What is the Meaning of Free Will?

by Robert Rabbin

An editor asked me to respond to his question about free will. He wrote, “There appears to be two schools of thought relative to the issue of free will. One is like J. Krishnamurti's, which implies we have a kind of free will which we can use to break through delusion, and the other is like Ramesh Balsekar's, which says there is no free will and that all is pre-determined, even the desire to break through. Somehow, my gut instinct tells me that Life is a like an improvisation rather than being a fixed script, and while I once had a powerful experience of being lived by Life, it still felt like an improvisation, a potential rather than a fixed plan. This also accords with quantum physics. What is your view of this issue?”

Here is my response:

Assuming a conclusive or definitive answer can be given, how will such an answer help you in your actual life? Are your freedom, clarity, and joy dependent upon knowing for sure the answer to this dilemma? I wonder if, in midst of your experience of “being lived by Life,” you had the thought that Life was a potential, rather than a fixed plan? I suspect you did not. I suspect that you had these thoughts later, while looking in the rear view mirror and seeing the image of your experience behind you, in the past.

The key to resolving this question is in your phrase “two schools of thought.” There are many schools of thought, countless schools. Do these schools of thought arise in the timeless realm of being lived by Life, or do they come about through the mind’s need to define, explain, and order what is beyond itself?

There is a mysterious aspect of Existence which does not lend itself to resolution. We do not have a problem with this when our minds are still and when we feel the Silence of Life as a fact, as a living Presence. Our quiet mind falls deeper into its source, and the existential questions about Life are “resolved” as the mind relaxes like a lion dozing in the hot sun — the questions relax and stretch out, and then they disappear.

When our mind awakens into activity, it contracts from this openness, becomes preoccupied and tense with thoughts, and then the direct experience of Life becomes a memory, existing within us as an image. In this contracted condition, we pick up our books and enter one school or another. The problem is that we really can’t find out what Life is through thoughts, concepts, and beliefs. Schools of thought — though they be lucid, convincing, dramatic — do not have the reach to touch Life directly.

If we are in the contracted state, it becomes important to know the answer to your question. We think that such knowing will make a difference in how we live, but this is not true. I guarantee you that neither Krishnamurti nor Ramesh lived their lives while thinking about their respective beliefs about free will. What they said was just what they said in class. After all, they are teachers, and they have to say something. But that doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.

We have to learn to live in Life without tension or stress, without contracting into the mind and its language of thought, concept, and belief. Try as it might, the mind is not equipped to know Life directly, but only indirectly—after the fact. The resolution of the dilemma of free will cannot be achieved within the sphere of the mind. Whatever conceptual answer one decides to hold on to will provide temporary security for the mind only, but the answer will have no relationship whatsoever to actual Life, as it happens.

Whether we are experiencing Life directly, or whether we are experiencing thoughts and beliefs about Life, the simple fact is that our lives unfold in a mysterious way — mysterious in the sense of not being knowable. Please examine your own life carefully. At certain times, will, or self-effort, arises spontaneously within you to accomplish certain tasks. At other times, in spite of your strongest efforts, nothing is forthcoming. Not a single puff of wind. Dead calm. At other times, things fly in from a sky you never noticed. This observable reality is not a function of what you believe or don’t believe; it is not a function of knowing for certain whether there is free will or not. These movements are the movements of Life through us. When we live outside the confines of the mind, so many of our ambitions, so many of our aspirations and goals in life, give way to a serene resting in Life. We no longer create and project the conflicts of the contracted mind. We live in accord with Life, free of distorting beliefs, our hearts at peace, our minds at rest, doing what needs to be done — nothing more and nothing less.

We struggle with this because we have not yet learned to live in peace with Life’s tides, rhythms, and phases. Our conflict with “free will or no free will” originates in our inability to let go of our ideas about how and when Life should manifest. Really, the question you pose is just another attempt by the mind to master, control, and dominate Life.

Questions like “Is there free will or not?” are created in and by the mind and answered by the mind. Regardless of what others have said, this question cannot be answered, nor is it worth answering, and it is best left alone.

In fact, all attempts to define and explain the nature of Being are like bags with no bottoms: useless. Of course, the mind will never accept this, and it will continue to develop and argue for one exquisite answer after another.

Don’t be satisfied with the apparent reality of such questions. Examine their reality, their substance, their relevance to living. There are two approaches to questions: the first is to find an acceptable answer; the second is to put the mind’s face into the emptiness from which questions arise. These approaches pertain to entirely different aspects of Existence. Such existential questions as yours must be “answered” with the second strategy.

Point the mind in the direction of that place from which questions arise. With awareness, follow the arising question back, into the deep from whence it came. Finally, you will come upon Silence, the true language of Life. Only Silence knows whether or not there is free will.

Silence is to be found within the Mystery from which the mind and its endless questions arise. Learning to live in the reality of that Silence is a better use of our time than trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong on the topic of free will.


Robert Rabbin is a Melbourne-based executive coach and consultant, keynote speaker, workshop leader, and author of five books and more than 200 articles. For more information, please visit: http://www.centersourcesolutions.com.