Do you think you have free will?
If you do, then why are you eating that cookie when you know you shouldn’t? Why are you staying in an unhappy marriage, enduring a boring job, tolerating a toxic friendship? Why do you continue to scream at your children in spite of promising yourself that you will stop?
Unlike most philosophers and theologians, the question for me cannot be reduced to the duality of “yes, we can choose freely,” or “no, everything is predetermined.” As a psychotherapist, I have discovered that it’s a matter of degrees. Your capacity for free will depends on how aware you are at any given moment.
In order to act with free will you need to first be aware of all options that are available to you, then choose consciously from those options. But most of our day-to-day reactions are exactly that — reactions. If we feel angry, we yell or withdraw; when we feel hungry, we reach for food; when we feel lazy, we plotz in front of the TV or computer.
Does this mean we don’t have free will?
Let’s examine what happens when you are in conflict with your spouse or lover. If you are like most people, you will immediately feel threatened and react in a way that you typically handle conflict. You may scream, sulk angrily, or you might simply try to appease and smooth things over. Any of these reactions will probably not serve you. After you calm down you may wish you handled it differently.
Had you been able to stop your knee jerk reaction, examine other possible behaviors, evaluate the consequences of each, you may have still chosen to respond angrily but it would be after consideration. You might have chosen an empathetic response by seeing things from your partner’s perspective, or a practical response by giving in because the issue is not that important to you.
You can apply this to any situation in your life and ask yourself, “Am I choosing my response freely right now or am I reacting automatically?” Do you really want to eat that cookie or listen to your friend’s negativity?
We generally live with a sense that we know what we are doing and think we understand why. For most people, this is a false belief, stemming from our illusions.
Why are we so unaware?
The answer lies in the early habits that were ingrained in our brains and became part of our automated behaviors before we had any say in the matter. These behaviors are now second nature to us, and repeatedly surface in various situations without our consciously choosing them.
If you want to develop free will, your first step is to recognize and accept how often you operate with little or no awareness. Then you need to choose whether you want to do something about it. If you do, then you need to know what you are up against: deeply ingrained habits of reactivity that will not be easy to catch and change. Once you choose to take on this challenge, you need to follow these steps:
1. Identify a specific behavior you want to change
2. Truly get what it costs you in terms of health, self esteem, happiness
3. Choose to want to change it
4. Come up with a plan
5. Commit to the plan and create support systems to help you succeed
6. Give yourself a break if you fall off the plan
7. Recommit and get back on the plan
8. Recommit and get back on the plan without making yourself wrong
9. Recommit and don’t give up no matter how many times you fall off
You can have free will if you know what it takes to achieve it and are committed to working towards it with compassion and patience.