Choiceless Awareness: Our Only Freedom?
For those who are familiar with J. Krishnamurti, a prolific spiritual thinker and philosopher who discoursed with great scientific minds like Alduous Huxley, you may be familiar with his concept of “choiceless awareness.”
I always thought I understood this idea, which was simply learning to observe oneself without steering things in any particular direction, or imposing interpretations, judgements, and so on, upon the experience. Still, a recent spiritual awakening, combined with struggles of the will (i.e. making myself do things) — led me to ponder the neurology and practical application of our notion of choice, decisions and actions.
Could Normal “Choice” Be an Illusion?
While there is debate about whether the micro-decisions we think we are choosing are “free” — there’s a strong philosophical argument they are not. For instance, J. Krishnamurti would argue any choice made is the byproduct of thought, all thoughts are based on memory (i.e. of the past, not present), related to previous thoughts, and therefore never really “free” in an “unmoved mover” sense we conceive of when acting.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we get to the point where all thought and decisions could be in some way algorithmically tied to memories, sensory impressions, interconnected neural nets, brain chemistry and countless other biological/circumstantial factors. Complex, but 100% mechanical nonetheless.
So where does choice come in? What do we as humans do to manipulate our own behavior?
The Choice to Observe
I’m beginning to think the real choice, the only one that matters, is the choice to be aware. To watch/observe. That’s it. That could very well be our only real freedom.
The potential profundity of this idea is that there is an intelligence contained within the awareness itself that grows with continued observation, and it’s this awareness-enhanced intelligence that determines our actions; though nothing like the typical I-choose-x scenario.
This could get infinitely complicated, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on a practical example. Let’s say I struggle with procrastination (just hypothetically!) — and let’s also say I want to change the behavior. Whatever action I take, positive or negative, is going to inevitably be reactive byproduct of the thoughts around procrastination.
Reactive Decisions Aren’t Free
“Hey, stop being distracted! Do this now! Okay, I’m doing it.” or, “Hey do this now! Okay, I will, but wait… Instagram!!!” While one is positive and the other negative, both are entirely reactionary from the original thought patterns around procrastination.
Now, what if alternatively, I simply choose to watch this tendency to procrastinate. No attempt at behavioral manipulation, no choosing any action.
And — here comes the most woo-woo/spiritual part of this entire post — as I watch, my mind sees a pattern emerge. Then, as the watching deepens, I may see an emotion arise (i.e. fear of not being perfect), from which the limiting pattern is emanating. Then, as that emotion is observed, it intensifies, for beneath that fear of not being perfect is a fear of not being accepted and loved. Then, that emotion is observed until it changes (observation affects reality), and it’s no longer what it was when the process began.
Higher Intelligence Awakens
Through this process, I’m suddenly more intelligent, at least in the sense that I see more. I have more data. Greater understanding of my inner workings. Now, this is a big leap and not at all proven (as is much of my speculation here); but my theory is that from that intelligence comes new action, spontaneously, where I may (or more likely not) procrastinate — but I have a higher probability of taking the healthiest action available to me in that moment. Why? Because, in theory, it comes from a far less neurologically reactive, more informed (and more free) place.
You might even say this action comes about without me choosing — at least not in the traditional sense.
Because in the latter scenario, where I don’t try to change my procrastination positively or negatively — and just observe — I’ve seemingly made LESS of a decision. Yet again, whatever action that emanates (or doesn’t) — you could argue that it’s actually more free as it came about spontenously from a wider sense of seeing, inclusive of more data, more understanding, driven less by impulse, which all preceded the action.
This gets into the neurology of awareness, and then what it does to the brain’s decision-making faculties. And I have zero expertise in that area. But my guess would be that in this scenario there’s less “will” activity in the brain, and more fluidity — but I’m also guessing it would be hard to map out the difference in how decisions are made differently in each scenario. But maybe not. That is for my brilliant neuroscience friends to help figure out.
From Fear to Liberation
Now, this next part will sound nihilistic to some, but if this theory is true — that the truest “choice” and freedom we have is simply to be aware/observe at all times — it means only those above a certain level of conscious have any freedom at all.
I realize that sounds elitist, yet it’s painfully obvious that a great many humans lack the inclination to be self-aware. All humans are able, in theory, yet few exercise this capacity. You might say those who don’t are merely running a pre-determined program, endless reaction-upon-reaction, while THINKING they are independently choosing actions. Total illusion.
This can lead to tremendous empathy. Because while society functions on a sense of responsibility for one’s actions, seeing the collective powerlessness of those who are not self-aware helps us understand so much of the “bad” out in the world is merely the outcome of lower-awareness, programmed, reactionary impulses.
Here’s what inspires me most about this, though: For many, it’s disempowering and even defeating to think you don’t “choose” your actions. Again, this notion of choice is part of the fabric of society and in necessary in a great many ways, if only for our legal and justice system.
Still, I actually think a great many of us would find it a massive relief to no longer feel the pressure of ego-based choosing each day. Don’t we all struggle with that constantly? We all fight with thoughts of “I must, I have to, I should have, I shouldn’t have” and all the guilt, shame, back-and-forth that comes with that perspective. It’s such a huge part of human self-talk and suffering.
I’m Happier Without “I”
My ultimate position is this: if the truest, freest choice we have is to simply be aware, it truly changes everything. When we know that awareness and the resultant increased data/understanding therein determines the action, it’s revolutionary. Most of us spend our entire lives thinking it’s “I” acting and “I” determining the action; however, without that, so much of the daily pressure and suffering we face disappears.
How so? Because with that perspective our only responsibility would be to simply pay attention (with as much neutrality) as possible, and then trust this intelligence to act. Human beings cannot avoid action; and the more we observe, the more intelligent we become, and the better the actions.
Of course, within this perspective, there is no “credit” either! Because it’s not “you” choosing to do things; it all stems from the intelligence we’ve been speaking of. This may ultimately be the biggest barrier to the acceptance of this idea: we live, and indeed orient much of our lives, around the perception of credit for our actions.
Ego, Suffering and the Brain
I don’t know about you, though, but I’d gladly give up taking any credit for my actions, no matter how positive or impressive. Especially if it meant I could forever let go of the suffering around right/wrong decision-making.
The need and notion that we “will” ourself to do things is arguably the single most exhausting aspect of the human psyche. The constant battle of “I must do X” and then judging on the basis of what happens is all-consuming. Even those who win may actually be losing, if merely for all the energy lost in conquering a challenge that might not be real.
Without the will, there is no force, no pushing, no pressure, no failure, no regret. In this alternative model, we can observe, moment to moment, and allow actions to simply come from whatever level of awareness-intelligence we have access to at that time. There’s no fault, no blame. Only the continued observation and growth that increases and accelerates at a pace similar — if not faster — than the best self-learning AI systems do.
A Final Cautionary Note
All this is isn’t to say we are somehow not responsible for our actions; remember, the central theme of this post is that the best, most intelligent actions stem from the decision to merely and “choicelessly” be aware.
Personally, if you’ve read to this point, then it’s likely that you not only know what awareness means in this context, but also that you have a definite capacity to observe yourself at any given moment.
And if you understand and can do that, you are both freer and more accountable for your actions, if merely for the fact that you always — at any given time — have access to more awareness-based data and consequent understanding-intelligence.
You may ignore that, remain in the darkness, leave all the information to your higher mind unseen. But that too is a choice.