A neuroscientist named Benjamin Libet made a remarkable discovery at the University of California, San Francisco in the mid-1980’s. After placing electrodes on volunteer’s skulls and forefingers, he asked them to move their finger whenever they had the urge to do so, without his instruction.
In the words of another scientist, Libet could, “predict what the person would do before the person was actually aware of having decided to do it.” This means that rather than our decisions coming from the ‘top down,’ they are actually being made from the ‘bottom up,’ that is, from the ‘unconscious.’ Brain studies are confirming Freud’s contention that most of our mental and emotional life is unconscious, or more accurately, subconscious.
But what does this mean for free will? It means there is no such thing, that the will is never free. But does that imply our actions are always psychologically predetermined? Not necessarily. There is individual responsibility, and with it the possibility of freedom from conditioning, but they have nothing to do with conscious choice and the will.
Obviously we all face many choices; it’s the idea of freedom in choosing that is false. Choosing implies a chooser, a supposedly separate entity. There is no such thing; the chooser is inevitably conditioned, and without direct perception and insight, what we choose is predetermined from this background. The sovereign ‘decider’ is an illusion.
Is all mental activity conditioned to some degree? Yes, which is why freedom lies in deeply quieting thought. The will is the concentrated expression of the ‘me,’ and the ‘me’ is never free. It is a conditioned construct based on the existential misapprehension of individual separateness.
The self may be necessary up to a point as an organizing principle for thought, but believing in its actuality, and experiencing the world in terms of a separate ‘me,’ is the source of all division, darkness and evil.
If one negates will, who or what then is in charge, directing one’s action and life? There is a potential intelligence within the human brain, which we can awaken non-separatively as individuals (the word ‘individual’ literally means ‘not divided). Insight has the same source as the undivided, unwilled and essentially uncontrollable energy within all the processes of life.
In other words, when the entire mechanism of thought is no longer dominant in the brain, and the will has been negated, there is contact and communion with the source of life’s energy and drive. Humans once knew that undivided energy to a large degree, before the Agricultural Revolution, but the essential problem of separation and division has existed since the emergence of man.
In any case, we cannot go back, but must go forward, consciously awakening a new mind by quieting the mind as thought. That’s what meditation is about, and it doesn’t employ any method, tradition, or time.
Having a strong intent to be aware of the movement of thought as a whole, one learns when one is looking and acting from the ‘unconscious’ content of the mind. And being mindful of this terrain (even if one doesn’t see it all), one is no longer unconscious, and one ceases looking and acting out of darkness. That’s why it’s essential to be self-knowing.
When the content of the subconscious as well as conscious mind is still, the brain sees without the screen of symbols, memories and conditioning. In the stillness of the mind through method-less attention to the movement of thought, the brain/mind has a completely different quality. Then one simply sees the right thing to do. The illusion of ‘free will’ yields to the actuality of freedom in attention and action.
Insight, clarity and freedom are not functions of thought, but of the spaces between and the stillness of thought. Can the brain can be anchored in self-knowing and attention, rather than in symbols and memories?
When we act from stillness and insight, there is no interval, no gap between deciding and doing, because there is no separate ‘I’ from and through which one’s actions flow. There is simply seeing and doing, and one acts with wisdom.
Control is the second basic illusion, after separateness, to which we cling. And as we can see with governments, and especially empires, the greater the need for control, the more ruthless, violent and malevolent they are.
One realizes each time the meditative state is awakened that at a deep level one knows nothing and is nothing. This realization is tremendously liberating, even if it lasts only a timeless minute, for it clears away the detritus of experience and lights the way ahead.
Human consciousness is not inevitably attached to the useless, accumulating, crushing weight of the past. Thinking and acting out of stillness and insight, rather than conditioning and will, is the true basis of human freedom.