“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,
Nothin’ don’t mean nothin’ hun if it ain’t free, no, no.“
To be yourself.
To have nothing left to lose,
Because you have given them all up,
The attachments which bind you,
Keep you from being free,
Part 5 of our Practical Philosophy Course is concerned with Freedom, our freedom. This is something we all yearn for, strive to achieve, something which seems to have become more valued and more elusive as the years pass. Many of us, when asked, talk about our moments of freedom in a busy day and we are referring to those limited times when there are no demands being placed upon us, no immediate obligations to be fulfilled, no needs of others, or of ourselves, to be catered for. Truly a limited experience with little chance of being expanded unless we are able to claim back more time, ‘me’ time as the media often refers to it as. But, of course, that sets up an eternal conflict, a constant battle, between ‘me’ time and other time, an angry guerilla warfare as we try to carve out more ‘me’ time from a fixed daily quota of some twenty-four hours.
Such conflict generates resentment and resentment knows no boundaries, no shame. I resented my work for requiring so much of my time and energy, my family and friends when i felt their demands exceeded my capacity to give, my dog for needing to be fed, walked, washed, the sunny window which demands to be cleaned so often because the very sunlight it admits highlights the dirt and dust it accumulates.
I love them all, even my sunny window.
This was my state as we started Part 5. I feel i was not alone, reactions, comments, attitudes of others suggested that they too were often washed over with resentment and the less we did, the more we resented having to do anything. I wondered why, why did i resent so much so easily. Why did i object to giving of my time and my effort? Of course i know may exceptions; i have spoken often of the wonderful volunteers who freely and cheerfully give of their time and energy to keep the world a happier, safer, more wonderful place. Volunteers i encounter almost weekly are those who keep the Saturday morning 5k parkruns alive all over the globe. About 17 countries hold parkruns every Saturday at the moment. Luckily for me, and thousands of others, Ireland is amongst those and we hold about 75 parkruns every week. Now assuming each parkrun has an average of ten volunteers, and it may well be more, then some 750 volunteers turn up each Saturday morning. Some of them may experience a tiny feeling of resentment as they get out of bed early on a Saturday to bring joy to so many other people but i suspect most of them don’t.
I didn’t connect resentment with freedom but i wasn’t happy with how i felt. I resented my resentment, truly a master of that emotion. I knew it was restricting my life, effecting my relationships, erecting boundaries to how i felt my life should be lived. Cleaning that window, cooking dinner for my family, walking the dog; those were the three issues which loomed large and which focused my attention. I asked myself again and again, “Why do i resent doing these things? Why do i never seem to have the time to do them leisurely and happily?”
I had made some progress. A dear friend’s mother had passed away last year and we had a commemorative photo of her in the kitchen. Sometimes when i was cooking dinner and feeling that resentment rising, i would look at her and be inspired and a rising tide of love would wash away that resentment.
If i had filled out a questionnaire at that time, just a few weeks ago, about freedom, personal freedom, i would have stated that a desire for such freedom was a driving force behind my running; time set aside, time to be myself, time to be free.
I wasn’t really expecting a few classes of Practical Philosophy to change my life so dramatically. Class 1 introduced us to the concept that freedom, true freedom, is internal. Initially i objected, freedom to me was always connected with political and economic freedom. Were we saying that a person in a country where you were not allowed to express your views freely could be as free as someone who could? Were we saying that someone living in extreme poverty could be as free as a wealthy person? So we turned it around, were we saying that a poor person could not be free. Of course not. Were we saying that because you were born in a country run by a dictator, you could never experience freedom? Of course not. Were we saying that the determining conditions for freedom where physical and external? Of course not.
Some of my classmates mentioned free time, ‘me’ time, as the moments that they experienced freedom, quiet moments in the day when they get the chance to be ‘themselves. Even as they spoke, even though i knew what they meant, even though i would have given the same answer at the start of the class, i knew that they were wrong. One of the gifts i receive in these Practical Philosophy classes are moments of clarity, moments when i know. I try to not take these too seriously and examine them further at a later stage – delusions have their own certainties.
We examined another proposal; “The truth shall set you free”. This was a theory which i readily agreed with. My life has been so ensnared with lies for so long and i have spent so much time and energy trying to free myself from their ghastly embrace that truth is something i value more each passing month. I can not imagine freedom existing with truth. This proposal was expanded to, “Simple and truthful relationships are all that is required”. Imagine if all of your relationships were simple and truthful, imagine the freedom!
And then the play; we were asked to consider that all of creation is one big play and that we all have an appointed part in it. We were asked to consider this, “Those who play their parts sincerely and truthfully, never allowing themselves to be attached to any part, they are the true stars, the true artistes”. This concept we struggled with, the idea of playing a part and yet being truthful seemed such a contradiction.
The following week we discussed speech and free speech. Again i was committed to the idea of political and social freedom of speech, but we were again discussing internal freedom, the freedom to speak with truth and passion. This again resonated with me as years of giving lectures had given me an awareness that an overly rehearsed lecture or speech excites the hearing of no-one but if you talk from your heart, everyone listens.
The exercise we were given, listen to your own voice. Such listening will result in you speaking more honestly and with greater depth and passion. My experience to date confirms this, i think about what i say and how i say it and this changes my voice. Listening to my own voice means hearing every insincerity and lie, making such pronouncements difficult, painful even.
If truth sets you free and listening to your own voice makes you more truthful, then this is an important aid to attaining freedom.
In Class 3, we discussed further the proposal that, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” but this still causes us difficulties; detachment suggests shallowness, passion, honesty and so we find the idea of being players difficult to reconcile with truth.
In Class 4, we reexamined the importance of meditation, its central value in achieving freedom, the clarity we can achieve when we quiet the mind. Peter Matthiessen, in that great book of his, ‘The Snow Leopard’, has this to say about meditation, “Meditation has nothing to do with contemplation of eternal questions, or one’s own folly, or even of one’s navel, although a clearer view on all of these enigmas may result. It has nothing to do with thought of any kind – with anything at all, in fact, but intuiting the true nature of existence, which is why it has appeared, in one form or another, in almost every culture known to man”.
In Class 5, we took a typically Buddhist slant and discussed dropping the countless false desires and attachments that besiege the heart and mind and prevent us from being free. We read the story of how monkeys were trapped in India, by placing a narrow necked jar with tasty food in the ground. The monkeys grab the tidbits but can’t get their hand out once it is closed. Their desire for the food prevents them from releasing it and the inevitable consequence is their own capture. Shri Shantananda Saraswati tells us, “Everyone is free but thinks they are bound. In fact all those things which bind them are the expression of their own ignorance”.
In Classes 6 and 7 we discussed the intellect and the abilities of valuation, reason and discrimination and how they can help us to be free. In response to further questions in class, i found myself stating, “i am free all the time, in fact i am most free when i am fulfilling my obligations, doing my duties. I am free and only my attitude can enslave me”. As often in class, i was shocked by what i’d said, shocked both by the declaration and by the truth of it.
I had set myself free.
Well almost, resentment still makes regular appearances, gives me a little nudge in the back, “Hey what are you doing, shouldn’t someone else be doing that, no-one will thank you for doing that, that’s not your turn, shouldn’t you be off doing nothing, being yourself, being free”.
Mostly, i ignore it, sometimes we struggle a bit, sometimes i forget and welcome it like a long lost friend, “Where have you been O Resentment, my life has changed without you”.
But always, almost always, we are dealing in truth here, i kick it into touch “Not today my friend, i am too busy living, being free”.
In ‘The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen discusses freedom as demonstrated by the Sherpas in their attitude to work which is inevitably cheerful, “Yet their dignity is unassailable, for the service is rendered for its own sake – it is the task, not the employer, that is served. As Buddhists, they know that the doing matters more than the attainment or reward, that to serve in this selfless way is to be free”
So, i’ll end with some words from that other great poet/songwriter/singer, Leonard Cohen;
“Like a bird on a wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried, in my way, to be free”
Last Saturday i was a volunteer at my local parkrun. I had volunteered because quite a few of the usual volunteers could not make it that week and because i thought a race i wanted to run was on the Sunday. I was wrong, it was on the Saturday. Truth demanded i fulfill my commitment, and so i did. I was given the not-too-demanding role of a scanner, i.e. one who scans the two barcodes so that the runners’ times are electronically recorded. It is not in my nature to do such a job quietly and so we had a little banter, a lot of congratulations and a few laughs. I was a little anxious until the results were posted and i could be sure that i had carried out my job properly. In spite of that, i left my post on a high, at least as good as the runner’s high i usually experience as a parkrun runner. “Ah-hah”, i thought, “i have discovered the volunteers secret – it makes you high, it provides the buzz”
I was free.
Stay free, my friends,