The Art of Living Free

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Photo via Pixabay.

by John Langstaff

Are you free? Most people, if asked such a question, would very likely respond, “Yes.” In general, we live comfortably with one another in the world; if we are not entirely content with our lot, we are pacified by the thought that we can improve it to a certain extent if we so desire. We are able to acquire possessions, carry on relationships, eat what we want for dinner. We are not likely to starve or freeze to death in a cave or be thrown into prison for making sarcastic remarks about the government. But is this really being free?

Things “beyond our control” very often arise from internal stresses we place upon ourselves – the discrepancy between what we want and what we have, or between what we would like to be and what we think we are.

Let’s put the question another way; what would you like to be doing right now, at this very moment? Are you doing that? If you are, then I applaud you; freedom is simply the ability to act without constraint, and there is not much better measure of this than whether or not you are able to do what you like at any given time. If you are not, however, let’s take a few moments to consider why. Perhaps you’d rather be sailing but you have to be at work instead. Or you might like to go to the movies but you haven’t enough money after buying the weekly groceries. Or maybe you’d like a better job but you’re sure that the one you have now is the best you can do. You may be intimidated into not even looking for another because you feel that even if you found one, you would not get it – or that if you got the job, you couldn’t do it. This seems to be an entirely different situation than the other two; the cause can very clearly be identified as an internal one – lack of self-confidence – whereas the other two appear to be external factors beyond one’s control. However, I believe that very often those things “beyond our control” arise from internal stresses we place upon ourselves – the discrepancy between what we want and what we have, or between what we would like to be and what we think we are.

People often get into the habit, very early in life, of accepting certain beliefs as truths without really examining them. This is understandable; most children lack the critical faculties necessary to discern whether something is rational and logical or not. With most people, adolescence is the first time that any of the core beliefs are really questioned; this period is usually one of examining and sometimes rejecting old beliefs while re-identifying oneself with new ones. This would be an ideal situation to lead into a rich lifelong exploration of the nature of reality and one’s abilities in relation to that, except that pressures from other quarters often cut short these wanderings. Just as one is beginning to get the hang of acquiring new ideas and pushing one’s mind further, the group mind intervenes. School is over, figuratively as well as literally, and one is expected to take one’s place in the grand machine of society. Any odd parts would, of course, not let the machine run properly, and so we toss them aside into the bins for “unsuitable pieces” – those places we refer to as prisons and hospitals. But who is really in prison – the individual in a cell who can think what he likes, or the one who is a slave to the machine?

Who is really in prison – the individual in a cell who can think what he likes, or the one who is a slave to the machine?

Let us return for a moment to the concept of the group mind. Think of the entire human population of the world as one vast organism with each individual being a cell in that organism. In a life form of any size, each cell must contribute to the welfare of the whole; each part must perform its function or put the entire organism at risk. The large-scale human organism attains a certain level of consciousness but seems unable to push past this barrier because every time certain cells (individuals) begin to accelerate and raise the level of consciousness, the “immune system” which is threatened by a change in the organism releases antibodies to destroy the potential danger. This is not unlike cancer, where the body, in effect, turns upon itself in order to destroy the invader. In this analogy, the immune system and its antibodies would be akin to the group mind mentality of society. Among others, we have two major institutions which serve this function under the guise of bettering mankind: religion and education.

Now, I realize that there are outstanding educators and excellent schools which do not try to force everyone into the same mold. We should encourage them; they deserve far more support and recognition than they usually get. But these are unfortunately few, and I am speaking here of the typical method of education today. The education system – particularly the average school system in the United States – fosters a standard of mediocrity and discourages free thought. This is appalling, considering that the function of an education system should be to encourage and assist with the learning of skills and the acquisition of knowledge. This is where the primary socialization process takes place – where individuals learn how to interact with others. What they are being taught is that being “average” is not only acceptable but preferred. For all the emphasis on “excellence” and “achievement,” it is still the median mind which is best served in the current education system. Lessons are geared to the average student. Those who cannot keep up are often left behind, not given the help they need to comprehend (not everyone learns in the same way); the brightest students are left unchallenged, doing lessons by rote, held back and confined from pursuing the questions that would be “too disruptive” to the rest of the class.

Those who have a profoundly mystical experience firsthand are likely to be treated in much the same way as the intellectually gifted child in school who asks too many questions – as a nuisance and an uncomfortable reminder that “average” and “normal” are not all there is.

In religion, too, those questions that are too disruptive or disturbing are squelched or ignored. Religion proposes to uplift the spirit and “do good,” which sounds like a positive and powerful idea. And some in this field do that very thing, but just as in the education field, these are relatively rare. Most churches do not advocate any sort of direct spiritual experience or personal contact with the divine; the priest or minister is considered the intermediary and guide, a role not unlike that of the school teacher. Those who may have a profoundly mystical experience firsthand are likely to be treated in much the same way as the intellectually gifted child in school who asks too many questions – as a nuisance and an uncomfortable reminder that “average” and “normal” are not all there is and that we are given precious little information about what may lie beyond that.

By now it is probably quite clear why so many philosophers have spoken in terms of the idea that we live in a prison. It is expressed by some as being “asleep” and needing to awaken. In more recent years psychologists have coined the concept of “learned helplessness” which may be applied to the current discussion very nicely. For those not versed in psychological jargon, “learned helplessness” can be explained as the phenomena that occurs when a subject is confined or punished in some way and then proceeds to modify behavior accordingly, persisting in it even after the confines are removed or the punishment stopped.

For instance, consider a puppy that is kept in a fenced-in area. A six-foot high fence is too tall for a small puppy to leap over. In trying repeatedly to jump the fence without success, the puppy soon learns that it cannot do this. It does not reason out why it cannot do so; it is sufficient that it knows it cannot do this. The puppy, in effect, trains itself not to jump over the fence. It is not worth the effort of repeated attempts ending in failure (particularly if a negative reinforcement such as being yelled at or smacked with a rolled-up newspaper is added whenever the puppy tries to jump the fence). Having learned to expect failure, even when the puppy is grown into a full-sized dog which would be quite capable of jumping the fence, it is not likely to even try to do so unless some extreme situation occurs. In a similar way, most people are not likely to repeat behavior that is frustrating or unrewarding, and so when it becomes clear in school or church (or at home or among friends) that asking questions or thinking independently is frowned upon, the individual becomes discouraged from doing so and is not likely to persist. It is easier to “settle” for what one is given. Beliefs are established (and come to be accepted as fact) far more easily than they are dissected and adjusted to accommodate what one may have actually seen and experienced.

Is this “living free”? I would hazard a guess that many of us would say that it isn’t even close. But we need not accept the situation; we do have some control over the amount of freedom we are willing to take, even if it has to be regained one tiny piece at a time.

Let us return to the idea of the large organism known as humanity. All living beings carry within themselves the mechanisms and instincts for survival and growth. Not all of this is conscious behavior, of course; much is on a purely instinctual level. Most animals pay better attention to the signals their body sends than humans do, but we can re-learn how to listen and observe. For instance, if a cat ingests something dangerous to its system, you may see it eating grass. Why? Because the grass is an irritant and will very likely make the cat expel from its system whatever it may have eaten that it shouldn’t have. Does the cat know this? Probably not in the same sense that we know to take an aspirin if we have a headache – but it trusts its body to know what it needs, and it responds accordingly to these instincts. Our own bodies give us information as well about what they need and what they don’t. We don’t often listen very closely, but it is not difficult to do once a “dialogue” is established. This is why you may find yourself, for example, feeling tired and sluggish and experiencing an unusual craving for red meat; your appetite is attempting to remedy the anemic state of your blood, trying to replenish the low iron levels by prompting you to eat food high in iron.

You may be quite surprised at how many of your beliefs are held over from years ago and no longer really apply to the person you are now. You may also be startled by how many things others regard as “truth” are really beliefs about truth or reality.

On a large scale, the organism of humanity continues to experience the outbreaks of rebellion and sudden insights characteristic of adolescent behavior because somehow, on an instinctual level of the mass of collective consciousness, we know that there is more to life than what we are now, and we continue to try to stumble toward that unknown “beyond.” Although individuals may be forced into submission and conformity by the “antibodies” of the group mind, the fact remains that the turbulence (and curiosity) continues to occur with increasingly insistent frequency. The questioning is never completely silenced. The group mind never wholly succeeds in quelling the inner need to explore and push one’s limits – and if the “antibodies” do not destroy the threat to the organism, then perhaps it was never a “disease” so much as a “genetic” part of our evolutionary process that we have not been willing to examine until now. If some being from afar took a look at humanity as a large single life form, it might observe that we are on the verge of some sort of breakthrough, like a child trying to stand and take its first steps or say its first words. Perhaps it might be more fitting to compare us to our puppy behind the fence, overgrown now and on the brink of discovering that we need not keep sitting in our cage.

So where do we go from here? If we are willing to admit that perhaps we are not as free as we’ve thought, how do we begin to break out – to use our abilities that we’ve allowed to lie dormant, to ask the questions that will lead us into deeper areas of exploration? A good first step is to be willing to look at ourselves with open eyes. Examining one’s beliefs is helpful and can be a lengthy but very enlightening process; you may be quite surprised at how many of your beliefs are held over from years ago and no longer really apply to the person you are now. You may also be startled by how many things others regard as “truth” are really beliefs about truth or reality. This is generally far easier to spot in others than in ourselves, but if we are genuinely honest with ourselves and are willing to look closely, we can find our own “blind spots” as well.

Above all, we must realize that becoming free is an art. It must be practiced. It must be encouraged. Although what we may really be doing might be simply trying to return to an original “state of grace,” the practice of being human (in this world at least) tends to perpetuate ignorance of what our true nature may be. But in questioning, we gain glimpses – and once we catch sight of what we are, we learn to feed that idea. We must be open to the possibility that we can transcend even our own expectations. And once we have begun to see the possibilities, we must be willing to engage in the art of living free.

© Copyright 2001 by John Langstaff. Republished 2004, 2013, 2015.

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