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Free Will, Predestination, the Purpose of Life


Is there free will or is everything predestined? Which is true, responsibility or powerlessness? What is the purpose and the meaning of life?

The first thing to notice is that the confusion over these questions arises only when there is thinking. They are conceptual problems. We have different conceptual maps of how life works and each map shows us a different version of reality, and so we are confused. We wonder which one is correct. But no map is ever the territory it describes. Even the best and most accurate map is only an abstract representation. Maps are useful, but we get confused when we mistake them for the territory itself. 

Opening and closing your hand is not confusing until you begin to think about whether it is an action that happens through free will or whether it was predestined to happen or what purpose it has. Then you get tangled up in the imaginary problem, the imaginary dilemma that thought has just created. But opening and closing your hand is simple and not confusing. It happens quite effortlessly.

Conceptually, as a map, we could say that the urge to open your hand in any given moment -- the impulse to do this, the ability to do it, and the execution of this action depends on and is the result of infinite causes and conditions. It could not happen without your brain, your muscles, your nerves -- none of which would be here without your digestive system and your lungs, and without sunlight, water, air, your parents, your grandparents, the food that kept your grandparents alive, the soil that made the food possible, and so on and on -- in short, opening your hand could not happen at this moment without the whole universe being exactly the way it is.

And if we look closely with awareness for the "you" who takes credit for being the initiator and the author of this action, can anything substantial or persisting or separate from the action actually be found? "You" turn out to be a kind of mental image, a character in a story -- a conglomerate of ever-changing ideas, stories and beliefs that have been learned and practiced: "I am so-and-so, a separate person with free will. I'm this gender, age, social class, ethnicity, and so on. I am the thinker of my thoughts, the doer of my actions, the maker of my choices, the executive at the helm of this bodymind, the one calling the shots and steering the ship." But can this executive actually be found? In fact, the source of every action, when we look closely, seems to be nothing at all, or absolutely everything!  

Still, it would be ridiculous to deny the ability to open your hand seemingly at will, because obviously, that ability is present (unless it isn't). But where and how does this action begin? Can the "you" that supposedly initiates this action actually be located or found? Where does the impulse and the decision and the ability to execute this action come from? Can you find a source? Do you know what your next thought or your next urge will be? Did you decide to have the taste in music or food that you have, or the sexual preferences that you have, or the interests that brought you to this website? Can you choose what things you care deeply about, or which sources of news and information seem trustworthy to you and which ones do not?

Upon closer examination, we discover that "the self" is more of an ever-changing process than an enduring object, and that this process is inseparable from the entire universe. We find that there is no actual boundary between inside and outside, between self and other. We can describe our actions as choices we have made or as choiceless happenings in the flow of life, but both of these are descriptions of an ever-changing, living reality that cannot ever be captured or pinned down by words or concepts.  

The purpose of life is an idea added on to the actuality of life. The bare, energetic actuality of this present moment simply IS. Thought can conjure up any number of purposes for this happening -- but really, we don't know what this is or why it's happening or what's going to come next. We have ideas about it, mental pictures and stories and maps, some of which are useful, but really, we don't know. That only sounds scary if we think we need to know. We may need to know practical things such as what bus to take to reach a destination, but we really don't need to know why this universe is showing up or why everything is the way it is. It simply IS as it is. We search for meaning or purpose and scare ourselves with stories of meaninglessness or purposelessness, but it's all in the realm of thought. Any notions about "the purpose of my life" are thought-created overlays onto the living reality that my life is. Such ideas may provide inspiration or comfort or good feelings, but these ideas are built on sand, and so next thing we know, we're back to the fear of having no purpose or everything being meaningless. But again, it's all imaginary! We don't need a purpose or a meaning to simply be as we are. 

Different maps are useful in different situations. If you are training an athlete to compete in the Olympics, you will probably use a map that emphasizes choice and response-ability and empowerment. If you are talking to someone about the nature of reality, as I do in my writings, maybe you will use a map that emphasizes the absence of a separate self and the choicelessness of everything that happens. If you are recovering from an addiction, you will find some recovery methods that emphasize powerlessness and others that emphasize your power to make a choice. Both can be useful. There is no One True Map of reality. By their very nature, maps (words, concepts) are abstract, dualistic, frozen representations of what is actually undivided, seamless flux from which nothing stands apart. Subject and object are one event. They are seemingly divided only in thought, by words and by a conceptual boundary line that has no actual reality. In the living reality itself, there is no-thing apart from the whole to be predestined or to have free will! Neither idea makes any sense or holds up under close scrutiny.

All our confusion is in the map. The happiness, the peace, the love, the freedom, the enlightenment that we are seeking cannot be found "out there" in the future or in a map. It is only found right here, in the territory itself, this-here-now that is unavoidable and ungraspable, ever-changing and ever-present. Even the maps (as maps) are an aspect of the territory. Mapping and story-telling is something the universe is doing. Nothing is excluded. But if you notice yourself getting paralyzed or tangled up in confusion or despair over imaginary problems like free will or purpose or the meaning of life, simply return to the sounds and sensations of this moment, the simplicity of what is, and the vast listening silence beholding it all. It really is that simple.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2012, 2015 --

You are welcome to link to this article or to quote brief passages as fair use, but if you wish to re-post whole articles or long excerpts from this web site on other sites or blogs, please give appropriate copyright credit to Joan and be sure to include a link to this website with your posting. Thank you!

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