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What is True Freedom?
The cherished goal of humanity throughout its history.
No society has ever been happy under the rule of people of some other society. History, from one perspective, is nothing but a struggle between two groups-one attempting to enslave or keeping enslaved the other and the other fighting incessantly to ward off this slavery. All wars are nothing but a manifestation of this ancient phenomenon. It seems we cannot tolerate losing our freedom and at the same time we cannot allow others to be free. When we are under the rule of someone else we fight to throw off the shackles and when we are free we strive to enslave others.
It is true not only for political or social groups but also for individuals. Just have a look at the kind of relationships we have built. Don't we try to dominate all persons we come across? We can see parents trying to dominate children, husbands trying to dominate wives, bosses trying to dominate subordinates and vice versa. Even friends try to dominate each other. It seems life is nothing but a struggle to dominate the other.
It can be said that there are nations, societies, groups or individuals who are free. Today, in the modern world, autonomy seems to be the norm. We can see autonomous entities all around, but this autonomy is superficial. Such autonomy remains in existence only till such a time when a more powerful entity decides to take it away. A behind the scene power struggle is going on every where. Human beings are not left untouched by all this. They can feel it subconsciously. As a result, modern man is continuously trying to defy authority or any force which makes him feel bound in any sense. To take a small example, individual human beings, these days, are preferring not to marry at all. Even after marriage, the moment one feels that his/her freedom is being curtailed, one walks away. Religious, legal or social pressures are proving inadequate in preserving the institution of marriage.
In my opinion, freedom is one of the greatest values in life. It is in our very nature and that is the reason every one resents if his/her freedom is encroached upon. The only trouble is that most of us are not even aware of our shackles. We do not even have a faint inkling of the numerous ways our freedom is denied to us. On the surface it appears that modern man has certainly acquired a degree of freedom unimaginable in the past. But it is only a mirage. There exists no freedom at all. There is a subtle and vicious system of slavery which has become all pervading. You need to ask one question only to see through the mist we are all mired in. The question is: can I identify the person, group or element who can take away my freedom?
If you cannot identify a single element, let me congratulate you. You are fortunate in the sense that you are not aware of the tenuousness and fragility of the so called freedom of yours. It means that you have not really had any brush with authorities (in any sense of the word). It is only a matter of time and if you are fortunate enough the time of realization may not come in your life at all and you will depart happily from this world thinking that you lived a free life.
If you can identify even one force on this earth which can curtail your freedom in any way, let me congratulate you too. For it means that you can see things if you wish to. Our freedom can maintain its status only as long as someone more powerful than us doesn't see us as a threat to his interests. Step in his way and he will force you to open your eyes. It is not at all difficult to conclude that the so called freedom we have, lasts only as long as someone else (who is more powerful than us) allows us.
This article does not intend to discuss our freedom in political or social sense. It can be shown that freedom does not exist in this sense anywhere on this earth. It is easy to see that the moment your interests, however personal, go against some authority you are subdued by the powers whose interests collide with yours. It is almost futile to aspire for freedom at such a level simply because at this level it is "power" which defines freedom. The more the power, the more the freedom. And since ordinary human beings like us, who are not politicians or officials or priests, cannot wield much power, we should not hope for freedom in this sense.
All this relates to the world outside of us. What about freedom at a much deeper and personal level? I want to talk of a certain level where all human beings are equally powerful. Where guns or jails or police do not come into play at all. Where, if you can recognize and earn your freedom, such powers of the world would not matter at all. This is purely at the level of an individual, where there is no one else to take away or grant you some freedom. Where it is only you who can decide whether you want freedom or not.
Just as there are various degrees of freedom, there are various degrees of slavery too. At a certain level, there exists the most vicious form of slavery. It is at the existential level. While political slavery curtails political freedom, existential slavery curtails the most profound form of freedom. Humanity has recognized the superficial levels of freedom but is almost unaware of the ultimate or true freedom. We are not even aware that we are not free at all.
One of my favorite Zen story goes like this:
A Zen Guru was going somewhere with his disciples. They saw a man who was coming towards them with a cow. The cow had a rope tied around its neck and the man was holding the other end of the rope. The Guru asked his disciples, "Who is the slave, the man or the cow?". The disciples said, "The cow is the slave. It is tied with the rope. The man is the master since he is controlling the cow". The Guru smiled and said, " No! you are wrong. If the rope slips from the man's hands and the cow starts running away you will find that the man will run after the cow. The man is also tied down with the cow, only his rope is invisible."
We are also tied down with so many invisible ropes. We are not free. We want to be happy but can we? Does it depend on us? No, our happiness and sorrow depend on someone else. Anyone can make you angry anytime he wishes. You might have vowed many times that you will not get angry, but all your vows come to naught time and again. Anyone can make you unhappy anytime he wishes. You have no control over your own emotions. You have control over other people's emotions and they have control over yours. You are their slave and they are yours. You are not even free to choose your own emotions. It seems that the switches, which control our emotions, are not accessible to us while being fully accessible to others. You can switch on or off any emotion in me and I can do the same to you. But your own emotional switches are out of your reach.
This is the deepest form of slavery. We have become slaves by nature. At least, we should have freedom to choose our own feelings and emotions. If I wish to remain happy, why should someone else be able to take my happiness away so easily? If one wants to remain peaceful why should he not be able to maintain his peace irrespective of the outside disturbances?
The whole of mankind is living under slavery. Each one of us is a slave. Kings, Presidents, Prime ministers - everyone on this earth is a slave. We are slaves of our desires, which have been implanted in our minds. Desire to eat, when one is hungry, is understandable. But desire to become president of some country? Desire to be the best in the world? Desire to be called a good man? Are all such desires not externally inculcated in our psyche? Do we really need to feel bad if someone criticizes or belittles us, or feel good when someone praises us? Not only these but almost all our responses and reactions to different stimuli are pre-programmed.
Take away these programs or conditionings and we wouldn't know how to react or behave in a particular situation. I am not saying that these conditionings are totally useless. They are required when the survival itself is an issue but to continue to be governed by such conditionings even when survival is not much of an issue, creates all sorts of problems.
Real freedom allows you to choose your responses - physical, psychological or emotional. You should be able to remain unaffected by some event, if you choose to. You should be able to choose not to be consumed by anger if someone does what is not liked by you. You should be able not to get jealous when your competitor tastes success where you failed. You should be able not to feel dejected when you fail in some endeavour. You should be free from the need to be loved by someone else. As a child, this need was very much essential for your survival but not after you become an independent adult. This infantile need keeps you ever vulnerable to all kinds of manipulations all through your life. Real freedom gives you the option to opt out of all kinds of rat-races we keep running obsessively in our lives.
Can you now imagine how wonderful life would be if one was really FREE?
There are two mechanisms which are responsible for this deep rooted bondage. Both these mechanisms sprout from our survival instinct since the very beginning of our lives. Both were extremely essential in those days but should have lost their significance once we grew up, but by the time we grow up they become so ingrained in our psyche that they seem to have become our very nature. Let us examine them both one by one.
When a child is born, he is utterly helpless. Left alone, he cannot survive even for a few days. The fear of loneliness gets entrenched in his system. As he grows up, he starts learning that certain behaviour makes his parents and other adults happy while certain other actions invites their disapproval or even wrath. Since he is totally dependent on other persons, he starts modifying his behaviour so as to please the big and powerful adults around him. Looks or words of approval from others become very important for him since they give him assurance that he and his acts are ok and therefore he would not be abandoned (the indirect message he receives is that he will survive). Over a period of time he learns to suppress his own instincts and behave in a way so as to earn approval even if it goes against his very nature. This need of approval becomes so embedded in his psyche that even when he becomes an adult he does not realize that he no longer has to go on earning approvals to be happy. He loses his individuality and goes on conforming to what others expect from him even at the cost of his own personal needs and happiness. This sort of behaviour becomes compulsive and that is why it is very easy to manipulate anyone in this world with a few words or looks of praise. All of us know what is needed or abhorred by a human being and therefore it is so easy to control any person on this earth. This need for approval has made all of us slaves to every other human being on this earth.
The second mechanism is related to learning. The mind is a huge repository of thoughts, beliefs, conditionings, memories and learned behaviour. In other words it is like an immense database. Whatever we experience, whatever we learn is stored in this database and our responses, reactions and behaviour is controlled by this warehouse of past experiences. When we learn to do something new, we pay attention to each movement. After some repetitions, the sequence of movements necessary to perform that act becomes a learned pattern and is stored in the mind. When the same act is needed to be done again, the mind takes over and repeats that sequence of movements without any input from us in the form of attention. Not only physical activities, but even our emotional responses have become automatic. In our childhood, if someone criticized us, we felt very bad because criticism meant disapproval and we did not know what would be the consequences of such disapproval. So, we feared the worst. Mind learned this reaction of ours and reacts automatically as per the old pattern even after we grow up. If we pause to think a bit, we will realize that all our responses are learned and stored in the mind and we act as per this storehouse of learning and memories.
It is very convenient and even necessary, no doubt, to delegate some work to the mind. The trouble arises when we delegate all the work to mind. Mind does everything for us-it eats for us, drinks for us, sees for us, hears for us, speaks for us, touches for us and even decides how we react or respond to something external. We have relinquished all control to mind and suffer as a result. We have become automatons with fully predictable behaviour. Pleasure has gone out of our lives. We have become slaves to our own minds and to set things right, we must wrest the control back. We need to be FREE from the tyranny of our own minds.
It is a bit difficult to fully realize how much we are losing of life due to this process of delegating everything to mind. The greatest loss for us is that we no longer need to pay attention to anything. One of the most significant laws of life is that no experience is free in existence. If one wishes to experience anything, one has to pay. The only currency at the existential level is "ATTENTION". We must pay and it is the amount of this existential currency which determines how much we get in return.
Let me cite a very small and common-place example. Consider the simple act of drinking tea. A cup is first placed in front of you. You look at the cup, take in the color of tea-liquor and the cup. You then lift the cup and carefully take a sip. You register the aroma, taste and temperature of the tea and arrive at a conclusion regarding its quality. If it tasted good, you enjoy it contentedly. You take another sip and enjoy it too. Then......what happens? Do you return to your newspaper, TV show, conversation you were having with someone, or (if you are alone) to your reverie? Do you remember enjoying third or fourth sip onwards? Do you enjoy all the sips? Do you notice gradual cooling down of tea? Do you relish the taste any longer? The answer to most of these questions will show that you stopped paying attention to your cup of tea at some point. Most probably you would even forget when you took that last sip. What happens in this case? Your mind, the great automaton, your great servant takes over. It does such a great job that you do not need to pay any attention to your much cherished tea :-). You even forget that you are drinking tea. Under such a situation how can you enjoy what you do?
If you give a thought to this, you can see that it is true for any of your activities. Joys of life are hidden in small things - a glass of plain cold water, a delicious dish, wind blowing on your face, warmth of sun on your skin, getting drenched in rains, fragrance of a flower, chirping of birds and insects, watching the lovely smile on the face of your loved ones. Do you see the growing tree en route to your office? Do you notice some subtle change in people around you? Do you still enjoy these things, or have you relinquished all controls to your mind?
If you feel as if days are flying by at a fast pace, if the memories of yesterday seem hazy, you should start thinking of being in control of your life. Call your mind to order whenever you need it, but remain in control most of your time. Do not let your mind insert a hazy filter of past experiences or memories or your beliefs between the real you and the things you wish to experience. Pay real attention to whatever you are doing. Drink every sip with full awareness, chew every morsel of food consciously-try to feel the movement of your jaws, lips, tongue and throat. While walking, be aware that your feet are moving and your arms are swinging. Be aware of the rise and fall of your chest and belly when you breathe. Try to feel the warmth and softness/hardness of the hand and firmness of the grip when you shake hands. You lost control through these simple activities and you will gain it back through the same activities. Just remember to do everything as consciously as possible. If you try to drink a cup of coffee with full attention, you will know what I am talking about.
Do you realize how your mind prevents you from experiencing things? Let me explain. You see a flower and your mind starts its commentary-"it is a rose", "it is red", it is so beautiful, the fragrance is so sweet etc. etc. This commentary interferes with the plain and simple acts like seeing or hearing things properly, and you are lost in the chattering of the mind. It does not let you pay attention to the thing in front of you. Do you realize that our eyes have become "unseeing eyes"? Have you ever felt that your ears have become "unhearing ears"? It is as if the mind inserts a translucent filter between our senses and the things to be experienced.
Once you are start experiencing things directly, without the utterly useless commentary of your mind, you will find that at a given moment only one can exist-your awareness or your mind. You will find that awareness changes the whole experience. It has the magic touch of the philosopher's stone. It changes everything into pure gold. We need to be more and more aware.
Become aware and you become your own master. If you are aware, no one can make you angry or jealous or envious or unhappy. Become aware and the system of automated responses halts. Then you can choose how to respond to a given situation. Let your responses come out of pure awareness and not from the storehouse of the past data. Life is changing every moment and each moment asks for a new look and new response. Become aware of everything happening around you in a given moment and you will find peace descending upon you. This peace cannot be disturbed no matter what the level of noise outside. Once you shut up your mind, you would become a center of silence and then you will know of a life which is so different from what you have experienced so far.
Ashok Kumar Gupta is an engineer by profession, a programmer by hobby, and a thinker by nature. He is the webmaster of http://www.akgupta.com/
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