Choice, Choicelessness and What Is
Life happens automatically. Breathing happens, digestion happens, thinking
happens, the entire ecosystem happens. Planets circle the sun, suns explode and
die, ice ages come and go. At the subatomic level, there is an undefinable,
indeterminate, ungraspable dance of energy that seems to solidify or
particularize only in the observing of it.
Every thought we have, every interest, every urge, every attraction, every repulsion, every feeling, every movement of attention arises automatically from an unfindable source. This can be discovered by observing closely. And then thought, also automatically, poses as the self-in-charge and takes credit or blame after the fact: “I did it, I stopped smoking, I started up again, I decided to be a lawyer, I chose to have children, I took a time-out before speaking when I felt angry, I failed to take a time-out, I decided to meditate, I put my attention on my breathing,” and so on.
But when we search for this phantom “I” who seems to be at the controls, steering the ship, authoring the thoughts, making the decisions and moving the attention, we find no such entity or agency. And yet, we can all seemingly open and close our hand at will (unless for some reason we can’t). And undeniably, the bodymind can learn new skills and be trained and developed in various ways. The baby learns to roll itself over, pick up objects, crawl, walk, use the toilet, etc., and it develops greater and greater control of these abilities and functions. The athlete trains and refines their ability to perform certain actions. The medical student becoming a surgeon acquires amazing manual and cognitive skills. The meditation student learns to not move, to pay attention, to be with difficult feelings. A client in therapy learns new ways to respond to depression or anxiety. In all kinds of ways, there is an obvious ability Here-Now to initiate and carry out action and to learn new skills. But the more we search for the initiator or the doer or the learner, the more we find no-thing substantial at all.
If we look closely, ALL of this is happening by itself, including what SEEMS to be “my” effort, “my” will, “my” intention, “my” perseverance, “my” looking and listening, and so on. And for everyone who succeeds in various endeavours, there are others who fail. Some alcoholics are able to stop drinking and sober up, others are not. Some would say the ones who fail didn’t really want to stop drinking, or they didn’t try hard enough. But do we choose what we want in each moment? When we have conflicting desires, for example the desire to sober up and the desire for another drink, do we control which of these opposing desires has more energy and wins out in any given moment? It SEEMS at times that we do, for example, when we are able to resist a powerful impulse, but where did this ability come from in that moment, and what about all the times we were not able to do this—what was different?
When we truly get how automatic and choiceless everything is, how there is no independent author-chooser-doer, it frees us from guilt, shame, blame and so much more. It instantly dissolves layer upon layer of self-hatred and feelings of deficiency and imperfection, as well as so much of our judgment, anger, hatred and resentment of others. It brings forth instant compassion for ourselves and all beings.
This DOESN’T mean we let people walk all over us, or that we let serial killers run free just because we now understand that they couldn’t help doing what they did, or that we cannot work on ourselves or the world in various ways if we are so moved, whether through therapy or an addiction recovery program or athletic training or social change work or whatever. Recognizing the choiceless and automatic nature of life doesn’t mean we “can’t” or “shouldn’t” practice our tennis game, study a new language, make an effort, see a therapist, be a therapist, try out a new vegan diet, sign a petition or “decide” to join a movement for social change.
It means that the interest in such activities, the urge to do them, the ability to do them, and their relative success or failure is a choiceless happening of the whole universe and not the action of a separate independent self. No wave is actually separate or independent of the ocean. No wave can decide to go off in a direction other than the one in which the ocean is moving. No wave can ever “do it wrong.” Every wave, big or small, tumultuous or gentle, is equally water. All of them are a movement of the whole ocean, and all of them have the whole ocean under them, like that famous circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. You do what life moves you to do. You have no choice!