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Free Will, No Self, Making Changes
excerpts from Death: The End of Self-Improvement

Three Excerpts from Joan's book Death: The End of Self-Improvement, published by New Sarum Press, a book about aging, dying and living. The book is available on Amazon in both paperback and kindle formats.

Excerpt one (pp 50-52):

In discovering our complete and absolute powerlessness, our utter lack of control, there is immediately great peace, true freedom and unconditional love. It is the freedom for everything to be just as it is.  It is not the peace that is the opposite of war or upset, but rather, it is the peace that includes war and upset, the peace that is at peace with war and even with our resistance to war. It is the unconditional love that accepts everything. In this discovery of choiceless unicity, there is immediately compassion for oneself and all beings, knowing that in every moment, we are all doing the only thing possible. No wave can ever go off in a direction other than the one in which the whole ocean is moving...

This doesn’t mean being a doormat, or not fixing a flat tire, going to the doctor, practicing yoga or meditation, or marching for civil rights if we are so moved. Nonduality includes our impulse to fix what is broken as well as our ideas, opinions, angry outbursts, waves of fear—the whole dance. It simply points out that the apparent individual is not the author, the source, the controller, or the doer of our impulses, choices and actions—and that nothing is what we think it is. There is no one here who can choose one response over another. Our personality, including all our neurotic quirks, couldn’t be any different in this moment from how it is, and likewise, the child molester, the genocidal dictator, the school shooter, the factory farmer, the terrorist, and the serial killer are all expressed as they are because of infinite causes and conditions. There is no choice in the matter—we don’t “decide” to be Ramana Maharshi or Adolph Hitler—and it is the same seamless energy dancing as both.

This can be easily misunderstood. Ramana Maharshi once said, “Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen, try as you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to prevent it.” And that is absolutely true. But if your child is running out into the traffic, do you stand silently by and think to yourself that “whatever is destined to happen will happen,” or do you yell, “Stop!” and run out to get them? Your response is also destiny. You can’t leave your own urges, impulses, thoughts and actions out of the picture—they too are the play of totality. If your child gets hit by a car anyway, it is indeed very helpful to realize that this was the Only Possible at that moment, and that realization may lessen your suffering and free you from guilt or self-blame. But that realization doesn’t block you from acting, it doesn’t prevent you from grieving the loss, and it certainly doesn’t make any of those human responses “wrong” or “unenlightened.” No child ever actually existed in the way we think—as a separate, persisting, independent entity—and yet, we can’t deny the tangible reality, preciousness and uniqueness of every child either. We can’t land in either the relative or the absolute, or cling to emptiness or form, personal or impersonal. It is all included!

Excerpt Two (pp 61-65):

An interest in how change happens and the total acceptance of what is may seem like two diametrically opposed movements, but in fact, I have come to see that true healing, transformation and liberation begin with the simple acceptance of this moment and this world, just as it is. As counterintuitive as it may seem, embracing imperfection, allowing everything to be as it is, loving what is—this is the gateless gate to a fresh start and the utterly new. Oddly enough, this is the secret of freedom.

My first Zen teacher, Mel Weitsman, said that “our suffering is believing there’s a way out.”  The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa famously said that enlightenment is not final victory, but rather, final defeat. Another one of my Zen teachers, Joko Beck, spoke of Zen as “having no hope.”  She also used to say, “What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured.” None of these teachers were pointing to a state of despair, resignation or hopelessness, which is the flip side of hope, equally rooted in an imaginary future. Instead, they were pointing to how we can waste our lives in hopeful fantasies and “the pursuit of happiness” while missing the living reality that is Here-Now. We dream of the perfect location, the perfect house, the perfect career, the perfect partner, the perfect child, the perfect enlightenment experience, the perfect self, the perfect society, the perfect world, the perfect present moment—and all the while we are missing out on the actuality and perfection of life as it is.

That doesn’t mean we should all vegetate passively on the couch or be a doormat for abuse. In fact, we cannot suppress or deny our natural desire for exertion and movement, our urge to take action, to respond to life, to seek pleasure and avoid pain, to dance the particular dance that each of us is moved to dance. There is a natural impulse to pursue what attracts us, to heal what is broken, to clarify what is obscure, to explore new territory, to discover and develop and extend our capacities and capabilities, to envision different possibilities, to help others, to bring forth what is within us. Astronomy, quantum physics, going to the gym, learning a foreign language, practicing meditation, playing music, taking up yoga, exploring various forms of awareness work, working for social justice, writing books, making art, raising children, starting a business, planning a trip to Mars, performing brain surgery, climbing mountains, rescuing abandoned cats and dogs, developing new software programs—all of this is the natural movement of life, something the universe is doing, just as the seed flowering into a tree, or the ecosystem evolving in ever new ways are all the natural and spontaneous play of life. Everything is included.

I went into therapy to sober up from near-fatal drinking back in 1973 and several more times over the years, and it’s quite natural to want to find a solution to certain painful situations such as depression, anxiety, self-hatred, or addictive and compulsive behaviors that are hurting ourselves and others around us.  And if we have glimpsed the possibility of living without self-doubt, shame, worry and self-concern, we naturally long to return to that place of freedom and happiness that we have tasted. People go into therapy, take up meditation, go to satsangs, and listen to radical nondualists out of just such a longing.

But paradoxically, it is in some sense the very search for happiness that makes us miserable. That search is predicated on the belief in deficiency and lack, the belief that “this isn’t it.” It is all about a “me” that doesn’t actually exist and a future that never arrives. The end of self-improvement is the realization of what is always already whole and complete, the wholeness that includes the apparent brokenness.

The character we take ourselves to be, which is a mental construction made up of ever-shifting images, memories, thoughts, stories and sensations, has no independent will or volition in the way we imagine it does. That image we see in the mirror is just an image. It has no power to do anything. If we watch closely, we can see that all our urges, interests, abilities, feelings, and thoughts—including this watching and the interest and ability to carry it out—all arise from an unfindable source. The “we” who seemingly does all this is merely a grammatical convention.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have what feels like volition and choice. Obviously, we do. One neuroscientist calls the sense of being a self with agency a neurological sensation. But if we watch closely as choices and decisions unfold, we can see that it is all happening by itself. There is no little helmsman, no self, no “me” inside our head sitting at some giant control panel pulling levers or authoring our thoughts. Our desire to get drunk or sober up, go into therapy, take an aspirin or march for civil rights is all an expression of the totality, as are the outcomes of all such actions. Our emotional reactions and ruminations, our thinking, our apparent successes and failures—this is all happening by itself. The little “me” who seems to be authoring my thoughts and making my choices is not actually doing any of that because that “me” is nothing but a mental image, an idea, a thought-form.

That “me-thought” arises spontaneously either before an action or after an action, taking credit or blame. “I should do that,” or “I did that.” In any moment when that thought-sense of being a separate and vulnerable “me” is absent, nothing is taken personally. We are no longer concerned about outcomes in the same way. We are no longer plagued by guilt, shame, blaming others, or the anxiety of thinking we might “get it wrong” and “ruin our life.” We are simply doing what life moves us to do, as is everyone else, which has actually always been the case. We naturally have compassion for ourselves and others being just as we are in each moment. And the “we” in all these sentences is only a grammatical convention. The sense of separation is absent, and even when it shows up, it is only an appearance. No wave can ever go off in a direction other than the one in which the whole ocean is moving. We are all a movement of the whole, not isolated agents capable of going the wrong way.

But this gets very subtle. It doesn’t mean becoming passive, or picking up the belief that “I” have no free will, that “I” am a helpless robot being pushed around by the universe. That belief is still centered around the idea of a separate entity, a self, now believed to be powerless. That is delusion. Our urges, interests, actions—and our sense of choice—are all part of how life functions and moves. And we are not separate from, or other than, life itself.

The capacity to make better choices can obviously be developed through education, athletic training, psychotherapy, meditation, yoga, and in all kinds of ways—all of which happen choicelessly, even as it appears that “I” am choosing them.

There is a palpable shift that occurs when attention drops out of the thinking mind into stillness and presence. When that happens, in the light of awareness, there is an increase in responsibility (response-ability), the ability to respond rather than react, to move in a more wholesome—holistic, whole, intelligent—way. This is the beauty of meditation, psychotherapy, various forms of inquiry, and somatic practices such as Feldenkrais, Continuum or yoga. They bring awareness to where we are stuck and show us what else is possible. We become less ensnared in old conditioning, and a new range of possibilities opens up. The habitual me-system is no longer always running the show. We are no longer totally a slave to conditioned neurology. We (as awareness) have more choices, more possibilities, at least sometimes.

Of course, this shift out of thinking and into aware presence happens choicelessly, in that there is no “me” who can bring it about by an act of independent will. But this shift may indeed require an apparently intentional move that we call a choice, a movement that itself arises choicelessly. The possibility of taking a time-out when we’re angry, of not lighting up a cigarette when the urge arises, of choosing to meditate when we feel upset, is only there when it is. Whatever happens is always a movement of the whole. But our functional sense of agency is part of that larger movement, part of how the universe, or consciousness, functions. In a sense, we have no choice but to act as if we have choice.

We can’t land on either free will or no free will because both are conceptual abstractions of a living reality that cannot be captured in any conceptual formulation. The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing. Therefore, it’s so important not to get fixated on one side of a conceptual divide between two abstract ideas, such as choice or choicelessness, self or no self, practice or no practice, effort or effortlessness, because neither side is totally true. It’s very easy to turn what begins as a genuine insight into a limiting or oppressive belief, a new fundamentalist dogma that we then cling to and defend.

Liberation is never about getting the right ideas or the right beliefs. It’s always about direct insight. Believing that there is “no self” is useless, and as a concept, this is a very easy one to totally misunderstand. But if we simply pay attention, we can begin to notice that there are many moments in any ordinary day where we’re not thinking about ourselves and feeling like a separate person. We’re just driving the car, making love, dancing, washing the dishes, changing a diaper, calculating a bunch of numbers, folding the laundry. There’s no “me” in the picture until a thought arises, such as, “Why do I always have to be the one who changes the baby’s diapers?” or “I’m a bad dancer,” or “I wonder if she likes me.” Instantly, with that thought, the mirage of “me” appears on the scene. And we can notice that this mirage is just another passing experience, another weather event in this vast open space of awareness. The awaring presence being and beholding it all is unbound. Present experiencing is without a center or a periphery. It has no inside or outside.

Of course, for most, if not all of us, the me-system does not permanently disappear never to show up again. In moments of inattention and stress, old conditioning tends to return, and for a moment, whether that moment is a few seconds, a few hours or a few weeks, we again feel angry, hurt, defensive, entitled, guilty, or whatever we feel. But more and more, this can be seen. Sometimes we don’t see it. And sometimes we only see it hours or years or decades later. But through practices such as meditation and psychotherapy, we can begin to catch it more quickly, to see it as it is happening, and sometimes even as it is just about to happen, that first tiny seed. We begin to notice how our lip quivers, how our throat constricts, how blood rushes to the head, how our gut tightens, how we are holding our breath or barely breathing—these first tiny signals of upset. In the absolute sense, everything is already perfect, while in the relative sense, there’s always room for improvement—and that’s part of the perfection!

Excerpt Three (pp 85-86):

The notion of “no self” has been greatly misunderstood. The illusion being pointed to is the image we have of this entity with free will and choice that is supposedly authoring my thoughts, making my decisions and having my experiences—the main character in all these stories, including the observer-fixer, the spiritual superego who is correcting the ego. That entity in all its guises is a mirage composed of ever-changing thoughts, sensations, memories, and mental images. It is a grammatical convention—the subject or the object of a verb. It doesn’t exist as an actual entity. It’s more like an activity. There is no actual “self” inside our head. But of course there is a pattern of energy here that we call the body and patterns of behavior that we call the personality, and there is a functional sense of location and identity with the body—we answer to our name and can distinguish between our fingers and the carrot we are slicing up for lunch. We remember where we live, who our partner is, what bills we need to pay. We still have preferences and opinions. None of that disappears unless we suffer a brain injury or some kind of cognitive impairment. And none of that is a problem. Attachment to our preferences, or believing in our stories can be a source of suffering, but all of that, even the experiences we call “suffering and confusion,” are simply passing appearances in the dreamlike movie of waking life, all of it a play of unicity, a dance of emptiness.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2019 --

This material is excerped from Joan's book Death: The End of Self-Improvement, published by New Sarum Press. It is copyrighted material. You may quote a small passage as fair use with appropriate credit, and you may link to this page, but please do not re-post extended sections without permission from both the author and the publisher. Thank you!

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