There’s a spiritual concept that seems to create a good deal of confusion. It goes by the name of freedom or liberation, both terms referring not to political freedom but inner freedom. The reason that “freedom” has a spiritual meaning is that a state of total freedom is possible. The confusion arises because at first glance we already feel free inside, most of the time, at least. Our thoughts and feelings are our own. We can be persuaded or coerced to change our minds, but in the end we decide for ourselves.
In reality most people experience only a taste of inner freedom. They exist in a state of limitation that is far removed from total freedom. I discuss the desirability of total freedom in my new book, Total Meditation, and I’d like to offer a preview here.
We cannot be free inside if some experiences frighten or distress us. We shut out and deny them, and as a result many if not most experiences get edited, censored, forgotten, and pushed aside in favor of a narrow band of experience that feels safe. Limited freedom is based on what you can reasonably expect from life. Total freedom begins by looking on life as a field of infinite possibilities. It takes some persuasion to make total freedom seem like more than a pipe dream, however. Is it even desirable to feel totally open, unbounded, and free of boundaries to keep us safe?
A key issue here is spontaneity. Spontaneity is without rules, which seems like a recipe for anarchy. Rule enforcement is the surest way to keep people in line, or so the rule enforcers believe. Consider the extreme example of applying to the bank for a personal loan in China. If you want a loan there, you can use your smartphone, and online lending agencies check you out electronically, using data stored in the cloud. An applicant gets accepted or rejected for a loan in one-tenth of a second, after the lending agency has checked out 5,000 (!) personal factors, including how firmly your hand moved when you filled out your application and how low you let your phone battery get before recharging it.
Each of us is happy to enforce rules upon ourselves—we don’t need an authority figure to do it for us. Self-discipline and impulse control are considered desirable as marks of a mature adult. There’s a famous experiment in child psychology in which a youngster is placed in a chair with a marshmallow on a table in front of them. The child is told they can eat the marshmallow right now, but if they wait five minutes, they will be given two marshmallows. The experimenter then leaves the room and watches what unfolds through a two-way mirror. Some children fidget, fighting the impulse for immediate gratification. Others grab the marshmallow instantly or wait patiently until the five minutes is up. (You can view their behavior on an endearing YouTube video, “The Marshmallow Test.”)
This experiment implies that we already have a predisposition toward impulse control (or not) from a very early age. However, many of life’s greatest gifts involve spontaneity, including falling in love, appreciating beauty, composing music, making art, being surprised with “Aha!” moments, and having so-called peak experiences.
How can we make spontaneity be life-enhancing without the need to suppress it? The solution is to stop imposing limitations in the first place. This is possible only from the level of total consciousness. Everyone is divided inside between what is permitted and what is forbidden. You can’t resolve this conflict at the level of awareness dictated by the divided self.
The war we have with ourselves takes place in the divided self. All manner of judgments, beliefs, fear of bad consequences, memories of past embarrassment, and socially trained inhibitions are entangled together inside us. Trying to resolve each conflict one at a time is pointless and fated to fail. When we try to decide how spontaneous we want to be we confront the fact that the divided self doesn’t really trust itself.
Happily, everyone enjoys enough freedom to enjoy moments of spontaneity, and if we are awake enough, we can experience laughter, joy, and playfulness our entire life (if only this were the norm). The deeper spiritual truth holds that freedom is absolute. When you are settled in yourself and there are no more dark places to fear, nothing hides out of sight. The damaging effect of self-suppression lessens with every step you take to get rid of self-judgment. Bad behavior grows only more enticing when it is forbidden, like leaving the cookie jar out but telling a little child not to grab a cookie. We all know what happens when the mother’s back is turned.
Right now you are both your own rule enforcer and a rebel against the rules. It takes a journey into consciousness to become undivided. You are not designed to prosecute and defend yourself at the same time. You are designed so the next thing you want to do is the best thing for you. That’s a radical rethinking of what society tells us to believe, but when you adopt a lifestyle based on consciousness, reality will dawn. Spontaneity is the essence of life and the soul of creativity.
Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission
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