The Practice of Freedom
On July 4, many Americans celebrate freedom – both the freedoms we have realized in this country, and those we have yet to fully realize. And of course, many of us are savoring our newfound freedom from pandemic restrictions as society opens up.
From a contemplative perspective, however, we are not free when we are still controlled by conscious and unconscious drives to grab as much as we want, run away from that which scares us, or distract ourselves from the distress and suffering of others.
In fact, true freedom may come from a much-misused word: morality.
While the term ‘morality’ may have connotations today of prudishness or judgment, in fact a commitment to morality is a commitment to living life in the most free, most loving, and most expansive sense. It means living a life that reflects our love and compassion for ourselves and others. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Morality is the desire to lessen suffering in the world.”
How is the moral life an expression of freedom?
One answer is found through meditation. As we gain access to our inner world of thoughts and feelings, we can understand our deeper motivations more and more, and begin to catch sight of our fleeting impulses, even in challenging circumstances. This can be as simple as remembering to take a calming breath instead of acting out in a flash of anger, or as challenging as staying grounded when facing the lure of addictions.
Another answer is found through changing the way we act in the world: by cultivating patience, practicing harmlessness, and experiencing the power of love. When we are dedicated to relating to others in these ways, we are not just being tossed around by circumstances that arise and pass away. We are not ruled by changing conditions in the outside world. We have a thread of meaning in our lives; we have a sense of dedication that reflects great love for ourselves and a deeper understanding of where happiness is to be found. If we take care of others, we find that our self-respect grows and flourishes, and becomes the basis for our growing confidence, courage, and ease of heart.
A third answer is found through insight – through wisdom. When we don’t follow through on a momentary impulse to do a harmful act, we are more able to see the impermanence and the transparency of the desire or anger that arose to fuel that action to begin with. Even if they come up strongly, we are empowered by our ability to choose not to act from a place of desire or anger or anxiety. We see that we need not be afraid of those impulses any longer, while at the same time we can choose not to follow their call. We can make the choice to let go of harmful urges without any rancor toward ourselves—or any shame about what we might be feeling or fearing or wanting—but instead out of the greatest love for ourselves.
Finally, as we learn to avoid harmful actions, we become free of the guilt, fear, confusion, and regret that come when we forget that what we do and say has consequences. Rather than the turbulence and agitation that we undergo when our minds are full of worry, remorse, and guilt, we find that we more easily experience inner freedom. We find greater lightness and ease in our lives as we increasingly care for ourselves and other beings. More and more we experience the happiness of composure and strength.
This is a quality of happiness that is not going to fracture as conditions change, when people behave in disappointing ways, or when we do not get what we want. This is a kind of happiness based on knowing our interconnectedness, on the integrity of acting from our deepest values. This is the practice of freedom.
Sharon Salzberg is a renowned meditation teacher who played a crucial role in bringing mindfulness to the West. Sharon is a New York Times bestselling author of nine books, including Lovingkindness, Real Happiness and Real Love.