The month of July is often associated with independence. In this country, July 4th commemorates the day in 1776 that the U.S. Congress approved and adopted the Declaration of Independence, declaring independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. In France, July 14th (Bastille Day) memorializes the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille fortress in 1789 – an event which came to symbolize the rise of the modern French nation – also a day of independence.
While these two days represent particular social and political events, they reflect an underlying longing in each of us to be free. We humans are the only creatures to be aware that we’re separate from the rest of nature. Because of that awareness there’s an ever-present yearning to free ourselves from our limited consciousness and reunite with something larger. Most of the world’s religions address themselves to this yearning and teach that in this world or the next, liberation is possible if we follow certain practices. But we don’t have to be religious to feel free. The experience of freedom is available to each of us at any time.
True freedom isn’t necessarily the freedom to do what one wants, whenever one wants. Nor does it depend on social standing or physical wellbeing. True freedom is a state of mind. A state of mind that involves an acceptance of what is within or in spite of constraint – a perspective that encourages openness whatever the condition. True freedom also is a choice. We can choose to blame circumstance for the state of our lives, or we can choose to see the opportunities in what we have. And though we may not have choice about what life brings us, we do have choice about how we react. We can act as victim or as author of our lives.
Of course there are situations beyond the ordinary that are immense in the scope of their tragedy. But as Victor Frankel wrote in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” even in circumstances as horrific as a concentration camp, he was able to find freedom of spirit and meaning. Most of us have much smaller challenges to our freedom. Each day we are confronted by things beyond our control. Each day, we can make a choice. Victim or author.
On this first day of July, take a few moments to practice freedom. Find a time at the beginning of your day to focus on the present moment. Sit, or lie down – whichever is most comfortable – and close your eyes. Now listen to your breath. It’s soft whoosh as you breathe in; it’s faint hiss as you breathe out. Let it flow naturally, noticing its rhythm and unique sound. Rest in that sound for a few moments.
Now, on the in-breath, let your breath expand inside you. Feel it reverberate at your center, rippling through your body in ever-expanding waves. With each breath, allow your awareness to expand a bit farther. As your breath expands beyond your body into the room, have an awareness of yourself as the room. As it expands beyond the room, feel yourself as the environment beyond. Experience the whole environment as yourself. Allow your awareness to flow out with your breath, ever-expanding, ever-dissolving, flowing into something larger. If thoughts arise, experience them as clouds drifting outward – outward on the ever-expanding edge of your consciousness until they become only dots on horizon of what you see. Stay for a moment in this expanded state. Then focus on you out-breath and with each breath gradually return – from the open spaciousness, to the surrounding environment, to the room, to your body.
At any point in the day, if you begin to feel constrained, return to your breath. Feel yourself expand with each breath until you fill the space you’re in. Feel the boundaries of your body dissolve as your breath ripples outward. If you are able to go outside, look up and allow your breath to fill the space above you. Feel yourself as vast and endless as the sky. Know that this is your true state – this infinite vastness. And remember that no matter what your situation or surrounding, in your most fundamental self you are free.
When I think of those who have been able to hold on to a freedom of spirit despite their circumstances, two people come to mind.
One is a friend who grew up in an impoverished area of Washington D.C. He, his mother, grandmother and seven siblings (each from a different absent father), lived in a two bedroom apartment. Routinely my friend was hit by his mother, and taunted by his siblings because the color of his skin was blacker than the rest. Gentle and sensitive by nature, he attributed his ongoing conversations with God (whom he described as a benevolent father) and later his interest in Buddhism, as saving him from feelings of vengeance. “I watch what I think, like I watch what I eat,” he said. “No need to fill my being with more poison than it already has . . . I just choose not to go there.” Though he found a way to get a college degree, not having the connections I take for granted it was difficult for him to find jobs. Living on a small income, he rode a bicycle wherever he went no matter what the weather. And while I saw him struggle, get angry and momentarily depressed, he was never bitter or violent. I once asked him why he didn’t resent me, coming from a life of relative privilege and success. “Everyone feels pain,” he replied. “The pain is the same, no matter the color of your skin or the conditions of your upbringing. But I don’t focus on it. I’m grateful for what I have.”
The second is a Tibetan Nun (Ani), whom I met in Dharmsala in 1996. Growing up in Kham, the eastern province of Tibet, she was raised in what was considered a life of privilege. Her father was a powerful local chieftain, her mother, as the chieftain’s wife, was hostess to a stream of visitors who came for counsel and to pay their respects. Not wanting to follow her mother’s footsteps into marriage, childbirth and what she saw as endless mundane chores, Ani decided at an early age that she wanted to be a nun – at that time in Tibet, the only path open to independent-minded women. In 1959, the Chinese invaded Tibet. As a result of the ensuing stress, her father died. An only child, she was forced to leave her training and take over for her father, leading her people into the hills in resistance to the Chinese. Eight months later she was captured. For twenty-one years, she was imprisoned by the Chinese and during that time endured periods of severe torture. Early on in her imprisonment, Ani vowed that though the Chinese controlled her body, they wouldn’t control her spirit. Turning to her Buddhist teachings for refuge, she was able to keep her vow. In 1981, during an easing of tensions, she was released. For several days she walked in flimsy, ill-fitting shoes over the Himalayas to Dharamsala to be near the Dalai Lama. When met her fifteen years later, she told me wistfully, “My home was destroyed, my family killed, but no matter what they did, praise Guru Rimpoche, in my spirit I was always free.”
The books that follow are a collection of books that describe paths to freedom or that provide models of people who have followed that path.
MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor Frankl. Frankl divides his book into two parts. The first part is a deeply moving personal account about his imprisonment in Auschwitz and other concentration camps in which he talks about the strategy that helped him survive. The second is a description of the psychotherapeutic method he developed in response to his experience in those camps. Unlike Freud, Frankl believes that man’s deepest motivation is the search for meaning and purpose. “Our generation is realistic,” he wrote, “for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Ausschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisreal on his lips.”
FREEDOM FROM THE KNOWN by J. Krishnamurti. In this book, Krishnamurti describes how people can free themselves from the tyranny of the expected, no matter what their age. He encourages us to recognize that Freedom has no set path, that we must accept no spiritual authority (even himself) but must plumb the depths of our own soul, in order to free our minds and see clearly on our own personal journey. “Freedom is not freedom from something. It is an experience that causes us to doubt and question everything so intensely that it throws away every form of dependence. Such freedom implies being completely alone. In this solitude you will begin to understand the necessity of living with yourself as you are, not as you think you should be or as you have been. The man who is alone in this way is innocent and it is this innocence that frees him.”
COMFORTABLE WITH UNCERTAINTY by Pema Chodren. Pema Chodren writes about the moment when we are hooked into harmful stories, emotions, and actions. She gives clear descriptions of how this process works and offers simple techniques to begin to free ourselves from this cycle. This book will appeal to a wide audience, whether they are familiar with the practice of meditation or not. “Expansion never happens through greediness or pushing or striving. It happens through some combination of learning to relax where you already are and, at the same time, keeping the possibility open that your capacity, my capacity, the capacity of all beings, is limitless. As we continue to relax where we are, our opening expands.”
THE HERO’S JOURNEY by Joseph Campbell. Campbell describes the journey – depicted in myths of all cultures and in various religious traditions – which is essentially the journey of an individual from a dependent state to one of individuation and freedom. “To evolve out of a position of psychological immaturity and dependence to the courage of self-responsibility and freedom requires a death and resurrection. That’s the basic motif of the universal and mythic hero’s journey – leaving one condition and finding the source of life to bring you forth into a richer or more liberated condition.”
THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS by Thomas S. Kuhn. I include this book because it is a seminal work that demonstrates the limitations of a particular world view, or “paradigm,” as Kuhn chooses to call it. Every historical age lives within a certain world view which they take as “reality.” Early cultures believed that through ritual and prayer they helped the sun to rise, or that illness was caused by a malevolent curse. Others that the world was flat or that the earth was the center of the solar system. Our contemporary culture is based on scientific knowledge and belief in the absolute truth of scientific facts. Having the capacity to see beyond the dominant paradigm breaks open one’s belief system and offers the opportunity for a more liberated perspective. “Each (paradigm shift) necessitated the community’s rejection of one time-honored theory . . . each transformed the imagination in ways that we shall ultimately need to describe as a transformation of the world in which work was done (and life was lived.)”
DAISY BATES IN THE DESERT: A Woman’s Life Among the Aborigines, by Julia Blackburn. Blackburn captivatingly describes what it was like to be a middle-aged European woman starting off in 1914 across a red desert, surrounded by the remnants of a dying culture. The portrait she gives is of an individual who was able to free herself from the conventions and attitudes of a particular time. “There omce was a woman who lived in the desert. There had been no rain for a long time and her eyes were tired from the dazzling brightness of the sky above her, the red monotony of the sand hills that surrounded her like a vast ocean . . . How did she get there? From what point did she begin and what were the steps she followed that led to a tent in the desert, clinging on year after year like a person on a raft in the ocean, sometimes with hardly anyone coming to talk to her for months on end and not much to do except endure the heat and isolation, keep notes, write letters?”
THE SNOW LEOPARD; The Astonishing Spiritual Odyssey of a Man in Search of Himself, by Peter Mattthiessen. In the wake of his wife’s death, Matthiessen set out with biologist George Schaller on a 250 mile trek up from Nepal up onto the Tibetan Plateau. The ostensible reason for the trip was to catch a glimpse of the near-mythical Snow Leopard. But the result was an expansion of what he understood about the world and his life and ultimately the freedom of his spirit.
NATIVE AND VISIONARIES – An Exhibition Organized by Walker Art Center, Minnesota. This book is a collection of images of idiosyncratic architecture, which includes roughly carpentered houses, elaborately conceived stone arches and towers and primitively finished sculptures. I include it on this list for it demonstrates artistic expression that is free from conventional criteria of what art or architecture is. “Although these bizarre manifestations are oddly suggestive of ancient monuments and shrines, this is a wholly intuitive expression, totally unbounded by stylistic conventions or local building codes.”
I’ve added a new retreat to my offerings – Developing Balance. This retreat grows out of my observation that many of us feel overwhelmed by the daily flood of information and the ever-more frantic pace of life. In such a climate, it is increasingly difficult to make wise decisions, be innovative at work, or engage meaningfully with others. In response to this growing trend, I’ve developed a retreat for those of you who want to increase your effectiveness at work and bring greater ease to your everyday lives.
The retreat takes place in a charming cottage outside the town of Occidental on ten acres of rolling meadows, oak, bay, redwood trees, only minutes from the ocean. There is an option to stay at a nearby inn, dividing the retreat over two days so that you can take advantage of nearby Russian River, Bodega Bay and the area’s spectacular hiking trails. Other options are also available.