Looked at through the lens of my new Buddhist practice, familiar quotes take on a new or differently nuanced meaning for me.
“Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.” That is Janis Joplin belting it out in “Me and Bobby McGee” her husky cry of pain is for how we suffer until finally we realize there really is “nothing left to lose.” This says to me that personal pain (Buddha calls it suffering) is the doorway to awakening through which we must go.
“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” Jean Paul Sartre being existential. Sartre accepts that damage has been done, or will be done. It is inevitable. That being so, what next?
“I know but one freedom and that is the freedom of the mind.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote The Little Prince, which has at its heart the notion that an innocent, personal perspective on the universe proves to be more serious than a jaded second-hand perspective. Saint-Exupery places problems where they mostly are, in our minds and perspectives. Shift perspective, things change, we change. The Buddha calls serious commitment to a perspective that leads to awakening, “intention.”
“Freedom doesn’t mean the absence of restrictions. It means possessing unshakable conviction in your choices in the face of an obstacle.” – Mahatma Gandhi, who also said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” Gandhi knows that freedom and discipline are not opposites. The act of sitting still and being present to one’s experiences can be unpleasant or pleasant. Either way, sitting still is a discipline.
“Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, We are free at last.” -Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking the words of a Negro Spiritual in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King reminds me that we are all in this together and no matter how private my meditative practice, its purpose is more than personal freedom. It is about everyone’s well being.
As for freedom for those on a spiritual path, I like what Jackie Vecchio says in “Four Simple Steps to Freedom.” I recommend her blog at tiny Buddha. Here’s a summary of those four simple steps.
1. Don’t take anything personally.
2. Don’t be a victim.
3. Be gentle, kind, and compassionate with yourself.
4. Practice forgiveness.
She says, “Nothing anybody says or does to you has anything to do with you.” People’s opinions are solely the product of their own lives and realities. “Hear what they say, accept that it is a reflection of their world and poof. See the thought disappear.” I’m not very good at this yet.
As for Jackie’s second point about not getting caught in the victim trap, I check with my body and as a result generally downgrade disaster to unpleasantness, unless it is truly a disaster and in that case the body will say so. Here is where equanimity is useful. Allowing myself to experience something or someone as unpleasant is sometimes enough to forestall the stories that make unpleasant a more serious source of pain and turn me into a victim.
The step to freedom Jackie lists as third is becoming kind to oneself. That was my first step and it was not easy for me. My inner guides tended to yell and say nasty things. They called me names that my four-year-old granddaughter delights in telling me are on the “no-say” list: words like “stupid,” “dumb,” “ugly,” “mean,” and “lazy.”
Very early in my Budddhist practice, even before I sat in brief pockets of silence, I listened to Tara Brach’s gentle, modulated voice leading podcasters in guided meditations. Her kind reminders to call ourselves back from thought was a far cry from my own heavy handed corrections to my mind when it wandered. I liked Tara’s voice and wanted to talk to myself like that.
Jackie suggests shifting hurtful thoughts to ones that are more loving and kind, replacing each negative with a positive. “Eventually you will start believing them. Doing so allows you to have the freedom to just be you,” she says. I had always considered that “being me” was the problem.
As for the last of Jackie’s steps: Forgiveness. Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed. Forgiveness isn’t about saying that whatever happened was okay, right, or just, but about letting it go. Forgiving releases the power the past holds. Of course, things cannot be different and wishing for a different outcome is useless, painful and power-sapping. Because the present is the only time that exists, to forgive is to be in it. It is the only place we have the power to live free and happy.
And so, as the 4th of July approaches and the country commemorates independence that began in revolution, I think of the centering that’s required to revolve and to evolve. For me this means sitting still for “spacious skies” of my own. Feeling my own ample waves of grief. Then I can make the world a better place—an act from love rooted in compassion.