The question was — what does freedom feel like, in yourself and in relationship?
When I think of the feeling of most expansive freedom, I imagine taking my first steps into the air of a new city, traveling alone, with no agenda, itinerary, or duty. That first touch of sunlight, as from a different sun entirely, on the skin; the first breath of new air laden with exotic scents. Anything is possible. Adventure awaits.
But what is freedom, really?
To avoid philosophical confusion, let’s assume — as a thought experiment — that we have freedom of choice. Let’s not tangle ourselves up in the causality of neurobiology, and mental gymnastics of determinism. I can choose to get out of bed today, or I can choose to stay put. Whether or not this is philosophically or scientifically sustainable, it is the experience that we have in this world.
Assuming, then, that there is some legitimate choice in this world, how do we get to the heart of freedom?
Freedom is often thought of as both a “freedom from” (constraint, limitation) and “freedom to” (presence of opportunity). But these — in fact — describe a single freedom. Presence of opportunity is another way of describing the absence of constraint.
When it comes to constraint, however, there are two kinds: the facts of the world, and aversion to anticipated consequences.
First consider the facts of the world. If I am on the ground, the laws of physics prevent me from leaping into the air and taking flight. If I am in prison, the bars and the gates prevent me from walking under the open sky. There are certain limits on my freedom of choice. But note: when we compare the possibilities that live in our imagination to actual, available choices, the vast majority of our dreams are outside our control. I can fantasize about walking the streets of Ancient Rome, or the canals of Mars. I can choose to play the lottery, but I cannot choose to win the lottery. The fact that I cannot make these choices is not normally thought of as an abrogation of freedom, but it is no different than any other application of the laws of physics, including those prison bars. The facts of the world only “constrain our freedom” when they rule out something that we believe that we should be able to do. I don’t think it is reasonable to expect that I can time travel to the ancient world, but I do think it is reasonable to go to the neighborhood coffee shop. The obstacle to the experience of freedom, in this case, is the mind. It is our erroneous belief that I should be able to do something that the nature of my present reality does not accommodate.
(As an aside: When it comes to the facts of the world, humans also have enormous ingenuity in finding loopholes. Look at every wing-suit wearer leaping from a cliff top, or every prison break, and there is a creative human finding those nooks and crannies in reality that change the game. So, for practical purposes, when it comes to those constraints on our freedom that originate in the nature of the world, it is always worth taking a long, hard look at that appearance of reality to see if it is as absolute as we imagine.)
Secondly, consider our fear of expected consequences. Scenario: I can stay in bed today, but if I do not go into work, I am sure it will be the last straw and my boss will fire me. Since I want to keep my job even more than I want to stay in bed, I say: “I must go in to work. I am not free to stay in bed.” This, however, is a misuse of the word freedom. The truth is that I am quite literally free to make either choice, and the decision I do make takes all of the expected outcomes into consideration.
In relationship, there was a time when people would joking like refer to their spouse as “the old ball and chain” — referencing a form of imprisonment, a limit on freedom. If there is a limitation on freedom, however, it is entirely manufactured by the mind. Scenario: I am “not free” to kiss that pretty woman at the party because my wife is across the room, watching me like a hawk. In this case, choosing not to cause my partner distress is an example of me exercising my freedom, not one of constraint. It feels like constraint because there is something I want to do, but choose not to do out of fear of the consequences. It certainly does not have the feeling of “anything is possible” that true freedom gives us. But once again, the obstacle to the feeling of freedom is not actually the world outside myself — I am absolutely free! — it is my inner state, my beliefs (correct or otherwise) about consequences, my fear of outcomes, my desire to control and manage other people’s experiences and perceptions of me.
Whether it is the facts of the world or an aversion to consequence, the true obstacle to a feeling of freedom is our own mind.
So let’s just go back to the original expression of freedom in my own experience — that moment of stepping into a new city, without agenda or itinerary. “Anything is possible. Adventure awaits.”
In reality, “anything” is never possible: the laws of physics still apply. In reality, each and every action I take will have consequences. It is starting to look like when I imagine the experience of freedom, I’m really just celebrating ignorance. Ignorance of what the actual possibilities are, ignorance of what the consequences of my choices will be.
And yet, it is a delicious and delightful experience! Can we not do better than ignorance?
Let’s take a step back and note that since the obstacle to the experience of freedom is our own thoughts and beliefs, that the antidote must have something to do with those same thoughts and beliefs. If we are under the illusion that relief from constraint is a change in the nature of reality, or some transformation in other people, we will be left powerless, bemoaning our lack of freedom, shaking our fist and the sky.
Knowing that the only impediment to the beautiful and blissful experience of freedom is within ourselves, we can actively inquire into what it might take to dissolve those impediments.
First, let’s go back to prison. I can fight my conviction in the courts of law, or I can carve at the mortar of my cell with a smuggled nail file. I can creatively pursue all those paths of action within the facts of the world that might expand my available choices or remove that thing that is at the heart of my story of constraint. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it never fully answers the problem of the experience of freedom. Remove one apparent constraint, and another will be revealed.
Let’s return to that party: I can renegotiate the agreements of my relationship such that kissing a woman at a party is allowed. Am I free? Well, if those agreements have been authentically established, my fear of consequences for kissing the woman are alleviated, at least as far as my relationship goes. I still need to navigate determining whether the woman also wants to kiss. Which, again, is the point: relieving one fear only reveals the next.
In short: recognizing the particulars of each given constraint, whether from the nature of the world or from the imagined consequences, opens the door for all that wonderful human ingenuity, but it does not address the actual question of true freedom. Maybe we can expand our options, a little. Sometimes, that will even be enough, at least for a time. If this small expansion of my options includes some possibility that is most dear to me, yes, that is “more freedom” and I might even have the feeling of expansiveness that comes with it.
But it’s not the true answer.
The true answer to the seeming constraints of the facts of the world is a radical acceptance of what is. (Not an acceptance of our idea of what is: that would look like the prisoner slumped in the corner, reconciled to fate. Our radical acceptance of what is may well come with an abiding curiosity about all those wonderful loopholes.) When we let go of all expectations that the world should be other than it is, we are utterly and absolutely free to experience all of the possibilities available to us in the fullness and richness of the world as it is. When we cease our obsession with our notion of the way the world should be, and savor and discover the world as it is: Adventure awaits!
The true answer to the seeming constraints imposed by our fear of consequences is a conscious life in which all our actions arise from love(*), rather than in reaction to fear. Face it: our predictions of consequences are hit or miss anyway. What if the true liberation was not from constraint at all, but from fear? What if we surrender to the unfolding of all the universe without trying to control it, to manage it, to manipulate it (and each other)? What if we sought, in each moment, the deep truth of our nature and acted in perfect accordance with that nature?
What would happen at that party? Would the loving connection to my partner throb with life and cast into pallor any silly kiss? Or would some deep call to this other person, humming with mutual connection and possibility, invite the authentic expression of our sudden surprising synergy and resolve in that kiss? What if I trusted that the consequences of any action arising from the authentic experience expression of love were for the benefit of all beings, even if some of those consequences are uncomfortable?(*) We have plenty of discomfort in our lives, perhaps we should put it to good use, in the service of love!
Suddenly: anything is possible!
* Epilogue : The Spiritual Bypassing Edition
A question that arises is: how is this not simply doing whatever you feel like without regard for the consequences? (“Babe, I am love. I’m just expressing my true nature.”) How is this not the ultimate in selfish, narcissistic behavior? Would this “answer,” successfully applied, actually be hiding a life of extreme selfishness under cover of spiritual language? Assuming that we do not want to fool others or ourselves; assuming that we do actually care about consequences and want to “do no harm;” assuming that we actually want to act for the benefit of all beings — how do we hold ourselves accountable?
For most people, we err first and foremost by projecting our assumptions and expectations about reality onto others. Working to liberate ourself from that trap is a step toward liberation, but the trap of spiritual bypassing is very, very real (perhaps inevitably so).
One instructive teaching is: “Intentions don’t matter; only consequences matter.”
Another teaching is: “Intentions are violence against reality.”
The answer to this is actually deliciously simple: finding the subtle thread of “what is true in the present moment” is the ultimate Big Win, but we will go wrong again and again as we refine our sensibilities and listen more closely and more carefully. And it is the consequences that will point the way back. In fact, many discover that the more subtly aware we become the more swift and dramatic the consequences can be. What most people “get away with” with impunity suddenly become cataclysmic forces in the life of the free.
Nonetheless, acting out of respect for, fear of, or aversion to consequences is still living in the world of the mind’s own constraint. It may be the best we can do, most of the time, but in order to live in the bliss of freedom, bolder approaches are required. In order to achieve that bliss, all the circuitous machinations of our self-interest must fall away in favor of essential loving presence.
So: act in good faith, from the center of love and the best-possible perception of what is. Accept the outcomes with curiosity: how can this result guide me to greater insight, deeper connection to love, further dissolving of the mental structures that enslave and imprison me?
The good news is, the more we ourselves apply these lessons, the easier it is to see through the illusion and self-delusion perpetrated by others caught in their own bypassing trap.