and a reflection on current events
This post has two parts. The first is an exploration of determinism and whether or not the sense of agency or free will has any truth or value. In the second part, I’ll share some reflections about what’s going on in the world right now. You’ll find numerous links in both sections for further exploration.
On the question of free will:
Several people have asked if I’m aware of Robert Sapolsky, the researcher, author and Stanford University professor of biology and neurological sciences who argues for determinism. Yes, I am. I’ve heard his TED talk and several interviews with him like this one. I’ve even ordered his new book, Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will. I totally get what he’s saying about the absence of free will. As many of you will know from my books, my father was a determinist who did not believe in free will, and precisely the perspective that Sapolsky articulates was introduced to me in childhood, and it immediately made perfect sense to me. I’m deeply grounded in it, and it is probably my default setting.
But I sobered up from near-fatal alcoholic drinking in the early 1970s with a physician-therapist who used the model of choice, and that worked really well. And my mother believed in the power of positive thinking and seemed to get marvelous results from it. So there was an experiential counter-point running throughout my life as well, one that I could easily explain with the deterministic model, but one that felt different experientially.
In my forties, I began working with Toni Packer, a former Zen teacher who questioned the belief in free will and the reality of the one who would have it. She invited on-going, direct, meditative exploration of this question as everyday life unfolded. In so doing, it was clearly seen that there is no thinker apart from the thinking, no chooser apart from the choosing, and furthermore, the “me” who seemed to be carrying out this investigation, or doing anything else, could not actually be found. It was all simply happening.
If there was indecision over something, “I” couldn’t make the decisive moment happen any sooner than it did, no matter how much I wanted to do so. And although I had been able to successfully stop alcoholic drinking and cigarette smoking, my fingerbiting compulsion still flared up (and at age seventy-five, it still does), and that has been a lifelong, visceral lesson in the absence of free will. There are times when I simply cannot stop doing this, even though it is clearly damaging my fingers and my teeth, tensing my body and clouding my mind. I’ve seen this now classified as an impulse-control disorder and/or a form of OCD. It has given me compassion for people compelled to do things that are far worse, such as committing serial rape or murder. Sapolsky would understand this very well.
In my fifties, the realization came that no separate, persisting forms actually exist—that impermanence is so thorough-going that no-things ever actually form to even be impermanent. And there was the deepening realization of something I’d seen very clearly on my first LSD trip back in the 1960s, that this living reality could never be captured by words or concepts.
What appears is something like ever-changing kaleidoscopic Rorschach blots that the pattern-seeking mind is always reifying and interpreting—labeling them, putting them into categories, weaving narratives around them—and then magically, the apparently solid and fractured world appears. But in reality, it isn’t solid or divided up at all, and it is fundamentally ungraspable and unpindownable.
In this context, determinism, or cause and effect, is itself simply another conceptual formulation, one that seems predicated on the idea of separate things causing and being caused by other definable separate things or events, when no such things or separations can ever actually be found. There is neither free will nor anyone apart from the movement of unicity to have or not have it. Darryl Bailey, John Astin and Peter Brown all express this realization beautifully—and of course, I try to do so as well.
Over the years, I’ve tended to prefer the no free will model of reality, because that perspective feels the most true to me, but I’ve never entirely landed there dogmatically, because it’s clear to me that both free will and determinism are conceptual models of a living reality that cannot really be captured in any model. Furthermore, the sense of being a particular individual, and the sense of having agency and choice, seem to be part of how life is functioning, albeit perhaps choicelessly. And I can’t be absolutely certain that everything is determined—perhaps there actually are multiple possibilities in any moment, not just in our imagination, and perhaps the evolving human capabilities for awareness, reasoned thinking and creative imagination can actually break the chain of causation and change the program. However we think about this, we’re inevitably limited by our human brains, intellects and powers of imagination, so my strong default position is always that, at the bottomline, I don’t know. I remain open.
And because I tend to be interested in everyday life and how the rubber meets the road more than in philosophical speculation, it seems to me that both the free choice model and the determinist model have a usefulness and a pedagogical value. We don’t raise our children or train an athlete with the model of determinism, for example—we talk to them as if they have a choice—but if we deeply understand the truth in the determinist model, we will have more compassion for them and for ourselves when we fall short.
The determinist model frees us from guilt and blame, which is hugely liberating and beneficial, and if it were deeply understood, we would all be much more compassionate. But, on the other hand, believing in our own agency empowers us to do our best in a way that the determinist model simply does not—although the latter doesn’t by any means preclude wanting and trying to do our best, it simply understands that our aspirations, intentions, abilities, compulsions and desires in any moment are happening choicelessly and in that moment could not be otherwise.
What opened up for me in my recent conversation with Tim Freke was not something entirely new—in a way, it’s what I’ve said many times before, as in this Substack article from this past August: The Power that Knows the Way. But somehow, the way Tim put it, along with our discussion on the self, clarified it a bit more for me. I liked the perspective that this psychosomatic organism called Joan is part of an evolving universe, and that sometimes Joan has enough access to the light of awareness and whatever else is needed so that she can stop biting her fingers or refrain from acting out her anger, and at other times, for myriad reasons, this capacity is absent and not yet available.
The determinism model would say that this whole evolutionary process, and what makes my abilities different at different moments, is all determined by infinite causes and conditions that are always changing—and that seems true to me. But in any moment of wanting to stop a compulsive habit, it may be helpful to have a sense of agency, however illusory that agency may be.
And while all of this seemingly happens as a particular psychosomatic organism called Joan, the more closely we look at Joan, the more we find only a wave-like process of unresolvable thoroughgoing flux inseparable from everything that is supposedly not Joan. And still, it seems helpful to feel that there is a choice in certain moments, even if that felt-sense is a choiceless illusion created by infinite causes and conditions.
Ultimately, in my view, we don’t really know how the universe works or what anything really is, and the living reality cannot be grasped or pinned down with any models or formulations. The great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna was famous for deconstructing every possible way of conceptualizing what is happening here. But he never offered a correct view, which is of course the certainty we long for, because there isn’t one—not really.
As they say in Buddhism, even emptiness is empty! You can’t really land anywhere, not even on not landing anywhere. One of Shunryu Suzuki’s favorite expressions was “not always so.” Chögyam Trungpa called it groundlessness. I was told by one of my Zen teachers that the correct understanding of “Right View” in Buddhism was not holding to any view.
We can’t escape from views, of course, or from models and philosophy, and we all have them whether we’re aware of them or not. So perhaps what really matters is seeing what they are, questioning them, holding them lightly—using whatever map seems useful in the moment without turning it into an absolutist dogma that we cling to and defend—always being open to seeing something new or different. And also, returning our attention again and again to the undeniable simplicity and thusness of this present moment, just as it is, before we try to figure out and grasp what or how it is. Appreciating the beauty, the sacredness and the miracle of every moment, without wanting it to be different or better than it is. And if that isn’t possible right now, then simply being that apparent impossibility, dissatisfaction and longing. Exploring that. Anything we open fully into turns out to be nothing other than this radiant presence, this aliveness, this groundlessness.
For more on the subject of free will and choicelessness, see my website article on Addiction and Compulsion. There’s also an extended section in my book Awake in the Heartland devoted to addiction and the question of choice, and I write about it to some extent in all my books. I also recommend the books and talks of Darryl Bailey, whose expression I find to be one of the clearest, cleanest, simplest, most lucid and concise articulations of the choiceless, dynamic, ever-changing, inconceivable nature of reality that I’ve come across. My friend Robert Saltzman also speaks and writes clearly about the absence of free will in his books and on his Substack.
Reflection on current events in Israel-Palestine:
Finally, I’m going to stick my neck out here and probably upset a number of my readers. But I am moved to express my thoughts about several things, primarily the on-going situation in Palestine-Israel.
I feel profound sorrow over what is happening there, including both what Hamas did to Israeli civilians in their recent attack on Israel, and now the horrifying bombing by Israel of Gaza, killing and maiming hundreds of children as well as adults, and also the Israeli attacks on the West Bank, along with the escalating ground invasion in Gaza.
This conflict has been going on all my life—Israel and I were born in the same year. Many well-meaning and intelligent people view the situation in widely different ways, often with great emotional charge and strong identification with one side or the other. I’ve been through many different phases in my own understanding of it. It’s a long and complicated conflict with many differing narratives.
Both Israelis and Palestinians are deeply traumatized people. The Jewish people have long faced persecution, including one of the worst genocides in history, and anti-Semitism continues to exist and seems to be on the rise. It’s not hard to understand why many Jewish people wanted and felt they needed a Jewish state, or what brought many Jewish settlers to Palestine. They consider it their ancestral homeland from Biblical times, and most of the early Jewish settlers who came there after the creation of Israel came as refugees.
It’s true that Palestine was not a state at the time, but it wasn’t “a land without a people” either, and most of the Arab majority who had been living there for generations were, often brutally, pushed out of their homes and farms, off their lands, and into exile, many into what is now Gaza and the West Bank. In the years that followed, Jewish people from anywhere in the world could come and live in Israel, while the Arabs who had lived there for generations were not allowed to return to what had been their homeland.
To the best of my knowledge, none of the “two state solutions” on offer were ever a fair deal for the Palestinians. Israel has taken more and more land over the years, and the conditions under which Palestinians live are truly oppressive. Although both sides have engaged in violence, the Palestinians have clearly been the hardest hit. So while I do not support armed attacks on civilians or anti-Semitism, it’s not hard to understand what ignites so-called terrorism against Israel.
I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to see your children or your parents or your neighbors and friends killed or maimed or buried alive under rubble, your house destroyed and your neighborhood flattened. It’s not hard to understand the rage and despair that many Palestinians feel. I’m sure most of the people on both sides want to live in peace, and many on both sides have worked tirelessly for peace, and some have given their lives for it. As tempting as it is to fall into blame and judgement, seeing that no one on either side is operating out of free will can be profoundly helpful.
My heart goes out to all these people. I honestly don’t know what can realistically be done to resolve this situation, but these cycles of endless violence clearly only give rise to more traumatized people, more hate, more fear and more terrorism (on all sides).
I oppose anti-Semitism, and I certainly do not support terrorism, but the word terrorism surely applies equally, if not even more so, to what Israel is doing and has done over these many decades. (It also applies to much of what the US has done and is doing in the world as well. After all, what country has invaded, bombed and ravaged more countries in my lifetime than the US?) So-called terrorists see themselves as freedom fighters, fighting against injustice, as do those who fight against them. Maybe it’s time to look at the roots of all this warfare in our own human minds, instead of always “out there” at some designated “other” who is supposedly “evil.” (And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t also deal with things out there in the world, nor is it to imply that all actors or actions are equally justified or morally equivalent).
I feel we are closer now than we have ever been in my lifetime to WWIII and to either a deliberate or accidental nuclear war. Some people profit from war, and many political agendas can be served by having an external enemy. We would be wise to reflect on this. As Dwight D. Eisenhower warned in his 1961 farewell address: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
And let us not forget that the CIA apparently played a role in creating Al-Qaeda by covertly financing and arming Islamic fundamentalist Afghan factions, and possibly Bin Laden as well, as part of our attempt to weaken Russia during their war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And some in the Israeli government apparently helped to promote the rise of Hamas decades ago by backing Palestinian Islamists against Palestinian secularists in order to hopefully divide and rule. So who exactly are the terrorists?
My prayers are for peace and not an expanded war in the Middle East, and for negotiations and a peaceful settlement in Ukraine and not billions more dollars and deadly weapons being poured into both of these wars—killing, maiming, orphaning, and displacing ever-more humans and other animals and living organisms as well. But it seems that the forces in power in this country and Israel are moving full steam ahead in precisely the opposite direction.
I also want to say that the all too frequent censorship, serious harassment and/or condemnation of expressions of support for the Palestinians here and in Europe are deeply concerning to me. Yes, some of these expressions have lacked compassion for Israeli civilians and some have been overtly anti-Semitic and hateful toward Jewish people, and those I certainly condemn.
But when support for the Palestinians is automatically conflated with anti-Semitism, or when anti-Zionism is conflated with anti-Semitism, this is as erroneous as conflating all Jewish people with the state of Israel or all Palestinians with either the government of Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Also, there are some people (including some Jews and Israelis) who question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, but who would welcome a one-state solution that would create a secular democracy in all of Palestine-Israel in which Jews and Arabs would live together with equal rights for all. Of course, in such a state, Jews would be the minority, and they arguably have some credible reasons to fear what might happen to them as such, and speaking as a gender non-conforming lesbian woman, I can understand other reasons why an Arab-majority might not be something most Jewish Israelis would readily embrace. Still, it might be the only plausible road to peace. In my understanding, the slogan “from the river to the sea” can mean different things—it can mean this kind of one-state solution (a secular democracy where Arabs and Jews live together, one vote per person), or it can mean one Jewish state with no Arabs, or one Palestinian state with no Jews. But, in any case, there are nuances here in many of these views that too often get lost in the storms of fear and anger. Hopefully, reasonable, good-hearted, well-intended people can learn to disagree without having to demonize, mis-characterize, censor or dox one another.
For most of my life, I’ve taken free speech for granted, but that has been changing dramatically in the US, not just around this issue, but around other issues as well—and this censorship is coming from both the left and the right. I was born in the McCarthy Era. As a small child, I had a recurring nightmare in which my parents were jailed and burned in the electric chair—obviously it must have come from hearing the radio or the adults talking about the Rosenbergs (and if you don’t know who that is, google “Julius and Ethel Rosenberg”). Many people were black-listed and lost their jobs during this time, and the Rosenbergs were executed.
In this country in recent years, people have lost their jobs or been canceled, defunded, doxxed and attacked in various ways for criticizing Israel, expressing support for the Palestinians, questioning on-going financial and military support to Ukraine, or having different opinions about how best to address racial injustice, women’s and transgender rights, and other hot button issues. If you question funding the war in Ukraine, you get called pro-Putin. If you question Israel, you’re labeled anti-Semitic. If you express any sympathy or understanding at all for Hamas, you’re a terrorist. If you bring up the dangers of radical Islam, you’re Islamaphobic. If you question any aspect of the transgender agenda, you’re a transphobic bigot. If you’re critical of the BLM approach to racism, you’re a racist. And in each case, you may be subject to losing your job, having your events canceled or your funding cut off, getting doxxed, having your books censored or burned, or even being met with physical violence or even deportation.
Regardless of your political views on any of these issues, this kind of growing censorship as well as government influence on media should concern us all. As a lifelong progressive, I now feel politically homeless—appalled by much of what both the right and the left are advocating and doing in this country.
I am trying not to fall too deeply into the well of apocalyptic Doom and Gloom thinking. After all, who knows what might happen next—as they say, the darkest hour is right before the dawn, and what seems like a catastrophe might be the grit that creates the pearl—we never know. But then again, optimism based on ignorance and denial is simply illusion, and we can’t solve problems by looking the other way and pretending they don’t exist. And in the end, no matter what we do, nothing lasts forever, including planet earth, the sun, the human species, and each one of us.
If there was one small hopeful moment in the last few weeks, it was when eighty-five year old Yocheved Lifshitz, one of the Israeli hostages abducted and then freed by Hamas, was being released, and she turned to one of her captors and shook the person's hand, saying to them, “shalom,” the Hebrew salutation meaning “peace.” You can see the video here. Undoubtedly, many found this abhorrent and there are probably some cynical interpretations of it, but to me, it was a moment of tremendous heart-opening. These moments have been recorded in many wars, when the soldiers on opposite sides, or the guards and their prisoners, broke out of their roles and for a brief moment played or danced together before resuming the battle.
One thinks of the story in the Bhagavad Gita in which Arjuna has to fight against his own friends and family in a battle, and he is overcome with despair and doesn’t want to do it. Krishna tells Arjuna that he must fight, that everybody has already lived and died countless times, that forms break down but life itself is eternal, that it is Arjuna’s karma to fight and the karma of his family members to die—karma, as I see it, simply meaning the inevitable outcome of infinite causes and conditions.
Nisargadatta says much the same thing in several dialogs in I AM THAT when responding to questions about the war in what was then East Pakistan. He says, "In pure consciousness nothing ever happens." The questioner is quite upset by this response and questions how Nisargadatta can remain aloof, to which Nisargadatta replies: "I never talked of remaining aloof. You could as well see me jumping into the fray to save somebody and getting killed. Yet to me nothing happened. Imagine a big building collapsing... Nothing happened to the space itself... nothing happens to life when forms break down and names are wiped out."
I can go easily to this bigger picture—as I’ve offered in several recent posts—in which all of this is an unfathomable energetic movement or a dream-like appearance dissolving as soon as it appears. But that perspective can be used as a kind of false comfort or escape from being fully awake to the fact that life at the level of ordinary human reality includes tremendous suffering, much of which has no obvious resolution. Human beings like you and me are living through unimaginable horrors at this very moment, and turning away can’t be the answer. On the other hand, tuning in can lead to heartbreak, grief, anger, rage and very often words or actions that simply pour more fuel on the fire. What to do?
As the previous section on free will suggests, we will find out what life moves Israel and Hamas and Joe Biden and each one of us to do, and in every moment, it will be the only possible—and in some sense, it truly will be no more substantial than last night’s dream (or nightmare). But tell that to the Palestinian child undergoing surgery without anesthesia in a hospital that is being bombed after both her parents have been blown up in front of her. Can we face the raw actuality of what is happening without reaching for any spiritual opium? And can we find our way to love and not succumb to hate?
And what about that child? If she lives and survives the war, what will become of her? She may live with chronic pain and disability, not to mention psychic pain and trauma. Surely, it should surprise no one if a decade later she straps on a suicide belt and blows herself up in a crowd of Israelis. But the odds are, she won’t do this—she will probably live a quiet life, and miraculously might even find her way to love and forgiveness and be a voice for peace. It never ceases to amaze me what humans can survive.
I know that no matter how much we evolve and improve, utopian ideas are a fantasy. No two of us will agree about everything, and this manifestation by its very nature will always contain the polar opposites, which only exist relative to one another, in a never-ending dance without a dancer—and we each contain it all, the light and the dark.
And so, my friends, the eight billion multiplex movies of waking life continue to play, full of incomprehensible horrors and astonishing miracles, love affairs and horrific wars, hurricanes and erupting volcanoes, dramas and comedies, suspenseful thrills and chills, heartbreak and delight, with a cast of eight billion humans each playing our particular part perfectly. And ultimately, we don’t know what this is or where it’s all going.
Love and good wishes to all…
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