An Update On Free Will and Mind


I have recently been in a couple of situations where free will (or lack thereof) has come up.

I know some people seem to be helped, more able to forgive and be compassionate, to release praise and blame, by embracing the view that conditioning and contingency determines all we do in life. A radical view of no free will at all, it is a story we tell ourselves, nothing more. Of course, they have to say that supposition is their conditioning and biologic predisposition (a biologic conditioning tempered by the environmental effects on biologic development), but that’s not a problem, just how it is.

Some others say:

What about responsibility? Well then, the counter is: conditioned, or just a social fiction.

What about compassion? The counter is: a biologic imperative perhaps (there is altruism in nature) or a delusion, more social conditioning.

I find it interesting that in reading Buddhist texts, at least in translation, I do not run into a specific use of that term, free will, though it is implied in that there is liberation, enlightenment, practice…

And we should ask: free of what? Free to choose without constraints? Sounds like an ego wanting to play God. Obviously, most of our existence does not embody a local/personal free will. Our activities are clearly often determined by our biologic propensities, including brain development, our social and psychological conditioning, and our environmental and social constraints (our opportunities and external limits).

But is that it? Buddhism, and for that matter many spiritual or religious teachings, have an agency implied, or why bother having teachings and practice? Why have terms like enlightenment or liberation?

In Buddhism there is karma, and even the Buddha had karma. Restraints and constraints, a life and a death in samsara. Granted there are Mahayana teachings that say the Buddha’s life and death, final illness and ageing, was just a game Buddha played, in essence, that we all play as we are part and parcel with Buddha Mind. Perhaps a similar teaching is found in other spiritual paths. I recall Yogananda saying something like God is having fun playing hide and seek (I paraphrase, and seem to remember it was couched in a female principle. The Mother was playing hide and seek. Someone can correct me)

It is Mind that has free will, liberation, and sets the constraints, not our limited perspective and ego. Or is that too dualistic? Where is the dividing line?

We certainly seem to have agency, will. We can change our body with exercise, break habits with effort, even change our brains with our brains, say in meditation, as is well demonstrated.

Who is it that makes these choices?

Are they real choices, or just a combination of genetic predisposition and conditioning, with the environment favoring one road over another road.

After all, Buddhism does teach that all composite things, all dharmas, all events and manifestations (which are ultimately events) are contingent. Dependent origination, cause and effect, cycles and karma.

Yet we still talk of enlightenment and practice and liberation, delusion and the idea that we can create new karma.

Maybe it just isn’t important how we frame it. Maybe this is too conceptual, getting trapped in words.

I’m with the Dalai Lama. Forget isms. Learn to give a shit. Can we do that?

While it is a common observation that people don’t often change in substantial, profound, foundational ways, some do.

My favorite example is not some Zen Master or the Dalai Lama or Yogananda. It is nitty gritty, street and here and now. It is Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles (look them up and get Father Gregory Boyle’s books; he walks the walk. Compassion at work. for decades. Donate. Please). Former gang bangers, some even murderers, baking bread with former mortal enemies. Raising families in a way they never experienced. Many fail. Some seem to thrive. Sure, maybe it is just another conditioning, but it sure doesn’t look like it or feel like it. But it is a demonstration of change despite the odds, despite the clear restraints. People don’t end up in gangs coming from mildly dysfunctional homes. These ae people who have been in hells most of us can’t imagine. And in Homeboy they find “radical kinship”, and some truly seem to thrive.

There are students who were brought up poor or even homeless, people trying to change their lives, who are now in college and professional schools. Organizations like Swipe Out Hunger founded by a former UCLA student, Rachel Sumekh, who needs to run for office (full disclosure I am on the board) help them eat. There are groups like Los Angeles Room and Board founded by a dynamic young man, Sam Prater. Or Students 4 Students, run by an engineer, Louis Tse who lived in his car while in grad school so he could start something to help homeless students. This are just a couple I know personally. These are people acting out of compassion, acting as if it mattered, that people have choice, can change, and aren’t totally constrained by how their lives have been and how their lives look. Introducing you to these three is arbitrary, just people I have some contact with. Of course. You likely have many examples. I just felt like showing them some love. My choice. My mandala. Of course there’s Doctors Without Borders, people who dedicate their lives to saving the world politically or with social or. environmental activism. Or who do their jobs helping people. Teachers like my daughter. Doctors like my former colleagues (I have retired). People who act as if.

Or just you and me, in this moment or that, when we make some effort, however small. When we chose to care about someone else, even a bit. Whether expected of us or not. But we do it.

OK maybe more delusion, more conditioning, but why put that set on limits on the universe? Is that just another story too?

So, I chose (!) to act as if. As if I have agency. As if compassion and responsibility and the precepts can make a difference in my life and the lives of those around me. As if there is delusion and clarity. As if when I fall, I can choose to pick myself up.

Maybe that’s just my conditioning, and certainly to a large degree it is. At least it is in part a function of the opportunities I have been afforded.

This is not to deny that free will, to the degree it might exist, is limited in our finite lives. For all of us. And that view can allow us to be more compassionate, as we are all in the same boat.

But the danger is that it becomes, as I have recently seen, an excuse for bad behavior, for poor effort. For not taking responsibility. For self-deception. For lethargy, inertia, not making the effort to make the world a kinder, safer, more livable place.

There is a rationale to that choice (!) of acting as if we have some modicum of agency, of choice, of what some call free will, besides a calculus of empirical usefulness. The way I see things, a core Zen teaching is that Mind is Buddha. Even philosophically, intellectually, non-dualistic idealism has an appeal to me (read Bernardo Kastrup). Mind is foundational, ultimately duality is an illusion if not delusion. Mind is making choices, the me/we are Mind doing that.

Is that not just a belief, another concept?

I suppose so. Let’s call it a working hypothesis.

But one I think, after all these years of exploring it, of whatever wee itsy bit of change, peace and insight this path has afforded me, still worth exploring.

That is, if you choose to!




3 thoughts on “An Update On Free Will and Mind

  1. An interesting approach using mind as a portal. You mention Yogananda, who I consider (as you know) my Guru and whose teachings guide my life. I’ll try and paraphrase in a way that comes from my heart where I spiritually operate. Father talks about the influences on free will. I feel that current instincts and actions come from the influence of actions and habits of our past lives. We may not remember what exactly we did or why, but are influenced just the same–AND we are ultimately responsible for our actions in this life. Then there are the influences acquired in this lifetime through heredity, reason or superstition. The combination of it all influences our life . There’s also all that is around–world karma, our nation’s karma, family influence (repeated affirmations such as, “Jack is a bad boy.”) and community, books, radio, TV etc. How do we get out of this karmic trap?–by tuning onto a spiritual path. (Preaching to the choir here.) A divine person’s will is guided by wisdom not whims, impulses, or bad habits.To tune in to divine teachings is to find true freedom of will. (Let go,let God) Also gurus, saints and masters can take on some of others bad karma with spiritual care. That for me is the meaning of Christmas and Christ consciousness as attributed to Jesus.

    • Thanks Elaine. I like hearing your perspective.

      Of course in Buddhism as well there is a similar implication of the role of free will and karma, classically also including reincarnation.

      If no free will at all on any level in Buddhism why would there be precepts? Why any practice?

      Seems very 19th and 20th century to see life in a mechanistic, totally over determined way without some level of agency… very dualistic, very materialistic.

      Of course some might say, well, the precepts and practice are just something you were programmed to like and try to keep, you have that social and psychological background and biology, so still no free will. They are not totally wrong of course. I can see conditioning, social and psychological processes, even biologic processes (for example, how my synapses fire, brain function, that is) at work in my decisions, including Zen as a choice. But leaving it at that is not quite right either, I believe.

      Such closed reasoning, all you are and do is conditioning, because no matter what, you can’t prove otherwise and it fits with a view of science and the way things work, is unassailable, but not necessarily true. That’s the thing about choosing your definitions and starting point. Like in math, there’s always assumptions. If you assume no agency, just an infinite regress of conditioning, then you do have logical consistency. But then, so do many fantasies that have no basis in any reality.

      Free will is a pretty Western materialistic concept I think. A particular assumption, relying n a false dichotomy (ie that will is either totally free and godlike or determined by random processes resulting in conditioning) in my view.

      Classical Buddhism also considers reincarnation in the mix, though that is beyond my ken. It is almost TOO easy again in a weird way for me. Wraps it all up too nicely. But that’s me; I hesitate when it is too neat, too easy. That doesn’t mean I discount it, it is just that reincarnation isn’t something where I can say I KNOW how it really works, so I dont feel I can honestly comment on it too much.

      In modern Buddhism at large, especially in the West among intellectuals, there are those who would strip away all that seems like Eastern “mysticism” to make it “modern” and “scientific.”; that’s not where I am coming from at all. I am not that arrogant. I would rather just admit I don’t know.

      Of course if Mind is foundational, if Mind is Buddha, as the ancients sometimes said, and I take that pretty much as my starting point, our lives do not need be only limited in 4 dimensions, and those dimensions themselves (space and time), are Mind. No separation, non dualistic. One. And Mind can recycle its “thoughts’ and images”, the dream, the Cosmic fantasy, the Mind at play, can morph and evolve. Of course we expeerience limitations and our “small”limited minds and our day to day finite lives, but these are aspects. Again, a good modern philosopher with a pretty Western bias is Bernardo Kastrup for this. The ancients also saw this, and wrote things like The Identity of The Relative and Absolute a Zen poem from 700 years ago. They used analogies such as: we are like waves in an ocean, with finite identities not separate from a unity.

      As for reality being thoughts or dreams in the mind of God, you will remember I do go there with the ancient Egyptian Amun in my second Aidan dream detective book…

  2. Yes. Currently in my practice I strive to not overthink. There is an Indian saint (now passed) that Yogananda met and writes about in his autobiography, Ananda Moyi Ma, (Joy Permeated Mother) who I can’t get out of my mind. I’ve always been somewhat wary of women, (karma?) yet being one myself, I realize that I must seek ways to leave behind this uneasiness. One day in meditation I felt how a woman saint would be, i.e. unselfish service to all, from the heart. Ananda Moyi Ma, told Yogananda, “Before this body came on this earth, Father, I was the same. I grew into womanhood; still I was the same.When the family in which I had been born made arrangements to have this body married, I was the same. And Father, in front of you now, I am the same. Ever afterward, though the dance of creation change around me in the hall of eternity, I shall be the same.” Her sole purpose was to teach and serve many. Since then my thoughts are drawn to her and her picture and her words find me somehow; almost on a daily basis. How does this tie in to free will? Did I bring these thoughts to mind? Or did God? Am I really being led or followed by this woman’s mind? Hmmm. Yogananda also used the wave/ocean analogy often. He said that we find God by 25% of our own effort, 50% by the efforts of a guru, and 25% by God (Divine intervention). I guess I’ll continue to let go and let God–AND let the miracles keep on coming. Maybe Aidan will shed some more light on these issues in book three? I waiting with bated breath.

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