By Fiona Robertson
Choice is a thorny issue, both within recovery circles and spirituality. The notions of choice and free will are also the subject of numerous neuroscience experiments, which appear to demonstrate that not all choice is made consciously; rather, the conscious mind becomes aware of choices that have already been initiated elsewhere in the brain and body. From this perspective, our thinking minds may not be so much the makers of choice as the recipients of choices already made.
In general, we tend to think of ourselves – the ‘I’ that we take ourselves to be – as the makers of choice, the deciders. We cogitate long and hard over upcoming decisions, or we berate ourselves for poor choices made in the past. We may believe that choices are made purely within thought, or that they are also informed by our emotions or bodily senses. We often have polarised views on choice, believing that we have no choice at all, or that there is no chooser, or that we’re powerless to choose in certain areas of our lives. We may believe that our reality has been created solely by our personal choices, and that we can manifest our heart’s (and mind’s) desires simply by making the right choices. Choices are viewed as right, wrong, good or bad, and often agonised over.
I’ve experienced times in my life when it’s felt as if I had no choice at all, as many of us do. As children, we often have no choice in what’s happening in our families or our lives, and that experience of choicelessness can reappear at various times in our lives. It can be deeply humbling to realise that we’re not the authors of our lives, particularly if we’ve been controlling or convinced of our individual ability to direct the course of life according to our own will.
At those times, it appears that there is absolutely no choice but to do or undergo as life dictates. We may feel powerless, helpless, or relieved. There may be all sorts of accompanying emotions and stories about ourselves; shame, weakness, disgust, resistance. We may fight or surrender or both.
I’ve also experienced times when it’s seemed that I’ve made very conscious choices; from small, mundane choices like what to wear to big, life-changing choices like leaving a relationship. At these times, the choice-making appears absolutely real; there’s a choosing self here that has considered all the pros and cons of a particular decision and chosen accordingly. We may feel self-congratulatory or self-critical about our choice; either way, it feels unquestionable that we’re the ones who have made it. It can also seem that no choice would get made without the choice-making activity; the weighing up, the mulling over, the cogitation.
Whatever your ideas or beliefs about choice, it’s an extremely fertile ground for inquiry. If you believe that you don’t have a choice, investigate further. If you believe you do have a choice, take a look. Look for choice itself, along with the command to choose or not choose, or the threat in making a choice or not, or the wrongness or rightness of particular choices.
As you inquire, you’ll look at words, you’ll see images and you’ll feel bodily sensations and feelings, but ultimately you won’t be able to find a separate self who can either choose or not choose. The inquiry process itself often yields rich insights and understandings along the way; it’s not (at all) about mentally arriving at the conclusion that there’s no self, but rather a deep, experiential dive into the heart of who you take yourself to be. You’ll also come to see for yourself how, even in the absence of a separate self, mysteriously and amazingly, choosing and not choosing happen, and choices get made.
This isn’t about arriving at a fixed conclusion or viewpoint. It isn’t as if we walk away from a session with the belief that there’s no-one here to choose or not. The seeing of no self in the moment doesn’t let us off the hook in any way. In fact, we become more, not less, able to take responsibility for our choices, both past and present. We see the ultimate innocence in all our choice-making, and yet are able to make better, healthier choices for ourselves. I invite you to look for yourself.
Fiona Robertson is a Senior Facilitator/Trainer of the Living Inquiries, and the co-creator of the Anxiety Inquiry. She loves her work, and she also loves writing, music (she used to be a bass player) and dancing (in the kitchen, mostly). She intends to live in a house by the sea one day. You can find out more about the Living Inquiries here: www.beyondourbeliefs.org and you can read Fiona’s writings here: www.whilstwalkingjack.blogspot.com. Feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org