What am I doing? (book excerpt & video: Living without free will)

The Society would like to thank consciousness and meme researcher, Susan Blackmore, for her contribution. Today’s article is a chapter from her book, ‘Zen and the Art of Consciousness’, abridged by us with her guidance and approval. Those interested in reading more can purchase the entire book at this link.

Update, August 3, 2013: See the end of this article for a video of a talk by Susan Blackmore on living without Free Will…


I am sitting outside my hut. A blackbird is singing on the garage roof; another answers from behind me somewhere. The buzzing from countless bees and flies, messing about in the flowers, maps out a sonic space around me. I am sitting perfectly still: the mind is calming down.

I wonder what I’m doing here. Have I chosen to be here in just this spot, sitting just like this, of my own free will? How much of this am I doing, and how much is just happening to me?

I am sitting. That is, this body has been sitting here a long time. But does that really count as me doing it? I am breathing. Yes, but the breaths go in and out whether I will them to or not.

Free will is said to be the most argued-about philosophical problem of all time. The basic problem has been apparent for thousands of years both in Western philosophy and in Buddhism. The universe seems to be causally closed. That is, everything that happens is caused by something else. Nothing happens by magical forces intervening from outside the web of causes and effects, for everything is interconnected with everything else.

In Zen, and in the languages in which early Buddhist texts were written, there is no equivalent of the Western concept of free will, but there is plenty about doing and not-doing. On his enlightenment, the Buddha is said to have awakened to the realisation that all phenomena in all times co-arise in an interconnected web of cause and effect. This is known as “dependent  origination” or “dependent co-arising”.

So what to do? Many people come to a similar conclusion and then say, “But I cannot live my life not believing in free will, so I will just act “as if” there’s free will.” And that seems to satisfy them.

It does not satisfy me. I am not prepared to live my life pretending the world is otherwise than it is. So I have worked hard at this one, systematically challenging the feeling of having free will whenever it arises. It was with some enthusiasm that I set aside the time to investigate what it’s like to act, and decide, and do.

I am calming the mind for half an hour before I start work on today’s question. One cat sits beside me; the other on a chair across the orchard. Out of the corner of my eye I see something move. “Let …”

What is it?

I cannot, or do not, resist. I turn my eyes to look.

A fox slips quietly between them.

I shouldn’t have done that. I am supposed to keep looking straight down at the flowers and grass. Was that free will? Surely not. The movement of the fox and my own curiosity made me do it. Er? “My” curiosity. Was this me doing it?

Not yet. I go back to sitting quietly, but thoughts start bubbling up; the foxes all died out in Bristol a few years ago and now they’ve just begun to come … “Let …”

There you are, you see. I did that, didn’t I? It was me who jumped in with “Let it go …”, and the thoughts went away. But I know immediately that this isn’t true. I learnt that trick from John all those decades ago. That meme, those words “Let it come, Let it be, Let it go,” is one he infected me with when I first started meditating, and it’s been working away in my mind ever since.

So where do I come into this? It’s all bound up with me. For me to have free will means that I do something of my own accord. So who am I?

Ah. That’s a familiar one. I’ll sit and see who is here for a bit. Perhaps then I will be able to see if she’s doing anything.

Here it is; the headless body topped with grass and pretty white flowers. It sits still.

Perhaps I need to work with something easier, with the absolute minimal requirement for free will, which is that I actually do things. I must go back to the simple question.

What am I doing?

I am sitting up straight. But it’s not exactly me who’s doing this. It’s such a long-practised habit that this body just gets into that position and stays there. Maybe it makes sense to say that my body is doing it; but am “I” doing it?

All right then, I’m making an effort here. I’m paying attention. That really is an effort. You have to work at paying attention right now. And now.

So that’s the key isn’t it?  If I didn’t make the effort then it wouldn’t happen. It’s an effort of will; it’s hard work. I am using my own will to pay attention, now and now, and keeping on paying attention. The hard work, and the effort I feel myself making, are proof that I’m doing something.

But oddly enough, I realise, hard work doesn’t prove anything of the kind. As I sit here, I remember being in labour, many years ago. My first child had a very big head, or something else wasn’t quite right, and I was in labour for more than 24 hours. It was terribly hard work and terribly painful. That’s why it’s called “labour”, I realised. And who was making the effort? I had this extraordinary sense that I was doing the hard work, but that I had no option. I couldn’t say “No. I don’t want to have this baby. I won’t do it.” My body was doing it all of its self. I was doing the hardest physical work I had ever done in my life, and yet I was not willing it. The labour was willing itself. Doing, and yet not doing.

Hard work does not prove that it’s a matter of will, or that I am doing it. So what am I doing?

I am sitting still again. I can see the taller flowers, pink behind the white, and the branches of an apple tree moving in the chilly breeze.

Am I doing this? Am I looking at them and seeing them?

Yes, but I couldn’t do it without them. They are as much doing it as I am. Which is moving – me or them? Is the moving in my mind or in the world out there?

The trick of turning inwards unfolds itself again. The looking, the seeing, the moving, we’re doing it together. It’s just stuff happening; the universe doing its thing. The body goes on sitting still. The branches keep on waving.

Nine o’clock strikes. End of meditation. I bow. I get up.

Did I do that?

I am feeling strange. I am used to these mental manoeuvres, yet they still have a deep effect.

I get up and walk attentively, without assuming that I’m doing anything. The legs are walking, the grass and flowerbed are slipping by in the space where I should be.

There are raspberries to be picked for breakfast. A hand reaches out, and again, and again. It can choose this bush or that one. It picks this one, until enough are picked. It’s time to go indoors, but which way will she go?

I like making paths, and there are several quite unnecessarily bendy and pointless paths in our garden. Which way shall I go? I try to catch myself in the act of making the decision. Everything slows down horribly, I stand hovering with one foot raised, to see whether I can catch my own mind making itself up. If I could catch this moment, or watch this process, I might find out what it’s like to act freely, and to know that I am really doing this. A hand reaches out to a just-noticed ripe raspberry, the cats suddenly scamper past, on their way into the house, and a foot is already following them. They go to the place on the wall where I always stroke them before going indoors. The hand reaches out, the fur is soft and the cat’s head presses against the hand.

So she must have decided to go that way.

This seems to be all that happens; decisions are made because of countless interacting events, and afterwards a little voice inside says “I did that”, “I decided to do that”.

Is there any need for that little, after-the-fact, voice?

I must watch some more.

Do I have free will?

No. I am not separate from the perceptions, thoughts and actions that make up my world. And if I am what seems to be the world, then we are in this together. Me and the world, world/me are doing all these actions that now just seem to act of their own accord.

But help!!!

Surely this means that I am not responsible. This is terrible.


I have played around with this question intellectually since my teens, when I first worked out that free will must be an illusion, but it was only after many years of meditating that I confronted the problem directly.

I was on a Zen retreat at Maenllwyd and practising intensely. Our teacher for the week was Reb Anderson, a Zen master visiting from California, and he was pushing us hard.

I signed up for an interview. I bowed in the prescribed way, sat in the prescribed posture, looked straight into his shining eyes, and plucked up the courage to tell him what I thought: that ultimately no one is responsible for anything.

He chuckled.

“Yes” he said with a delightfully warm and encouraging smile “Ultimately, that’s true.” He seemed to emphasise the “ultimately”, and I thought of the Zen distinction between the ultimate view and the relative view, wondering whether there’s some other way in which it’s not true.

“Then what do I do about responsibility?” I blurted out.

“You take responsibility” he said.

Help, help, and again help. Who takes responsibility? Isn’t “taking responsibility” doing something?

Gradually over the years, as the sense of having free will has slipped away, I have remembered this advice and it has helped.


The illusion of free will does not survive the kind of scrutiny I have given it here. It simply melts away. I no longer even feel its pull. People sometimes ask me how I did it; how I gave up free will, but I cannot tell them. I know that I battled intellectually with it for years, but thinking only creates a mismatch between what one intellectually believes and how the world seems to be. I never felt comfortable with this mismatch, and didn’t want to go on living as though free will were true when logic and science told me it could not be. So this great intellectual doubt drove me to look directly into how decisions are made, and on to examine the self which ultimately underlies the feeling of being someone who freely acts.

It works something like this. An email arrives. It’s a wonderful invitation to give a lecture in an exciting far-away place, at a prestigious conference. I look in my diary. That day I’ve agreed to go with my partner to a family event I know he’d love me to attend. It’s been planned for ages. What to do? I have to decide. I’m a reliable person. I don’t like letting anyone down. The lecture is a terrific opportunity. It won’t come again. But I’ve already committed myself.

No, “I” don’t have to decide. There is no inner me who can do so. This whole series of events is part of the play of the world/me as it is, and the decision is too. So the thoughts come, and the feelings of indecision come, and the feelings sway back and forth, and the weighing-up goes on, and it’s all just stuff happening, like the cars going by and the ticking of the clock in the background. Then the decision somehow is made, whether it’s today or three days later. Eventually the fingers type the replying email and it’s done. And then what?

If you enjoyed this article, please consider a donation.Then I take responsibility. I don’t mean that a little inner me who has free will does so, because that would be to fall back into the endless cycle of the illusion of doing. The little me is a fiction. I mean only that consequences will follow and I will accept them. If someone tells me how wonderful the conference was and I missed it I won’t be angry that “I” made the wrong decision. It was made. That’s what happened and that’s how it is now. If someone is angry with me for being so selfish and mean for not joining the family event I will accept that punishment. That’s what happened, these are the consequences. Things just are the way they are. Whether they could have been different I do not know, but I suspect that even asking this question does not make sense. Stuff just happens.

Indeed the fingers are typing here right now. No one is acting. I am not doing anything.

What, then, is the point of it all? What’s the point in doing anything?

No point.


Update, August 3, 2013:
Susan Blackmore has recently given a talk at the British Humanist Association’s 2013 Conference on the subject of living without free will. You can watch it here…


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Susan Blackmore is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. She has a degree in psychology and physiology from Oxford University (1973) an MSc and a PhD in parapsychology from the University of Surrey (1980). Her research interests include memes, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation. Sue writes for several magazines and newspapers, blogs for the Guardian newspaper and Psychology Today, and is a frequent contributor and presenter on radio and television. She is author of over sixty academic articles, about eighty book contributions, and many book reviews. Her books include The Meme Machine (1999), Conversations on Consciousness (2005), Zen and the Art of Consciousness (2011) and Consciousness: An Introduction (a textbook, new editions 2010 and 2011). Her work has been translated into more than 20 other languages. She practices Zen, campaigns for drug legalization and plays in her village samba band, Crooked Tempo.


Click here to purchase Zen and the Art of Consciousness



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