From Will to Agency
A Pivot to Solve a Too-Old Problem
If I’ve learned anything with any certainty this year, it’s that when something seems perplexingly paradoxical or magical, it might be time to change our frame.
We’ve been bickering about Free Will for way too long. @Rick Ripetti, the meditation guy over at theFoundation, and editor of the Routledge Handbook on the Philosophy of Meditation, has a “soft compatibilist” take on the “Free Will Debate,” but he also has a better way of talking about it: Agency.
Here’s a brief glimpse of a conversation that gets pretty deep into this:
I think that agency is something that you can cultivate and increase by practicing (exercising) some of the component skills that make up your agency, and I think one of the key (central) skills is Selective Attention Focus.
This is something that you practice in meditation. People might come to meditation with other purposes but they're cultivating these skills two skills — which to me are two aspects of the same, more generic skill.
The two basic meditation techniques are one-pointedness and open monitoring.
One-pointedness is where you select something like the breath or a mantra a candle flame, whatever — a thought — and it's a narrowing of your attention. It’s selective attention focused narrowly on one sub-component of your experiential field, whatever that is. The practice is that you intend to maintain focus, and mind wandering naturally happens — which is healthy.
I think this goes back to predator/prey — if you were focused only on the prey some predator might get you if you didn't have peripheral awareness. So it's smart for us to toggle back and forth between folk and figure and ground. That's not a bug. A lot of meditation teachers think it's a bug — it's a feature. But you want to control that feature by practicing it voluntarily, so when your mind wanders off the intended target you notice it and you return your attention. And the more that that happens — this is like weightlifting — the more you cultivate that muscle of maintaining focus and eventually you achieve it, you do get this blissful, trans, peaceful mindstate thing. You know about CALM-MO, but I'm just rehearsing this for the purposes of this discussion.
There are many variations on these two techniques. These are the two most popular Buddhist techniques, but they’re found everywhere, anyway. The other is what's called open monitoring, which is kind of more global unfocused awareness where the entire field of Consciousness is the target, so to speak. You maintain this kind of global, peripheral, not centered, almost like whack-a-mole, state where you are attentive to what appears in the field of Consciousness. This is being in the present moment, like a Zen kind of thing, fully responsive to whatever is arising in the field of consciousness.
Now I make the a kind of metaphorical analogy — if there was a bullseye, any rung on it could be where you focus. One-pointedness is the bullseye. The open monitoring is the entire board. You want to be aware of the entire dart board. Now, when you're practicing that level, mind-wandering happens and you get pulled into this sub-component — you're off on a train of thought, or that sound, this feeling in your knee, and you fall into it and then you realize it, and you come back to the global focal range.
It's the same exercise — you have an intended focal range, which is broad, and you lose it, and then you come back. Or narrow, and you lose it and you come back.
So that's why I say they're both versions of a more generic skill, which is maintaining your intended focal range. The more that you do that, the more you're in control of when things are normally arising in your psychodynamic, phenomenological, experiential sensory organism environment, interactive field, agent/arena — whichever way you want to call it. If you’re globally aware, you're more capable of noticing when your attention is being grabbed and how. The more meta-awareness you have, the more control you have. It's as simple as that, and that's been my experience. I've been practicing for 50 (FIVE ZERO) years. This is anecdotal, but it’s also part of meditative lore.
Dr. Henriques then links this to CALM-MO, and how this awareness lends itself to enlightened liberation via psychotherapy:
I'll just say this now as a psychotherapist who developed CALM-MO, where the focus essentially is on stepping out into a recursive/reflective thing. To go to psychotherapy — to hear “hey, what brings you in?” — I'm going to shift my perspective and start the process of telling the story. Then it’s a meta-observer. You're going to learn that, and get recursively aware of certain kinds of attentional, adaptive processes.
So whereas it's less about — although I certainly appreciate this from a meditative perspective — the focus in, or the broadening, it's sort of like how do I become aware of the certain (for me) neurotic loops to which I'm vulnerable?
So in the Psychotherapy lore, it’s like — “Oh I hate this. I feel negative. There's a negative situation.” And now my ego grabs a hold of that, resists it — to talk about pain times resistance — grabs a hold of that and then tries to control that, or avoid that, or blame other people for that, and then all of a sudden you know you're in a negative dukkha spiral. And we want to figure out how to shine a light on that, and let that go, and recursively build the muscle of “sage mode.”
That's why MO is a “modus operandi.” It's like actually you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to do it under pressure. You’ve got to do it when it matters.
And you can't do that right away. You can get the concept, but you don't know how to do it without procedural practice, without knowing what these things are, and without doing it a lot, getting better and better at it.
There may or may not be an ontological disagreement between the two thinkers about the ultimate nature of the Self and how that plays into this agency. But to get there, you’re going to have to listen to the podcast.