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How free am I, really?

Most people think...

Michael Landau

January 19th, 2023

We like to think of ourselves as free people who choose our actions consciously and do what we want. I am in charge of my actions, I have agency and free will, don’t I?

So here’s a story: I’m driving to work. People around me drive like crazy, as usual. I am used to silently wishing them bad things and trying to keep my calm. I maintain more distance than most people, which makes my driving more relaxed than most people’s. I hardly ever need to brake strongly or abruptly.

All of a sudden this asshole of a taxi driver cuts lanes in front of me and pulls the brake. Before even noticing it, my right foot pushes the brake all the way in. I come to a halt an inch behind that taxi.

My heart is pounding. Music is blaring at top volume. I’m angry. I am alone in my car, and I allow myself to vocalise my passionate wishes for a horrible fate to that taxi driver. And I want to kill the person who plays that deafening music.

It takes me quite a few seconds to figure out it’s my own car radio. While braking like crazy I also grabbed the steering wheel and pressed both my hands with maximum force. My fists are as tight as they can be and knuckles are white. There’s a volume button on the steering wheel, and I pressed it all the way to top volume.

I never use this button. I had no idea I was pressing the wheel with all that force. It doesn’t really contribute to bringing the car to a halt, does it. It is just a part of the automatic reaction to an emergency. I really needed a few seconds to even notice I was doing it. It was so automatic, and at the same time so useless, and so far from my awareness that when the emergency was over it took some time to connect the dots.

I’m clenching my fists on the steering wheel. There’s a volume button here. I pressed it all the way to top volume. The radio is blaring horribly. It was me who did it.

I breathe deeply. I turn down the radio volume. I keep on driving. I play back that chain of events in my head. When I relax enough to think clearly, I find it quite fascinating.

Pressing my foot all the way on the brake in an instant is a useful automatic response. It’s part of knowing how to drive. But I had no idea that part of that reaction was clenching my fists with all my might. I had no idea it was me pressing the volume button. The deafening radio mingled with that adrenaline spike and created a very powerful mental state for some seconds.

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I work with mindful movement. I know we can direct our attention to automatic patterns so that we can change them. By using our awareness we can create more choice and more freedom.

But there’s so much happening in the background, way below the surface of our conscious mind, and I find it fascinating. Brain experts say most of our daily actions are automated neuronal circuits that get triggered repeatedly.

Especially in emergencies, this fact is crucial. The automatic pilot is much quicker than awareness, as it should be. It reacts fast. It can save our lives, and probably did, more than once. I could only look at the chain of action and marvel at it in hindsight.

Yes, we have agency and can initiate change, but those ancient parts of our brain that create habitual patterns and make them automatic have millennial wisdom. We’d better respect that and let them be. They helped us survive and thrive as a species, so we’d better not mess with them.

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We can upgrade them, though. We can use our awareness to look at our sub-conscious patterns, find better options and improve them. We can always do better, whatever it is we do in our daily lives.
Want to know how to make such tiny improvements each and every day? Take a look at my membership, Persistent Growth. It’s a very short daily practice that does just that.
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