Guest Post by Fiona Cooke – “Left or Right? Questioning the ‘I’.”
The Tippling Philosophers group that I frequent has a collection of very differing viewpoints, from reductionist style physicalism to Christianity; agnosticism to various degrees of spiritualism. Fiona, who is posting here, has had an interesting journey. She has had, and continues to have, experience with Eastern worldviews and practices (including yoga and meditation, and Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism). This comes through in her post. But what is interesting is her acceptance fairly recently of the illusion of free will, and how this has affected her take on, well, herself. The ever illusive “I”. I asked her if she could put her thoughts into a guest post for me, because it sounded really interesting, and here it is. Whilst she will admit that she is not philosophically trained, sometimes this can be liberating in being free from labels and suchlike.
See what you think. There is much to discuss here. Many thanks to Fiona for this.
Go Left or Go Right?
I walk down a road. An un-named road, with no clear destination in mind. Walking happens, I do not have to think about it. I come to a fork and stop. There is left and there is right, which way should I go?
Hmmm. Left or right?
I look for clues; trail markers, fellow walkers, a big sign saying: “Fiona, Walk This Way.” Nothing.
Left or right?
I look for a difference between left and right. Is one wider, well-trodden, more inviting? Nope. Both are the same.
Left or right?
I think back to a different time, a different fork, and I wonder if the decision I made then will help with the decision I need to make now. It won’t.
Left or right?
With no clear indication as to which fork I should take, I decide.
I go right.
Did I make that decision after some deliberation or was I always going to make that decision?
Was I always going to go right?
And the more interesting question is:
Did I make the decision or did a decision happen and then the “I” that I think I am, take ownership?
Was the decision already made and then the separate entity called mind take charge and give the appearance of making a decision, of exercising free will?
If I close my eyes and stop my thoughts, just for a second or two, what is left is Awareness. If I sit in Awareness then I can watch my thoughts. I can watch a thought rise, meander through, and disappear.
I watch the thought “Raise your arm”, but my arm can remain still. I stand in the shower and watch the thoughts “Stay in, get out, stay in, get out. “ And somehow I find myself out of the shower, dripping on the mat wondering how that happened, when all I recall is being the referee who had not yet called “out” in a tennis match.
I watch a dog. He re-arranges his bed and then disappears outside. He returns with a bone and settles down to chew happily. Did he think “I will get my bone?” He does not have an “I”. He is not aware that he is a dog. He is a product of nature and nurture. He has been trained to sit, to come on command and to guard his bone. If I take the bone he will experience anger and react, but he will not own the anger.
If that dog reached a fork in the road would he stop and think about which way to go?
Left or right?
No. He would just go one way or the other. A decision would have been made, but he would not own that decision, he has no “I” to decide, to exercise free will.
I am no more than that dog.
As a child I was taught to believe in “I”. I was taught labels; me, you, table, chair. I was taught to think about my experience rather than be my experience. I was taught to separate myself from experience. So sitting became: I am sitting. Seeing became: I see the table. As a child every action I took was instinctive. It happened as a result of my nature and prompts from my parents. Perhaps I could say that I was programmed, and that programming never stops.
The dog and the child do not see themselves as separate. They are part of the experience of life. Where is their “I”? The only difference between them and me now is the thought “I am”.
Feelings happen, thoughts happen, actions happen. They are all happening through a person called Fiona, but they do not happen to an “I”. That I is a thought, a construct that was taught, or perhaps built as a way of making sense of my place in the world. Things happen and my mind then takes ownership, so the feeling of anger becomes my anger, it becomes personal; thoughts arise giving the feeling more power, so that it is no longer a feeling that is passing through but something that is kept alive by more thoughts. Watch a child or a dog become angry. It is like the wind, it comes and then it goes.
My direct experience of life has not changed from the moment I was born. Nor will it have changed at the moment of my death. When I lift my face to the sun, the feeling of warmth on my skin will still feel the same. The single chime of a bell will still sound sweet and pure. My thoughts about these things may change from day to day, minute to minute, but the experience itself will always remain the same. And ultimately that is all there is. It is an interesting that I only feel the need to defend a belief that I am not sure of. The truth needs no defence and that is where the truth is, in my direct experience of life.
It is simple, so, so simple. Within my direct experience there is only this moment. Everything else is a thought. The thought that I am typing is just a thought. There is typing, that’s all. Confusing yet simple when you see it.
What are those pictures called? Where you can see a vase or two heads? I remember staring and staring, seeing only the vase and feeling intense frustration because I knew there was something else, something I was not getting. And then it clicked. It was just a different way of seeing. And once seen it cannot be unseen, of course there are two head, just as there is no “I”. So, so simple.
I can label my experience thus: I am sitting at the table. I am typing. I stop to think. I scratch my calf, and sip some tea. I gaze at the washing up to be done and think about getting up to do it but then decide to wait until later. I hear the sound of a car passing and then silence.
Or I can look at only direct experience thus: There is sitting and typing. Pausing and drinking tea happens. Thoughts about washing up appear, along with some tension. Sitting continues. There is the feeling of coldness and goose-bumps. The heating is turned up followed by the sound of the radiator clicking.
Nothing in the experience changes, but without the “I” it is so much easier. Everything is just happening, and continues to happen but there is no I that makes it happen or controls it in any way.
In watching my mind can I honestly say that the thought “I will make a cup of tea” causes me to get up and put the kettle on? Or has the decision already been made somewhere outside of my awareness with the thought that I will make it happen appearing after? Has my mind tricked me into thinking that I made the decision?
I watch the philosophers debating about free will and quoting their ‘isms. Determinism, behaviourism. They choose an ‘ism and then become an ‘ist. Just as a religious fanatic becomes an ‘ist. It is all belief. They look to the thoughts and words of others and take them as their own. Philosophy and religion are like choosing a brand of tea. You drink PG Tips, I drink Tetley. This then appears to become a platform from which to quote bigger and better, to prove with words and knowledge that Tetley is where it is at.
Many men have philosophised for many millennium. They have developed ideas and theories. They have devoted their lives to what? Finding the meaning of life? Answering the question: Why are we here? Has any of this thought, argument, knowledge changed any one thing within their direct experience of life? The sun or their face is still the sun on their face. Whether there is free will or not they will still go left or go right.
Richard Rose, in Psychology of the Observer, described will as “a reaction to react in a fixed, planned reaction.” Art Ticknor paraphrases this as “we have witnessed a pattern of action in certain circumstances and react with determinism to change the pattern when those circumstances arise in the future. If the reaction pattern changes according to our wishes then we say we have exhibited will power.” He goes on to say “The belief in doer-ship is simpler to investigate yet harder to dislodge. There is plentiful evidence of our being an agent of thought and subsequent action, but claiming to be its principle cause rests on the argument: I didn’t see anyone else doing it; therefore, I claim the title.
For me, there has been nothing sweeter than the realisation that there is no “I” and therefore no free will. For how can there be free will without anyone to own it? Free will is a concept, an idea, a thought, a theory, a belief. Yet whether we have it or not it changes nothing. Not A Thing. The feeling of the sun on my face will remain the same with or without free will. Without the idea that I control things I can just allow life to happen. I reach a fork in the road, thoughts happen, a decision is made, or maybe a decision is made and thoughts happen. Whatever the order, I go right. Maybe I should have gone left, but with no “I” having made the decision there is no blame or regret should the right path be a bumpy one.
If I stand aside and just allow life to flow it all happens wonderfully. I drink tea, warm my face in the sun and take the right fork. Nothing could be simpler.
Fiona Cooke. 10/12/13