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Freedom is...

The author walking in the woods, holding the hand of his young grand-neice
A moment of feeling free - together

There I was, standing in line at the coop. No big deal, except that this line was actually outside the coop, and there was six feet of distance between each individual. I flashed back to my recent trip to Cuba where I saw people standing in line outside the banks and gas stations. My impression of these lines in Cuba was a remembrance of the deep conditioning I have received as an American, that waiting in line to get access to basic needs and services is the pinnacle of a failed society. It was only a month ago, and while I knew that people all around the world often have to wait in lines for services, the idea that I would soon be doing the same was inconceivable.

Of course it is not lack of supplies that we are most preoccupied with at the moment, it is a lack of what we conceive of as freedom. There are but a handful of people who grew up in America who remember a time when there were restrictions on our ability to consume, and to commingle, as there are today. The only time I’m aware of rationing of any kind since WWII was the brief passing of the oil crisis in the 70s when prices of gasoline skyrocketed and there was controlled buying for a very short period of time. But I don’t think either of those circumstances comes close to what is happening to our sense of freedom in the covid-19 pandemic.

What an opportunity to stop and consider notions of freedom in the land of the free. There are many beautiful aspects of freedom in our culture, the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness embodies notions of human rights, human desires and human needs. While we continue to struggle to offer these basic aspects of freedom to all citizens and all inhabitants, the aspirations are certainly worthy.

I’m not so sure though about many other aspects of freedom in our culture, in our psyche. I think we run into deep trouble when we explore how we seek “freedom from”. We are deeply attached to the idea of being free from restrictions on our spending, on our traveling, on our congregating, on our choosing and most of all, freedom of inconvenience.

Standing in a socially-distanced line, being supervised by a store employee triggers many of these buttons we’ve constructed.

The synchronicity was not surprising to me then, when this morning I opened my copy of Radical Wholeness by Phillip Shepherd, and found my placeholder was at the subtitle, Freedom as Disconnection. Shepherd lays out the tyranny we impose on ourselves as we pursue notions of freedom that are built on the notion of freedom from. We want freedom from obligation, freedom from responsibility, freedom from intrusion. Our notions of freedom are deeply intwined with financial wealth and the opportunities to be free that come with the ability to buy secluded homes with security systems, to travel in private jets or at least sheltered within SUVs and RVs, or to consume products that very few others can consume. Just spend some time reflecting on all the things you would do (or not do) if you won the lottery (the mythical path to freedom available to anyone with $2 to spare) and you will be amazed at how many of those fantasies involve freedoms of disconnection.

What was pleasantly surprising, was how Shepherd contrasted freedom of disconnection with Joseph Campbell’s notion of Heroism in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The hero’s journey, played out countless times throughout human history, hinges on the hero’s (often reluctant) acceptance of their obligation to a purpose greater than themselves. To reach this acceptance, the hero has to surrender to the inevitable, they must no longer avoid, or use their privilege to deny; in short, they must open to the circumstances of the present moment, simply accepting what is over what they want it to be.

The profound gift of the hero’s story is that true freedom, the kind of freedom that transforms your life from mundane concerns, that frees you from the tyranny of being in conflict with all of those around you, is gained by opening to the present moment and accepting what actually is happening around you.

Standing in line at the grocery store. I can rage at the perceived injustice, the assault on my liberty, my dignity, or I can simply be in the present moment accepting that the line is my connection to my community, to the protection of the health of hundreds of people within a stones throw of my location. I can feel and hold the anxiety of my fellow shoppers as well as reciprocate bids of connection and support by those who offer conversation.

I’ve been practicing meditation and cultivating the ability to be in the present for quite some time. There are so many mental and emotional benefits that come from this practice. I think I forgot though the notion of freedom that comes with this practice, despite having been inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing on this very topic long ago in , Stepping Into Freedom.

As I prepare to engage with my daily activities I am aware of the back and forth between remembrances that I cannot just take a walk downtown to get a cup of coffee, or that I will not be heading to the lounge this evening to cavort with my friends, and my aspirations to live today one moment at a time, opening to the present and the opportunity I have to connect with it. Hmmm, interesting that it is called, the heroic journey.

The next time you feel yourself frustrated and wishing you were free of whatever is happening in the moment, pause, and ask yourself, “what is the present moment asking of me, that I am not giving?”. Possible answers are, my generosity, compassion, patience, fortitude, sensitivity, courage, or intellect (to name a few). What part of my whole being is not present? How can I bring it into the present moment? Notice how different this is from, “What is happening right now that I cannot accept and feel I must change?”

If you are having trouble calming down more often these days, this short exercise might help, you can watch the video or just listen to the audio files.

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