Actions Are Involuntary


Involuntary. What do I mean? I mean that the event occurs without a will. How can we prove this? Because all our bodily movements occur, from our perspective, no differently than our breath or heartbeat. They’re just happening, and they are our only actions. Actions feel like something mental, so that is how we identify with them. It is why we believe we can act on a desire and often feel pressure to do so. This is an illusion. We have the illusion not only because of the feeling of will, but also because after we do something we like, or wanted, we assume our desire brought it into action. We believe we consciously caused it. I explain this extensively in my second book, “The Myth of Doing,” and you can also reference psychologist Daniel Wegner in his book, “The Illusion of Conscious Will,” which I list under “Related Themes” on this blog.

This myth endures because we identify with the felt sense of action going on in our mind (and muscles) when we are imagining or predicting ourself in future activities. It almost feels like our thoughts themselves are the actions. Regardless, our real actions occur only in real time via our body parts in their movements, my hand writing in the notebook, my fingers typing on the computer, my legs walking into another room, my foot on the car accelerator, my words coming out of my mouth, etc. Thus, this practice largely focuses on retraining our mind to understand and internalize what real action is (bodily movement in real time), so that we can decrease the amount of pressure we commonly feel to make our actions happen.

We can begin by recognizing what involuntary movement is and how it feels to us. The materialization of a heartbeat and breath, for two examples, are a great place to start. When someone brings your attention to the fact that your heart beats on its own, without any willful instruction from your person, it is strange, as our familiar muscular tension gives us an impression that we are beating our own heart (even though we intellectually know that is untrue). Right now, acknowledge how it is that your heart beats on its own, whether you are tensing up or not. See your pulse in your wrist, feel your heart with your hand, and let this knowledge register mentally. “My heart beats by itself, without my voluntary willfulness.” Next, bring your attention to the fact that your breathing also occurs involuntarily, whether you are aware of it or not. Again, tension can give us a subconscious belief that we are causing our respiration to function, but if you leave yourself alone, you can see you continue to be breathed. Respiration, like circulation, does not rely on a voluntary assertion of effort or will to operate or thrive. Take some time to appreciate this involuntarism.

Here is my more challenging request. As you see your respiration causing your chest to move up and down on its own, switch your attention to other body parts moving (that you assume are voluntary), hands being an easy one as they are frequently in motion and in our direct line of vision. While seeing your hands and arms moving about, ask yourself to, again, leave yourself alone, to notice that they move by themselves. If you actively come out of tension and still see them in their movements, you can acknowledge that that movement is not depending on your will. Play with this slowly, with any part of your body you see in motion (head, legs, feet) and take note of this phenomenon. Talking would be included since we can never know what words are going to come out of our mouth next. If you pay close attention you will see that when typing, texting, or speaking, you do not receive a conscious registry beyond the next word or maybe two that you are going to express. You just assume you do.

So, the next time you feel pressure to make something happen, or figure out how to make something happen, remind yourself that the source of bodily movement (action) will not be your voluntary will but rather your various body parts, spontaneously moving in real time. Our brain directs all our activities behind the scenes, and we only find out what they are as they are occurring. You can rely on this wholeheartedly. Play with coming out of your familiar, efforted, muscular willfulness to see that all your actions present automatically.

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