Dualism is composed of many simple assumptions. When we hear these assumptions, we know they are true. We know that there was a yesterday, and if the universe doesn’t explode, there will be a tomorrow. We know there is a ‘me’ who was born, is moving through life, and will someday die (but hopefully not before we get to do lots of really fun things). We know that there is a thing called time, and that it moves along and we can’t escape it.
These things are so obvious, they need not even be questioned! Or do they?
The handy thing about our usual way of thinking (as epitomized in the SDM) is that it automatically self-destructs. That’s right! If you just sit down and think about things for a little while, you’ll find that the world isn’t quite as clear-cut as we thought. This can be really good, because it can lead you to non-dualism, where the world becomes really, really, really amazing all the time. However, it can also lead you down the road into a feeling that nothing really matters.
This article is going to explore one of the most basic assumptions we hold about life, and will use dualism to undo dualism. The method? Asking lots of questions. And we’ll turn it around in the end so that it points us toward the beauty of non-dualism.
Every day you are faced with different decisions, and what you decide affects your life.
This statement is one of those Very Basic Things that we simply know to be true. Nothing could be more obvious, right? Let’s start asking questions, and see where it leads. We’ll have to play a little imagination game, but it should take us down some interesting roads.
Is it meaningful to talk of decisions unless we have free will?
Probably not. Free will assumes that when two decisions are presented before us, we have a choice of which one to choose. Hopefully, we’ll choose wisely! Now, although we think it’s obvious that humans have free will, it’s not so obvious that, say, a tree has free will.
Do trees have free will?
Imagine for a moment, a tree in the forest. The wind suddenly blows, and the limbs of the tree move in the wind. Imagine that the tree says, “Look! I have free will! I’m moving my limbs right now!”
Well, we’d probably laugh a little bit. “You’re not moving your limbs,” we’d say. “The wind is. You have no choice in the matter.”
The tree might be ruffled. It waits until the wind stops, and then it says, “Look! I decided to stop moving my limbs!”
Again we’d pat the tree sympathetically and tell it that it isn’t doing anything at all – its limbs are merely responding to the wind.
The free will challenge
Now let’s pretend that a woman is sitting across from you. She says, “Okay. Why don’t you prove to me that you have free will?”
“Fine,” you reply, and you reach over and pick up a pencil. “I decided to pick up this pencil, and then I did it.”
She laughs a little bit. “You didn’t decide to pick up the pencil. It’s just the wind. You’re only responding to your environment, just like the tree’s limbs responding to the wind.”
“But that’s ridiculous!” you reply. “I decided to pick up the pencil! I could have decided to do anything!”
“You can assert that,” she insists, “but the fact is that you picked up the pencil, which was a direct response to my challenge. My challenge was the wind, and your action was the movement of the tree’s limbs.”
“Well, now I’m putting the pencil down!” you reply. “You didn’t ask me to do that!”
“You’re still only responding to your environment,” she says. “The relationship between the wind and the tree is pretty easy to recognize and predict, because there aren’t too many factors. The relationship between you and your environment is more difficult for you to recognize, because your reaction to any situation will be made up of all the things you’ve learned and all your ideas and biases from your past. We also have to plug in all the numerous factors in each unique situation. But if we could possibly take into account all these factors, you’d be just as predictable as the tree in the wind.”
Can we prove we have free will?
No matter what we do in any given moment, it’s perfectly conceivable that we’re just reacting to our environment, no different than the tree in the wind. We really have no way to prove that we have free will at all! Watch your actions, and see if you ever do anything that’s totally unrelated to your past and present environment. Of course you don’t – all your actions are tied up within the complex factors which have brought you to your present moment.
This gets more clear when we ask what we mean by ‘free will’. Do you have an answer?
Imagine that you’re creating a robot with human-like artificial intelligence. Your robot is sitting in front of an apple and a pear. You want it to make a choice as to which fruit it will eat. How do you program that decision? Do you make it random? If you do, does the robot really have a ‘choice’? Do you give the robot a preference by saying that it will choose the apple 70% of the time, and the pear 30% of the time? What sort of choice is this? It’s still just a toss of the dice.
How about this? We program into the robot the ability to analyze all its past situations and to create preferences, so that it can then make a choice. But still, all we’ve done is make the equation more complicated! There is still no choice being made – it’s simply a matter of what the outcome of all the various complicated equations add up to. No different than wind blowing a tree.
No. What we want is for the robot to make a decision independent of any equation. It can’t simply compute all the factors of past and present. It just has to sort of make a decision out of . . . nothing.
Just what is this strange thing that we call free will?
Does Kenton have free will?
Oddly enough, if an apple and a pear are in front of me, there’s quite a bit of evidence that I don’t have a choice at all. In fact, I can tell you how my ‘program’ works, precisely as if I am a robot. I’ll look at the two fruits, and because I’ve had past experiences that have led me to like pears better than apples, I’ll probably choose the pear. Except if the pear doesn’t look very ripe, because I haven’t been programmed to enjoy crunchy pears. Now, if I was thinking about free will, I might choose the apple just to prove that I can make my own decision, but all I’ve really done is react to my environment again. In fact, I can’t escape this!
If we look honestly at the world that dualism lays out before us, we can’t find any evidence at all for free will. We can shout and yell and insist that we have it, but we sound just as ludicrous as the tree, insisting that it’s decided to move its limbs when the wind blows.
If there is no free will . . .
Suddenly we have a problem. If we look honestly, we don’t have any proof of free will at all. Does this mean we are nothing but mindless robots, unable to make decisions? This, of course, is where our dualistic minds will lead us. Remember, one of dualism’s favorite tactics is to jump to the ‘opposite’ of any idea. Dualism = opposites. So, if we don’t have free will, we must have the opposite! We must be mindless drones!
This is our dualistic training, and our mind will jump right to that conclusion. But let’s break out of the usual path of thought for a moment and consider some other possibilities.
First of all, just because we don’t have proof of free will doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist! We might also ask if we have proof of no free will. And we won’t find any proof of that either! What this means is that we’ve entered into the realm of Belief. With no proof either way, we’re free to believe in either dualistic option. So why don’t we look at each option and see which one is better?
There is free will!
Most of us will want to believe in this option. We’re used to it, and it’s the comfortable option, since we’ve believed in it all our lives. In fact, we’d probably like to forget about this whole thing and just slip comfortably back into our free will mindset.
But wait! Exactly what does free will do for us? After all, you’ll notice that the tree’s actions, and our actions (as described in our encounter with the ‘woman’ above) are situation-appropriate no matter what we believe. If you don’t believe in free will, you’re not suddenly going to be a mindless slave who will do anyone’s bidding. You’ll simply react according to your environment, which ironically is what you’d do whether or not you believe in free will. In fact, if we cease to believe in free will, do we lose anything? I don’t believe in free will, and I certainly don’t walk around being ‘pushed about’ by my environment any more than you do. In fact, as you’ll see, I ironically might have more influence over my environment by not believing in free will!
The dark side of free will
While we don’t lose anything by abandoning the belief in free will, we do free ourselves of some things. Consider that people can spend enormous amounts of time trying to decide on this option or that, and when they make a wrong decision, they can get pretty down on themselves. If you mess up a decision, you can feel guilty, stupid, or embarrassed. Basically, believing in free will sets up a system whereby you imagine that life is a series of choices, and you move from choice to choice, hoping you make the right ones. To add to all this work, we get to spend lots of life energy feeling bad about all the ‘wrong’ decisions we’ve made.
Basically, this whole free-will/decision thing seems like a set-up for making us feel bad!
But having no free will is just like being an empty-headed robot!
Again, this is the dualistic assumption that we’re likely to jump to. But if we break free of our usual methods of thought, might there not be another possibility?
What if we were taught that instead of life being composed of choices, life was composed of situations. And what if you were taught that you will mutually arise perfectly within each situation?
What I mean by mutually arising is that we cease to imagine there is some mysterious program that allows you to make decisions based on ‘nothing’. Mutual arising means that you are a part of your environment (isn’t this obvious?), and that you ‘arise’ into each situation in accord with your environment. Just like a tree that ‘mutually arises’ with the forest. It grows in harmony with the forest, growing in this direction or that to reach more sunlight. It isn’t independent of the soil or sunshine or squirrels, but is an integral part of its whole environment. As the forest grows, the tree grows.
You, too, can grow in harmony with your forest. Each moment is a new situation, and you harmoniously ‘arise’ into each new moment! You don’t have to be stressed, because you know that each new moment will bring its own situation, and that you’ll arise perfectly within it!
Arise perfectly? What if I mess up?
Perfect mutual arising doesn’t mean ‘correct’ mutual arising. To illustrate, let’s pretend that I’m driving my car with someone I love in the seat beside me. Suddenly, an oncoming car swerves erratically.
Let’s say that I believe in decisions, and I decide to swerve to the left, and I get into a collision. I survive, but my loved one is killed. Can you imagine my guilt? If only I had swerved to the right! I can punish myself for the rest of my life for that decision, and many people actually do spend significant portions of their lives feeling terrible about decisions they’ve made.
Now, let’s say that I’m perfectly mutually arising to the situation. I swerve to the left, and get into a collision. My loved one is killed.
You’ll notice that the same thing happened in both instances. But now, knowing that I perfectly mutually arise in each situation, I know that the ‘decision’ I made is the ‘decision’ I made. What happened happened, and it’s no use to feel bad about it for the rest of my life.
‘Bad things’ may happen to us no matter what we do, but the filter through which we see those things makes all the difference.
A Bit of Intention-Manifestation Thrown into the Stew
Oddly enough, if you are perfectly mutually arising to each new situation, you’ll likely find that ‘bad’ things actually don’t happen as often! This is the magic of the whole affair – your underlying harmonious attitude can have a profound effect on how your life unfolds. To use the old decision-making model, we could say that your decision to see yourself as perfectly mutually arising will create a more harmonious situation almost every time.
The Idea of Mushin
There is a concept called ‘Mushin’ which might be translated into ‘Mind-no-Mind’. What that translation is trying to explain is that there is a state of mind which few of us experience very often. This is when we are simultaneously perfectly aware of our present situation, and yet our actions seem to arise without any ‘interference’ or ‘volition’ on our part.
In sparring during martial arts, you might experience this as someone comes toward you with a flurry of kicks. Suddenly it’s as if they are moving in slow motion, because your mind isn’t busy with all its reactions and decision-making processes. The kicks come toward you, and you dodge and block without any mental effort at all. It’s not a feeling of reaction, such as when you react to a bee’s sting, but rather a sensation of complete clarity and action-without-acting. (This isn’t, by any means, a perfect explanation — in fact, it’s just a way of ‘framing’ the idea of Mushin so that we can talk about it here — but it will do for the moment. This article gives a more vivid idea of what Mushin is really about.)
In this moment of sparring, you discover something amazing. You discover that you are perfectly capable of arising to the situation without any thinking whatsoever.
This feeling of Mushin can infuse our entire lives – not just quick moments such as a bout of sparring. Mushin is really the same as ‘perfect mutual arising’. This is the way that everything in nature works – growing and moving ‘just right’ in accord with its environment. This is the way that people work, too – it’s just that we can imagine that we are independent of our environment, imagine that we have a mysterious something called ‘free will’, and then suffer the consequences.
How Do I Become a Perfectly Mutually Arising Entity?
Here’s the funny part. You already are! If you have all sorts of ideas about free will and decision-making, then that’s the soil you’re growing in, and you’ll arise in perfect accord with that soil. If you imagine that you are ‘perfectly mutually arising’ as an integral part of every situation, then that’s the soil you’re growing in! Either way is just a belief. No matter what you do, you’re arising in each moment according to what your beliefs and interpretations of the world dictate.
Ceasing to ‘make decisions’ is easier than you might think. First, take the time to examine your ideas about the world. Really think about free will, and what it means to you. See if you can find it for yourself.
Then pay attention to how much energy you spend on decision-making. How much time do you think about the ramifications, the ifs and buts, regarding the various decisions you make each day? Notice how this guessing-game takes up enormous amounts of energy. Lots and lots of energy which leads to rather dubious results. What would happen if you simply paid attention to the situation unfolding right Now?
Truth and Belief
This article certainly doesn’t prove that free will does or doesn’t exist. In fact, it’s not really concerned with the issue of free will at all! It’s actually concerned with our tendency to make Belief into Truth.
Even people who fancy themselves rationalists usually live 99% according to beliefs, even as they criticize others for ‘blindly believing’ in religion or new age philosophies. If we pay attention to Just As Is, we’ll find that life is incredibly simple – all the complexities of life are created out of believing in things we don’t have any evidence for.
Beliefs are fine, if we realize they are beliefs. A belief in money or yesterday can be useful. But if we mistake those beliefs for Truth, we can really begin to get frustrated.
Just As Is
If we attend to this very moment, we’ll find that it is always manifesting perfectly Just As Is. As each moment arises, we can either confront it through the filter of our decision-making process, and find ourselves in a sticky mess, or we can see each moment in its pure simplicity, and respond to it perfectly.
Each moment you will ever encounter is crystal clear and perfectly simple. It is only our minds that project into future and past, and cloud the moment with our thoughts.
Encountering the moment is the simplest thing we can do. It’s what happens when we stop trying and putting forth effort. And that’s the secret, right there.
Simple, pure, and effortless.