What makes your heart beat, what keeps it beating, is it you that does that? As an embryo deep in the warm muffled darkness of your mother’s womb, in the moment that the heart started beating for the very first time, in the moment it made its first beat, did you have anything to do with it, did your mother, did you or her have any say in this? Right now, as you are sitting here reading these words, can you choose to continue or to stop beating the heart? When you walk up a set of stairs, go for a run or bike ride, lift a heavy deadlift or push a heavy benchpress and the heart beats stronger and faster, do you have anything to do with it, can you choose to have it beating any other way than it does? What about when you lie down in your bed at night, lying calmly in the quiet darkened room, feeling the rhythmic pulsing of the heart beats, do you have anything to do with it? And when you fall asleep and lose consciousness of all bodily sensations and the heart keeps beating, adjusting its pace based on your dreamworld activity, what you are unconsciously thinking, feeling, doing, do you have anything to do with that?
And what about the kidneys, do you control the kidneys: the rate at which they filter your blood, the amount of water and sodium they retain or excrete, the amount of uric acid and creatinine they recycle or discard, the amount of renin or angiotensin they secrete into the bloodstream? And the pancreas, do you control that: the amount of insulin that it produces and the speed at which it releases it in the blood, the precise time at which and concentration of the water-bicarbonate solution it manufactures and secretes into the small intestines when the acidic chyme is moved into it from the stomach, the amount and kinds of enzymes it makes and sends into the intestines during digestion? Do you control any of that, do you have any say in what these organs and every other organ of the body does, how they do it, and when they do it?
In the moment that your hand takes hold of a glass of water or a cup of tea, and that the feeling of its surface and its cool or warm temperature are felt by the palm, the fingers and fingertips, do you choose to feel, do you have anything to do with that feeling, those sensations that arise in this holding up of the glass as you bring it to your lips? And when you take a sip and feel the water in the mouth, on the tongue, on the inner cheeks, on the roof and in the the back of the mouth behind the tongue, in the throat and down its length as you swallow, do you choose to feel this, all these nerve endings firing, discharging electrical pulses that travel at fantastic speeds through the mesh of nerves throughout the body back and forth to and from the brain and its neurones, do you have anything to do with this?
When you feel hunger, thirst, the need to go to the bathroom, when you feel heat and cold, when the eyes close of tiredness, and when these and the multitude of other functions of the body manifest themselves through the countless bodily processes that take place in their own time, on their own accord, do you have anything to do with it, do you have the ability to choose or decide anything about how they are manifested? And when, one day, a last and final breath is exhaled in a slippery whisper past a small opening between the dry and thin lips of your mouth, and the heart stops beating, and the blood stops coursing through the veins and arteries, and the eyes stop blinking, and all twitching and pulsing of the body and its organs cease and give way to stillness, do you have anything to do with this, could you, in that moment, choose any other outcome, any other way in which these processes will play themselves out, on the order or timing of the sequence, on anything at all? Of course not.
The recognition of this basic fact—the fact that this body is not our body, and the life it is infused with is not our life—is both profound and obvious. Is profound because it puts into question the deepest foundations upon which we have built the worldview we hold, everything we believe about ourselves, about others, about living beings and inanimate things, and about the relationships between all of these aspects of the world as they are conceptualised and objectified in our minds. It is obvious because if we stop for a moment and ask ourselves the questions we posed above, or any number of questions of a similar nature, it is very difficult to sincerely answer any of them in any other way: the answer is obvious and it is always ‘no’. Your body is not yours, and your life is not yours. They are not yours, and they are not anyone else’s either, because neither can be claimed and neither can be owned.
Why is it, then, that we believe this body and this body’s life to be ours? Can we not slit our wrists, cut open our jugular or femoral arteries, drive a knife through the heart, shoot a bullet through the brain? Doesn’t this mean that they are ours, that they belong to us, that they are ours to do with as we want? And we can do any of these things to someone else as well. Does this mean that their body or life belong to us? We can cut off a finger or an arm, toe or foot, ear or nose, but does this mean that we own these parts of the body, that they are our possessions to manipulate, modify, mutilate or discard as we please? In a way it does: we actually can do with them as we wish, as long as there is nobody to stop us from doing it. But at the same time, it is obvious that being able to and actually doing such things to ourselves and others betrays only that we are able to so thoroughly fool ourselves in believing that we do own our body and life that it gives us the capacity to enact such things. The reason we believe this body and this body’s life belong to us is nothing more than this: a worldview made up of and continuously distorted by unexamined assumptions, unquestioned beliefs, unrecognised objectifications, rationalisations and self-justifications all based on and fuelling further misunderstandings about the nature of this body and the nature of this mind, the nature of self and the nature of other, and the nature of this life and of Life itself.
What about your thoughts and feelings. Do you own them? Can you claim them as yours? For aren’t our thoughts and feelings the most intimate manifestations of our personalities, of our characters, of ourselves? But what are thoughts, what are feelings? How do they arise, where do they come from, where do they go to? Do they exist on their own? What can we know about these thoughts and feelings we experience? We can see them, know them, feel them, but can we choose whether or not they arise and whether or not they are seen and felt?
You’re at the table eating with your family and the phone rings. You pick it up and your brother just says “papa is dead”. The rush of heat sweeps up the body, from the legs up to the face and forehead. The shivers that run up the back and down the arms. The tears well up and fill the eyes. There is tightness in the throat and in the belly. There is pressure on the chest, as if being squeezed from the outside. There is a trembling in the hands, a weakness in the thighs, at the knees. Do you have any influence on the sequence of biochemically triggered events initiated by those simple words spoken over the phone line that set on its way a cascade of hormone-driven reactions vividly felt in a range of different emotional and sensorial responses throughout the bodymind? Can we, at any moment during this short intense experience, choose to not feel what is being felt?
Naturally, every person would have a different range of feelings and sensations that would depend on what their father was to them. Some could be indifferent and unmoved. Some could even be relieved and happy at this news of their father’s passing. But the point here is that no matter what reactions, feelings, thoughts and overall bodily responses, we do not choose, we do not decide what happens. We are subject to it and are aware of it because it is felt with and as the bodymind, from head to toe, from the knees to the throat, from the belly to the chest to the shoulders to the neck. What we can choose is what to do with this information that is presented to us in the stream of experiences that make up this moment of experiencing: we can choose what we say and what we do, but we cannot choose to feel or not feel, how and what thoughts and feelings will come up, and how any and all of these will both express themselves and affect the biochemistry of this bodymind. In this, we have no say.
You are sitting on your own reading a book. It is a quiet, early Sunday morning. There is no traffic, no activity, and everyone in your place and in the building is still sleeping. Morning sun rays are streaming through the small red leaves of the Japanese maple on the terrace outside, falling onto the cream coloured stone tiles and white walls in streaks. You are calm and comfortable. Unrelated to what you’re reading, in a flash, you see yourself in your mind’s eye standing before your colleagues to talk about your work at the meeting scheduled to take place on Friday next week. This appears out of nowhere and without your noticing immediately takes hold of your attention. In this instant, you feel the heart speed up, the belly tighten, the heat rise to the head, the tingling in the cheeks, and the breathing move up into the upper chest. You look at your dog, he looks back at you with his beautiful brown eyes with a docile, loving expression of trust and admiration, lying on his side in his dog bed he wags his tail a little, the heart slows down, the tightness and the heat dissipate, the breathing slides back down into the belly, the tension in the eyes, eyebrows and forehead is released. Did you have anything to do with all that just happened? Could you have willed it to happen or not to happen? The image popped up in your mind and the brain responded instantaneously by the release of the appropriate stress hormones that triggered the cascade of biochemical reactions that were felt as those physical sensations you felt throughout the body. A moment later, a change in the configuration of attention set in motion the change of the biochemical environment that was felt as the passing, the dissolving, of the previous state of nervousness and anxiety, back to a more relaxed state, in accord with the current circumstances of you reclining on the couch, with the book in your hand, on this calm Sunday morning,in a room bathed by a gentle morning sunshine, in the company of your loving dog.
We do not choose or control the thoughts and images that come and go, that in an instant appear within the field of attention, without reason, on their own time, on their own accord. We do not choose or control the chain reaction of hormone-regulated biochemical changes and or their physiological effects that we feel as emotions and sensations. They just happen. What we can choose is what we do with the information about the process of experiencing that is manifested in the bodymind in the moment that it is felt. We can allow the process to take its course and pass on, allow it to rise, dwell and decay on its own. We can also feed into it and propagate it by giving it more fuel, more thoughts and feelings. We can stir the process in another direction by feeding it a particular kind of fuel, a particular flavour of thoughts and feelings, words and images. This, we can control to a greater or lesser extent. But it is perfectly obvious that we do not own our thoughts and feelings. We do not own them in the same way that we do not own our organs, our body and our life.
What about everything else: every other thing we see and encounter; touch and feel; eat or drink; wear, wear out, and throw away? Can we be said to own any of those things?
You are walking around a city you don’t know, up and down little cobblestone streets, up and down long flights of stone stairs worn smooth from the millions of passersby over the ages, through parks, and down long, wide, busy, bustling and traffic-jammed avenues. You get thirsty, stop in a small side street corner store, and buy a bottle of water. You open it and drink. The refreshing sensation of cool water in the mouth and on the tongue, the cool freshness moving along down the throat. There’s also the sensation of the thin but hard crackling plastic bottle in the hand, on the fingers and the palm, the weight of it you feel in the contracted biceps of the arm with which the bottle is held and brought to the mouth for drinking. Where did this water come from, where did this bottle come from? From a mineral spring in a mountain somewhere, from a plastic bottle factory on the banks of a polluted river in the outskirts of a large city’s industrial zone somewhere? And before there was water in that mineral mountain spring, where was the water, where did it come from in the first place? And the bottle’s hydrocarbons, where did they come from in the first place, how were they formed, from what were they formed? And the mountain, how long has it been there, what was there before, how and when did the mountain itself come to be? And the petroleum field where were extracted the hydrocarbons from which the plastic was made, how long did it take to make and form? In such a context, is it even necessary to reflect on the absurdity of believing for even an instant that this water that made its way to the surface of the earth by the gravitational capture or close fly-bys of melting comments from the outer solar system some 4 billion years ago can belong to someone, to anyone? Or the absurdity of believing that the plastic bottle made of refined and then extensively processed hydrocarbons that were formed over hundreds of millions of years from generation upon generation of forests covering entire continents, fallen and decomposed organic matter transformed and liquefied under the enormous pressures of the layers upon layers of an ever thickening crust of organic and mineral sentiments from plants, brought by wind and rain, streams, rivers and oceans can be owned? Can anybody when faced with this question posed in these terms not immediately see the absurdity of claiming some kind, any kind, of ownership of this water or of this seemingly insignificant transparent plastic bottle?
So you drink the water, it goes in the belly, then in the intestines, then in the blood, then through the kidneys, then in the bladder, and then in the urine that you pee out into the toilet. Is this urine yours? When it trickles from the kidneys into the bladder, when it makes its way through the urethra, when it comes out, when it accumulates in the toilet, when you flush the toilet? When do you own that urine that the kidneys filtering the blood have concentrated and sent to the bladder, and which is now coursing in sewers, mixed with that of hundreds, thousands, millions of other people in the city and region where you live? And when eventually, after processing, filtration, decontamination, this water makes its way back to the parks, to the grass, the bushes, the trees that grow all around in your neighbourhood, absorbing light, water and minerals, growing fibre and producing oxygen while taking up carbon dioxide from the air, is there any point at any time along this entire cycle when anyone could possibly claim ownership of any part of any of this?
You put the pressure cooker on the stovetop at medium-high heat, and put a few tablespoons of coconut oil in it. You dice an onion and put it into the heating oil, add salt and curry powder, stir it, and leave it sizzling. You take out a cauliflower from the fridge, wash it, and cut it up in pieces, put it in the pot, stir it and leave it sizzling for a few minutes. You add three quarters of a litre of water, a teaspoon of vegetable broth concentrate, and close the pot to let it simmer for half an hour or so. During this time you prepare a salad: fresh mixed baby greens, sunflower and alfalfa sprouts, an english cucumber chopped in little pieces, roasted sunflower seeds and almonds. You put on some extra virgin olive oil, unrefined salt and fresh milled black pepper. You blend the cauliflower soup, add a can of coconut milk and blend again until it is perfectly creamy and smooth. You serve the soup and salad and sit down to share them with your family. Everyone loves the delicious soup and excellent salad, and now the bowls and plates are empty.
When did you or anyone else begin to own the food that was just eaten? Was it upon putting it in the mouth or upon swallowing it? Was it when it was chopped in pieces or when it was placed in the pot or salad bowl? Was it when you paid the cashier at the store, placed it in your canvas shopping bag, and drove home with your groceries? What about the store: did the store begin owning the food when the farmer brought it there, was paid for it and went back to their farm? And the farmer, did they ever own the lettuce, the cucumbers, the cauliflower, the onions? Was it when the seeds were planted, was it when they sprouted, was it when they began growing or when they were fully mature and ready for the picking? What did these vegetables grow from: the soil, the minerals, the water, the sunlight, the carbon dioxide in the air, do these belong to anyone, do they belong to the farmer, to the owner of the land? Is it because the farmer tended the garden and fields where these things grew that they have at one point belonged to him? Is it because the store paid the farmer for them that they then belonged to the store owner? Is it because we bought them from the store that their ownership was transferred to us? Is it because we prepared and ate these things that they now for sure belong to us? And when they are digested and processed by the stomach and the rest of the digestive system, and when their byproducts are excreted as stools in the toilet and flushed out of sight and out of smell, to whom will they belong at that point?
And what about your shoes, your glasses, your underwear, your jeans and shirts, your sweaters and jackets, those you are wearing now, those you wore last year and the year before that, those you wore 10, 20, 30 years ago, as a teenager, as a child and as a toddler, as an infant and as a newborn, were those clothes ever yours, are these clothes ever yours? The fabrics from which they are made, the cotton that grew in the fields, the wool that grew on the sheep, the polyester that was manufactured, like that plastic bottle, from petroleum hydrocarbons, the leather from the cow’s hide, and the rubber of your shoes, to whom do they belong? To the farmers? To the manufacturers? To the stores? To you? And from what point, and until what point?
You are driving to the office on Monday morning. You stop at a street corner and wait for the traffic lights to turn green. They do and you pull out into the intersection. A fraction of a second later, an 18 wheeler transport truck hits your car from the driver side and you’re instantly killed. To whom does the cauliflower, cucumber and lettuce now belong? To whom do the shoes and jackets sitting in your closet at home belong now? To whom do the broken glasses on your face, the bloodstained clothes on your body, the shoes on your feet belong now? And the thoughts and feelings now silenced? And the body: the heart and brain; the eyes, ears nose and lips; the hair and nails; the hands and fingers; the feet and legs; the arms, shoulders, back and spine; the stomach, the kidneys, the pancreas; the bladder and the urine; the intestines and the stools; the blood; the life. To whom do all these thing belong now? To whom do this life now gone belong in this moment, in this place, in this broken car, on this intersection, somewhere between your apartment and your office?
Everything is given to us, everything is borrowed, used, transformed, recycled, given again, borrowed again, used again, transformed and recycled again. Again, and again, and again. Thoughts and feelings arise in their own time, on their own accord, they are seen, felt, reacted to and responded to, but cannot ever be claimed or owned, and they cannot ever define who and what we are. The mystery of life—microbial life, plant life, animal life, your life—is the most profound mystery in the universe. We have to recognise this, accept this, embrace and cherish this. Not ignore or gloss over it to avoid the inconvenience of having to deal with it. Why choose to pretend this is not so and live a lie that can inevitably only be partial because somehow we know that we are pretending and lying to ourselves and everyone else about ourselves and this world. There can be no honesty, no sincerity, no genuineness without the recognition of this truth and the embracing of this mystery of Life into our being, into this manifestation of it, into this expression of this Life as our life, this Life that lives as this bodymind and as all bodyminds in all directions and throughout all times.
Excellently written! I completely agree that humans possess no free will whatsoever. People seem to stubbornly cling to this idea that we can author our actions and that we possess control, but, as you claim “everything is given to us, everything is borrowed.” You thoroughly ground your argument with concrete empirical data, which I think cannot be neglected for modern philosophy. However, I do wish you would have explored how determinism profoundly destroys moral accountability and all of these judicial systems, which believe that we may have acted differently in a particular situation. It adds another dimension to the profound belief that nothing really belongs to us and that everything has already been causally determined.
Thank you. I didn’t address the questions of free will and determinism. The fact that nothing at all can ever be owned does not imply that there is no free will and that everything is pre-determined. The fact that living beings, including the vast majority of human beings, act according to impulses, compulsions and automatic patterned behaviour based on experience and survival instincts, does not mean that it must be so or that it is always the case, it means that something must be done in order to overcome this. There is no determinism in this universe. Everything is unpredictable because everything is probabilistic in nature. This is true for the position and momentum of electrons, for the random motion of molecules and atoms, for the frequency with which certain molecules will meet and combine into more complex forms, and it is true for your thoughts and feelings, and for your stress responses. The fact that an event triggers a chain of reactions in a certain way in a physical or biological system, as is the case for biochemically and hormonally driven reactions in the bodymind, does not imply the existence of some kind of power of precise predictability because, using a statistical view to illustrate the point, each cell in each gland in each person will respond differently to identical stimuli whose magnitude, say, would correspond to a continuous distribution of all the possible values that this magnitude could have and which is spread on an infinite range with varying probability densities. So, even if we can make predictions with more or less accuracy, they are always approximations that would be based on the peaks of the distributions of possible values that the various quantities can take along this chain of different reactions triggered by an initial event and stimulating, one after another, the next reaction. I think this is well worth at least another essay, but you’ll have to wait a bit 🙂 You can read, think about and comment on the other ones in the meantime.
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