Relax, you’re not in control.

I have spent so much of my life berating myself for making poor decisions, yet it has never helped me to avoid repeating the same mistakes. Usually self-criticism just left me more stressed and unhappy. I learned through mindfulness meditation how to take a deeper look at who is actually running the show here. What I discovered changed my life.

Mindfulness meditation is a modern, Western translation of ancient Buddhist teachings. Unfortunately, one of the key concepts from the Buddhist teachings, “no self,” is often lost in translation. This is not much of a surprise, nor is it anyone’s fault. It’s one of the hardest teachings to understand.

In part, the problem is linguistic. For the longest time, I thought that the teaching meant that if I meditated long enough, my body, my mind, and my thoughts would cease to exist — that I would dissolve into light and rise out of my body as pure loving energy. Though I have had the experience of dissolving into light and love, sooner or later I come back to my body sitting on a cushion on the floor.

At first, these experiences only added to my confusion, because I thought that if I tried hard enough, I could live the rest of my days in some euphoric, disembodied state, but I eventually realized this was a misunderstanding. The Buddha himself never managed to pull this trick off. He spent his life as a human in the flesh. He lived in a community that had regular social problems like disagreements and rule-breaking, and he lived in a body that had regular body problems like stomach pains and, ultimately, death.

Another reason that the teaching has found less traction in the modern mindfulness movement is that it clashes with our firm belief in self-determination. The concept of “no self” better translates into modern English as “no free will.” Yes, that’s right. The Buddha’s observations jive well with those who have suggested that there is no independent originating entity within a human being that makes decisions. (I can almost hear the clamor of objections as I write this, so let’s take a moment to breathe.)

I don’t find much value in the free-will-vs.-no-free-will philosophical debate. Sooner or later, somebody starts quoting stuff about quantum mechanics and the whole thing gets kind of mushy and weird. Rather, I find it helpful to see the teaching of “no self” as a biological observation. We learn in mindfulness meditation to sit and observe the body and the mind. When we do this, we find that there is no part of the body over which we have control. The breath breathes itself, the heart beats itself, feelings arise and pass away, and thoughts arise and pass away. This includes even willful thoughts, often translated from the ancient texts as “volition.” The Buddha observed that willful thoughts — those connected with the desire to perform an action or think more thoughts — are like all other thoughts: they arise and pass away without any conscious determination on the meditator’s part. Many experienced practitioners, including myself, have noticed this as well after steady observation of the body and mind.

I have found in my own practice that not only are my willful thoughts not actually “mine,” but they are often preceded by bodily contractions. The very subtle feeling of “want” is present in my chest and shoulders before a thought arises, like “I want to get up and stop meditating.” The willful thoughts that arrive milliseconds after the bodily contraction are my brain making sense of what’s already taking place. The behavior of my brain is akin to a person who convinces themselves that his or her loud yelling at the television helped the wide receiver break two tackles and score a touchdown.

Scientific research is now making similar observations. A recent study by Adam Bear and Paul Bloom at Yale University entitled “A Simple Task Uncovers a Postdictive Illusion of Choice” found that when people were faced with split-second decisions, their brains took credit for making a correct choice far more frequently than was statistically possible. In other words, the brain rearranged history to place the “decision” at the beginning of the sequence of events, rather than afterward.

Their work builds on previous research, such as a paper published in 1999 by Daniel Wegner and Thalia Wheatley, that found that participants would claim credit for actions actually performed by someone else if the subject heard words related to the action around the same time that it happened.

The implications can be a bit mind-bending, and we can get tied into mental knots trying to sort it all out at once. Instead, I’d invite you to check in with yourself right now as you read this.

Ask yourself the question, Who am I if I’m not in control? and instead of trying to find an answer through an internal, rational debate, notice the physical sensations in your body. How are they changing with time? Where do they arise and what are their qualities? What are the thoughts that arise with these feelings? Notice the feelings arising and notice them pass away. Notice the thoughts arise, and notice them pass away.

Kind of nice, isn’t it?

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