The Illusion of Self and Free Will

by Charles Day

A meditator emailed me: "A Buddhist meditation teacher said there is no free will but we are still responsible for our actions. This sounds like a contradiction to me. It doesn't make sense, but what the heck, many things don't. I don't believe in 100% free will but I DO believe in about 17% free will mixed with a lot of random action. " I emailed back the following response.

It's precisely this issue of free will that hangs up most everyone, because giving up free will means giving up the illusion of an independent, autonomous, controlling self or ego that depends upon its existence.

Buddha said everything is interrelated, and everything is dependent upon causes and conditions. Each of us definitely does feel a sense of will, intention, accountability, and responsibility, but these are not "free" or random because the extent to which we experience them depends upon the causes and conditions to which each of us has been uniquely subjected. Some individuals experience a strong sense of free will and personal responsibility, while others feel like they're the victims of the circumstances and people around them.

These perceived differences result from different causes and conditions for different individuals, differing genetics, parenting, conditioning, and learning experiences. Both perceptions, whether as master of one’s ship or as a victim, are real. They are produced by different causes and conditions that lead to the general sense of having either a lot of or very little free will or control over one's destiny.

Because causes and conditions produce thoughts, feelings, words, and actions that have definite consequences and in turn produce other causes and conditions with consequences, it is a good idea to learn to take responsibility for them. Others will definitely hold us accountable for our actions. Taking responsibility for oneself - remembering that the degree to which this is experienced depends upon an individual’s unique past learning - acknowledges that one is and should remain fully aware that thoughts, words, and actions have very real consequences for which we will be held accountable..

Buddha stressed the importance of intention, will, and responsibility because these determine our karma or the consequences of our actions. Choosing to practice meditation and the Eightfold Path helps us better understand this concept of karma. Again, however, the so-called "choice" or "will" to practice or not practice is not "free" but is determined by an individual’s unique past causes and conditions.

For practical purposes it's good and even advisable in living in a world governed by conventional thinking to act "as if" free will exists, even while realizing that it doesn't. Ironically, transcending the experience of having free will and realizing that our sense of self or ego is simply a continuously changing composite of body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness, leads to spontaneously and un"self"ishly becoming more compassionately responsible for ourselves, others, and the universe.

This spontaneously increased compassion results, not from the conventional socialization that leads to greater maturity, but from transcending the ego. Transcending the ego is characterized by the dissolution of the subject-object or I-other dualistic relationship and the resulting realization that "I am That" or "I am You", that there is only an interrelated and interdependent unity or oneness without an opposite. Out of this realization of unity, compassion naturally and spontaneously arises. Or perhaps better stated, this realization is compassion.

All our experiences, including the separation of self and other, result from categorizing, creating boundaries, and dividing the unified whole or oneness into the multiple dualistic appearances that constitute what we perceive as our individual physical and mental reality. Our physiological and neurological limitations prevent us from perceiving and experiencing the subatomic molecular interconnections and interactions between our body, the air, and the objects around us. We mistakenly take as real the illusion or appearances that we created in order to function practically in an apparent dualistic universe. The Hindu Vedic scriptures are referring to this misperception when they state that “What is real is unreal, and what is unreal is real.” Our perceived reality of independent and separate objects is unreal, while the interdependent, unified whole that we fail to perceive is what is real.

Eckhart Tolle in his book, The Power of Now, calls the ego a useful conceptual myth or “operating principle” that enables us to deal with the perceived duality that constitutes our everyday experiences.

Buddha's major contribution to history, philosophy, religion, and metaphysics is that our sense of a separate, independent, enduring self is an illusion, and that our attachment to it is the cause of all our suffering. Penetrating this illusion and realizing our interconnectedness with all physical and mental phenomena, he taught, leads to liberation and the end of suffering, to enlightenment, to nirvana, and to the peace that surpasses understanding that we are all seeking.

May you be well, happy, peaceful, and harmonious.

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