It helps to consider Buddha’s Four Truths as applicable to all animals. (See Buddha’s Truths Pertain To All Life, p.545.) Why do only humans need to have these truths spelled out? It appears, from a symptoms point of view, that we are uncertain and confused about how to manage our lives. Still, I doubt this would have been a problem for humans before the Agricultural Revolution. Characterizing such truths underscores our struggle to find causes and solutions for the problematic and unintended consequences of civilization. Simply put, civilization makes us less able to remain grounded. The circumstances of civilization make life overly chaotic and difficult to, as chapter 16 says, answer to one’s destiny. Added to this is our cognitive ability to idealize perfect solutions that are inconsistent with nature’s reality. Again, as chapter 16 reveals:
Devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness.
Everything ‘out there’ rises up together, and I watch again.
Everything ‘out there’, one and all, return again to their root cause.
Returning to the root cause is called stillness;
this means answering to one’s destiny.
Answering to one’s destiny is called the constant;
knowing the constant is called honest.
The Cause of Suffering
Buddha’s Second Noble Truth states, “The cause of suffering is lust”. Knowing the cause of a problem is essential to deal with it effectively. Much of the time, we fail to look inward, and instead seek scapegoats ‘out there’ to blame; we jump to conclusions and solutions. In nature, most problems a creature faces are ‘out there’, so I expect this failure to look inward for a cause is instinctive.
Alas, resolving our life’s problem is not like fixing a flat tire or any other external problem. Looking inward for causes is Buddha’s first step—Right Comprehension. With that, the other steps on Buddha’s Path follow naturally, in due course. So, how do we achieve Right Comprehension? I’ve found self-honesty is more than enough. Without self-honesty, scapegoats fill the void in understanding. The hitch here is that self-honesty threatens our ego.
The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering. The cause of suffering is lust. The surrounding world affects sensation and begets a craving thirst that clamors for immediate satisfaction. The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things. The desire to live for the enjoyment of self entangles us in a net of sorrows. Pleasures are the bait and the result is pain.
Desire or Need?
Notice the words lust, thirst, and desire. Desire is a villain in all religions. Yet, desire is also essential as the Fourth Noble Truth states, the sole desire is the performance of duty. This parallels chapter 64’s view… Taking this, the wise person desires non desire. This call to desire non desire and to only desire doing our duty is a call for free will, whether implied or explicit. This suggests that we can simply choose the Right path to channel desire wisely.
I sometimes hear a distinction drawn between desires and needs as though they were opposites, e.g., “You don’t need that, you just desire it”. Let’s consider this carefully. Need conveys a primal driving force, as in plants need water. You could even say water needs to flow downhill. On the other hand, it probably sounds a bit silly to say water desires to flow downhill, or that plants desire water. Presumably, it sounds silly because we don’t believe either of these as being able to think, let alone having the power of free will to choose which desires to follow and which to avoid.
Next, consider a dog. Dogs certainly need water. Can they desire water as well? On the other hand, is it merely instinctive need that drives them? Now consider humans. We certainly need water as well. Unlike plants and dogs, we can desire a cool glass of water as well. What is the real difference between need and desire?
Responsible Need vs. Irresponsible Desire
The plant, dog, or human is not responsible for needing water. Here, need and desire have a similar objective. It is simply biology at work. How about needing to fill swimming pools and water lawns during a severe drought? Ostensibly, we don’t need pools and lawns, so if a man wastes water on these, we deem his desire to do so irresponsible if he acts on that desire.
We are not responsible for needing food either. Here also, need and desire have similar aims based in biology. How about the desire to eat fish? That’s fine, but what if that desire leads to the extinction of a particular species of fish? Are we ethically responsible? How about when a particular fungi’s appetite leads to the extinction of a plant species (e.g. the American Chestnut)? Is the fungus ethically responsible? No? Why? Is it because it was ignorant and didn’t know better? However, don’t we say that ignorance is no excuse? When people do something out of ignorance they are still held responsible, either by the legal system or culturally, i.e. we’re born “sinners”, we’re born with “bad karma”. On the other hand, the fungus gets off scot-free. What gives?
The elephant in the room here is the distinction made between the rest of nature and humans. It appears that we are responsible under certain conditions, while the rest of nature is always innocent. Indeed, is nature ever bad or evil? We see ourselves outside of nature, whether it is fungi decimating trees, or any other aspect of nature. Curiously, we place ourselves in a special category—unlike the rest of nature, we deem ourselves conscious and responsible.
Does the Distinction Lie in the Perception of Self?
We don’t view other species as having a self to be responsible. Other species don’t say, “I desire to eat”. So, when a cow overgrazes, it’s just responding to instinctive need. On the other hand, if we over-graze and decimate a species, or just become obese, we are allegedly making irresponsible choices. The implication is that we should know better, and that knowing better is somehow sufficient to control our actions. The fact that we call ourselves Homo sapiens – ‘wise man’ – says it all. Adam and Eve ate the apple and voilà, they knew right from wrong, good from evil. They fell into the dynamic pointed to in chapter 2, All under heaven realizing beauty as beauty, wickedness already. All realizing goodness as goodness, no goodness already. We judge our species uniquely wise, and so we naturally feel that we should know better.
We assume that we’re able to know, while other species are not. More curious is the fact that this ability to know right from wrong only kicks in when we approach adulthood. We hold that young children don’t know right from wrong well enough to have free will and choose responsibly. We don’t hold them truly responsible for their desires or actions, at least theoretically. Central here is the belief that humans can be morally responsible at some arbitrary age and correctly choose right from wrong.
Where does this perception of a responsible self come from? The Second Noble Truth observes that, The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things. Naturally, cleaving to a belief that we can freely choose right from wrong only reinforces this “illusion of self”. If we conquer the “illusion of self”, of ‘I’, as the Third Noble Truth suggests, how would we then play this game of life? (For more on this, see He Who Conquers Self, p.179 and Loving Your Eco-System, p.455)
Back to Square One
We all agree that the need for water is a biologically based drive. Thirst will drive us to seek water. Hunger will drive us to seek food, just as it drives a dog, a cow, or a fungus. These two, hunger and thirst, are the common denominators between need and desire.
Hunger and thirst are the subjective experience that drives us toward whatever we subjectively feel a lack of, and thus a need for. Any confusion and hypocrisy arises only after we begin to objectify the hunger and thirst experience. We parse these drives into ethical degrees ranging from natural needs to frivolous desires. We can rationalize our subjective drive for something as a sensible need while we blithely objectify other people’s drives as frivolous desires. My ‘need’ trumps your ‘desire’, and presto! Hypocrisy is born.
Are you feeling need and desire becoming increasingly indistinguishable? Let’s consider this subject from a strictly subjective point of view. If I’m dying of thirst, I feel I need water. Once I have all the water I feel I need, I’ll thirst for the next thing that I feel I need, like imported bottled water. Once satiated, I’ll thirst for the next thing that I feel I need, and then… you name it. Really! Name something! Remember, we’re talking about the subjective ‘I feel I need it’ experience here! With each desire quenched, perceived need tends to up the ante.
The Standard of Living’s bottom-line rises naturally, just like a pet cat who becomes a fussy eater when its survival no longer depends on its hunt for food. Because my standard of living’s bottom-line rises, my desire for what ‘I feel I need’ will always feel essential, even though it may look frivolous to you. I still feel ‘I’m dying of thirst’ if I can’t get what ‘I feel I need’.
Try this out. Pick anything that you feel you need to be happier. Ironically, no matter how well off you are objectively speaking, you’ll always end up back at square one, in terms of perceived need. No amount of money or good fortune reverses this process. In fact, these can even make it worse. Jesus alluded to this irony with, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”.
Drawing the line
Compassion offers an example of the hypocrisy of drawing ethical and aesthetical lines in the sand. Where do we draw the compassion line? Do we hold human life more precious than all the rest, or shall we draw the line at mammals as a whole, and rank everything else lower. Fish are cute, so shall we draw the line at insects, or if not there, at bacteria? Surely, we must stop there; we can’t draw the line at plants, even though we all share the same core biology, i.e., Organisms that have eukaryotic cells include plants, protozoa, fungi, and animals.
There will always be an allegedly good reason for drawing the line here or there. Honestly though, these are just rationalizations to make us feel comfortable with killing anything we feel we need. Like children, we always find a way to justify what we feel we need.
More is better?
I’ve taken to calling the natural processes that steer all living things as a bio-hoodwink (see How the Hoodwink Hooks, p.100). Living creatures evolved to trust their senses, trust their emotions. Thanks to cognition, we humans are also able to see beneath biology and perceive reality in an ostensibly objective way. This automatically creates a kind of tension with respect to our instincts.
A good example of this is the tension centering around the instinct that ‘more is better’. Like all life, we instinctively feel that more is better. Yet we also realize that more upon more is often problematic, especially since we took up agriculture. Agriculture—and the opportunities this approach to survival creates—produces surplus. This makes for ‘idle hands’… Think, Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
Our biology didn’t evolve in circumstances of surplus, so we don’t really have an instinctive way to deal with surplus in a balanced way. Thus, it is natural to follow instinct and always seek more, regardless of surplus. In the process, we inevitably create imbalance, both personally and in society. Religions arose early on to counteract this imbalance. However, the only true remedy we have is living enough life to know when to stop. As chapter 32 observes, Man handles the realization to stop. Knowing to stop [he] can be without danger. As I see it, humanity as a whole doesn’t live long enough to learn that truly well enough to stop… at least not yet.
Yang and Yin Energies — Attraction and Aversion
Life has two biologically polar emotional ‘energy’ potentials. One is need ‘energy’, which always pushes life forward. The other is fear ‘energy’, which always pulls life backward. Both work in concert, yang and yin style, to keep living things in relative balance throughout life. These primal energies (i.e., emotions) are open ended—meaning they don’t burn out. Satisfying their pushing and pulling only ups the ante and or changes the focus.
Biology hoodwinks life with a compelling illusion. Life feels subjectively certain that if it satisfies this need or avoids this fear it will survive and ultimately find contentment. This instinctive dynamic is what actually chooses what all living beings do and don’t do. This includes humans. It plays out like this: we need what we like, we fear what we dislike, we need to eliminate what we dislike and we fear losing what we like. The First Noble Truth sums it up like this:
The First Noble Truth is the existence of sorrow. Birth is sorrowful, growth is sorrowful, illness is sorrowful, and death is sorrowful. Sad it is to be joined with that which we do not like. Sadder still is the separation from that which we love, and painful is the craving for that which cannot be obtained.
Of course, our ego — the illusion of self — thinks it is in control of this situation. Here in lies the source of our unnecessary sufferings. This illusion is so convincing that we go round and round chasing imagined needs and avoiding imagined fears in order to find happiness… that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
So what is the difference between need and desire? Clearly, it is the interplay between core emotions, need and fear, and cognition. Briefly, Need + thinking = Desire, and Fear + thinking = Worry. For more see Fear and Need Born in Nothing. Herein lays the value of the Fourth Noble Truth.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the Middle Path that leads to the cessation of suffering. There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty. He who is wise will enter this path and make an end to suffering. Eight steps on the Middle Path are:
Right Comprehension, Right Resolution, Right Speech, Right Action,
Right Living, Right Effort, Right Thought, and Right State of Peaceful Mind.
Nature’s Discipline Pushes Back on Polar Energies.
The principle power of this fourth truth lies in “whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty”. This turns desire around and points it back in the direction of primal need. How? Duty has a long-term quality to it, as opposed to fleeting desires that pop up and lead us off on one pleasure-hunt after another. Duty suggests the opposite quality of desire’s impetuous nature. Duty pushes back on the relentless rise in one’s bottom-line standard of living that civilization stimulates.
The Fourth Truth helps compensate for the loss of Nature’s discipline that in-the-wild circumstances provide all living things. Nature’s discipline helps life maintain balance. Wild uncivilized circumstances do this by pushing back on need and the instinct of more is better. This keeps life energies in check… except for humans.
We humans have discovered many ways to circumvent nature’s discipline and finagle ways to get more than we naturally need. For example, we evolved an instinctive attraction to sweet and fatty food. Nature’s discipline would limit us in the pursuit of this pleasure. Nature doesn’t grow French fries and cup cakes on trees. Nature forces us to hunt and gather to satisfy our craving for sweets and fats — a berry here, a termite there. Maybe some fresh carrion left over from a lion’s dinner. ‘Eden’ from a Taoist perspective would be the time when we were one with nature’s wild side — fully connected. God didn’t expel humanity from Eden; we left Eden to pursue pleasure, comfort, and security!
Simply put, we didn’t evolve biologically to be civilized! Chapter 64’s, Taking this, the wise person desires non desire, is an attempt to compensate for the disconnect from nature that civilization causes. Actually, to be more precise, tool-use causes the disconnection. Without tool-use, there would be no civilization. As tool-use increases, civilization advances, and the gulf between natural need and frivolous desire deepens. Need and fear — attraction and aversion — evolved to support survival in the wild, not in a profoundly innovative tool-using environment that our species has developed over recent millennia of civilized existence. As chapter 57 rightly points out,
The wider spread the taboos, the poorer the people.
The sharper their tools, the more a country’s confusion grows.
The more clever they are, the more strange things appear.
The more laws multiply, the more conspicuous the robbers.
Tool-use has been, and is, the driving force behind civilization. Tools devised by our mind and made by our opposable-thumb hands weaken nature’s push back on need and fear. Tools enable us to grab and cleave onto more things than is necessary for survival. This permits us to avoid the uncomfortable wilder sides of nature we fear. This loss of nature’s discipline — and the emotional imbalance that ensues — has made us unwittingly neurotic, with our lives driven by desire and worry. Religion is our attempt to redress the woe this causes.
The dawn of the Electricity Age has upped the ante exponentially, easily comparable to the Agricultural Revolution of 10,000 years ago. Wow! Our species is in for quite a ride over the next millennia or so. It is time we climb down from our ‘sapiens’ pedestal and see ourselves as we are… a sharp witted ape, often a little too clever for its own good. With more humility as a species, we might hesitate long enough to honesty see ourselves as we truly are. Nothing is truly manageable without such honesty. Who knows, we might find a way to return to the inner peace for which we all yearn. Again, chapter 16…
Tracing our “disease” back to its headwaters
We are aware of the complementary poles of nature, the yin and yang as it were. Our “disease” begins with taking sides and choosing one side over the other: life over death, pleasure over pain, strong over weak, etc. Certainly, instinct naturally biases all living things to choose life over death, pleasure over pain—humans included. Our “disease” becomes acute when this natural urge influences thought, which permanently embeds this bias in memory and locked in belief. Set in cognitive stone, this favoritism for one side over the other blinds us to the profound sameness of the complementary whole. Chapter 71 offers us a cure, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Alas, such strong medicine is hard to swallow.
Humility begins with knowing you’re ignorant
Life is a learning process, which means it takes a lifetime to transform the ideal of Buddha’s Path into a living reality. Naturally, this bottom-up process hinges on the first step, Right Comprehension. Moreover, what is Right Comprehension if not being self-honest enough to acknowledge your ignorance?
Culture certainly acknowledges human ignorance. However, the acknowledgement ends there. Instead, parents are encouraged to raise their children to replace their innocent ignorance with knowledge, and to conform to their culture’s social standards. Being on the same page culturally lends a large degree of security to everyone. We can believe we know! This cultural indoctrination is essential for civilization to function efficiently. Learning from the bottom up is out of the question.
I recognize most everyone can appreciate the importance of a culture’s ethical lessons at any age. Practically speaking, can one’s actions honestly embody these social standards? Core emotions play a large role in driving our life’s actions as we leap over the hurdles of life. We wage an inner war of emotional survival throughout life, both offensively and defensively — fight or flight. Note, offensive and defensive emotions correlate to the basic fight or flight responses of any animal, and need and fear power these responses… naturally!
The greatest obstacle to self-honesty is self-defensiveness — fear and flight — we bring to our life’s battles. We flee from perceptions that threaten the ego. With any luck, this gradually changes as we gain enough intuitive understanding — Right Comprehension — to temper emotional responses. Life just wears down our emotional edge over time! The dulling of that edge helps open our eyes beyond what we thought we knew. Acknowledgment of ignorance deepen and with that the self-honest necessary to take us to the next deeper step in comprehension.
Mastering Buddha’s Path
This may sound a little heretical, but we can’t truly practice and master the steps on Buddha’s path successfully. Trying to do them is as silly as trying to be honest or trying to fall asleep. I am or I’m not honest… I do or I don’t fall asleep. Chapter 3 offers insight into this natural process, Doing without doing, following without exception rules. That feels paradoxical on the surface. As chapter 78 reminds us, Straight and honest words seem inside out or as D.C. Lau translates this, Straightforward words seem paradoxical.
The more I try, the further away I get. In an ironically circular way, I lose what I hang on to, yet I hang on to what I’ve lost. Jesus alluded to this dilemma with his ‘inside out’ comment, “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life [for my sake] shall preserve it.”
In trying to do these steps, I’ve always ended up being inauthentic. My imagination, ideals, and expectations only complicate it and make life feel difficult… I try to bite off more than I can chew, like wanting to have my cake and eat it too. You might say, I desire more than what I’ve earned through life-derived learning.
I am who I am. Pretending to be otherwise, even disciplining myself to be otherwise, has always been a spiritual sham. Conversely, as my self-honesty broadens and deepens, I cannot help but feel—intuitively know—each moment’s next step to take. Words fail to convey how straightforward this is. It is profoundly easy and natural because the survival instinct won’t let me do otherwise. That’s my experience, and I feel the same plays out in everyone.
To regard the Eight Fold Path as a set of commandments like the Ten Commandments in Judeo Christianity only results in hypocrisy. Instead, think of these Eight as milestones to notice as we pass by them on our life’s journey — not as ‘shoulds’ or ‘should nots’. We can relax. It is out of our hands! As Right Comprehension accumulates over one’s lifetime, the other steps on Buddha’s path deepen naturally. No choice, no free will, or even responsibility is required!
Wéi wú wéi, ‘Doing without doing’
One caveat… this probably only makes sense to those old souls, exhausted by their ‘shoulds’, and ready to, as D.C. Lau translated it, One does less and less until one does nothing at all, and when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone. Or to put chapter 48 a little more literally…
Granted, this is far outside the common view of life. I should explain, by way of example, how not pursuing the Eight Fold Path amounts to simply without doing, yet not undone. Consider the difference between the revulsion at the genocide of ethnic minorities, and the delight at the genocide of the smallpox virus. Compassion will deepen as you are able to see how this mirrors your own self-interest. You’ll be less apt to stomp on that bug that’s bothering you (Right Action). You’ll be less apt to rail against that politician you previously reviled (Right Speech). You’ll be more likely to feel a deeper appreciation for that fish or tomato you’re eating (Right State of Peaceful Mind). You’ll be more apt to seek out and neutralize your own hypocritical self-serving biases (Right Effort, Right Thought). This, in turn, leads to deeper self-realization, self-honesty (Right Comprehension).
Can you see how following this original self approach to life works? It all takes care of itself. You could say that your only task is to be tentative and hesitant enough to peek around your belief’s certainty. Again, as chapter 71 warns, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Without a doubt, this disease is the largest impediment facing humanity.
Persuading yourself to play the role of a vegetarian, for example, in order to be a good person can easily lead to hypocrisy. That’s not bad, mind you! After all, need and fear drive our actions in life, and this is what you feel you need to do. The point here is to identify what is occurring as simply and honestly as possible. As Right Comprehension penetrates preconceived notions, it becomes easier to be sincere. Jesus hints at this with, “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye”. From a Taoist point of view, Doing without doing, following without exception rules, bridges the gap between who you are now and who you truly want to be.
I know the seemingly paradoxical “doing without doing, following without exception rules” can be hard to fathom. I find it helps to ponder other forms of “doing”. For example, “caring without caring’ following without exception rules”. Caring about something is essentially an empathetic projection of one’s own fears and needs rooted in emotion. “Caring without caring” introduces the sense of putting some distance between your fears and needs and the objects you’re projecting them upon. This way, you can fully feel the emotion, the empathy. Yet, with a deeper realization that the empathy is actually a projection of your own self-interest, you will be able to react more wisely.
Who is choosing, if ‘I’ is an illusion?
If you wish to deepen self-understanding, try this challenge. Carefully watch yourself in the moment to observe the origin of your actions and non-actions. Can you see whether these actions are driven by free-will, free-choice, or merely by need and fear?
There are two obstacles in this otherwise simple challenge. First, how you watch and ponder is important. Awareness has a dual nature, which I describe as ‘watching something’ vs. ‘watching nothing’. The something side happens when life grabs our attention. The nothing side happens when we offer attention to life. This challenge requires more of the nothing side of awareness. Another, somewhat larger obstacle is your belief in free will. Every time you believe you are choosing via free will, ask yourself, “What underlying fear or need do I feel at this moment?” Are you not simply defining this feeling of fear or need as free will? Note: Most of the time this will be a very subtle observation. Now, be diligent and honest! Poof! Where is the “I am choosing” now?
We are predisposed to interpret our experiences to correspond with our preconceptions. If you believe you are in control, that is what you’ll feel you see. We see life the way we need to see it, which makes it very difficult to see life any other way. Need and fear call the shots, right down to observing these very emotions. It is a closed system. For example, take giving advice to someone — especially unsolicited advice. “You should (__fill in the blank__)”. What you are really saying is this, “All you need to do is feel the same need or fear that I feel I need you to feel”. This projection of need and fear makes it impossible to see the forest of need and fear in which we are lost. Finally, this ‘should syndrome’ plays out even more so internally… “I should (__fill in the blank__)”.
It is in this subjective battleground — who I am vs. who I desire to be — where the distinction between desire and need manifests itself fully. The mind sees an ideal, and the emotions feel a corresponding need to act, which is either seconded or outvoted by the dominant primal need — real need vs. ideal desire. Note: The dynamics are more indistinct and shadowy than I’ve described here, what with the multiple lines of feedback between the mind’s thoughts and the emotion’s feelings. Nevertheless, I hope you get the drift… and good luck on the challenge!
“Don’t be an animal!”
This statement, “Don’t be an animal!” speaks to the power of primal needs over ideated desires (ideated: to form an idea, thought, or image of). This silly appeal is symptomatic of our struggle to make civilization work. We desperately need to believe that we, and others, have real control over ourselves.
This worldwide belief in free will, explicit or implied, serves a crucial hierarchical purpose. Our notion of choice endorses social ranking — a crucial element in politics. Just imagine, if everyone were to acknowledge that all action simply mirrors the innate animal emotions of need and fear, we’d have no rational justification for judging others as either superior or inferior to ourselves. Believing that people have free will allows us to more easily “Behold the mote in your brother’s eye, yet consider not the beam that is in your own eye”, as Jesus put it. If you carefully watch for this social phenomenon at work in yourself and others, you’ll be surprised… and humbled!
All this begs the question, am I contradicting myself? Do I believe that I don’t have free will… that I am not in control? Not actually, I simply need to know what is happening as impartially as possible… and I’ll let the chips fall where they may. I didn’t choose to be the way I am — genetics and circumstances account for most of that… at least the part that can be named. Twenty years ago, I seriously started to doubt free will. I began looking for some solid evidence — any proof would do. I could not — and still can’t — find any. Thus, I gradually lost the blind faith belief in free will conditioned in me from childhood. A clear-cut balancing of needs and fears can explain every situation I have examined so far.
The balance of needs and fears principle
The dominant need or fear I feel at this very moment — now! — tips the scale; overrides other needs and fears, and determines what I will do now! This principle applies not only to our species, but also to all life on earth. Am I right? Can I prove it? Who cares! Seeing life this way naturally induces a more compassionate sense of connection with all of nature — everything! That feels better than any alternative.
Why do we need free will?
Why is the ideal of free will, whether an explicit belief or implied, so universal? We fear feeling we are not in control. We need to feel strong, separate, and special as individuals and as members of our social group — a hierarchical me & we. It is this me & we that makes up a church, a nation, a company, a race, a sport, a political party… you name it.
In fact, I see this hierarchical me & we as the biological cornerstone of the other two… the belief in free will and the illusion of self (ego). They are mutually supportive, with each expressing itself in the other. It is ironic that the two things we hold most dear — our illusion of self and free will — are the source of our suffering. Civilization’s hierarchical dynamic suppresses much of the sociable egalitarian we sensibility that our hunter-gatherer ancestors enjoyed. To regain some of this, one needs to downplay me. This brings us back around to the Third Noble Truth:
The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of sorrow. He who conquers self will be free from lust. He no longer craves and the flames of desire finds no material to feed upon. Thus, it will be extinguished. (1)
Being prescriptive, this is the most problematic of the Four Noble Truths. The problem lies in the notion of “extinguishing self”. After all, “The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things”. Our brain has evolved a high degree of empathy, which allows us to identify our intuitive natural sense of self with objects or ideas ‘out there’. Furthermore, innate fear drives the intensity of the identity connection. Fear instigates the cleaving! Thus, to actually extinguish the self, one must first extinguish fear… and that is utterly unnatural! Fear (a.k.a., entropy) is the essential driving force for all living things.
The other Catch-22 here is “He no longer craves and the flames of desire find no material to feed upon”. Simply put, need + thought = desire and fear + thought = worry. As need and fear are integral to biological processes, the only part of this to manage rationally is the thought factor. There in lies our hope. I find that merely knowing what is occurring helps me manage life better. The “illusion of self” can’t get as strong a foothold when I know its origin and its effect.
What Do I Do Without Free Will?
Nothing obvious changes by losing the belief in free will. For example, I knew long ago that a “stitch in time saves nine”, just as I do now. I did the best I could when I believed I had free will, just as I do now. Chapter 64 hints at what is truly happening whether or not I believe in free will. There is magic beneath all that appears commonplace. As my belief in free will faded away, my sense of this magic emerged.
Knowing what occurs behind the scenes moves me to live life more carefully. Ironically, knowing I lack free choice actually enhances my ability to manage my life more effectively. Of course, whenever I daydream, I stumble and fall just as I did when I believed I had free choice. Perhaps knowing I have no free will makes be more wary, and that added wariness makes me more alive to the moment.
On the other hand, I am also wiser simply because I’m older and have been attending the school of life for many decades. It is not my free will but rather need and fear that ‘chooses’ — and innate knowing. For example, I innately feel a need to survive. If I know a ‘speeding bus’ is headed toward me, I will ‘choose’ to step out of the way as would any creature that likewise needs to survive and realizes the danger. If I truly learn from the school of life that driving fast or drunk is dangerous, I’ll avoid doing either — naturally!
The advantages of not believing in free will may feel too subtle to be of concern. However, there is more inherent danger than meets the eye in all belief. Simply put, it is impossible to see the ‘speeding buses’ behind the curtains of belief. In addition, as notions of free will fade away, I wage less war with others and myself. I no longer think I (or you) should or could be other than I am (or you are).
This ‘weakness’ that losing my power of free will incurs gives me a more effective way to live. For example, I smoked tobacco during all the years I believed I had free will. I invoked my free will a dozen times over those years ‘choosing’ not to smoke, and I would succeed for a while. After realizing I had no free will, I gave up struggling over it, and just accepted that I would quit struggling to quit. Interestingly, a few years later, I needed to not smoke more than I needed to smoke, and have felt no desire to smoke for the last 25 years.
Not surprisingly, I gained 30 pounds. I lugged that around until about 10 years ago, when I needed to feel lighter than I needed to pleasure myself with tasty foods. Now, I’m no longer overweight. It really is just that simple. In the end, free choice simply comes down to the balance of needs and fears principle, with need or fear winning over ‘ideals of should‘every time. Why complicate nature by pretending that will and choice are free?
There is a bonus too! Surrendering this battle of wills helps me feel more at peace with myself. This inner peace diminishes my need to be more than I truly am. The needs we feel, like my smoking and overeating, inevitably reflect some degree of disconnection and inner conflict. The bio-hoodwink here is that if we just satiate our current pressing need, we will be at peace. In reality, contentment comes first. When we are content, our needs, and particularly the desires that go beyond primary needs, subside. Chapter 33 puts it well, Being content is wealth.
I am more at peace now, and ironically, with that peace I’m becoming a little more like who I always wanted to be. But, don’t take my word for it. If you have read this far you are probably reflective enough to verify all this through poking deeply into your own experience.
(1) This sounds good theoretically on paper until I consider how the survival instinct—the innate resistance to entropy—rules all living things, from virus on up. Still, it feels better to have a ‘solution’, even if solutions are illusions.