“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Freedom is an important human value. The US constitution defines it as a basic right. It can be tempting to think of freedom as being able to do or say whatever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want. However, true freedom comes from within – the freedom to choose one’s own path cannot be prevented by anything outside of us.
In light of this, freedom might be better conceptualized as unobstructed awareness and liberation from hinderances. In order to access this freedom to choose, we have to understand and transcend the things that most often hold us captive, such as ignorance, attachment and aversion.
Ignorance is not knowing – a lack of awareness or wisdom. We may not have enough experience for true understanding or we may lack mindfulness, being too distracted or not attending to what is here in the present moment. We can also be confused, misperceiving or misunderstanding reality through the projection of our own fears and desires. How can we be free if we are unaware of the very possibility of freedom?
Our attachments can be limiting when our attention is hijacked by things we like, that feel good, or that appeal to us. We relentlessly pursue the things we are attached to and we work hard to sustain them. In addition, we cling to ideas or beliefs about the way things should be. In this relentless pursuit of desires and preferences, we fail to notice much of what is here in the present moment – including the fact that nothing outside of us brings true lasting happiness. How can we be free when we are chained to concepts that define our reality?
Our aversions can be equally limiting, because we spend so much time and energy avoiding, pushing away, distracting ourselves from, ignoring, denying, or fighting against things we don’t like. When we are very irritated or annoyed by some thing or someone, we often fail to recognize that we are gazing into a mirror at some quality that we harbor in ourselves that needs some attention. How can we be free when we are perpetually on the run from perceived tormentors?
Fortunately there are ways to begin to transcend these limiting attitudes and behaviors. The most important step is to recognize them in ourselves and better understand them. This takes courage, curiosity and devotion. Self-awareness can be cultivated through mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga. Through these practices, we develop the skill of non-judgmentally observing what arises in us in any given situation, which eventually allows us some space to consider rather than to merely react. Mindfulness practices give us the opportunity to:
- open and gain insight into whatever is here now, rather than ignoring or pushing away things we don’t like, and
- let go of grasping at and clinging to things that do not serve us.
Wisdom comes through this willingness to see things as they really are, rather than filtering our experiences through a veil of fear, desire, preferences and concepts. Equanimity – a quality of balance and stability, even in difficult circumstances – arises from this increased understanding.
Instead of being mindlessly dragged around, dominated by strong emotion or pain, the wisdom and equanimity cultivated through mindfulness bring a calm, undisturbed space in which we have the opportunity to choose our path. This is true freedom.