What is Free Will? Meditation May Help us Find Out.
writing and photography by Alexandra L. Edwards
Our perceptions of the external world, what captures our attention, and controls the “machinery of our actions” is made possible by over 100 billion individual nerve cells that are interconnected in systems within our minds. Neural Science, also commonly referred to as “Brain Science”, has become a core focus of biology in the first half of the 21st century. It has provided us with exciting new discoveries and questions related to the human brain, but the biological basis of consciousness and free will are still not understood.
What we have come to understand more, is that conscious awareness is the necessary element for the willpower needed to create our lives. Most of us fumble over our own selves when it comes to achieving healthy goals or living the lives we imagine, but meditation has the power to increase our conscious awareness to help us to notice the choices – the sensing and reacting – we are making every fraction of a second. More awareness allows us to make use of the self-control system, as Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. discusses in The Willpower Instinct, and cultivate the will to take the action we need to when we're faced with a bad habit, temptation, procrastination, or numbing emotional or physical pain.
Our brains are wired for various types of habit responses, or causes and effects, based on our biological makeup and the external world, which is shaped from the moment we enter existence. Habits can be so overpowering, that questions within Science and Philosophy are being raised about whether free will exists at all.
Every fraction of a second we are sensing and reacting. We are overwhelmed with distractions in modern day life, making us even more vulnerable to responding with our bad "habit loops". When we meditate we make physical changes to the brain, increasing mindfulness and conscious awareness and the will to create new responses or habits.
In The Principles of Psychology, William James wrote an analogy relating to habits about how water "hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, the path traced by itself before." In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg follows this analogy with, "You now know how to redirect that path. You now have the power to swim". If we can develop conscious awareness and willpower through meditation, we will be able to swim in the direction we choose.
From something small such as closing your eyes when you're suddenly exposed to a bright light, to something seemingly impossible such as having difficulty resisting the urge to numb pain of trauma, disease, or loneliness with a chocolate chip cookie and a margarita, meditation has shown life-changing results in developing conscious awareness and willpower. If we are consciously aware and mindful, we have free will.