Near Enemy #11: You can choose how to respond

What are ‘near enemies to the truth’?  Borrowing this phrase from Buddhism, I use it to refer to distorted versions of spiritual teachings—statements that are close to a profound and subtle truth, but are distorted just enough to make a big difference over time.

Understanding the Near Enemies to the Truth, and why they are near enemies and not the truth itself, is hugely important for any spiritual seeker who wants to get past the beginner stages and into the deep (and deeply fulfilling) spiritual work. Having said that, it’s important to note that if a Near Enemy is near enough, it can be a Temporary Ally for a beginner. But as the stakes get higher in spiritual practice, there is no such thing as ‘close enough’ anymore, and your comforting affirmations must be sacrificed on the altar of truth, or else your spiritual progress stalls. With that brief orientation, let’s look at our next Near Enemy. 

NEAR ENEMY #11: 'You can choose how to respond'

In spiritual culture these days, a lot of people say “You can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose how to respond to it.” A more subtle and sophisticated version of this idea is: “You can’t choose how you react, but you can choose how to respond.” That is, you can’t choose your initial internal reaction to an event, but you can choose your subsequent response, including your words and actions. Let’s examine how this is a near enemy to the truth.

In this discussion, the first thing you need to understand is that ‘free will’ is an illusion. And furthermore, believing otherwise is harmful. Believing in free will makes us less compassionate towards ourselves and others, less patient, less kind, and more resistant to reality. Believing in free will makes us suffer, just like believing any untruth makes us suffer (a core principle of Tantrik philosophy).

I’ll explain.

As socialized humans, nearly all our actions are based on thoughts, desires, and fears, whether those are conscious or mostly unconscious (we call the latter ‘conditioning’ or ‘programming’). And we don’t choose our thoughts, our desires, or our fears.

A little self-examination shows this to be true. Most people (and all self-aware people) agree that they can’t choose what to desire (or fear), but many of them think they can choose what to think. But you can’t decide what to think before you think it. No one can. Thoughts simply arise spontaneously as an expression of our conditioning. If you could choose what to think before thinking it, you would already be thinking it. Likewise, you didn’t choose to hold the opinions that you do. They are a product of your conditioning, your life experiences and internalized socio-cultural narratives (especially those internalized from your particular social group or ‘tribe’). And your thoughts and opinions that you didn’t choose shape your actions. So in what sense can your actions be considered a product of free will? 

Every thought you have arises on the basis of causes and conditions already in place, most of which you didn’t choose, and those causes and conditions arose on the basis of prior causes and conditions, none of which you chose. So everything that happens, every thought and actions, arises on the basis of a vast network of causes and conditions that you didn’t choose. This is the meaning of the core Buddhist doctrine of pratītya-samutpāda, that everything arises in interdependence on everything else, and nothing exists separate from that vast network of interdependence. Nothing ever could.

Consider this: can you choose whether to believe that 2 + 2 = 4?  No. Given that you understand what those four symbols mean, you cannot choose other than to believe the facticity of the equation. If you look at it closely, everything’s like that. Including everything much harder to quantify. For example, you could not choose the degree to which the painful events in your life traumatized you. And you couldn’t choose the degree to which you have healed that trauma as of now, nor could you choose how rapidly you healed. (If you could have, you would be free of trauma right now.)

This is very much linked to the fact that you could not choose how you interpreted those events after the fact. Your interpretation formed automatically on the basis of all the narrative fragments about human dynamics that you had internalized up to that point. And your interpretation had much to do with how quickly you recovered from the traumatic event(s). (The other primary factor being genetic/constitutional, i.e. having to do with your brain chemistry, which you also didn’t choose.)

If you’re lucky, you found spirituality and/or psychotherapy, which gave you the tools to construct a new narrative about your trauma, one that allowed for deeper and/or more rapid resolution of it. (And by the way, all of us have been traumatized at one point or another, whether we’re aware of it or not.) But could you choose the degree to which you were open to spirituality or psychotherapy, once you found it?  Of course not. Your degree of openness was determined by causes and conditions, in this case all your past experiences. Likewise the rapidity with which you were able to internalize the elements of your new worldview, and the depth with which you were able to do so.

The most obvious evidence for the lack of free will is the simple fact that you don’t exist in a state of blissful happiness, ease, and flow every second of every day. If you could choose how to be, you would choose that.

The main obstacle to realizing that free will is an illusion is your subjective sense of being a chooser – that is, your belief “I chose A, but I could have chosen B.” This is a cognitive illusion generated by the false sense of individual agency, that is, the sense you have that you are the thinker of your thoughts and the doer of your actions. (This turns out to be nothing but a thought so habitual that it seems to be reality.)

You tell yourself the story that you could have chosen B (or C or D), but there is simply no evidence whatsoever to support this belief, and ample evidence that disconfirms it. You chose A because of all the causes and conditions leading up to that point, and you were helpless to do otherwise. That is, you can’t possibly choose anything but what seems like the best option available to you at that time.

And if you honestly believe otherwise, are you not helplessly believing that? If you rebel against my words so far, is that really a choice? Or does it just happen? 

If you’re not yet thoroughly convinced by what I’m saying here, just listen to this 14 minute audio track. It’s a red pill – if you listen to it and understand it, you’ll never be able to go back to how you previously perceived reality. (I’ll tell you where it comes from at the end of the blog.)

And please — if you’re one of those folks who believe that we somehow choose our parents before birth and sign up in advance for the traumas or “life lessons” we undergo, don’t be thrown off by the disavowal of that belief near the beginning of the recording. It’s not essential for the argument being made. Keep listening.

Clearly, then, we cannot choose how we internally react to anything. It just happens, and it happens immediately. Is it true that we can, however, choose our subsequent response? Of course not. The availability of a subsequent response different from your initial reaction has everything to do with the time you’ve spent reconditioning yourself with new and more healthful ways of thinking derived from your therapist(s), teacher(s), and admired peers. The more you’ve reconditioned yourself, the more that alternative response is actually available to you. And your ability to choose to recondition yourself in this way, little by little, is entirely determined by unchosen causes and conditions.

Now if, having understood everything above, your mind is producing some thought like “So there’s no point in doing anything!” then, to be blunt, you haven’t actually understood it yet.

The fact that you cannot choose anything but what seems like the best option available to you at the time hardly means that choosing is irrelevant.  The fact that an AI supercomputer fed all the data of your life experiences could accurately predict what you will choose next, every time, in no way implies that you can circumvent the internal process of making a choice.

If you truly see through the illusion of free will, it doesn’t trigger fatalism. At all. Rather, it liberates you from worry, self-judgment, and anxiety about making the ‘right’ choice. Indeed, that is the test by which you determine if you have truly seen through the illusion of free will: you stop judging yourself and others for your/their choices. You are free, truly free, from the belief that you or they could have chosen to do anything differently in the past. You stop believing, forever, that you made the ‘wrong choice’ at any point in the past. And you stop believing that you could make the wrong choice in the future. You understand that you can only make what looks like the best choice from the options that appear to you. And it will always be that way. It cannot be otherwise. And that’s okay.


“But wait,” you say. “I thought ‘You can choose how you respond’ was a near enemy to the truth — so what is the truth to which it is a near enemy? Everything above seems to add up to total determinism!”

Well, here’s where it gets interesting. The universe isn’t totally deterministic. Quantum uncertainty means that while almost everything that happens is (or would be) perfectly predictable if you had all the data, still, not everything is. And this tiny effect of uncertainty or randomness can have large-scale results sometimes (for example, it’s the reason that black holes slowly evaporate).

There is a correlate to this on the level of conscious experience. Annaka Harris points it out in her new book, Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind. She argues that consciousness is, for the most part, simply a witness to the thoughts, behaviors, and phenomena that unfold in our experience, none of which we have any control over. All those thoughts and behaviors arise on the basis of prior causes and conditions, and consciousness doesn’t change that fact. The fact of consciousness doesn’t seem to change anything in reality.* However, there is at least one key exception: the thoughts and behaviors that arise only when consciousness contemplates itself. When awareness becomes aware of itself and contemplates itself, a door opens that is unavailable to living beings that are not self-aware.

This door is the key. It is the key to liberation.

When awareness becomes aware of itself, it intuitively senses within itself that which the tāntrikas call icchā-śakti, the Power of Will. This power is very deep but very subtle. It’s not mental or cognitive. In the short term, it can accomplish almost nothing. In the long term, it can accomplish everything. The best metaphor I’ve found for it is this. If you’re in a sailboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there’s only one little thing you can choose, which is the angle of your rudder. You can’t choose how the wind blows, or the size of the waves, or the weather that comes and goes. You can only choose the angle of your rudder, which makes no difference at all to your experience one minute from now, or one day from now, or one month from now. But eventually, it makes all the difference in the world: it determines whether you make landfall in Australia or Siberia.

Contemplate that. Because it’s the key.

Spiritual awakening (which is simply awareness becoming aware of itself) unveils this possibility: daily tiny readjustments of your rudder that eventually create a radically different experience of life.

Let yourself want that. Let yourself want freedom and total harmony with reality. And then let yourself believe it’s possible. The whole spiritual path follows from that.

You can’t choose your reactions in the moment, or your responses in the next moment. They just happen. But keep leaning persistently into your conviction that this total harmony with what is that we call liberation is really possible, and little by little, the paradigm shifts. The black hole evaporates. Slowly.

And you can see it happening. More and more frequently, when you’re triggered you remember to take a breath, pause, and reflect before you speak or act. More and more frequently, you can choose whether or not to believe your thoughts. More and more frequently, forgiveness for others’ unconscious and injurious actions spontaneously arises (because you know that they couldn’t have been different from how they were in that moment). More and more frequently, you relax and open to what is instead of resisting it.

This doesn’t happen by magic. It happens because you create the conditions in which these possibilities become more and more available to you. And how do you create those conditions?  By sitting still a little while every day and reposing in your innate awareness. As you repose in it, you sense its inherent freedom (svātantrya-śakti), a freedom that does not belong to the conditioned body-mind. As you repose it in, you sense its subtle power of will (icchā-śakti), that gently, naturally inclines towards the full expression of that freedom. Reposing in your true nature (svabhāva) automatically translates to greater openness, and greater openness automatically translates to the ability to see more possibilities than before. It’s still the case that you will choose what seems like the best option available to you, but now you’re seeing more options. Not just seeing — you’re truly sensing more options. More options for how to experience reality, not just more options for how to act.

Where does this paradigm shift end up? What continent do you land on? You might think sensing more options could be detrimental, because more options trigger anxiety and choice-paralysis when acting from the conditioned body-mind. But reposing in your essence-nature as awareness has yet another impact: the development of your ability to access pratibhā (an aspect of icchā-śakti), the innate intuition that clearly senses the most beneficial option of all those available, without mental deliberation.

Ironically, even the liberated being (one who has fully realized their essence-nature and dissolved all limiting ego-structures) does not experience free will in the sense of choosing what to choose. (No one does!) The difference is this: with the connectedness of the awakened state and the clarity of the liberated state, all available options are directly sensed; and with the clarity of innate intuition, that which is most beneficial for all beings is automatically ‘chosen’, with no conscious thought needed: no worry, no hassle, no second-guessing, no doubts, and no struggle. (This is possible because what I’m calling innate intuition — pratibhā — is not at all mind-based, but rather is always already connected to the pattern of all life. Perhaps it’s based in our shared DNA.)

The liberated being is fundamentally just like you or anyone else, with the one exception being that they have ceased to misunderstand themselves and they have ceased struggling to be different from how they are in each moment. When you stop resisting reality, you’re automatically in harmony.

So here’s the invitation: accept that you can’t ever be different from how you are in this moment, and you can’t choose how ‘enlightened’ your next reaction or response will be, but you can keep leaning gently but persistently towards the possibility of radical freedom — and you do this by learning, little by little, to repose in your fundamental nature as awareness-presence, and integrating that experience into every area of your life.

Probably you want some support with that. I’m designing a comprehensive curriculum based on Tantrik Yoga teachings to support you, but that’s not available yet, and I want you to get support with this now. There are two great meditation teachers who right now are offering daily support for learning how to repose in your essence-nature. Ādyashanti is currently running a “30-day Wake Up Challenge” through Sounds True, and Sam Harris, who you heard in the audio clip above, is offering a 50-day course through his Waking Up app. Pick whichever one you resonate with (Ādya for the mystics and Sam for the rationalists), because they are both doing the same thing: Dzogchen-style direct pointing to the truth of your being. (I don’t get anything for recommending them to you, I just want you to be resourced ASAP.)

This is the top priority. Until you truly know how to repose in essence-nature, nothing else matters. You’re just endlessly running around putting out brush fires in your life, and making no actual progress in any meaningful sense, until this is in place. Then begins the work of integration.

I sincerely hope that the causes and conditions of your life are such that you are able to take this next step in your spiritual life now. And if not, don’t feel bad about it. It couldn’t be otherwise.

In each moment, in each now, nothing could be other than as it is — and there is only the now. May you realize that and be free.

~ ~ ~

* The reader familiar with Indian philosophy will note that Harris (and others who hold her view) are almost precisely espousing Sāmkhya philosophy without realizing it. But the next sentence in the paragraph points up precisely how Tantra built upon yet radically altered Sāmkhya. Harris has reinvented the wheel here, recapitulating this development in Indian philosophy over a thousand years ago.

FOR THOSE WITH A PHILOSOPHY BACKGROUND: a summary of current thinking on the problem by Jag Bhalla of BigThink

1. How could free will work? Can we map some steps it would need?

2. Neither sense of “free,” as unconstrained or costless, applies. It’s always constrained (e.g., by physics), and always incurs costs.

3. Calling it “choice” better frames matters. Since nothing in physics chooses (all interactions = fully determined = determinism), how can anything seem to choose?

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4. Consider the hillside illustrated above. An arrangement of atoms forming a bowling ball rolling to the intersection must continue downhill, it can’t climb that second path.

5. But some compositions of atoms can climb that second path. A balled-up armadillo (they do that) rolling to the intersection, can unroll itself, turn and scamper upward.

6. To achieve that, what must an aggregate of atoms be able to do? To resist, but not break, the regime of physics?

7. At least three things: store energy and use it to decide and to act (= information handling + working against gradients).

8. Without those three capabilities, a combination of atoms is locked into rolling down the physics gradients.

9. Such atom combinations needn’t be alive—robots, like a BB-8 motorized ball, which rolls under software control, can spend stored energy on gravity-countering, to follow the armadillo.

10. Mapping such steps might suggest why there’s no “choice” in lower level physics. Only complex, intricately structured aggregates can logically ever exhibit “choice.” Nothing simpler could.

11. There’s no mystery in inanimate matter “choosing,” software routinely does that trick.

12. Centuries of “free will” debate (atoms swerved to “snap the bonds of fate”~60 BC) yield three current groupings, which Massimo Pigliucci summarizes here (+ detailed, + charted).

13. “Incompatibilism”: Choice is an illusion. “Compatibilism”: Choice co-exists with determinism. “Libertarianism”: Choice exists, but defies determinism, mysteriously (=hardest choice for scientists).

14. Examples of incompatibilist scientists include physicist Sabine Hossenfelder and evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne.

15. Note, evolution entails capabilities not visible in physics (takes information-storing, replicating, varying aggregates).

16. State-of-the-art compatibilism is wonderfully described in Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: one all-material reality needs different vocabularies for phenomena that emerge at different levels (”poetic naturalism”).

17. Emergence is crucial here. Its logic, long known to philosophers (how the properties of parts and wholes interrelate + related fallacies of composition, and division) doesn’t seem as well known to scientists.

18. Can we project the properties of determined interactions among particles onto everything that’s composed of particles? That’s like extrapolating from a few transistors to what 7 billion combined on a chip can do.

19. And fully determined interactions ≠ predictability. Wolfram Rule 30 shows simple deterministic interaction logic causing unpredictable patterns.

20. Choice-making is basic to life (bacteria choose). Physics hasn’t needed a language to handle choice. But life’s atom-compositions, by doing branching if-logic, generate richer patterns of past-to-future relationships.

21. This perspective is far from complete, but choice always has energetic costs (for deciding and gradient-climbing).

22. Libertarianism posits “supernatural” factors, but incompatibilism risks a subnatural or sub-empirical path (discounting observable choice-generated patterns). Let’s energetically free ourselves from such mind-limiting paths.