Let’s call the first and most rudimentary form of freedom adolescent freedom. At this stage of our development freedom simply means doing whatever you feel like doing. As children we are ringed round with authoritarian structures dictating our every move. Adolescents necessarily rebel against these external control-mechanisms as they evolve toward personal autonomy. I think we can all agree that adolescent rebellion is a good thing, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. It’s how people are made. But personal evolution is rarely neat and tidy.
It turns out that this first stage of freedom isn’t very free. As adolescents we are driven largely by unconscious needs and the forces of peer pressure. We only think we are free. Then we grow a little older and wiser.
At the second stage of freedom we mature beyond hedonism and learn that our best self-interest is often served by postponing immediate pleasures for larger long-term gains. And on an even deeper level we learn that our best self-interest is entirely interwoven with the interests of others. We learn that there is no me without we – that there is no such thing as private happiness or private freedom. Our freedom and happiness cannot flourish if others are imprisoned and miserable. As Nelson Mandela wrote, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” At this second, mature stage of freedom our separate sense of self grows translucent, transparent even, as our sense of interdependency expands. We begin to see ourselves not merely as individuals, but as a part of a whole. We are evolving toward the third and highest state of freedom – awakened freedom.
In awakened freedom we drop more and more of our cravings and attachments, we get better at accepting current conditions without resistance or resentment, and we move from reactivity toward acceptance. Spiritual teacher Krishnamurti called this state of consciousness “choiceless awareness” – to experience reality as it is without the neurotic compulsion to have an opinion about everything. Asked once what his secret was, Krishnamurti replied, “I don’t mind what happens.” Imagine how freeing that would feel.
Awakened freedom means shifting from the consciousness of scarcity to the consciousness of abundance. It does not mean receiving everything I want, but realizing freedom from want.
Awakened freedom means allowing the ebb and flow of life to rise and fall unabated without taking it personally. Sometimes we feel strong. Sometimes we feel weak. Sometimes we receive joy unbidden, other times a nameless sadness overwhelms us. It’s o.k. In awakened freedom even our sadness becomes a friendly companion. As contemporary teacher Adyashanti puts it, “Real freedom is freedom from the demand to feel good all the time.” We realize that we are deeper than our thoughts, deeper even than our pain. In the boundlessness beneath the thought stream, we are irrevocably free.
Awakened freedom mean relinquishing the illusion of control, slipping into the unbridled miracle of the present moment, and resolving to walk through this brief, beautiful life awash in wonder and willing to love.
[This piece was originally published in my column "A to Zen" in the May/June 2018 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permision.]