Do we have free will – can we change?

“You can do as you wish but you cannot wish as you wish.”

I have spent this weekend engrossed in the work of Robert Sapolsky, neuroendocrinologist, primatologist and biologist − specifically his book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

As much as we like to think of ourselves as free thinking rational beings, as much as we like to believe that our actions are based on choice, on free will, Sapolsky argues quite convincingly that among all the neurochemical, hormonal, developmental and evolutionary factors, rational thought and free will count for much less than we would like to imagine, if at all. The key question, to understand behaviour is, “what stimuli triggered the nervous system to produce such and such behaviour”.  He argues carefully − based on robust scientific evidence − that every human action is inescapably caused by preceding events in the world, including events in the brain. So there can be no such thing as free will.

This way of seeing things fits quite well with the Buddhist perspective which says that the fundamental nature of reality is one of constant change and dynamism; that phenomena that we think of as permanent substances or things, are just snapshots of processes at different stages.  Everything is connected and the arising of any phenomenon is dependent upon the arising of all other conditions and phenomena. This includes our behaviour

Just look at your own life. We believe that we act consciously and with free will but you do not have to look very hard to understand how this idea contrasts markedly with your experience; most of the time we are not even present in our lives; we react not to things but our (usually unexamined) models/beliefs about those things. Our reaction and subsequent behaviour are usually performed in “autopilot” mode. So effectively, most of the time, we perceive, process and react just like complicated machines.

It is well understood that most of our important personality and character traits are developed by age seven, but not chosen by us. You didn’t choose your parents, your family, your teachers, where you were born, were you lived, your neighbours, the language you speak, even your nationality (as proud of it as you might be, it was an accident, you cannot claim any merit).

This leads us to the conclusion that we are who we are and there is very little we can do about it.

Or is there?


The paradox of change: “If you want to change then you have first to let go of the idea that you can change.”

So stop trying!

When we try to change by rejecting who we are, or when we berate ourselves for not being something that we think we ought to be, or we rehash the past, all we usually achieve is to feel bad without changing anything.

Acceptance is the key: acceptance of yourself just as you are, acceptance of just how little we can really do; acceptance of the deep interdependence of all things. That who you are right now, what you do now, what happens now is the result of all previous conditions. Our control is limited. So instead  of trying to change, we simply  respond to our lives from the spaciousness of our unchanging “observing”, our “being” mind instead of the “doing”, “trying” mind, and adopt an attitude of open curiosity, kindness to ourselves and good humour, then we create the necessary space to respond to rather than react. Learning and integrating this is a life-long process.

By meditating, contemplating this reality and gentle self-acceptance we also open the door to awe, to wonder, to gratitude; to connection and an appreciation of the miracle and privilege of being here.

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