The freedom of the experience of our lives

The ultimate freedom philosophers talk about, especially existential philosophers, is not so much the world, but our experience of the world. In the words of psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom:

Nothing in the world has significance except by virtue of one’s own creation. There are no rules, no ethical systems, no values; there is no external referent whatsoever; there is no grand design in the universe…

To experience existence in this manner is a dizzying sensation. Nothing is as it seemed. The very ground beneath one seems to open up. Indeed groundlessness is a commonly used term for a subjective experience of responsibility awareness.  p. 221, Existential Psychotherapy

He adds: ‘we constitute the world in such a way that it appears independent of our constitution’ (p. 222). and ‘Our sense data tell us that the world is “there”, and that we enter and leave it‘ (p. 222).

It’s true isn’t it? That’s what we experience on waking and sleeping. But the fact is, equally clearly, that on sleeping we do not leave this world any more than we enter it again on waking. Though some theosophists might disagree with that statement. Leadbeater claimed our souls went on nightly journeys, whether we remembered them or not.

My central question in this post is: if we believe we don’t have free will, what influence do we have on our own lives?

This may sound like theory, but in my teaching days I taught kids with all kinds of diagnoses. One kid who was diagnosed as having ADHD told me: I can’t help it, I have ADHD. Which implies that even if he could have changed something about how he functioned, he wasn’t going to try because the adults in his world had given him the ultimate excuse to stay hyper for the rest of his life.

No amount of scientific studies proving how much our genes and environment steer us, can change that basic fact: if we don’t take responsibility for our lives, no one can. In his chapter about responsibility Yalom shares his experiences in the challenge of helping patients take responsibility for their own lives.

However, he also notes (p. 268) that ‘Many therapists are professional advocates of responsibility but secretly, in their own hearts and in their own belief systems, are environmental determinists.’

To combat this secret tendency in the heart of his audience, he goes on to share what it is that makes us know there is freedom of sorts. First of all (p. 271): we shape our own environment. Some people create conflict wherever they go. Others find helpful people wherever they go. The difference is in the person, the environment follows.

However, to take responsibility of our lives is ultimately, as Yalom suggests, to take responsibility of our experience of our lives. He quotes the ancient philosopher Epictetus who said: (p. 272)

I must die. I must be imprisoned. I must suffer exile. But must I die groaning? Must I whine as well? Can anyone hinder me from going into exile with a smile? The master threatens to chain me: what say you? Chain me? My leg you will chain – yes, but not my will – no, not even Zeus can conquer that.

Back to Yalom goes so far as to say: One’s attitude towards one’s situation is the very crux of being human (p. 272)

So, what do you all think? Is there free will? Are we fated to experience life in a certain way?

6 thoughts on “The freedom of the experience of our lives”

  1. As an all or nothing game? Or are there levels of free will depending on awareness. Outer circumstances and inner conditions are created by yourself. If you think thats true then ultimately you’ve created yourself and forgot about it. Thought that leads to oneness and the ability to ongoing recreate yourself. No free will and all conditioned looks mechanical to me and senseless. Free seems to imply apart from anything else, also senseless. One free will or a lot of independent free wills? Curious how you define “free” Katinka?

  2. A reader writes:

    a better question would be, what constitutes free will? if everything we do, say, and think has a cause, or a combination of causes, or a process that motors our actions, then what is the definition of determinism? do we have free will if some of our “causations” are internal vs. external? conscious vs. unconscious?
    some of our actions/decisions are automatic, some are conscious. exclude the automatic actions (like breathing, reflexes).
    what determines a conscious action? genetics and the way we were raised (nature and nurture) are the biggest ones, although there are others like prenatal conditions, diet, substance abuse… all external and beyond our control. or things like personality, temperament, passion, interest… which are internal and cannot be pinned down as to what, exactly, causes our personality to develop. or our temperament. what causes some people to be more passionate than others, and some to have more interest in various things than others? we certainly can control our reactions to things, to a great extent. we can swallow our pride, or control our anger, divert our lust, cultivate an interest or deliberately ignore one. we can overcome phobias, become more outgoing, cheer ourselves up, etc… so we do have free will if the definition is based on control. these are all examples of controlling an external reaction, but there are examples of people controlling physical reactions.
    a person in emotional turmoil will often have physical symptoms, such as a gut-wrenching fear, or headaches/bellyaches/jointaches caused by depression. a person can alter his or her perception based on emotional fears or the *desire* to experience something physical… an example of the former being hypochondriacs, an example of the latter being hysterical pregnancies. so not only does the physical world stick its fingers in the mental world, but the mental world often sticks its fingers in the physical. people have often been able to exert their will in intense physical ways, like enduring the elements or lifting heavy objects to save loved ones, but whether that will is “free” or not depends on how you define “free will.”

    I’d like to response that this is precisely the issue: what is determined by circumstances (determinism), and what do we have ‘control’ over, and what is that – to have control over something, and is free will only a conscious thing, or something that perhaps the unconscious has something to do with as well?

    Defining these things may seem to help, but I don’t think that it really does. Anyhow, it’s beyond me to define them.

  3. One idea that may be helpful in peeling away the layers toward fuller awareness is that “we are free as cause but not as effect”

  4. You know, call me simple-minded, but its obvious we do have free will. Every choice we make, no matter the parameters involved, boils down to that. And it’s all discretionary. And most don’t matter in the least, with regard to anything except intellectual masturbation. More to the point, though, is the Choices we make which makes a difference in our lives… those that our conscience weighs heavily. It is in those that the opportunity for real spiritual growth (ascension) are birthed. Recognizing these, we can start to take true responsibility for our own evolution, and push the veil of consciousness off.

  5. Free will exists, even in the child with ADHD, and we experience it as self-responsibility. We may feel as though we have no control over our actions or situations or relationships, but when we ask ourselves how we have contributed and accept responsibility for being there and somehow needing to at least believe whatever it is, we discover our own self. It can be painful to accept this but when we do, we heal to new depths of our own being.

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