The Illusion of Self-Control

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Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Last night, I gave a talk on Anatta — Buddha’s teaching of no self or no soul.

Someone in the audience, a senior Buddhist, made the remark that one key meaning of Anatta is the lack of autonomy or self-control. This is true by definition. The central tenet of Buddhism is Dependent Origination (Pratītyasamutpāda). The Buddhist worldview is that everything in the universe exists due to its relationship and interdependence with other things. The self is no exception — we have no independent self. What we are is a product of our time, our environment, our upbringing, our genes, etc. What we call the “self” is a bundle of relationships and interdependencies. The notion of self-control, free will or autonomy is therefore an illusion.

A college student may think that she has the freedom to skip a class. My wife may think that she has the freedom either to cook or not to cook for me. On a lower level, such freedom does exist. Yes, my wife may choose not to cook and a college student may choose not to go to class. But such choices are driven by deep-seated cultural values, which are ingrained in the person’s psyche. Depending on the culture, a wife may feel certain social pressure and guilt if she does not cook for her husband. These subtle cultural values create different propensities for certain behavior. These values and preferences, which we acquire from our environment and our upbringing, are integral parts of our selves. There is no real independence or separation. Thus, free will is an illusion. In order for it to exists, our mind has to be free from external influences. Such freedom does not exist. A robot may seem free to move around, despite the fact that it is following closely a script.

This is probably shocking to many people. The West is so used to thinking in terms of individualism, free will, and personal liberty. How will this teaching of Anatta apply to the current political situation? Mary Trump, the niece of our current president, recently published a book titled Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. In that book, Mary Trump said that her father’s siblings were raised with a few core beliefs: lying was OK — in fact, it was “a way of life”; apologies and displays of emotion or vulnerability were verboten; and bullying was perfectly acceptable, if not encouraged.

Does Donald Trump have self-control? There is no basis to talk about self-control, since even the existence of an independent self cannot be established. A big part of Donald Trump’s “self” is a product of his childhood experience and family values. Such experience and values are driving the president’s behavior today. We can apply similar reasoning to the Trump followers. Many Trump followers refuse to wear face masks in the name of personal liberty. Do they have free will? In order for someone to have free will, he must be able to think independently. I must say that independent thinking is typically lacking among followers. Real independent thinking is very rare. Most of us are subconsciousness driven by the dominant political ideology and beliefs. Today, in the midst of our Coronavirus crisis, many people subscribe to various conspiracy theories, without the proper fact-checking and scientific verification. In addition, most of us are not free from the pressure of society’s cultural norms and expectations, especially those governing political correctness, sexual expression, etc.

Here, we must clarify that freedom is not absolute. It is also not binary. We all have a degree of relative freedom. What I can say is that the more educated we are and the more we become aware of our social conditioning, the more real freedom we can have. A robot is not free so long as it is not aware that it has the option of not following the algorithms and programming. Without the awareness of our bondage and the availability of alternatives, there is no freedom. But we all have different levels of awareness.

This is why meditation is so important. There is a huge misunderstanding of what Buddhist meditation is. It is not about sitting. It is about cultivating awareness. Are we aware of the social pressure that influence our behavior? Are we aware of the effects of our hormones? Are we aware of the effects of various social media in shaping our behavior. These are all subtle pressures and influences. Buddhist meditation is about cultivating our sensitivity so that these subtle forces and programs can be detected. Otherwise, we may be slaves without knowing it.

With the regular practice of mindfulness, we will become more and more sensitive and awake. Enlightenment is not a mystical phenomenon. It is about waking up to where we have bondage and seeing the alternative to change course.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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