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Accessing Free Will Through Mindfulness

Everyone can relate to feeling “stuck” from time to time. I would argue that most clients, if not all, come to therapy for just this reason. Whether it be a pattern of behavior (“I just can’t kick the habit”), an emotional experience (“I can't help feeling this way”), a relationship dynamic (“It’s like we’re in an endless cycle”), or an identity (“It’s just the way I am”), this perception of stuckness holds us back from taking meaningful steps to build the lives we want to live, plaguing us with thoughts of “I can't” or “it’s just the way it is.” So if this is the way it is/I am/we are, where does my free will come in?

That we were all created with bechira chofshis, free choice, is one of the foundational beliefs of Judaism (see It’s one of the fundamental traits separating us from the rest of the living creatures, as well as from angels, who cannot choose right from wrong. It’s how we perform mitzvos in this world and connect to Hashem in a meaningful, authentic way. And yet, it’s an incredibly difficult concept to understand, with long discussions in the mefarshim about how bechira really works. With so many factors outside of my control, and Hashem’s hashgacha truly running the show, how do we understand my freedom to choose? 

The field of psychology has struggled with this concept in its own right (l’havdil). In therapy, we spend a lot of time trying to understand the specific circumstances leading to our behaviors and why things are the way they are. Everything has a cause, and there is always a reason for the things we do. But by understanding human behavior as a product of the antecedents and consequences which set it in motion and maintain it, we may find ourselves asking the same question: where does free will fit in? Once we recognize how vulnerable our behavior is to so many influences, both inborn and learned, is there still room for freedom of choice? And yet, we know that there is. So the question becomes: how do I access it?

I believe that mindfulness provides an answer. DBT defines mindfulness as a present-moment awareness that is non-judgemental and unattached to past, present, or future. It allows us to observe, describe, and participate in reality as it truly is, including all aspects of our internal and external experience, without getting stuck in judgements or interpretations. We have the ability to OBSERVE our thoughts, our feelings, our urges, our actions, and the situations which prompt them (often referred to as “triggers”), and CHOOSE whether or not we want to engage with them, no matter how intensely they are experienced.

Consider the difference between this:

I just can't deal when my parents start talking about shidduchim. They're just so nasty and make me feel so bad about myself, I can’t control it, I’m so triggered that I have to start yelling back. 

And this:

I notice that when I hear my parents comment about shidduchim (or more specifically when they said, “____”), intense feelings of anger, anxiety, and shame rise up within me. I have thoughts such as, “They're so nasty” and “I'm never going to get married,” and a strong urge to yell back. 

Now this gives us a whole lot more to work with. My parents are still there, they still made those comments, and I might still feel the strength of the emotions and urges. But by zooming out and noticing all of these events, internal and external, as they occur, I am somehow less attached to them, and less vulnerable to acting on their command.  I'm not simply a passive participant in my experience, but an observer. I can watch these things occur, painful as they are, and make a conscious choice about how to respond. 

While it is true that behavior is INFLUENCED by many factors, it does not need to be dictated by them. When we understand how behaviors are developed and which variables impact our choices, we can actually gain more power to make active decisions about shaping our environment to support us in making choices that are more effective and aligned with our values. This might look like surrounding myself with positive role models, decreasing access to things I want to get away from, and rewarding myself for taking steps in line with my goals and values. This work can be HARD, and it is so possible and worthwhile.

Practicing mindfulness can open up a space between stimulus and response, cause and effect, to locate our essential selves who have a very real choice of how to respond.  Through the power of mindfulness, I can be with reality as it is, challenge unhelpful thoughts, stop feeding unhelpful emotions, and surf my urges without needing to act on them when they do not align with my values. Mindfulness reminds me of the existence of my neshama: that I have an ultimate self who is the feeler of feelings, experiencer of experiences, and maker of decisions. I am not the product of what happens to me but the person who experiences it and chooses what to make of it. And that realization is truly freeing.


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