I don’t have much free will, but I have “free won’t” thanks to meditation

I won’t drink one more beer. I won’t stay home and go for a run. I won’t talk during the whole dinner and let others speak. I won’t eat that delicious chocolate croissant to lose some weight. I won’t be late at this meeting.

Tough? Often and I fail often, like you do. I’m reading a great book about the brain, “The Brain at Work” by David Rock, and I highly recommend it. David Rock explains how our brain starts an “action signal”:

Benjamin Libet, from the University of California-San Francisco, shed more light on what is going on in “self control” and tried to determine if there was such a thing as “free will”.

"They set up an experiment that enabled them to understand the timing involved when people decided to do a voluntary activity, in this case, to lift up a finger. They found that half a second before “voluntary” movement, the brain sends a signal called an action potential, which relates to a movement about to occur. This action potential occurs a long time, in neuroscience terms, before any conscious awareness of the desire to move the finger.The brain decides “I will move my finder now” about 0.3 second before you are aware of it.When you get the nerve to talk to the attractive person across the room, your brain was being bold three-tenths of a second before you.At this point, there is 0.2 second during which you are aware of being about to move, but haven’t yet taken the action. This is during that 0.2 second that you can practice to notice an urge (eat the chocolate croissant) and perhaps intervene.However, without an awareness of the separation of these processes “brain signal, desire, movement” it’s likely you will go directly from brain signal to movement, the way most animals do. You need to be able to discern these small time scales. The way to do so is by paying attention to your mental experience and noticing urges for action as they unfold."

This is probably the most profound change I’m noticing in my daily meditation practice. When you shut down entirely to external simulations in meditation, you’re only paying attention to what’s happening inside. David Rock notes “one reason for your wandering attention is that the nervous system is constantly processing, reconfiguring, and reconnecting the trillions of connections in your brain each moment. The term for this is ambient neural activity”.

During a meditation, I can see very clearly my brain making decisions and sending action signals to my body. The most frequent is “I can’t take being inactive anymore, standup and do something”. All kind of actions come to mind such as thinking about an email you really need to send to someone. My brain decides so much I should do it that I can see myself opening my eyes, getting my phone and starting to type. When you meditate for a full hour without moving you experience all kinds of conscious “breaking actions” you make in the 0.2 second you have, such as not going to the bathroom, not standing up because you have an annoying hitching sensation on your arm, not stopping because you’re bored, not looking at your watch because “obviously it has already been an hour and something is wrong” (nothing is wrong, it just feels like forever), etc.

When you meditate, you exercise this braking action of your prefrontal cortex and the more you exercise it the more you avoid getting in trouble and controlling your brain and actions in everyday life. You may not have much free will, but you have “free won’t” a term coined by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz. The harder part is learning to inhibit impulses as they arise. To inhibit impulses, you must veto them before they turn from impulse into action, and that’s what meditation is about.

photo: Christopher Michel who captured me meditating at LeWeb with Irene Au and Sierra Campbell

Entrepreneur, pilot, kite-surfer and paraglider. Subscribe to my new newsletter http://loiclemeur.substack.com

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