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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 endeavors, 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 center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. You do what life moves you to do. You have no choice!

If we’re raising children, teaching school, training athletes or surgeons, flying an airplane, or performing a host of other life functions, we don’t just sit back and say, “It’s all happening automatically, so there’s nothing you or I can do—we just have to wait and see what happens.” Obviously, that would be absurd. It would be a misunderstanding of what is being pointed out here. Because, of course, we teach our children not to run into the traffic or scream in the supermarket, and we help the athlete or the surgeon we are training to develop and refine their skills and we point out the errors they are making, and in doing all that, we act—in a sense—as if there is free will. If our child screams in public, or if our athlete misses the jump, or if our students don’t do their homework, we naturally do what we are moved to do to correct this, and that might include discipline of some kind. But if we truly get the choiceless nature of life, then we naturally have compassion and understanding for these apparent failures and for our own apparent imperfections, such as losing our temper and yelling at our misbehaving child. We no longer take all this personally or imagine that it could—in that moment—have been any different.

In my own writing, I sometimes suggest the possibility of exploring something, or shifting attention, or sitting quietly, or whatever it might be. I’m not talking to the imaginary separate self. And I recognize that whether what I’m suggesting happens or not is not in my control or anyone else’s. Still, I make the offering. It is what life moves me to do! This is how life functions and moves. This is why I’m always stressing the importance of not landing dogmatically on one side of a conceptual duality such as choice or choicelessness, because reality itself cannot be captured in any formulation. The map is not the territory. And, of course, my stressing this point over and over, and the effects it does or doesn’t have on anyone else, is also a choiceless happening!

In this dream-like appearance that we call waking life, there seem to be billions of independent individuals involved in all sorts of important and meaningful dramas. There seem to be cause and effect, progress and regress, evolutionary development, plot twists and turns, purpose and meaning. And yet, all of that is a kind of conceptual superimposition upon what is actually an inconceivable, indeterminate, formless dance of energy. The movie-story is a creation of thought, an abstract map of the actual territory, and to some degree, it is a creation of conditioned perception as well, such as the way we have learned to see tables and chairs. A baby presumably sees different shapes and colors, but hasn’t yet learned where to draw the boundary-lines around different objects on the basis of category and function rather than simply on proximity and color. This abstract map-world created by conceptual thought and conditioned perception is a frozen, solidified abstraction of what is actually constant change and indeterminacy—it divides up what is actually seamless and indivisible. And it creates the illusory separate, independent “me” who seemingly stands apart from everything else.

This map-world gives rise to all our imaginary problems: the psychological fear of death, the pervasive sense of deficiency and lack, the fear of meaninglessness, the quest for purpose, the endless drive for self-improvement, all the various global and personal conflicts, and so on. We are fighting enemies that literally don’t exist, trying to improve a self that is nothing more substantial than a mirage, living in terror of sailing off the edge of the earth that actually has no edge, and worrying about whether we’ll still be here after we die. All of this suffering can disappear! And whether it appears or disappears is nothing personal and doesn’t matter either way!

Of course, in everyday life, we cannot ignore the relative reality of apparent cause and effect, or the relative reality of me and you as two different individuals, or the relative reality of apparent choice and responsibility, or the relative reality of apparent chairs and tables, laws and organizations, governments and countries, moral and ethical questions of all kinds, and so on. This is all part of how life functions. But we can SEE, if we look closely and carefully, that all of this is not the actual reality of what is. And when that is clearly seen, there is a significant decrease in the suffering we experience and cause.

Again, that recognition doesn’t mean we won’t act, or have opinions and preferences, or make apparent choices. We cannot help doing all that! But it is ALL a choiceless happening, and the closer we look, either with science or meditation, the more we see that nothing is solid, that no-thing exists or persists in the way we think it does, and that nothing is separate from the whole to be the cause or effect of anything else. It all simply is as it is. And how is it? We can’t say! And yet…words tumble out, choicelessly. And equally choicelessly, these black squiggles on a screen are seen and instantly translated into meaning. The meaning and the objects, ideas and realizations that the words magically bring into being all seem quite substantial, but look again…it all evaporates into thin air. What freedom! What relief!

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2018 --

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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