“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” – Kris Kristofferson, Janis Joplin
Central to Buddhist teaching, and the teaching of all true non-duality spiritual masters, is the concept of liberation. Generally this is referring to liberation from suffering. However, the path to the liberation from suffering is in liberation from attachment to the forms of the world for our sense of self, our identity. So, in a sense, it is about having no absolute dependence on anything for our well-being. There’s nothing to lose – because the stability of our existence is not based on any thing. If the stability of our existence, our sense of well-being, is not dependent on any circumstance external to our Being, this then is most certainly freedom. Here, spiritual becomes psychological, because this freedom liberates us from the anxieties based in finding worth and identity in anything outside our core experience of existence within and as an expression of the Universe.
With Buddhism and all non-duality spiritual systems, we’re always peeling the onion. This freedom, this liberation, is not only based on freedom from finding identity in material objects and worldly status. It is based in freedom from the need for any identity that is given by or dependent upon society and social approval at all, and this is a deeper and subtler thing (or no-thing) than we could conventionally imagine. Just how subtle can be captured in the contemporary spiritual master Eckhart Tolle’s teaching that enlightenment (which can be seen as a synonym for spiritual and psychological freedom) is in “renunciation of the need to get to the next moment.” Brilliant! Just consider how the underlying cause of our anxiety is in our sense of the need to control and be in the next moment. Our very sense of identity is wrapped up in a story of self in time. We live leaning into the next moment. We’re on our way to….. something –with some measure of unease about what lies there. This anticipation, this leaning forward in our lives, is very much a source of the neurotic tensions of mind and body that are experienced as anxiety, and act as distraction from the richness of the present moment..
Occasionally, we are not on our way to the next moment. Occasionally, we actually want to linger in the present moment because the present moment seems so perfect, so beautiful. It is meeting our sense of perfection just as it is. Pop culture borrowed the term Nirvana from Buddhism to describe this perfection where self and the moment are completely, harmoniously one. We have no need to get to the next moment. We don’t want the next moment unless it is more of this moment. There comes with this experience a sense of wholeness and vastness, free of all anxiety, all discontent. Then, anxiety about the perfect moment ending will creep in, we are back in time, and Nirvana, once again is lost.
This is where the Zen Master asks, “Whose sense of perfection is the criteria?” And the answer is: the ego’s sense of perfection, and here’s a good place to introduce another central Buddhist concept called “Egoic Delusion.” What we think we want or fear, in fact, what we think the world is about, is, to a very great extent based in a delusion of the mind. We have ideas about what is good and bad provided for us by our cultural contexts and psychological experiences, and we live reactively to the unfolding of Life from within those ideas. We are prisoners of those ideas.
As Tolle is telling us, one of those very powerful ideas is what he calls “psychological time.” Now, in casual reading, one might think that Tolle is saying that time is one of those delusions, that it doesn’t exist. Well, not so simple. We are in the paradoxical universe of human-beingness where things can be simultaneously true and not true. In the realm of Being, Tolle’s word for Nature, the Moon circles the Earth and the Earth circles the Sun. Morning comes with the rising of the Sun, and evening with the Sun’s setting. Days and years pass. Yes. This is natural time. All of Nature lives within this time, which is always experienced as “Now.” The bird doesn’t anticipate the sun’s setting, it doesn’t regret that it missed the worm yesterday. Only humans can suffer in this way, and we suffer because we live trapped within the delusion of “psychological time.”
Humans, with our capacity for abstracting our experience out of the immediacy of Nature, create an idea of time, and we actually live mentally more in the past and the future than in the present where our life actually occurs. This anachronistic orientation to Life creates a kind of fear that likewise is psychological. In Nature, the rabbit experiences fear as the fox chases it, but when it eludes the fox, it doesn’t live in fearful memory of that brush with death, nor is the quality of its existence marred by fearful anticipation of the reappearance of the fox. It lives in the Now, and in the Now there is no suffering of this abstract type that humans suffer. So, we can begin to see how freedom ultimately has to do with freedom from psychological time and fear – fear that future moments will be unsatisfactory to our projected fantasies about what we need to be peaceful and OK.
For humans, there are also the moments of real fear, real danger – when the earthquake happens, in war, in battle – these experiences are not abstractions and they happen in real time, not psychological time, and it is important to note that in such catastrophic moments, moments of possible or inevitable mortality, for many there is no anxiety, no psychological fear. It is what makes the Zen Koan, “This moment, what is lacking?” a pointer to the truth of our capacity in real presence to be free of psychological fear and anxiety even in the face of real threat to our person and circumstance.
“Fear is the mind-killer… I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it is gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. ”
– Frank Herbert in the Sci-Fi novel, Dune
“There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” – Franklin Roosevelt
So to be free of imprisonment within false ideas, even ideas about freedom – which can perversely even include ideas that freedom is being free to take away others’ freedom – we must again come back to that Zen question, “Who is it that is afraid?” The Dalai Lama tells us, we must “investigate who is becoming afraid. Examine the nature of your self. Where is this I? Who is I? What is the nature of I? Is there an I besides my physical body and my consciousness?” For when we discover that our most basic fear is concerning who this “I” is, and whether this “I” is sufficient for the trials of life, real and imagined, we begin to get to the core of the issue of freedom. Freedom is about realizing the “I” that does not live in ideas – that sees the “I” that is constructed of ideas filled with insecurities – and realizes there are two “I’s.” There is the “I” of the ego, constructed in psychological time, bound by conventions, insecurities and expectations. And there is the “I” of Being, that which sees, that which is awareness, and has no boundary of time, no insecurities, reactivity or conventions.
Freedom is in a relationship to existence that is direct and true, in living the “I” of Beingness that experiences the vast interconnectedness that is the truth of existence. And so, ideas and experience based in the “I” of egoic separateness that engender fear about the significance, the safety, the security of this egoic “I,” whose reference point is in the instability of human society and culture, are irrelevant. This is the living as “nobody” with “no idea” that Zen inspires us to. Freedom is in showing up fresh in each moment, with no idea about the moment, no idea about our self – ready to experience what is – to run if the fox chases us, to sit in the warmth of the sun if this is what the moment offers; to manage our personal and financial affairs if this is what the moment calls for. Planning and memory are included. Fretting and worrying are not.
Among the Eightfold Path of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, very relevant to this topic is the Path of Right Thinking. For a teacher of Mindfulness, this is an interesting and somewhat ironic oversight. It, synchronistically, is also a relevant topic to include in this month’s column. Right Thinking is about thought that does not bind us in fearful ways to anxieties about past, future, and the importance of ourselves. Contrary to what many newcomers to meditation may believe, thinking has a very important role – it’s not the devil. It is a product of the egoic dimension of mind, and ego is not the devil, although most certainly, it can be.
The issue is to understand what role ego and thinking play in our total experience. When ego and thinking are the centerpiece of our experience, and are serving as our identity, that’s trouble. That’s suffering. So it is very important to have a “Right” relationship with thinking and ego, and that role is as a tool for engagement with the world on the level of conceptual mind. Rather than experiencing that we are our thoughts, with Right Thinking, thinking has its proper role and dimension as a tool. We “have” thoughts, much like we have hands – for the purpose of engaging the world and working with it. Suffering is the result of identifying with mind, thoughts and emotions as who we are, and then they run our lives, filled with ghosts and goblins. To have, to own, to manage, mind, thoughts and emotions is to be a player in the game of Life, skillfully using understanding and logic to analyze and communicate our discoveries of the miracle of Life made into forms – both physical and mental forms – free of unnecessary fear.