The sense of agency we experience in daily life, our sense of control over ourselves and our environment, is deeply and intuitively felt, but it deserves thorough and critical examination.
We did not choose our genes, nor did we choose the environment we were brought up in. We cannot control the depth and nature of our responses to experiences, even though we may expose ourselves to enriching experiences. We did not build our brains or our bodies, with all their chemical reactions (which anyway lie outside our conscious control). Even if we don’t believe that ‘mind’ is an expression of physical brain states, we do not choose our mental states or our ‘souls’. We can’t choose the thoughts that pop into our brain every minute of the day. We can certainly choose to follow certain trains of thought, but it is a mystery as to why we can do this sometimes and not others. We can, in a muscular fashion, exert our willpower in difficult circumstances, but again it is a mystery why this works sometimes and frustratingly, crucially, fails at others. We can certainly follow our desires, but we can neither create nor eliminate them at will. Sometimes we find ourselves in a state of attention. Often, we walk around in a daze. Neither state is in ‘our’ control.
In short, the bright bubble of consciousness that so fascinates us through life, upon which we spend so much of our energy, trying to shape it according to our desires, rests delicately upon a vast, deep architecture that is effectively outside our control. The process of meditation, it seems to me, is a deepening awareness of the mystery of this unwilled life, and a deepening recognition of the fundamental limitation of the sense of agency. There is no controlling ‘I,’ an ego inside that is running the entire show.
This seems a frightening realisation. If a person commits a crime, is she not responsible for it? I feel the fear is based on a mistaken notion of responsibility. As a society, we can be perfectly clear that certain actions are morally wrong, and we can, if need be, lock up the people responsible (they might repeat their actions) while treating them humanely. There is no need to hate a ‘person’ out there who is responsible for the act. In fact, the growing notion of the unwilled life might open up deep areas of empathy and compassion, both in personal and social contexts.
In a school environment, we can ponder over how a child learns, how effective teachers are nourished, how organizational structures enable or disable wisdom. All these processes are profoundly unwilled, but this does not mean there is no such thing as intelligence that moves towards creative action. Faced with any life situation, ‘we’ process various scenarios and ultimately settle on one course of action. While there is no one inside doing the choosing, our system as a whole—bodies, brains, minds—can learn what insight is.
*The ideas on agency presented in this article are wholly unoriginal. I learnt them from Sam Harris’ lovely essay ‘Free Will’.