Freewill vs destiny

Do we have freewill or are our lives destiny?

 “Accept whatever comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny, for what could more aptly fit your needs?”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (often referred to as “the wise”) was Emperor of the Roman Empire from 161AD to his death in 180AD. He was the last of the “Five Good Emperors”, and is also considered to have been one of the more important Stoic philosophers.


One of the first public talks I ever gave, many years ago, was on the subject of ‘freewill or destiny?’. It was a topic that had interested and intrigued me for most of my life to that point. It is also a question that has plagued theologians and philosophers for centuries. In essence, the answer to it establishes how much of our journey here on Earth is predestined, or whether we truly have complete freewill to choose any path we wish.

Why do we want this question answered? Is it perhaps because if we believe we have freewill then we will try harder to succeed in the world, and if not, we will then give up striving and just sit back, drift, and become a victim of circumstance?

As with most things, how we perceive the notion of freewill is a matter of perspective. As with all deep truths, the answer is to be found when embracing the polar opposites of the apparent paradox. By shifting our perspective we can align both sides to develop a new and greater understanding. Just as we have night and day from an earthbound perspective, for an astronaut viewing the Earth from above in outer space, the sun shines on the Earth as it rotates, and the people there experience alternating periods of light and dark. However for the astronaut, bathed in continual sunlight, the concepts of night and day are without meaning.

In the context of the debate concerning freewill and destiny, we should ask: who is the you choosing your path? Is it the conscious or the unconscious mind doing the choosing? What are you really capable of choosing or controlling at any one time?

I know in my own life experience that the most significant and life changing events that have ultimately fashioned my journey have not been of my own creation nor of my own choosing at the conscious level. Thus, we are compelled to ask: who chooses?

This can be answered by relating here the details of a card trick that I played with my children when they were small. I would spread out all the cards and tell them to choose a card, but not tell me which one, and then by a process of mathematical elimination, I would very quickly establish which card they had chosen. I would then lay out all the cards face down on the table in groups, counting the position of their card, and then getting them to select groups of cards for removal, based on whether their card was in that group. I would leave the group with their card and remove the others, creating smaller and smaller groups, until, to their utter amazement, the only card remaining on the table was their chosen card. The point here is that although they did the choosing, I decided whether to leave or remove the group they chose, and thereby I ultimately controlled the game and directed the outcome.

And so it is with life… we have the opportunity to choose, and we do, but the outcomes of our choices are not necessarily under our egoic control as we imagine. There is a higher order of intelligence orchestrating the universe and everything it in. ‘You’ do not beat your heart, or digest your food, or direct the oxygen to each and every one of the billions of cells within you every minute of the day and night. The sun and stars are not randomly forming or randomly placed. There is order in the universe, in fact the word Cosmos means ‘order’. We fit in with an overall bigger picture, in which everyone and everything is included in the gigantic dance that we call life. If our choice aligns with the cosmos, then we will find it supported; if not we will find the way blocked. We can thus breathe out, and surrender to the flow of life, while enjoying the creative process and participating enthusiastically in the journey of discovery and experience.

Crucially, then, it is the attitude with which we make our choices that colours the outcome. While we may not determine the direction in which our choices will lead, we are 100% responsible for how we choose. Our attitude and state of being when making our decisions not only influences their outcome, but creates our experience of the journey. To express this differently, it is understood that when you plant pumpkin seeds you reap pumpkins, and when you sew tomato seeds you reap tomatoes, because the outcome is inherent in the seed you plant. Thus, if you make decisions based on fear, or ‘should’s’ you will reap what you sowed, i.e. more fear and restrictions; creating a journey of earthly existence filled with fear, rather than joy.

A major problem influencing the outcomes of freewill at the human level is that it is our subconscious mind that is driving our choices. It is the unconscious programs that run our subconscious that influence and direct our choices. On a PET scan the brain can be detected lighting up 7 – 30 seconds before we become consciously aware of having made a particular decision, demonstrating that our subconscious processes are at work ahead of our conscious minds, making us mere passengers in life. Thus, until we wake up into full awareness, into what I term ‘presence’, it is our past programming that dictates our future path, rendering freewill illusory.

In order to choose, we have to be conscious and present, as that’s the only time and place in which our subconscious mind isn’t running the show, meaning that we are. While the mind seeks a future characterised by certainty and predictability, our spirit loves to dance in the joyful freedom of presence and uncertainty. The life we lead here on Earth is a balancing act between using the past to learn from and enthusiastically envisioning journeying into the future, whilst always living in the present with acceptance, and where possible, joyful enthusiasm. The secret to a happy and fulfilled journey is to live life in a surrender manner, not so caught up with the outcome but to do what feels good and right in the moment and letting the outcome take care of itself.

You may be dealt a certain hand of cards in life, and how you play them is your choice, but only by living your life with presence can you shift from a victim of circumstance to a victor, with mastery over your own destiny.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning