My cat Issa and I once had a peculiar ritual we shared in my loft apartment. Walking down the stairway, I would tap a ring on my hand at the top of the wooden banister when I knew he was on the second floor. Hearing the tapping sound, Issa would run and jump up onto the banister. I don’t recall when or how this habit of ours began. It used to amuse me that my tapping would trigger this conditioned response from Issa. But then it occurred to me that my actions were just as conditioned as his were. Knowing that Issa was on the second floor triggered my own conditioned response. Who was conditioning whom?
Every sentient being can only perceive reality from its own particular perspective. While a universal perspective may be intuited, inferred or speculated upon, there is in actuality no “god’s-eye view.” Where may one stand when there is no “outside” to stand within? Being self-aware and speculating on the nature of our own self-awareness, we mistakenly believe we are “free agents” in a universe otherwise bound by physical laws, and so we are able to make decisions independent of any world “external” oneself. Of course, we might admit there are circumstances that may constrain us, but we nevertheless possess something we call “freewill.”
The underlying metaphysical assumption, however, is that this inner “self”—this assumed essence of who we are—operates independently from the rest of the fabric of existence. Because one can only perceive reality from his or her individual perspective, this illusory sensation of independence seems natural enough. And to suggest anything otherwise therefore makes human beings out to be automatons without “souls.” But this alternative, determinism, is likewise a product of the same metaphysical assumptions of essentialism and dualism. Based on these assumptions we can’t help but think that either (1) I am in control over what is not-me or (2) What is not-me is in control over me. They are two sides of the same metaphysical coin.
It is for this same reason that we think in the misleading imagery of a hierarchical chain of causality, when a clearer picture would be a vast web of inter-causality. To be sure, in science, we can trace specific causes and effects within a very specific context—but only by virtue of refiying those elements the scientist is directly concerned with at the moment. But in the broader view, every element is in play at every given moment in this very moment, with not a single subatomic interaction excluded. The notion that existence has one specific origin is based on such linear and hierarchical thinking. And likewise the notion that human beings possess a privileged “freewill.”
To return to my shared habit with my cat: Did I freely choose to tap on the banister? It was my perception and knowledge that led me to act as I did. Of course, I could tell myself, “I am free to not tap on the banister,” and walk down the stairs without doing it at all. But if I would do so, it would only be because I had become aware of the thought which would lead me to act otherwise. Or perhaps I was distracted by what I thought was a more pressing matter. I am still able to see (and act) only from my own limited perspective from one moment to the next.
I am not ontologically separate from my immediate environment—I am contextualized by it. There is a complex mutual interplay of activity, perception, thought processes and responses based on all this which is occurring at every moment. But I am not a mere automaton either because this too assumes there is still some kind of metaphysical difference between “myself” and the world of flux. There is no free agent and there is no automaton, there is no metaphysical privilege. There is only this relational interplay of the whole in which we are also participants.
Metaphysical division manifests as the experience of suffering for ourselves and others. If there is freedom, ontologically speaking, it lies not in our ability to act upon the world (freewill). Nor does our lack of freedom stem from the world’s ability to act (determinism) upon us. Freedom—and the peace and happiness it brings—lies in the practice of mindfulness: a re-integration of oneself and the world, and the realization of the intimate inter-relation between the two.