Tuesday, July 6, 2010


(To take up where I left off yesterday... This essay is still very much in draft form.) If I act out of unconsciousness, then, I am not free, but am rather obeying dictates that I may have learned to accept very early in life. If I was told by some respected authority—a teacher, for example—that I was lazy, I may continue to act out that laziness for the rest of my life without even being aware of the falseness of that inner voice. If I learned early on that it does not pay to raise one’s head above the horizon for fear of being hurt or ridiculed, I may well persist in that proven strategy for years, and unconsciously hide myself away from the very success I think I’m trying to achieve. It’s in such ways as these that we surrender more freedoms than those we so zealously struggle to protect.

There are, too, a couple of caveats about freedom that we tend to overlook. This is the first: If my freedom comes at the cost of another person’s, I am not truly free. The same is true of the natural world: if I insist on my “freedom” without concern for the environment I share with others, I am not truly free. Freedom bought at the expense of others comes at too high a price.The Buddhist teachings tell us the same about happiness: the only true happiness is that which does not impinge on the happiness of others.

We hear a great deal, these days, from those who loudly insist upon their freedoms, without concern for the well-being of others. I think, for example, of the demands of some who consider it their “constitutional right” to buy and sell weapons of all kinds at will. Given the carnage on the streets of our cities, it seems to me that this is a “freedom” that requires the exercise of some common sense—some sense of the common good.

By the same token, today’s Tea Party-ers, hewing the libertarian line, demand freedom from what they perceive to be the shackles of every form of government; as do corporate interests, rejecting regulation. These do not seem to me to be the kind of freedoms to which the founders of the country intended to lay claim with their Declaration. They would be amazed and, I think, appalled by some of the extremes to which their thinking has been taken by literalists today.Would they have countenanced, say, the “right” of off-road vehicle enthusiasts to despoil great tracts of vulnerable land? Or, on a larger scale, of oil companies to expose the natural environment to great risks in pursuit of corporate profits, without the safeguards of regulation and inspection?

Here’s the second caveat I perceive, and perhaps the final irony: the greater my attachment to freedom, the less I am actually free. This perception, too, has its roots in what I have learned from Buddhism: that attachments of any kind will surely lead to suffering. So here’s the paradox: I have to let go of freedom if I want to be free.

1 comment:

michael w said...

"The only true happiness is that which does not impinge on the happiness of others". It follows then that, for the world to be a happy place, the well-being of one third of its population can only bring each one of its citizens true happiness when their well-being is shared with and consequently no longer impinges on the other two thirds who, until that happens, on the whole starve while we happily (?)feast and booze!!? Utopia?