me to take, and say yes. This is what the Christians are pointing at, I think, when they say, “Pray as if everything depends upon God, and work as if everything depends upon you.” I must live in both worlds. So how do we accomplish this? How may we experience ourselves as individual humans and as this mysterious force we call “Life” at the same time? Ah, now that’s the real puzzle, isn’t it?That’s the question we must answer, if we are willing, with our very lives.

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