In general, no, we don’t really have free will. Throughout our lives, we really have one choice: to let causes and conditions choose for us or not.
Let’s look at food. I’m hungry, I ponder ingesting a Big Mac, some lasagna, or a salad. I choose the Big Mac, drive to McDonald’s, and then I’m not hungry anymore.
It seems like I’m making my own choices there. But let’s look a little closer at the building blocks behind that choice.
First of all, hunger isn’t a choice. We don’t choose to feel hungry, and we didn’t choose to use food to satisfy hunger. Then that hunger triggered three different options out of who knows how many—dozens. Maybe hundreds. I didn’t choose to limit my choices to three. My brain sifted through memories and picked out the most easily attainable and familiar meals.
It feels like I at least chose McDonald’s out of those three. Maybe because lasagna is great, but it takes 90 minutes to cook. Salads are filling and healthy, but they don’t have all the fat and protein in a fast food burger. So all that shifts probability toward the Big Mac, even though the salad was cheaper and I had to use gas to get to McDonald’s.
Zooming in, logic didn’t have anything to do with my choice. My temperaments, current goals, moods, and memories were also involved. 90% of the time, logic is a rationalization we paste on after the fact.
If I was dedicated to dieting or exercising for my health, or if I was focused on saving money, then I probably would’ve leaned toward the salad. Dieting, exercise, and thriftiness are also related to temperaments, personality, and our overall value system. We didn’t choose any of that. It was handed to us by our genes, families, peers, and society-at-large.
We could probably write a book about everything that went into deciding what we had for dinner last night. Now, for the wow factor, we can apply all of this to pretty much every choice anyone’s ever made about anything.
Also, we don’t choose the effects of our choices—and the effects are part of it too. Even if I somehow came to the totally independent decision to grab a Big Mac, I didn’t choose the extra weight it’s gonna put on me or the skewing of my cholesterol levels. If we start eating better and exercising, we didn’t choose how that helps us lose weight.
The only time I had a minimal amount of free will was the first time I ever had a Big Mac. I chose to eat it, there was no habit or memory involved. But, even then, I didn’t choose to think it smelled good. If I thought it smelled and looked like shit and chose not to eat it, I didn’t choose for it to smell unpleasant.
And if I hated the way it smelled, but still chose to eat it anyway, that was probably caused by a rebellious temperament.
All of this is actually one of the secondhand reasons behind compassion and loving-kindness. When we turn on the news and see all the atrocities people commit, or when we watch people insult each other online, no one has free will, no one’s making their own choices. It might as well be clockwork.
We’re all innocent victims of our own conditioning, and this causes us to victimize others and ourselves.
This should also show what a shit show samsara is. Free will is one of our highest values in the West, and we’ve just seen that the thing we’re valuing doesn’t even exist in the world of thoughts and forms.
Enter practice. For thousands of years, people have gotten fed up with feeling out of control and decided to shine their light inward to uncover something real, something free. These people have come from all walks of life, from all different types of conditioning, and different personalities and temperaments.
With all those differences in mind, they all did the same thing: they said no. Free will is impossible when it comes to choosing between thoughts and forms. Genuine free will is the will to be free. Then, when we’re free, we can even drop the will part, giving it over to our genuine nature.
Then we’re just free, and the choices we make are uninfluenced by all of that crap we talked about in the beginning.