Traditional theories of free will assume the existence of a separate self that is choosing, an independent conscious being that is the source of its agency. But if that separate self is itself an illusion, is free will an illusion too? Are “we” really choosing, or only thinking we are choosing, that we are someone or something independent that can choose apart from the whole?
In many mystical traditions the ultimate revelation that we come to realize is that there is no separate self at all, that we are actually One. The “natural man” is a kind of illusion, a mirage, a delusion of the mind, an error of perception, a part mistaking itself for the whole.
The independent self we think we are is a veil, hiding our true divine Self, our true nature that is not separate from Reality or Nature at all. We are actually truly always and forever at-one in the Ultimate Reality, the Tao, the Dharmakaya, Brahman, the Father, God, the Cosmos, etc., which is manifesting itself through these finite temporal unique body-mind forms and personalities.
We only think we are not at-one. It is a dualistic illusion of the human mind, which separates all of reality into a subject (me) and everything else into an object (that). The mind attaches itself to the subject of mind, only half of the picture, or sometimes to the objects of mind (thoughts, perceptions, etc), thinking it is that activity.
This independent self then is an emergent phenomenon of the contents of consciousness, the activity of awareness, but not of consciousness itself. The mystical revelation directly unveils to consciousness that this separation is not ultimate, fundamental, absolute, or true. When consciousness becomes empty, it realizes itself to be absolutely One, the Real itself, undivided in itself, the foundation of all reality and experience and being.
So if there no separate self, and we are actually at-one in God, and are the activity of God, does Ultimate Reality or God get to choose then? I don’t think so. Not like we think. Yes, it is making “choices” all the time, becoming actualized in certain definite ways, but it is not like what we think of as choices, deliberating options intellectually, weighing pros and cons, deciding which option is best for itself, etc.
The “choices” God/Nature makes are those that are commensurate with its being, in harmony with its nature, in accordance with its composition, simply in alignment with the way it is, what it is. In other words, it moves and acts in the way it does because that is the way it is, it is how it is. Its doing is inseparable from its being. Its acting is undivided from its nature. It doesn’t cognitively choose one thing or another the way we do. It simply acts in harmony with what it is. It once was revealed its very name is “I will be what I will be” (Ex. 3:14).
Does a flower choose how to grow, this way or that? Does it choose what colors it displays in its petals, red or purple? Does it choose its fragrance? No. It’s not choosing. It grows toward the light because that is its nature, to capture the most sunlight energy. It displays its particular colors because that is the way it is, to attract pollinators. It emits fragrance because that is how it evolved to maximize life. It simply acts in harmony with what it is. It has no choice but to do so, to be what it is.
So it is with the mystics. They do what they do because that is their deepest nature, not because they intellectually thought it out that way. They may think about things, to be sure, but what they ultimately choose is what harmonizes with their nature, what their deepest nature is calling them to do, inspiring them to act, provoking in them, what is yearning to be made manifest. They let life speak to them, through them.
They realize that they aren’t doing the choosing, or even the acting, but rather they are surrendering themself to their deepest nature, and how Reality is “choosing” to act through them, how it is being actualized through their being, how Reality wants to take form through their action. It is arising of its own accord. The remarkable thing is that this may be happening in all of us, but mystics consciously recognize it and allow it to happen without resistance, without judging their illusory self or overthinking it. Others think they are the source of this decision-making and action, and in this they err, just like they do when they think they are a separate self.
The self-construction can actually override or divert us from our deepest nature, it can cause us to seemingly break from our deepest nature, and this paradoxically is also part of that same nature! But it can cause unnecessary suffering for that illusory self, thinking it is the cause of its “bad” choices. We criticize ourself for our poor choices, which is just the ego criticizing itself.
Mystics allow the Tao to flow as it will through them unimpeded, even those things which cause them to suffer. They know that the suffering is purifying, stripping them bare to their true nature, their essential Self, the Holy One, an apocalyptic unveiling of identity, the revelare “laying bare” of pure consciousness, pure being, pure reality.
I think this is reflected in Jesus’ words about those who are born of the “Spirit,” those who realize themselves in God:
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.-John 3:8
Those who are “born of the Spirit” go where the Spirit directs them to go, blowing where it will, wherever it wills them, being in-tune with that deepest being, that foundational intuition, that truest instinct of the universal One, that Love of All, undistracted by a separate self of mind and the way it thinks only about itself and its egoic needs pertaining exclusively to the finite body-mind. But this is not determinism either, because even it does not know where it is going.
If mystics think, they think holistically, embodying the Whole, the One, the totality of Being, realizing That to be the true manifestation of their Self, including but transcending the particular self to consider the Whole of Being to be its Self. They don’t know, in their dualistic intellectual rational mind, where this deeper Spirit wants to go, where it wills to move or act, but they surrender their self to it, and they allow it to manifest itself as it will, according to its nature. “Not my will, but Thine be done” (Luke 22:42).
I think this is also reflected in these words of Jesus:
Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does…
By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.-John 5:19, 30
It seems he’s even more explicit here:
For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.-John 6:38; see also John 4:34
Here, Jesus seems to be clearly disclaiming that he has his own separate independent agency or free will, or even the ability to act alone or by his own self. The “Son” doesn’t choose, or think, or act, or behave separately from the “Father.” It does nothing of its own self, independently. It is not the source of its action, power, thought, will, etc. That is a delusion of mind, of ego, of the illusion of being separate from the whole. Rather, it does what it “sees” the “Father” doing, as that “Father” does it through the “Son.” The “Son” surrenders to this doing that the “Father” does through it. The “Son” allows it to happen, as it will.
Carl Jung paradoxically put it like this:
Free will is the ability to do gladly that which I must do.-Carl Jung
Of course, if we “must” do something, is it really “free will”? Rather than humanity having “free will” or “free agency,” as we typically think of it, or even God having such free “choice,” I suggest it is perhaps better to say that God has freedom, an unlimited potential from which to manifest itself. And inasmuch as we realize ourselves at-one in God, that Truth sets us free, to blow where the Spirit wills us to go, where it pleases, where Life is calling us into action, how God “desires” to actualize itself based on its very nature, through us. And that nature is One, Love, Truth, Beauty, Goodness, creativity, compassion, solidarity, community, wisdom, diversity, and all the “fruits” of the Spirit.
Did I have to write this article about free will? No. Did I choose to write it? Not exactly. But I allowed myself to do it, I surrendered to it, I did not resist it, because I was feeling inspired to do it. I let it happen as it was willed through me. It is how the Spirit moved me today. Something I saw sparked the thought, and ideas began to spring up from deep within, and I let them come and take this form. But it was not necessarily my choice, my action, my words, nor was I forced to do it. It is just what happened, be as it may be.
What do you think about free will? Do we have it, or not? What does mysticism tell us about this? Please share your thoughts.