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Bondage or Freedom?

In these days when Western governments use the threat of terrorism as a pretext to erode our civil liberties and countries become fortresses as they erect false barriers between themselves and their next door neighbors, it’s time, perhaps, to scrutinize one of the most emotive words in the English-language–“freedom”. What does it really mean?

Dictionaries may attempt to define it, but to each and every one of us it means something entirely different dependent on our personal circumstances. We all have our chains, which bind–either physical or imagined. Most of us fantasize about how we can escape at some point in our lives. In the end, we inevitably make compromises. The only absolute escape from the constraints of life is, of course, when the spark goes out.

In the period between birth and the state we call death we can only strive for our own brand of freedom. For the man or woman behind bars, freedom can be reduced to choosing how many showers to have each day. For the hungry it could mean a loaf of bread or a bowl of rice. For the sick, it can mean a curtailment of pain or disability.

For those locked in an unhappy relationship, freedom could be a euphoric release from unwanted commitment. For the unfortunates who have little choice but to live the same day of their lives over and over again in a repetitive humdrum job, freedom boils down to education or wealth.

Then there are people with the monkey of depression always sitting on their shoulders. Freedom for these blighted souls means the demise of the dark simian and the renaissance of their own will.

For the addict, who ironically turned to his substance in search of freedom and, instead, found himself in bondage, freedom means command over his gnawing desires.

The religious often describe it as ecstasy when the mundane is replaced with a flood of joy during meditation or prayer. Buddhists believe Nirvana is complete freedom as well as freedom from illusion. When man is free, he will be above birth, old age and death. He will escape suffering, which they believe is the result of ignorance.

The controversial Indian guru Rajneesh (Osho) believed that love could only exist in perfect freedom. The local population vilified his ashram in Pune as the place where Osho’s followers were encouraged to be promiscuous in an atmosphere of free love.

Osho believed that only by tasting everything do we have clear choices. His credo was the antithesis of abstinence giving such examples as locking a child in a sweetshop overnight would cure him of greed. He believed that abstinence could be chosen only after satiation. He believed that without such satiation, the abstainer would unhealthily dwell on the foresworn object like an alcoholic who tries to dry out in a pub. While everyone else might see friends, chairs, tables, a darts board and so on, the alcoholic would salivate over enticing bottles on shelves.

The Danish writer and philosopher Soren Aabye Kierkegaard said: “People demand freedom of speech to make up for freedom of thought, which they avoid.” His words resonate with me these days when the self-appointed patriot sheep bleat loud while the dogs herd them into a pen of ignorance as the bloated hawks circle overhead.

Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote that freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of a problem and asserted that freedom entails the breaking of the debilitating, consuming concern with the self. For those pursuing answers in religion or from cult-ish figures, it could be liberating to understand that the more we know, the less we know. When I understood that in the same way a stone cannot know a cat and a television without an aerial is practically useless, I came to accept that humans might not have the ability or the antenna to understand esoteric secrets. From there comes peace.

Philosophers, such as Abraham Maslow talk about ‘peak experience’, a mental high when our self-imposed blinkers fall off and we spontaneously receive a bird’s eye view of the universe and our own place in it, instead of the walls with which we have unconsciously surrounded ourselves.

Peak experiences are self-validating moments with their own intrinsic value; never negative, unpleasant or evil; disoriented in time and space; and accompanied by a loss of fear, anxiety, doubts and inhibitions. This is surely someone’s definition of “freedom”.

Maslow believed that spontaneous peak experience happened to well-adjusted individuals but everyone had the capacity to alter their own mood.

For example, upbeat people who are told to slump their shoulders, dwell on a miserable past experience and to engineer their own unhappiness are usually able to do so with ease. In this case, the reverse must be true. Due to the symbiotic nature of the mind and the body, as we see when concentrating on a lemon can make us feel thirsty, standing up straight and recalling a beautiful moment can un-depress.

The British writer Colin Wilson interpreted ‘Peak Experience’ as “a tensing of will, followed by total relaxation”. He evolved a technique for inducing this: “I would take a pencil and hold it up against a blank wall. I would concentrate intently on the pencil until I saw nothing but the pencil. Then I would concentrate intently, and let go again, and so on.

“When I had done that about 10 times, I would begin to feel a kind of pain behind the eyes. When you feel that pain, press on as hard as you can, because you are almost there. Two or three more times and suddenly you relax totally into the Peak Experience. If you do it with total conviction it always works.

“We tend to go around with one eye permanently closed so we lose our distance-vision. Life becomes a kind of permanent worms-eye view, an endless, boring close-up-ness. We lose all power of perspective. We forget the world is full of infinite potential,” he wrote.

Like happiness, the sensation of being free fluctuates. It’s often transient, as elusive as love. It’s a sensation, which can be triggered by externals such as the ocean crashing on the rocks or a star-brilliant desert sky when the realization that there is so much over which we mere mortals have no control takes hold. It is then that our ego diminishes, no longer required in a universe in which we are so insignificant.

Writer, poet, magician and mountain climber Aliester Crowley, once described as ‘the most wicked man in Britain’ believed that freedom depended on “knowing your true will”.

Crowley maintained that we go through life blown hither and thither under the influences of friends, family, society and our own imagined limitations. And unless we were able to discover what we truly wanted in life, then we were mere slaves to circumstance.

His “Do what thou will be the whole of the law” was believed to be a recipe for selfishness or licentiousness. In reality, it was an exhortation for individuals not to waste this one life (as far as we know) in pursuits imposed by others or what we mistakenly believe society requires of us.

To this end, he would tell his acolytes to sit on a mountaintop for days or weeks until they discovered their true will. There, they would experience initial boredom, followed by frustration and rage, usually to emerge in a state of calm contemplation.

However we might feel about Crowley, this is surely one of his positive contributions. There are lawyers and accountants going around with the soul of a painter or a musician and they wonder why life is unsatisfactory.

There are individuals living in cold, dull climates who would be invigorated by warmth and bright light. There are those who hang on in abusive marriages and exert useless efforts like the man who kept pouring mineral water on rocks hoping flowers would bloom.

Slowly, insidiously, we begin to believe that this is our life; this is what we want; there is no other alternative. In reality, there always is.

This is what freedom is about, or at least my own perception of it. Freedom is about having choices and acting upon them. But before we know what to choose we must know what we truly want. That is the difficult part.

Even if we get to that delicious stage when we know what we want, our true will, we must then develop another type of will, a Will with a capital ‘W’. This is the Russian philosopher Georges Gurdjieff’s version of Will–the Will to do, to act or to achieve.

Gurdjieff likened the human being to a machine, a robot, if you like which responds automatically to external triggers. When someone is aggressive or rude, we respond with anger. We say “I’m tired” or “I’m hungry” or “I’m sick”. The eccentric but brilliant Russian said that we should start to think in terms of ‘it is tired’ or ‘I have fatigue’ rather than identifying a temporary state with the essence of who we are, what he calls our “being”.

Gurdjieff explained that we are not one “I” but a mass of conflicting and constantly changing “Is” at times tired, hungry and sick but also happy, sad, envious, pained etc.

He gives the example of a person who goes to bed at night with one of his “I’s” vowing to get up early in the morning to go work. But when the alarm clock goes off, a completely different “I” takes over the body, an “I” which doesn’t want to get up for the office at all. This “I” demands that the body rolls over and resumes its slumber. Yet, another “I” may want to go and cook breakfast. The result is internal conflict and a leaking of mental and physical energy.

Developing a master “I”, one that would dominate the minor “Is” into relentlessly pursuing a single goal was one of the main themes of Gurdjieff’s teachings. He compared the master “I” with the driver of a coach who whips his horses until they all journey in the same direction instead of pulling in different ones.

Freedom is ultimately in our own hands but our early conditioning helps too. I consider myself privileged to have had a father who from the time I could crawl taught me that the world is my oyster. He made me feel important and set no false limitations on anywhere I may care to go or any challenge I wished to undertake. He told me I was beautiful and talented, with the sky my only limit. Perhaps If I had been born after the exploration of space, he wouldn’t even have set that celestial barrier to achievement.

He recounted tales of faraway lands visited during his days at sea where eggs could be fried by the sun’s rays; where Bedouin drank camel milk; where femmes fatales slipped Mickey Finns into the glasses of unsuspecting sailors; where thick white clouds hung over a range of mountains like a tablecloth; and where a lady called Liberty welcomed weary strangers to a neon-lit, glamorous international melee.

As a result, I desired to travel more than anything else in life, to experience as much as I could and developed a hunger not to waste a second of this precious existence, wishing for a twin, one who went out as I came in, like the words of a Streisand song.

Circumstance led to my growing up in a multi-cultural area of London where my school friends were Cypriots, Pakistanis and Jamaicans and my neighbors Anglo-Indians. I soaked up their languages, tasted their food, attempted to understand their cultures and realized over time that their hopes and aspirations were similar to mine. It was powerfully liberating to experientially know that we really are all brother and sisters under the skin, rather than as an intellectual concept or an empty cliche.

In my own experience, freedom must be fought for. It doesn’t come easy. It requires a certain type of ruthlessness, a taking of the bull by the horns, which may mean there are often casualties on the way. It may mean discarding overly needy or negative people who sap our energy. It may mean rejecting anyone who possessively tries to put us in a corral. It may mean throwing off the constraints of a religion, adopted by an accident of birth, societal mores, and blind nationalism. It may mean choosing not to have children or conversely to have them, as for some the immortality of their genes can be freeing.

Jean-Paul Sartre summed up freedom with “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you”–simple, yet pregnant with meaning. We should not blame our parents, teachers, family, friends or politicians for how we live our lives here and now. That’s a coward’s option, the road of a failed human always on the look out for a scapegoat to excuse his own weaknesses. We are our own keepers, in charge of our own destinies…if only we knew.

When I think of a free spirit, my mother comes to mind. On a warm June day, she bought an ice-cream cone from a street vendor, smiled and then stuck it on my nose. She did it because she felt like it. Not everyone would agree but in my book that’s real freedom.

Linda Heard is an editor, journalist and political columnist and can be contacted at questioningmedia@yahoo.co.uk

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