“What… is water?” asks the fish

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

David Foster Wallace

I got into a merry debate with the lovely Pink Agendist about choosing day-dreaming versus being in the moment that ultimately elicited that we broadly agree: reality is a hugely interesting topic. In his touching speech, David Foster Wallace says :

The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

In a disarming manner, he admits that he isn’t saying anything ground-breaking. His point, however, is that it is so hard to keep the important thoughts in front of us that they are worth repeating. It seems that from Buddhists to Seneca to Darwin, the main philosophical thought that resonates with me is: be aware and adapt. Even in his seemingly grim Letter 61, Seneca says:

Let us set our minds in order that we may desire whatever is demanded of us by circumstances, and above all that we may reflect upon our end without sadness.

Few concepts send my mind into a spin like this. Part of me resists: humans accomplished what they’ve accomplished by defying their odds, not by accepting what is demanded of them. Siberia demands that you freeze to death or leave, for example. However, I think it is a misinterpretation on my part. Seneca is instead saying: find a way to use this situation. What is demanded is that one figures out how to chop wood and sustain a fire, so one has to manage themselves in such a way that they could do this eagerly and well. This one sentence explains the nature of cognitive behavioural therapy used today: changing one’s mind will change one’s emotions – and how one behaves. The point isn’t to idolise Seneca. I am sure that many generations of John the Caveman said it before him. The point is that the concept is as relevant today as it ever was.

Another part of me says: what are the circumstances – and what do they demand? I made a little graphic to show the nature of my confusion. Understanding the circumstances may require the sort of insight that I am not even aware exists.

developing self awareness though mindfulness

I haven’t figured out another way to get closer to understanding any of the above other than through mindfulness and reading the works of philosophers that stood the test of time. Even then, reading a philosopher’s thoughts is secretly wishing that someone else has it all figured out. This is another brilliant point that David Foster Wallace brings up: even if one doesn’t think that they have a religion, they still worship something – and have some kind of default setting:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship… The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings.

Just like Pema Chodron explains, it is part of human nature to assume that someone else has the answer. After all, that is what we are conditioned to believe as children through the behaviour of adults – they always know best. When we ourselves become adults, that void is then filled with some kind of worship. The only way to snap out and have the ability to choose again, even for a moment, seems to be by being in the moment.

I am tangentially involved in game development and recently came across a game called The Stanley ParableIt involves a corporate employee and his choices. The game is incredibly philosophical, touching on the concept of choice and free will – and I couldn’t do it justice here. However, if you have nothing to do on a dark January night, it will rock your world.

Have a mindful weekend, everyone.

Is free will just another name for motivation?

The concept of free will – the ability to make our own choices – has occupied me on and off for some time. Recently, my interest has been reignited by Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Research seems to point towards the idea that awareness of volition occurs in parallel to actual agency. In other words, wanting to do something seems to occur n parallel rather than as a cause to it happening. There are a variety of experiments to support this. The explanation in Crash Course rather elegantly shows that there aren’t many arguments to support free will other than the fact that it just feels like it’s there.

free will vs instinct


In this context, it’s interesting to consider the instinct to reproduce. While planning a child involves conscious cognitive effort, instinct is a big part of the process.  This instict is far more subtle than let’s say the instinct to eat when one’s hungry. This doesn’t mean it’s less strong. We are pretty clear that the need to eat is largely outside of our control or free will – it’s just there and we work around it. If I had to make a decision as to whether children were a product of a cognitive decision making process or an instinct – I would have to choose instinct. However, that’s not how it feels. It feels like one made a mostly cognitive decision to have a child – rather than the feeling of a mostly instinctive decision to eat when one’s hungry.

So if it possible to have a child and think that you consciously decided to do so, what’s to say that everything isn’t driven through instinct.

Of course, one can argue that free will has the potential to override instinct. However, even in that case, free will only gets to speak after the instinct made itself known, adding to the conditionality and frailty of free will.

free will in animals


It is quite conceivable to look at a cat and explain all of its actions through instinct. Or a dog – does a dog love its owner so unconditionally because it is a better creature – or because we relentless bred it into them, by getting rid of all the non-submissive dogs in a given breed? We are obsessed with explaining how we are different from animals. Maybe, the distinction is blown out of proportion.

free will autonomic function


Alerting someone to their breath is usually quite fascinating (unless they are used to it through mindfulness or have a healthcare background). People usually have this slightly blunted uncanny realisation in their eyes – “what, I’ve been breathing all time? Yes, naturally I have, but… Anyway, play it cool.”

I am sure, if someone randomly asked me: are you in charge of our own breathing? Without much thinking, I would say, yes.

We can, to some extent, override our respiratory drive, alter our breathing pattern, etc (at least that’s what we think tudum-tshh). However, the bottom line is that breathing happens because it has been hard wired genetically. The temptation though, is to say we control it – probably fuelled by the fact that we can “control” any of it. I wonder what else happens that way: how many of our choices and thoughts happen just like the breath? We breath when we sleep – we think and feel while we sleep too, we call it dreams. Buddhists see thoughts as something external – they are like clouds that come and go. So who’s actually in charge?


One of the reasons why it feels so… eery and empty to think about our lack of free will is that we are no longer in control.

Being in control is central to motivation – according to pretty much any study ever done on it.

Taking the lack of free will argument a step further, it is also possible that this sense of control is wired into us because it propels us forward. Most commencement speeches that get millions of hits on YouTube boil down to the same message: we have more choices and power than we realise. This feel good message is, in a sense, the opposite to the thought that there’s no free will. However, if free will doesn’t exist, by writing this, I -and countless people before me, prove that it’s possible to at least contemplate its lack. It’s possible to have insight, at least, even though it doesn’t feel good.

Maybe, this feeling of control is just like hunger and thirst – it is a drives us to accomplish, regardless of whether we have any choice over it.

There’s still hope…

That free will as we know it does exist.

Just because some actions occur without free will as evidenced through neurophysiology experiments, doesn’t mean that all actions occur this way.

… And if these bone fide free willed thoughts and actions exist, it is possible that they influence the will-less, or the subconscious, whatever you want to call it – just like you can teach your respiratory centre to stay quiet while diving for pearls for minutes at a time. This would mean that while decisions are made subconsciously, there is still a way to make them yours – and not predetermined.

A religion for people who, in troubled times, don’t want any trouble

Breakfast of Champions was completely different to my first encounter with Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-five. Breakfast is vehemently anti-American – in a way that is could be anti-any nation and is disturbingly relevant today. Vonnegut has a way of stripping away the sugar coating. He speaks of the slave-trade as buying and selling agricultural machines. This comparison is brought back every time he mentions the social problems of those whose ancestors were slaves: he compares them to actual metal machines and explains that the latter are cheaper leaving the former jobless. Plain, cynical and sobering.

The book is largely centred around the concept of free will. As a medic, I recall learning about free will in physiology. Back in the 1980s, Libet et al did a clever experiment showing that the brain initiates a movement before we are aware of wanting to carry out the movement. Subjects were asked to sit in front of a clock. They were told to move at will – and note the time when they decided they were going to move . An EEG was recorded. Essentially, the EEG showed that the impulse to move occurred around a second before subjects became aware that we’re going to move. Libet and colleagues said:

“cerebral initiation of a spontaneous, freely voluntary act can begin unconsciously, that is, before there is any (at least recallable) subjective awareness that a ‘decision’ to act has already been initiated cerebrally.”

This is a good review of the subject free will in physiology. In short, awareness of volition occurs in parallel to actual agency. Whether volition is causal to movement – nobody knows. Our story-telling machine brains do like to think that it is causal of course.

As a person fascinated by mindfulness, I was curious about Vonnegut’s reference to transcendental meditation. Bunny, one of the characters, used TM. Vonnegut described the procedure in Breakfast. Vonnegut doesn’t hide his scepticism.

I appreciate that absolutely everything that involves a financial transaction can be called a scam. Some people think it is insane that the seemingly skill-less abstract art is sold for millions. Some people trust in banks, corporations, governments – and others are swayed by the evidence that these institutions cannot be trusted. Appreciating this subjectivity, my impression of transcendental meditation is that there is a big scam element to it. There are also some elements of religion in it. While I am interested in learning about the ancient tradition of this particular kind of meditation, the TM organisation and its specific take on the technique smacks of danger to me. I would certainly stay well away.

kurt vonnegut free will transcendental meditation breakfast of champions

Kurt Vonnegut’s wife and daughter were practitioners of TM. He said: “Nothing pisses them off anymore. They glow like bass drums with lights inside.” So far, so good. He later said about TM:

“a very good religion for people who, in troubled times, don’t want any trouble.”

This really resonates with me.

Much like positive thinking, transcendental meditation promises the world via some very simple thing that you have to do compulsively – and preferably attend expensive seminars. It’s very important to never doubt the high priests of these respective philosophies – otherwise, it won’t work. I mean, come on.

It also makes sense that TM and positive thinking has worked for some trustworthy high-profile people. It’s because what they call TM and what they call positive thinking is different to what the seminar-selling folk mean. They take a common sense approach – not a “I will take everything literally and follow all instructions” approach that the gullible people these things attract take.

Escaping the cr*p never really works. Transcending into an imaginary ocean of perpetual calm is a form of cheap escapism that only works for seconds. On that note, I recall having a really bad stomach pain. Without any set purpose, my mind wandered and I imagined getting a shot of morphine. I immediately felt much better. However, I still had to go to hospital to make sure it was nothing serious. One simply has to acknowledge their pain and deal with it. Thinking magically won’t resolve it.

The proper, non-commercial, non-popularised practice of TM is a form of mindfulness -and I have every faith that it works well. It’s not my weapon of choice, but I recommend that people try it. Om is a always a good mantra to start with. I don’t see the value in getting mystical with “personalised” mantras. The point remains: if it walks and talks like a scam, it probably is. The other point is that Breakfast of Champions is another worthwhile book.

transcendental meditation scam kurt vonnegut breakfast of champions