How changing my beliefs about free will and human behaviour helped me quit smoking, quit playing small, and change my life.

“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”
~Søren Kierkegaard

Years ago, I found myself sitting in a nearly empty coffee shop across from my college in the middle of a hot August afternoon. School had not yet begun for the semester, but I’d landed a job working with the faculty for my second year and was required to attend several meetings to do planning before the year started. This was how I found myself sitting across from one of my favorite professors who had begun to go on a verbal rampage against modern cognitive psychology.

“The worst part about it all is this whole thing they spout to people about free will,” she stopped to take a sip of her coffee. “The more people keep feeding themselves that bull, the more frustrated they’re gonna be with their complete lack of capacity to change.”

“Wait,” I froze, calculating her words, “Are you saying there’s no free will?”

“Of course, there isn’t!” she exclaimed.

I can’t remember how I argued with her about it, but argue I did. I do remember losing the argument somehow, and I remember her saying to me something like “I’m surprised at you, Vironika. I thought you’d know better.”

We changed the topic, but my thoughts stayed on what we’d discussed. I realized for the first time that this was the underlying assumption in everything I was studying. It was the assumption that people always were and always would be completely controlled by their outside environment with no hope of ever changing themselves at will.

I walked her to the subway stop and watched her go down the stairs, my mind cloudy and confused. That was the last day I remember allowing myself to be puzzled before I allowed myself to be indoctrinated. As a good student, I bought what I was sold. As a good scientist, I practiced what I was preached. By that time the next year, it was I who was wildly proclaiming that free will was a fabrication (to the reluctant people outside my area of study).

I did not realize at the time what effect my ideas about change and will were having on my life. I was a heavy smoker. I was a drinker. I was an addict. I thought I had an addictive personality. I allowed myself to put things into my body that I doubt most people even know exist. All the while, I suffered for my behaviours, but I blamed them on circumstance and environment. I blamed my childhood and my roommates. My partner and my past.

All in all, my capacity to change myself was near zero. Little did I know that this capacity was a direct reflection of what I believed my capacity was.

The first time I questioned what I’d been taught was when I decided to quit smoking. I tried to use a procedure that would help me quit by rearranging the circumstances around me. I’d give myself little treats for not smoking and avoid places I usually smoked. I told people around me I was doing it, set up a jar to put all my saved cigarette money into, and arranged for punitive measures in case I failed. I lasted about a week.

Confused at my failed efforts, I had no explanation to turn to. I couldn’t say that it was a failure of willpower because I didn’t believe in willpower. I didn’t believe in free will. There was no will. I decided that I’d simply crafted the wrong intervention. I’d have to try again. And again, I tried. That time, I lasted about two months. In that time, sure I quit smoking, but I gained about 30 pounds. After all, I was addicted to cigarettes because I was predisposed to addictive behaviours, right? I couldn’t just quit smoking, I had to replace it with something. Chocolate seemed like a great replacement. Soon enough, I found myself both overweight and smoking again. I was miserable, unhealthy, and confused.

Perhaps my first glimpse into the power of our minds to create free will was when I found a book by Alan Carr called The Easy Way to Quit Smoking. I read that book and never smoked again. I didn’t replace it with food. I never suffered. And I never looked back. That caused a profound change in my mind not only about smoking but also about my philosophy of human behaviour. For the first time, I understood the truth: we don’t have free will, until we do.

I couldn’t quit smoking until I understood my power to change my behaviour, to change my life.

The blind sheeplike automacy of human behavior is, at best, an astute observation of the way things seem to be right now. Our true potential lies far beyond that. In our thoughts, we hold the power of awareness. In our awareness lie all the riches of happiness, love, and joy.

When I recovered from the “no free will” block, I was suddenly the creator of my own destiny. My health was in my hands and so was my success. And then, there were my relationships. Before I believed in free will, I didn’t think there was any choice in how I reacted to people. So any argument, conflict, or misunderstanding would yield a giant, sky-high sign that read “RUN!” If there was no free will, there was no way to change old patterns, no way to repair broken relationships. I used to think that the only way to keep a relationship running smoothly forever was to keep yourselves from doing and saying certain things because, once you did anything wrong or said anything wrong, that would start the irreversible plummet downwards. Now, of course I don’t believe that we should say angry or hateful things. Of course, these are best avoided. What I’ve learned is that these things do not inevitably drive us into contempt and silence. Our choices do.

There is always choice. Always free will. Always a way out. All we have to do is look for it, keep looking, and never give up.

Most importantly, free will is something that we discover in ourselves. Once we do, that will relates only to ourselves. We are free to control our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, not those of others. Only the blind try to control their partners. Those who can see clearly—they control themselves.

Søren Kierkegaard said, “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” People will blame their partners and demand to be heard. Their demands go unmet, and they turn sour while they leave unopened the great gift of conscious awareness. The secret of free will is self-awareness.

The power of self-awareness is the power of profound behaviour change. It’s not just the power to quit smoking. It’s the power to quit playing small and settling for less.

And that’s something we all deserve to do.

* * *

Thank you for reading. I invite you to share with me your experiences with the concept of “free will”. Have you ever thought it did not exist? How has it impacted your relationship to yourself and the world around you?

(Photo by Tony R)


6 thoughts on “Why I Couldn’t Quit Smoking (And How I Did) – The Truth About Free Will

  1. We don’t have free will until we do. A truly profound statement. I had a professor who had an insanely intricate theory on free will. I don’t want to go too deeply into it, however, I will say that it was very profound. Your approach, that we gain free will through our own efforts, is also very appealing. It’s an intriguing model that definitely merits more philosophical research.

  2. Indeed, mind is our filter – what I meant with mind is the mental activity: thoughts, opinion, reason, logic, memory. I wouldn’t use the word ego. Too contaminated. And I used the word mind too narrow.

    1. Words too often keep us from delving too deeply into the truth. Many religious people fight one another, claiming a monopoly on truth… when they’re all really saying the same thing. Just in different words.

  3. I can’t help but feel that free will is absolutely essential to any religious model: otherwise, there is no answer to how does God let bad things happen. You probably took up smoking of your own free will in the first place.

    I’ve often wondered about the difference between addiction and habit; in a way, it seems easier to break a physical addiction than to break a habit. So when you replace smoking with eating, you are breaking the addiction but keeping the habit. So perhaps ANY habit or routine is a substitute for free will at any given point in time. I don’t know; when I get up in the morning and do whatever the hell I want to do, am I channeling free will or am I a slave to my subconscious?

    1. Free will implies consciousness. In conscious awareness, it’s not the behaviours that matter, but the motivations behind them. Our emotions drive our actions. Our feelings are like two year olds pushing us towards pleasure and away from pain. It is our minds (which contain our capacity for conscious awareness) that act as the parent. The parent can tell the child of all the ways to get pleasure which will be more sustainable and less harmful in the long run. Being able to be one’s parent, to focus one’s thoughts this way (as if the mind was an effective leader who was able to take feedback and thus lead effectively), that is mindfulness. In that, there’s free will to rearrange one’s interaction with the world to match 1) one’s own desires/situation/needs/talents etc. and 2) the nature of the world. And, thus, to create a continuous feedback loop between the two.

      By the way, it is only the paternal, conditionally loving God who sees good/bad. Some religions teach of the non-existence of good and bad, namely non-dualism, which I largely subscribe to 🙂

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