I recently read an article by Peter Russell entitled The Paradox of Free Will. In brief, Russell argues that the apparent contradiction between free-will versus determinism can explained by the limits of the conscious perspective in which the paradox is beheld. He cites research that theorizes:
“…our decisions are being driven by unconscious brain activity, not by conscious choice. But when the decision reaches conscious awareness, we experience having made a choice. From this perspective, the apparent freedom of choice lies in our not knowing what the outcome will be.”
And the paradox off free will vs determinism is dissolved by acknowledging a difference in perspective:
In day to day living “…we can be engaged in the drama, experiencing free will, making choices that affect our futures…” or in a liberated, fully awake state “…we can step back and be a witness to this amazing play of life unfolding before us. Both are true within their respective frameworks.”
I love Peter Russell’s writing and find inspiration from his multi-disciplinary approach to the borders between science, spirituality, and environmentalism. However, this article left me chewing my cheek, feeling a predictable discomfort in the idea that the I I know myself to be is not actually free. I practice both Yoga and Buddhism, and work daily with the idea that our perceived sense of free-will is conditioned by internal and external influences. We live in ignorance (avidyā), intoxicated by illusion (māyā), held in separation by an egoic mental home (ahaṃkāra), clinging to a belief of a permanent Self (asmitā), and suffering by the reality that we are actually not any of this (duḥkha). However. I reserve the freedom to choose to live otherwise, and to know the difference (viveka).
There are two assumptions I want to bring to light before continuing.
Firstly, the idea of “ignorant consciousness” is frustratingly difficult to argue against. According to the argument, even when I try to think about the power of the unconscious influences in my mind, the act of thinking itself is a consequence of unconscious influences. This sets up a recursive self-reference cycle, which cannot be proven or disproven. So I humbly hereby reject it.
Secondly, the proliferate use of “I” and other possessives here is duly noted. I am arguing that even the constructed I, the one that types these words, has a basic freedom of choice outside its own daydream.
I am deeply indebted to the unconscious processes of my mind. They thankfully govern a great deal of what I do. Just a few moments ago I was meticulously brushing my teeth while I thought of the proper words to express this sentence. Anyone who drive a car can likely relate to the two-or-twenty-minute-check-out phenomena, where unconscious decisions of how to navigate through traffic happen, and usually not lose our course. This type of decision-making occurs outside of direct awareness, and it works really well.
Given that unconsciousness handles so much of what we do effectively, then why are we conscious of some things and not of others? Why do we have the faculty consciousness (even ignorant consciousness), if it is just a fanciful by-product of our functional, unconscious, deterministic mind-processes?
Maybe it is so pure awareness (puruṣa) has something by which to abide with from an individual’s birth to death. This notion is mystical and somewhat tantalizing, but I believe that the conscious mind exists for more than just the entertainment of pure awareness. There is a role for consciousness, something that it is capable of, an active faculty of participation in reality. Not just a witness to predetermined bubbles of unconsciousness breaching the veil of illusion.
Consciousness, a Candidate with Purpose
Like many ideas expressed here, I lifted this one from my teachers. Possibly the only faculty we have is the ability to direct what we are attentive to, what we place attention on. Out of the array of conditions that arise from our unconscious mind, we have the ability to bypass the shining-star and take notice of a wallflower. And then really see it. Here I will use Russell’s example of deciding what to eat off a menu at a restaurant. I may normally be aware of conditions such as tastiness, nutritive value, degree of hunger, etc. However, I can also decide to delve deeper and place attention on a condition that I may not normally be attentive to. For me this is not trusting food that has been prepared by someone else, which leads to choosing a menu option that seems less processed. The more subtle condition is fear of the unknown. However that condition is not normally readily in the forefront of my mind when I see a menu. But if I open to all possible conditions, then I can find it there, influencing me.
Habits are Like Vampires
Becoming aware of subtler conditions of experience is more than just an act of witnessing. We are not just bystanders to the by-products of our unconscious minds. There is a mutual dependency. From the previous example, my fear of strange food may have had a real unconscious effect on my menu choices at restaurants in the past. But after having aired it out, it will be of less influence in the present.
By being attentive to the conditions that affect each moment of experience, we give ourselves the opportunity to change the relative influence they hold over our decisions. Habits are like vampires. Maybe they do not melt in the direct light of awareness, but having seen them in action, we are less likely seduced by the easy unconscious decisions they previously afforded us. Our gift back to ourselves for the future is a slight but mindful adjustment to our construct of self.
Meditation is teaching me that I can approach the limits of my conditioning. Even through the perspective of my conscious, ignorant mind, I sense that I am tending towards the event horizon of unconditioned experience. Breaching this may not be possible from the mechanisms I know, from the ways I know to push. But in the meantime, the meaning of my life is served by the idea that I can choose to look into the dark with my eyes open.