Freedom: the eternal quest

Chapter 9

Freedom is something that all rational people desire. It also is among the most misused concepts in history. If people were asked what would really make them free, they would mention some of the qualities already discussed in previous chapters, such as wealth, power, love, and above all the capacity to direct their own lives according to their own will. Yet the paradox remains: the more of these qualities one has, the less satisfied one is with one's present lot. I mentioned right at the beginning the futility of great wealth; the one thing it does not appear to provide is inner security and the same would apply to power, relationships with other people and even our own health. The reason for this apparent paradox is that these qualities, while by no means to be disparaged, all tend to drive one more and more into one's own personality. If I, for instance, desired to become really renowned, all other considerations in life would be subjected to this one driving passion and I would not be free to develop other sides of my own nature. Indeed, in a interesting way, passion is the reverse side of the coin of freedom; without passion one cannot live properly as a unique individual, but without freedom one's passion becomes the ruling theme of one's existence. The one way in which the paradox can be resolved is by accepting it, giving it due recognition in one's life and moving far beyond its scope; only then can one see that true freedom is attained by devoting one's life selflessly to the world at large.

All this is, needless to say, much more easily said than done, and only when one has undergone a shattering experience, such as I described in the first chapter, and many more have undergone in our terrible century of genocide, if one has been fortunate enough to emerge alive; only then, I say, can one glimpse the real meaning of freedom. Some of the Bible brings this idea into close focus. The story of Job is typical: only when he has come to terms with the loss of everything can he start to become a real person. At the end of the narrative, though all his material possessions including a new family are restored, he is now a much calmer man and able to take life as it comes, without trying to placate anybody, even God himself. It seems strange that religion can alienate one from God quite as easily as bringing one closer to a relationship with him. The more we try, the more certain it is that we will fail. On a material level this is obviously nonsense as I am learning even with my unceasing endeavours to walk better than I do at the moment, yet on a spiritual level a rather different law is at work.

The reason for this is not difficult to understand: what one strives for on a material level is quite clearly egoistical, no matter how convincingly it may be presented in terms of the common good, for there is no doubt that it is very elevating to be highly regarded by other people, and the more one denies this, the more one deceives oneself. On a purely personal level we all look for some sort of reward. It is quite possible that no work would be done at all if there were not some personal motive or reward attached to the end of it. Of course we need adequate wages in order to survive, and few of us would care to live at subsistence level if we had the choice. On the other hand, an increase in income is the spur to greater work, so that we may acquire more substance and achieve greater influence in our society until the final judge, Death, comes to close the scene and show us in our naked reality how very insignificant we are as individuals. I find it extremely entertaining to watch the news on television and see the currently influential personalities parading themselves in speech and form before my gaze as I eat my evening meal; how revealing their startling naïvety is! They are here today and gone tomorrow, as is the case also of "celebrities" who capture the public imagination for a month or so and then disappear, only to be replaced by some new sensation. How right Jesus was when he told his disciples to beware of those who spoke well of them, for so did their predecessors speak of the false prophets. We like to hear what boosts our ego but there is no freedom in this attitude, because we are completely subject to the opinions of other people and few of these are very stable.

In the Buddhist ethic detachment plays a vital role in the development of the person, yet we know that the very essence of communal life lies in attachment to other people. Without this there could be no stable union between man or woman, or even a strong friendship, yet attachment does limit one's freedom very considerably. To marry these two concepts is one of the great tests of a successful human life. In fact, if we consider the matter clearly we can see that attachment loses its dominating quality only when it becomes widely dispersed amongst an ever-increasing group of people whom we may legitimately call friends. When one sees attachment on this elevated level, it no longer demands anything for itself at all but is concerned for the whole. This starts on the level of an intimate group of people, but the end should be a concern and love for all humanity, indeed all life. The founders of the world's major religions show this to greater or lesser extent; I personally feel that Jesus and Gautama are the great exemplars.

There are two important limitations to freedom: impotence and licence. The impotent individual is completely in bondage to those who are more powerful. At one time this was the social position of many women, but now fortunately this role has disappeared: in fact, throughout all generations many women have had the upper hand through their emotional power, and many men, despite their physical strength, have been emotionally dependent. One can therefore only begin to understand freedom as one grows into greater identity. This identity starts on a personal level, but when one approaches the realm of mysticism one knows the ultimate identity ever more intimately. I am speaking quite clearly of the Divine Nature. In such a situation all one's fellow humans are brethren, and any desire for power is lifted up towards a movement of freeing all subject people to actualize their own unique identity. I would go so far as to say that the person who throws their weight around is in fact also demonstrating their inherent weakness. If I, for instance, wrote to show my superlative knowledge in some subject, anyone with experience and a sense of humour would see through my brilliance in a trice to a weak person who needed to display themself in all their finery in order to impress their fellow creatures. One thinks again of the television personalities who play such an interesting part in our entertainment day by day.

Those who are licentious are in fact the slaves of their own desires. A classical example is Don Juan himself; his passion for all types of women was so extreme that he could only realize himself in the act of seduction. Mozart shows this particularly well in Don Giovanni. At present many members of the younger generation have moved from commendable freedom to irresponsible licence. We discussed this in Chapter 6 in relation to sexual relationship outside marriage. But licentiousness can also involve political power, wealth, alcohol and drugs of various types. In these examples the person is so free that they have betrayed their individual liberty by being addicted to one comparatively small element of life.

What, then, is the way to a fuller understanding of freedom? It is, indeed, as has been spelled out so frequently in these pages, the way of self-transcendence. As long as we are the basis of our consciousness and our desires are our sole way of life, we can never move beyond the ego. While we are trapped in egoism we cannot be free, even if we have everything material that the heart could desire. This thought has been pointed out to us on more than one occasion in the teachings of Jesus - the rich young man was told to forfeit his wealth if he was to know true fulfilment. Then alone could he enter into the company of the Master and his disciples. As we have already noted, this change of heart nearly always follows some crippling injury in which the things that one really values are simply removed from one as a result of misfortune. Sophocles (495-406 BC) said "Call no man fortunate who is not dead, for the dead alone are free from pain". He also said "Not to be born is best" (Oedipus at Colonus). In this play Oedipus, the tragic king of Thebes who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother, finally finds release. The Buddha said that all life is suffering. He believed that suffering was due to desire and the way to overcome it was to transcend personal desire. All this is extremely illuminating and depressing; it is doubtful whether any human being acts according to this excellent advice because if they did they would be denying their own identity also.

One of the many paradoxes of life is that in order to love one's neighbour one has first to love oneself; if there is no self-worth at all, it is difficult to envisage anyone recognizing the worth of anything else. It is fortunate that the Buddhist also speaks of the Middle Way, though extremists, of course, will never practise it properly. In modern life the "common man" has much greater freedom in acquiring material substance. The result has been far better public health and the dubious advantage of living on to the point of senility. As more cheerful observers would say, "You can't win". This seems to be the nature of life itself. One is bound to the prison of mortality as long as one is alive, yet no one other than the person in a state of severe depression desires death. This fear of death is not simply a religious mirage based on the theme of a punitive God; it is part of the human condition, for in its wake is the fear of total extinction. It was this fear that was so categorically annulled in me following my momentous near-death experience, but I often wonder how many people would have survived the ordeal that I was destined to undergo. As I said previously, it produced a complete change in my way of looking at life. But unfortunately one still is encased in one's own particular environment and this precludes absolute freedom. We do not live for ourselves alone but for the whole world; without its aid we could not keep alive for more than a second.

Freedom on a political level implies that every citizen has the right to choose their own destiny as far as the workings of their country are concerned. How true this is in fact is much more questionable. Dictatorship is the complete reverse of freedom; I doubt whether anyone would deny this, but is its reverse, democracy, so much freer in the end? Our lives are conditioned moment by moment by the rules that govern our society. If we really were completely free, it is much more likely that we would lapse into a most destructive type of licentiousness, hence the law is a vital part of our civilization. The end of a constructive life lies in tailoring one's own particular gifts and efficiencies to the cloth of communal responsibility. This admirable advice is possible only when one has lost concern for oneself as a unique individual far more important than anyone else.

The aim of all real religion is to produce this liberated humility in its adherents, but in fact the brilliant understanding of the great founders of religion is soon used by the generation of disciples that follow simply to elevate themselves as the ones who know the full truth. An enlightened minority may admittedly have a more universal approach, but yet it is important to accept oneself as unique, for otherwise one will fail to do the particular task that has been allotted one in this particular lifetime. In the face of so much paradox it seems to me wise above all else to do the work of the present moment with as much perfection as is possible, remembering that every individual has their own uniqueness. When they set to work actualizing this tendency they move beyond self-concern to concern for the world at large. This, I believe, is the true way of freedom. It is obviously a counsel of perfection for we do tend to love ourselves very much in the ordinary state of life, and become depressed only when we fail to reach our particular goal. Hence the end of freedom is not self-abnegation so much as self-forgetfulness. Only when I know I am nothing, a knowledge made obvious by the limited duration of life I have on this earth, can I cease from thinking about myself and lapsing into vain imagination. Instead I will do the present work as perfectly as I can and let the day take care of itself. This is a vital teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:34), and something similar can be found in the writings of all the great religious geniuses.

Life, because it seems so difficult, is actually our way of simplicity. Only when I know that I can do very little in the short spell of life ahead of me, even if I were a far younger person than I am, can I really get rooted in the present moment and all that appertains to it. When I know this even for a short period of time, I am completely free. This applies even to those who have great worldly responsibilities, including marriage and caring for the family. One of the great illusions of life, which never ceases to amuse me, is the alleged indispensability of some people. When the great name dies and suitable tributes are paid to it in all the leading newspapers, the personage is soon swallowed up in oblivion and the world continues very much as it did before this great event. As they say when the monarch dies and the successor is appointed. "The King is dead, long live the King." Indeed, the person may be dead but the affairs of the world progress steadily onwards. All this is in keeping with a theme of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament.

Futility, utter futility, says the Speaker, everything is futile.
What does anyone profit from all his labour
and toil here under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
while the earth endures for ever.

The sun rises and the sun goes down;
then it speeds to its place and rises there again.
The wind blows to the south,
it veers to the north;
round and round it goes and returns full circle.

All streams run to the sea,
yet the sea never overflows;
back to the place from which the streams ran
they return to run again.
       (Ecclesiastes 1:2-7)

The profound truth of this passage cannot be denied, though from time to time the workings of the world are disrupted by natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and droughts. "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen." What does change in this endless cycle is the birth of a new soul into the world. Maybe the Messiah will be among us even now, coming in glory to judge the living and the dead as affirmed in the Nicene Creed.

The conditions for freedom

If a child was granted instant freedom, we all know what the result would be - disaster and even death. Therefore the primary requirement for freedom is responsibility. As I have mentioned on more than one occasion, this is not always a predominant factor in our present age. Freedom soon degenerates into licentiousness if strong barriers are not first imposed. It would be best if these were self-imposed, and indeed in the person moving towards fulfilment and happiness they would be so imposed, but the less civilized individual would at once take the law, as they see it, into their own hands. Once one is subject to the law, primarily personal law but also civil law, a remarkable freedom comes to one. Now one can really begin to feel safe, not only from the attacks of criminals but also, and far more important, from one's own unconscious drives which could land one in serious trouble. Here one thinks of addictions of various types and also sexual impropriety.

Freedom demands in addition a respect for the right and dignity of other people; these, then, in turn will tend to respect one and in so doing strengthen one's own freedom. This approach can be broadened to our concern for the environment. On one level it is here for our use and disposal, but if we continue to behave inconsiderately to it, it will shrivel up in front of our very noses, and we will be left to starve in consequence. Freedom should grant freedom to others under its care; thus parents should respect the individuality of their children. If this self-respect is granted, the child is much more likely to follow in the path set by the parent than they might otherwise have done. But, one always has to be careful to set limits to activities. In our quest for freedom we often walk the tightrope between licentiousness on the one hand, and strangulating obedience on the other. All this is very hard for we tend to know the answers beforehand, particularly when they appertain to other people. Therefore humility is a crucial factor in the proper exercise of freedom. Humility with restraint has to work hand in hand with a demand for obedience. If this works well the person (especially a child) will grow immensely as a result, and their ultimate gratitude will be very impressive.

The third chapter of this book dealt with power. Power both inhibits freedom and makes it possible, for without it the freedom would run amuck until the individual was overcome, even destroyed by someone with greater power. The end therefore of freedom properly applied is the growth of the person into a mature adult, in which state they can apply the laws of power and freedom independently. This is the ideal situation of government also, and if a democracy works on these lines - something I fear that is not so very common - the social health of the community will be assured.

In the history of humanity oppressive regimes have after a variable period been destroyed and replaced by governments selected by the people themselves. It is rather uncommon for this state to continue indefinitely, except in very advanced societies, as in most of Western Europe nowadays.

Chapter 10
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