When I was a new therapist, I had a client that I only got to work with for a couple of months. She was young - maybe early thirties. It was challenging from the start. Her alcoholism was so extreme that she showed up sputtering drunk a couple of times. She was court-ordered, so she had no choice about whether or not she continued her sessions. She wasn't allowed to participate in group, given the extent of her use. On my supervisor's urging, we moved her appointments to 9am. And even at that hour, she'd show up already smelling of liquor.
We talked openly about her process. Even in her fog, she was open, and interested in the conversations we had in that room, about her history, her traumas, the stressors of the day-to-day, and even consciousness, and Selfhood. She was devastated at her incapacity to do the process any differently, and she seemed motivated to make a change. But neither the devastation nor the stated motivation equated to freedom. She was a slave to the bottle.
She did not come in for her appointment one day, nor did she return my calls. As it turned out, she was dead. I never got to find out why, and I had a thousand questions. I was an intern, 2 years into my practicum. I postulated a car accident, liver poisoning, abuse. I wanted to call her family to find out, or search obituaries, or hospital records. My supervisor helped me to see the futility of that, and how my desire to know was all about me, and not helpful to the family or in keeping with my role as her therapist. My role had ended with her life.
What I most took away from that was this nagging sense that as much as we both wanted different outcomes for her, her path seemed to have no crossroads in it - no intersections where she might take another turn. She truly seemed to have no free will, and that there was nothing she nor I nor anyone could do about it.
I've worked a lot with addicts. I've gotten to observe first hand the phenomenal process of someone who appears to be hanging by a thread pull themselves back from the brink. Addiction is an incredible prison, where the freedom to choose to stop using is generally non-existent. And yet, some simply look up, and lift themselves, like golden birds, from the heavy ground. Some get out, some don't. She didn't. I learned the hard way that I (as a clinician) didn't have much control over what happens to someone on this edge.
That said, I watched many people get clean, and experience wide-eyed wonder at how grace began to flow back into their lives. That buoyed me up, and while I experienced true feelings of loss when certain clients fell back into slumber, and disappeared, I began to let go in a way that allowed me to simultaneously stay engaged in my work and occupy my own energetic field.
I've been thinking a lot lately about free will, as I'm teaching a free online series called Total Creative Freedom Project.
The non-dual Shaiva Tantra tradition teaches that the essence of consciousness and the definition of the power of will is is unimpeded freedom and spontaneity (svātantrya).*
Neuroscientists seem to agree that free will at the level of thought is suspect. I totally agree with that right now; I have a pint of ice cream in my hand that pretty much just landed there. I have no idea what caused the thought that drove me to the freezer. It clearly wasn't free will!
That said, I do really like the idea that freedom exists as a potential in the neural substrates of the cosmic ocean of consciousness. And I feel it, strangely, beyond the poetry it springs from.
I remember a quote from Rick Hanson:
“As contemplative practice deepens – along with virtue and wisdom – we become increasingly aware of and centered in the freedom that exists prior to thought.”
Freedom, he is saying, exists PRIOR to thought.
Fancy Neuroscience findings posit that your brain makes decisions up to 7 seconds before you are aware of the choice. The implication is that those subconscious inclinations of the brain are determined by a whole slew of conditions that are operating under the level of consciousness.
“We are constantly being shaped by seemingly irrelevant stimuli, subliminal information, and internal forces we don't know a thing about.” ― Robert Sapolsky
In the pursuit of creative freedom, therefore, it seems we will have to look beyond thinking, because thinking does not free us. We cannot 'think' ourselves our of biases, for instance, nor our addictions, nor those pesky "fixed beliefs" or "snap judgements" that conditioned mind uses to inflict self-contempt and or the condemnation of others.
However, I would contend that we are capable of making certain ‘apex decisions’ which then cause a enormous, cascading expansion in our perception of freedom.
There were moments when people in the recovery community felt a strong sense of family. In those cases, the guidelines that the community lived by - a variation on the 12 steps, became a code that they felt emotionally beholden to.
Similarly, when I was practicing regularly at a zen monastery, the precepts we recited daily were deeply impactful for me. This is the case for many yogis and monks. Ironically, those guidelines end up being the gates of freedom.
Based on these observations, I am beginning to wonder if people's capacity to make changes in their lives is really dependent on a couple of ‘apex decisions”, which then affect the diversity of the whole ecosystem of the mind. I think of apex decisions as the choices we make about the practices we engage in, the communities we fraternize with, and our adherence to either vows of some sort or an internal moral compass.
These apex decisions have huge leverage. So if we can pull a big lever, (and granted, the choice to do so is based on conditions as opposed to free will) then we really broaden the array of options from which we choose later down the line. More and more freedom appears in the machinery of change. A chaotic mind needs structure, and ironically, inside that structure, freedom blossoms, curiosity is enhanced, and reactivity diminishes.
Awareness practice would obviously be the best choice. But often there is so much anxiety and trauma in the system that no meditation is settling. It can even be re-traumatizing, to a mind that is too disorganized.
Christopher Wallis asserts that "when awareness becomes aware of itself and contemplates itself, a door opens that is unavailable to living beings that are not self-aware." My root teacher, Cheri Huber, has said something similar -- that when attention and awareness meet, the product is bliss. And that from that bliss, freedom arises. Other than that, there are just conditioned choices, that the analytical mind spins a yarn about. After the fact; some 7 seconds later or more.
So the simple moment, in practice, when awareness turns and abides in awareness -- that is the turning towards innate freedom. It does seem, in my experience, that through awareness practice, even when it doesn't feel easy, the mind seems to untrain itself, and loosen up its rigidities. The sense of abiding in the spaciousness that is essence nature is rare - peak meditation experiences amongst many vast valleys. Nonetheless, the edges of the fixed personality structure do gently wear down, with practice.
I would be a bit foolish, after all of this, to arrive at any fixed conclusion, even cautiously. There's a reason that the free will vs fate conversation has figured in philosopher's tomes since time immemorial; it's an unanswerable question. We are a duality inside a singularity, and we seem to have a finger on the balance, but it often appears to be a rigged scale.
I like to leave questions unanswered, because curiosity is the only awakeness we've got. Fixed thoughts create solid masses in the flow of the river of consciousness, and clip the wings of curiosity. But I will say that I agree with my teachers, that awareness practice is the kite that floats into the wide sky of freedom. And, that said, if you have no idea where that kite is, then see if an apex decision is available to you - one big decision that feels like structure, but actually opens the gates to possibility.
* From Kshemarāja, The Pratyabhijnahridayam, translation Wallis