We’re not as free as we think, even if we do live in a democratic country. People who have achieved substantial political freedom can still be sorely lacking in psychological freedom. We’re likely to feel like prisoners of fate when emotional conflicts limit our creativity and potential.
How can we be free if we don’t even have free will? Neuroscientists say humans are just puppets dancing to the brain’s unconscious tunes. Philosopher-neuroscientist Sam Harris writes in his recent book, Free Will:
Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.
Harris is right when he says we don’t have as much freedom as we’d like to think. But he’s wrong in other ways, notably his implication that the “background causes” of our thoughts and feelings are beyond our conscious influence. He says at one point, “No one has ever described a way in which mental and physical processes could arise that would attest to the existence of such freedom [of will].” With this statement, Harris apparently dismisses depth psychology. A discussion of that subject goes missing in his book.
Depth psychology, which dredges up unconscious content from our psyche and makes it conscious, becomes our means to acquire a higher range of free will and inner freedom. We become more conscious as we uncover the ways that our unresolved negative emotions have been producing our suffering and self-defeat. We’re indeed lacking in inner freedom until we’re able, at a deeper level, to break free of our compulsion to recycle and replay these negative emotions that are unresolved from our past.
The quality of our consciousness is the foundation of inner freedom. Many neuroscientists claim that our consciousness, meaning in this context our capacity to reflect on our existence and discern reality, consists of “working memory” stored in our brain. But it’s much more than this. Consciousness cannot be constrained by the boundaries of the brain or the borders of science. It is the essence of our humanity, a luminosity that acquires greater power and objectivity as it consumes the nutrition of experience and self-knowledge. Consciousness is best understood metaphorically, as the fingerprint of our individual existence, the poetry of the universe, the ticket to the next dimension.
Lacking the consciousness produced by self-knowledge, we can indeed be at the mercy of inner dynamics. As David Eagleman, author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, says, we are “not of one mind. Everyone is of many minds all the time.” Depth psychology tells us, though, that we can establish one dominant mind, a mind that reigns as our true inner authority and can be trusted for its wisdom and virtue.
We start by understanding the concept of self-responsibility, which means that we begin to see and understand how we can be our own worst enemy. The traditional sense of responsibility involves respecting others, obeying laws, taking care of our health, and contributing to the well-being of family, community, and nation. In comparison, a deeper sense of responsibility, as described here, requires that we learn to become responsible not only for our obvious daily duties and moral obligations but also for our negative emotions. With unresolved negative emotions, we lack inner freedom and free will because we’re inwardly compelled to recycle those negative emotions that are not only painful but produce self-defeat and self-sabotage.
Depth psychology offers a way to see more precisely how we produce anger, greed, fear, envy, paranoia, hatred, the lust for revenge, and weak self-regulation. Blaming others or difficult circumstances is no longer acceptable. Our attention turns to ourselves, not to blame ourselves of course but to see objectively into the inner processes that prompt us to react negatively to everyday events or challenging circumstances. We begin to see that we have been making unconscious choices to interpret ourselves, events, and circumstances from negative perspectives. We see how our suffering is based on a determination we have been unconsciously making to plunge into a negative way of experiencing a particular situation, based on emotional memories going back to childhood, instead of remaining neutral or positive.
Now we’re able to see how and why free will is not so free. It has been hijacked by inner conflict. Our free will is impaired to the degree that we unwittingly make choices that contravene our best interests. We possess in our psyche an unconscious intention to limit our potential and to do ourselves harm. This is the dark secret of human nature that mainstream psychology is reluctant to approach.
Here’s an example from my own life. I used to be a classic injustice collector, determined to feast on alleged injustices and use them to account for my unhappiness. In my first career as a journalist, I often exhibited the symptoms of a neurotic whiner. I couldn’t see the extent of my own negativity as I sought to blame my unhappiness on others or on circumstances involving my workplace. My free will was limited by this condition, for I was unable (or lacking the freedom) to choose fulfilling job-related options that could advance my career and produce a higher caliber of work. Under the weight of inner turmoil, my will was made feeble and I did not have the power to avoid painful lapses into procrastination, creativity blocks, and depression. Much of the time I was able only to protest against alleged injustice and to act out the painful repercussions of psychological passivity. The resulting self-sabotage led me to quit my excellent job as a science reporter for a national news service. But thanks to psychological insight, I began subsequently to free myself from this suffering as I saw how I was retaining and circulating negative emotions in myself. I identified this negativity with precision, and I saw clearly the inner choice I had been making to hold on to it. Soon I was able to let it go.
The concept of free will needs to incorporate healthy choice and wise authority, or else it’s not a will that’s truly free at all. Instead, it’s imprisoned by unresolved emotional conflict. Much of our behavior in our daily life is predicated on how we wiggle and squirm in avoidance, denial, and defensiveness from the clutches and constraints of inner conflict. We’re tempted if not compelled to act out negative or self-defeating reactions to our inner conflict. Such reactions are instinctive, marked by a lack of freedom and a dearth of conscious choice.
Closely related to self-responsibility is the concept of co-creation. We co-create the life we experience. Most of us are not innocent victims suffering at the cruel hands of fate. Rather, we participate in the circumstances of our lives by giving consent, consciously or unconsciously, to much of the pleasure or the pain we experience. The notion of co-creation enables us to see, for instance, the existence and the nature of our inner passivity. Through this passivity, we indulge in negative emotions that rob us of initiative, remain inwardly defensive and self-centered, and resist the development of a more evolved self.
Most times we want to feel that our suffering is a bona fide experience, meaning it’s just what any normal person would feel in our shoes. We go around looking for evidence that we’re entitled to suffer, that we have no choice in the matter, while we try to enlist sympathizers to justify our distress. This is the default position of the unevolved person. Before we realize what’s happening, we’ve become chronic complainers, injustice collectors, and jailers of our own free spirit. Obviously, inner freedom is curtailed when we’re tangled in such conflicts and feeling oppressed by their negative reverberations.
A rising level of consciousness fortifies our intelligence, enabling us to see ourselves and all life more objectively, while making us more capable of producing pleasure from life’s everyday experiences. With such inner freedom, human nature matures and free will comes along for the ride.
The essential knowledge of depth psychology is discussed in Peter Michaelson’s book, Freedom From Self-Sabotage: How to Stop Being Our Own Worst Enemy (revised 2015 Edition), available at amazon.com.