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Is and Isn’t Free Will
Morry: Dear James, I’ve been watching your DVDs and I have a question about free will. Sometimes you mention that we have free will and sometimes that the vasanas are driving us. I was reading Greg Goode’s website and found an interesting article on free will where he explains very definitely that the person does not have free will. I have attached his article and wonder if you could take a look at it and help me understand this. Thanks very much.
Greg: The question of free will is from the perspective of the person. Does the person have free will? Many of the person’s actions are forced or determined by factors over which it has no control. Some of these actions are accompanied by the feeling of being lived, of being in the flow, in the “zone.” People often count these as the best times. But are at least some of the person’s decisions and actions freely chosen? To establish free will, as is discussed in Philosophy 101 classes everywhere, it is not necessary to show that every action is free. Even one free action would be sufficient.
Case 1: “Will that be coffee or tea?”
“Hmmm, let me think… I’ll have tea, thanks.”
Case 2: (Thought bubble rising) “I’d love to take a walk in the beautiful woods. I’d like to surround myself with peace and serenity and inquire into my true nature.” (Putting on hiking boots, opening the camper door and stepping out) “Here I go.”
From the perspective of the person, if the decision process is not analyzed, the actions and decisions in both cases above seem to be perfect examples of free will. Upon analysis, however, a free action and a free chooser cannot be found. A thought comes, followed by a desire, followed by a decision, followed by an action. Tracing backwards, the action is controlled by the decision, the decision is controlled by the desire, the desire is prompted by the thought. The thought arises spontaneously, itself unbidden, un-asked-for, unchosen. First the thought is not there, then it is. Nowhere in this process can a free will be found. Nowhere can a freely-acting chooser be found.
It is even too much to say that the actions, decisions, desires and thoughts can control or prompt each other. These cause-and-effect dynamics are not even observed. Rather they arise as inferences and conclusions about what happened, that is, they arise as thoughts that rise and fall.
In something like Case 1, the decision might even be accompanied by a small feeling of freedom, lightness and spaciousness. And maybe also accompanied by a thought, “I’m choosing tea but I could freely choose coffee instead.” But the feeling of freedom and the thought “I could” also arise unbidden. That is, the feeling of freedom is not freely chosen.
The person is not the locus of freedom.
The person and the rest of the world cannot be found apart from the awareness in which all things appear. The person, the mind, body and world arise as thoughts, feelings and sensations. These are nothing other than objects in awareness, and are nothing other than awareness itself. The person does not experience; the person is experienced. As awareness, we are That to which these objects appear. Thoughts, feelings, sensations – these objects arise from the background of silent awareness, they subsist in awareness and they slip back into awareness. The awareness in which they appear is not itself an object but the background of all objects. It is our true nature. But the objects come and go unbidden, without autonomy. They are powerless and cannot do anything on their own. Objects cannot possess or contain freedom.
Is there freedom?
The silent awareness in which all objects appear is the true nature of all things. Awareness says YES to everything. Even if a NO arises, awareness says YES to the NO. Awareness is without resistance, without limits or edges, without refusal and without obstruction. Awareness is not free, it is freedom itself. What we truly are is not the person but this awareness, this freedom.
The person wants to co-opt this freedom, to own it, to behold it, to be present to use and enjoy it. But in spite of this desire from the perspective of the person, the person can never own That in which the person appears.
What about teachings that emphasize free will?
Entire religions and ethical systems are based on this idea. Ramana Maharshi told a questioner that all actions are determined except the ability to inquire into one’s true nature. Isn’t Case 2 above different from Case 1?
Sometimes teachings and exhortations about personal freedom are a beautiful, effective and necessary step for freedom from the idea of being a person. A person who prematurely adopts a “no-free-will” teaching can lapse into depression and antinomian behavior. “You have to be someone before you can be no one.” The teachings on free will borrow from the freedom that we are. Among the many objects that arise in the mirror of awareness, some objects arise as images of mirrors. These images are taken as representations of their source. Like a mirror appearing in a mirror, Ramana’s teaching serves as a pointer to freedom. Case 2 is not different in this respect from Case 1. As objects, all cases and their characters, and all teachings and all discourse (even this one!) are not themselves free or self-powered, but they arise from freedom and consist in freedom.
The person is never free.
As awareness, we are never bound.
James: Hi, Morry. The whole free will versus determinism argument revolves on the question of “who am I?” There is no free will from the self’s point of view. As Greg says, “it is freedom itself.” When you look at the question of action and choice (which is just a subtle action) from the point of view of the total (Isvara, the macrocosmic body) there is no free will. Everything happens automatically as a result of the interaction of all the factors in existence. All the individuals are “being done.” Their mind is made up before they make it up.
But if you cannot understand this, then you take yourself to be a doer, a chooser. The chooser has limited free will because it believes it is a doer. You can choose between apples and oranges. Greg covers this point too when he talks about Ramana’s views on free will and the tamasic view – which is that you just lie around doing nothing. If you believe you are the doer, then can get out of this status by invoking Isvara, your self in the form of the world. You ask for moksa by doing those scripturally-enjoined actions that lead to moksa, i.e. self-inquiry, satsang with jnanis, meditation, karma yoga, etc. Eventually, as your understanding of the matrix, the web of causality, becomes clear, you see clearly that you are not the doer. This will cause the mind – the seeker – to take refuge in the self as its identity and it will relax and let life take its natural course.
I hope this has been useful.
~ Love, James