|Featured Columnist – Meditations
A neuroscientist named Benjamin Libet made a remarkable discovery at the University of California, San Francisco in the mid-1980’s. Placing electrodes on volunteer’s skulls and forefingers, he asked them to move their finger whenever they had the urge to do so. He found, to his amazement, that his machine registered a “readiness potential” in the brain 200 milliseconds before the person was conscious of the urge.
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 at least subconscious.
But what does this mean for free will? It means there is no such thing. The will, which is the action of the ego, is never free.
But does that imply our actions are always psychologically predetermined? Not necessarily. There is individual responsibility and the possibility of freedom, but they have nothing to do with conscious choice by the will.
Obviously we all face many choices; it’s the idea of a separate agent that stands apart and chooses that’s false. The will implies a chooser, a supposedly independent entity. There is no such thing, since the chooser is inevitably conditioned, and the sovereign ‘decider’ is an illusion.
All mental activity is conditioned. The will is the concentrated expression of the ‘me,’ and the ‘me’ is never free. It is a conditioned construct based on the illusion of the separateness of the individual.
The self may be necessary up to a point as an organizing principle for thought, but believing in its actuality, and perennially experiencing the world in terms of a separate ‘me,’ is the source of division and darkness, for oneself and society.
If one negates will, who or what then is in charge, directing one’s action and life? There is a latent intelligence within the human brain. It’s the same undivided, unwilled, uncontrolled, and essentially uncontrollable energy within all the processes of nature, from stars and galaxies to lions and hummingbirds.
When the entire mechanism of thought is no longer dominant in the brain, when the mind is quiet and the will has been negated, one contacts and has communion with the source of life’s energy and drive. Before the Agricultural Revolution, humans once knew, to a much larger extent than most people do now, the undivided energy of life. We cannot go back, but can go forward, consciously awakening a new mind.
Being deeply aware of the movement of thought as a whole, one sees when one is looking and acting from the ‘unconscious’ content of the mind. And being mindful of this vast terrain (even if one doesn’t see the full extent of it), one is no longer unconscious. One ceases looking and acting from the darkness within one. That’s why self-knowing is essential.
When the content of the unconscious as well as conscious mind is still, the brain sees without the screen of symbols, memories, and conditioning. In the stillness of the mind, brought about through passively watching 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’ gives way to the actuality of freedom in attention and awareness.
Insight, clarity, and freedom are not functions of thought, but of the stillness of thought. As the world becomes more chaotic, the brain can and must be anchored in self-knowing and attention, rather than in symbol, memory, and conditioning.
Acting from stillness and insight, there is no division between deciding and doing, because there is no illusory ‘I’ from and through which one’s actions flow. There is simply seeing, doing, and acting with intelligence, albeit imperfectly.
Control is the 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 crud and lights the way ahead.
Human consciousness is not inescapably attached to the useless, accumulating, crushing weight of the past. Thinking and acting out of stillness is the true basis of human freedom.