Monday, February 16, 2009

How free are we?

Have been thinking about it for sometime and here it is now in ink. We talk about being free and freedom is basically considered as a right to do what one wants to do - of course in the limits of social and judicial laws. You are not free to steal or to commit murder. I have had the good fortune of living my life in a free country so far. I was raised in India where social taboos are stronger, still you are free to a great extent and now I am in US - the ultimate free country. I believed in this definition of freedom for a long time and thanked my good fortune. Whenever, I heard about countries where there were military dictatorship or some other kind of oppression, I felt sorry for its inhabitants.

And then somewhere down the line, I started sitting and as I say, peeling of the onion began. How free I am, if all day I follow my desires and my attachments? How free I am, if my happiness and sorrows are controlled by external factors? Like a programmed robot - give me something that I want (I don't know always the "why" behind the want) and I will be happy, take it away from me and I am sad. Sing my praises and I am happy, criticize me and see how hurt I can get.

Dictionary defines freedom as - "the power to determine action without restraint". So we do not have external restraints, but what about internal ones? What drives us to do certain things and not others - why some of us after fame, some after power, money or beauty? What is the fuel that keeps us going - day after day, year after year, life after life? Where does it come from and how justified is it?

Regarding desires, I found that for some of them, I do not even understand the origin and I just act upon them. Sitting meditation allowed me to look at this process and question my never satisfying chase after desires. If I look carefully, a few of desires are result of conditioning, things that I was programmed to run after either by family or by society or by peer pressure. I feel a few of my desires are a result of my past karma, I need to pay certain debts and hence I am motivated to work in that direction. Because I live in US, I have certain desires and when I go back home to India, I see a whole another set of desires that emerge based upon socioeconomic conditions that prevail there. I have to admit, for some of desires and attachments, I can never find any reason and I just honor their presence.

So, how free we are? Are we in control of our happiness and satisfaction or not?


  1. Exactly. "Freedom" is only from "bondage", and "bondage" only applies to those who are not free. How could a bound entity be free? It never could be, except perhaps if it were already inherently free, as in the freedom of simply being, which we train to be intimate with in meditation. All questing for freedom betrays an inner sense of bondage, which, being internal, could not but be of the nature of freedom. Our true freedom lies in the realization that we have never, could never, and will never be bound, except in a superficial and entirely conceptual sense.

  2. "Are we in control of our happiness and satisfaction?"

    I think not. We cannot control what arises from moment to moment. Happiness ay arise, fear may arise, anger may arise....what I do think we can work on, through sitting, is our response to it, and as we react less to these things, it follows like night to day that one begins to feel happier, because one is not being tossed about by strong negative emotions.

    Such a fabulous post and good questions you pose here--how free are we if we continue to react to external, and internal, stimulus?

  3. Noa - thanks for comments. The sense of "I" or ego is what bounds us and it is such a basic and fundamental thing to be associated with that fear of loosing it is probably the biggest fear. However, it is also the greatest liberation.

    Molly - bingo! we cannot control what arises and in this realization, lies the freedom. Knowing that things will arise as there are conditions prevailing and even, our response is going to be based on our mental condition at that time. We tend to think we control our nature and our mental state, but do we really? How does mental state get manipulated?

  4. I don't know how free I can say that I am. It seems good to come to the question, though. I consider that I would have to have a perspective outside of myself, to absolutely say how free I am. I cannot say this is possible for me, nor that it would be much more than my opinion, in any case.

    I seek to be free of delusion -- to determine word and action as free of restraint of delusion -- and even in how I seek this I am not perfect. Nor can I say it is "enough". I know it is not enough to simply say so.


  5. Thanks S.C. Yes, you have to stand outside of yourself so as to speak and observe how you obey commands of your desires and wants. The amazing thing is that our definition of freedom is that one can do whatever one pleases and in my mind the question is - where do my desires come from on which I act? Are they really mine or are they result of my environment's interaction with myself? My desires and wants are based on my surrounding environment and my capability to interact with it. For example, I do not have desire to become President of US but I have other desires which match closely with what people in my surrounding environment have. There is no independent, self arising depends on conditions around me. Then how can I say that they are really mine? And they do drive me all day long..:)

  6. In how I see it, if it originates from me, it is mine, and my own responsibility.

    I cannot deny that I am affected by circumstances around me, but my responses to those circumstances remain my own. If there is a tangibility of those external circumstances, their tangible stuff must first be filtered through my own personality before my response will occur.

    I cannot deny that there may occur an external event that would strongly affect oneself. Never is an event so strong that it would take over the mind of a person.

    Mind might become consumed with concerns; concerns occur as responses. Cause and response are essentially distinct, though one might (emotionally) pull strongly on the other.

    This in how I consider the matters.


  7. My response is affected after the writings of Takuan Soho to the Samurai Yagyu Munenori, letters as translated and printed in The Unfettered Mind -- it is avaialble online at google books.

    There are a number of portions of the work, in which Takuan addresses latent cause, and latent effect, and manifest cause, and manifest effect. I would say that these concepts, in as Takuan presents the same, would bear some relevance in regards to environmental effect and personal response.

    I cannot say that my ideas are derived directly after what he wrote, but I know that his writing must be present in the causes to my views on this.


  8. Thanks again SC. The thing that perplexes me is that we say it is my response and that response is based on how this machine called "I" is programmed and configured. If it is patient, why is so? If it is aggressive, why is it so? Because of this, different people generate different response under the same circumstances.

    We are born with some traits and they remain with us life long. We did not generate those, they were with us always and that is what constitues the difference between people's personalities. How did that come to be? If I was really my own master, I should be able to manipulate my responses and not be bound by my programming. If it is cause and effect (become happy when desire is fulfilled and sad when not), where is the I?

  9. May I say that I enjoy this dialogue.

    In as I view self, I consider that self is not bound by programming, in any involuntary way.

    Programming, if we are talking of genetic programs, is of one bunch of matters.

    One could split all the metaphoric beauty out of the dandelion's form, and say that a dandelion is exactly programmed to flower as it does -- but do we even know enough to truly say that much, if we do not know what every sequence of a dandelion's genetic stuff is for, and how it is realized in the organism?

    What one might refer to as 'programming', in another sense, perhaps it could also be referred to as, 'conditioning'. I consider that it is entirely voluntary, though at some levels it could seem difficult to overcome (when as one would seek to).

    If one would desire to overcome, entirely, a matter of conditioning, it must be possible. Is anyone involuntarily bound to a conditioned behavior, in the first place?

    For instance: I chain myself to my coffee and cigarettes, voluntarily, for I have not overcome the desire to partake of these, nor do I presently intend to not partake of these. I am aware that the cigarettes are not healthy for me, and that is still not among my first concerns.

    I chain myself to being punctual for work, voluntarily. In some broader explanation, it is due to this: I do not want to volunteer myself for such trouble as I'd run into, for being non-punctual without good reason (and it's not an all-conventional job I'm in, just to say)

    I am not in control of such matters as would result in my getting into trouble if I was late with no good reason for it. I am not free of the responsibility that effectively requires that I will be punctual. I am free to up and disappear from my job, though that would have some very serious consequences. I am also free to not take the requirement of punctuality as if it was way too serious of a thing, which I consider that it is not.

    There are things that I am not free from, and such is life. (I try not to internalize what is not mine, originally.)

    I do not know if I am born with any traits other than those that I was physically born with, honestly.

    There are plenty of behaviors that I've learned from my parents -- so I've come to realize -- and plenty of those that I seek to overcome. I might never know if I have completely overcome those or not, but I try to, and this is enough for me.

    I is where it is. The earth is where it is, too, and I is somewhere in the body of this person standing on it. I think that is enough for me to know of where I is. I do not strain to see my shadow, it is where it is too.

    What does it mean? Corn grows in tall stalks. Rivers run downhill. The sickle is sharp to cut the wheat with, though it cannot see the hand that wields it, the sickle with no eyes nor ears.

    I can see what is happening to me, I can consider what I am doing, and I can do what I intend to, insofar as such-and-such allows. This is enough freedom, to me.

    I would not want to be free to start suddenly floating way, after all -- and I am free to roll downhill too, if I must.

  10. :)

    I am not talking of genetic programming, but more like pattern of behavior. Conditioning is something that happens because of influence of environment.

    If you look deeper, you will find yourself different from others in some respect. If you have siblings, you can see that they are different from you even though brought up by same parents. Why is this difference? Is it created by you and your siblings or you had a certain nature that you are born with? There are reasons why we are all different and it is not voluntary. We can try to change some patterns of behavior but we cannot fundamentally alter ourselves.

    We respond to conditions according to some pre-programmed logic - for example, if you get what you wanted, you are happy or else sad. If you are truly a master of your self, you should be able to manipulate the response. You should also be able to manipulate your wants which are a result of enviroment, conditioning and your state of mind. You should be able to manipulate your state of mind any time, if you are truly free. But state of mind again depends on input from environment.