Monday, May 13, 2013

Cultivating Freedom

Today is Monday, May 13, 2013.

Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is a teacher, author, and peace activist who makes his home in a monastery in France.  I've seen this quote of his floating around the Internet, and it keeps capturing my attention. A number of blogs and articles have been written on the topic of cultivating freedom, but I think one more will not go amiss, because it's obviously something that most human beings haven't quite figured out yet. 

Here in the United States, we are used to thinking of freedom as something we "won" from the British back in 1776.  It was something we had to fight for.  Of course, nobody wants to mention that in taking this land for our own, the European colonists took away the freedom of the various Indian tribes whose land we appropriated.  Not only that, but the Indians were the last group to be accorded citizenship.  It wasn't until 1924 and passage of the Indian Citizenship Act that all Indians were given citizenship status.  Before that time, only certain people in certain tribes were able to attain citizenship.  That still didn't mean they had the right to vote!  It wasn't until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Indians and Blacks had the right to vote, and as we all know, not all states were in compliance with the law right away.  With the new voting registration laws, another hurdle has been placed in front of Native Americans and others who have neither a driver's license nor a passport, and who don't know how to access their birth or naturalization records.

We also think in terms of various types of freedoms that we didn't have under the British rule: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and the right to bear arms.  We conveniently forget that although the earliest colonists wanted to separate from the Church of England, the various colonies did not actually grant true freedom of religion within their colonial borders.  The Puritans wanted all the residents of their colony to worship in their church, but of course the Anglicans and the Quakers were not interested in doing that.  The colony of Massachusetts Bay, settled by Puritans and Separatists, and the Virginia colony, settled by Anglicans, had no religious freedom whatsoever.  In fact, a resident of Massachusetts Bay would have been arrested and flogged in Virginia, and vice versa. Pennsylvania and Rhode Island had a bit more tolerance, but not much.  Pennsylvania was settled by Quakers, who did not believe in violence, and Rhode Island was settled by Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, who had been banned by the Massachusetts Bay Colony for speaking out in support of separation of church and state.  Once again, the Indians were the last to receive rights, as many of them were forced by missionaries to attend boarding schools where the object was not only to convert them to Christianity, but also to train them away from their native language and cultural values.  Indians are still fighting for the right to worship according to their own traditional spiritual beliefs and practices.  I once heard Floyd Red Crow Westerman say that the Catholic church should give the Indians back their ceremonies.  I agree that Native Americans should be able to worship as they wish, but I don't think they should be asking the Catholic church for permission to do this.  That just gives power to the Catholic church.  If they want to practice their religion and perform their ceremonies, they need to take back their own power to do this, without asking for permission.  Besides, when the Catholic missionaries "took away" Indians' rights to practice their indigenous spirituality, they didn't put it up on a shelf somewhere and keep it there, and the Catholic church is not about allowing people to worship as they please.  They may not have the same amount of political power they once had, but they are still invested in controlling the way their followers worship.

In the American South, freedom of assembly was fine for the white folks, but not for the Black slaves, who might be plotting insurrection.  They couldn't even gather to worship as they pleased in public.  The federal government still watches certain groups whose motives they question, including non-traditional religions like my own, Eckankar.  In front of our Temple of ECK in Chanhassen, Minnesota, we have always had a flagpole, but we used to take the U.S. flag down each night.  After September 11, 2001, Eckankar installed a spotlight and kept the flag flying 24/7.  Just in case.  By the way, there have been threats against the Temple of ECK, even in good old, "nice" Minnesota, and I have to tell you, the threats have come from Christians, not from Muslims, Buddhists, or Jews.

Americans are constantly testing the boundaries of freedom of speech.  What about burning the flag of the United States as a means of protest?  What about shock radio?  What about showing pregnant women on TV?  (Yes, that was an issue with the "I Love Lucy" show.)   What about showing two women kissing?  Or two men?  What about using swear words?  Americans have certainly taken plenty of the Supreme Court's time over the years defining and refining the limits of free speech.  And what about people who make threats against the President?  Do they really have the right to do that?  One teenager from Minnesota found out the hard way, after sending an email to the White House containing vague threats, when FBI agents came to his house and scared the living daylights out of his parents!  (Yes, this really happened in St. Paul, Minnesota.)

I'm not even going to get started on the issue of the right to bear arms.  Suffice it to say that even though this was granted to us in the Constitution over two hundred years ago, we are still trying to refine what that actually means, still trying to figure out what the "founding fathers" actually envisioned when they wrote the words in the Second Amendment.  Somehow I don't think the guys who wrote and voted for the Constitution or its Amendments envisioned a world where a teenager could grab his mom's automatic weapon and gun down a bunch of children and their teachers.  They didn't even have public schools back then, not to mention automatic weapons.

What we're finding out is that government cannot truly legislate freedom.  As Hanh says, freedom can't really be guaranteed by government edict, no matter how hard we may try.  I don't think this means Americans will stop trying, but I think we will probably always be a few steps behind in guaranteeing perfect freedom to all.  Not only that, but when you are talking about freedom for any group of people, regardless of size, there have to be some limits in order to avoid anarchy and chaos. In other words, your freedom ends where mine begins.  This will always result in disagreements and litigation.

Be that as it may, Thich Nhat Hanh isn't really talking about the kinds of freedom I've mentioned so far.  He is talking about spiritual freedom, which is not the same as religious freedom.  Spiritual freedom has to do with finding one's own understanding of God without manipulation or control of any church organization. This is what has to be cultivated on a daily basis.  It starts with awareness.

First of all, we must be aware of who we really are.  We are not the body; we are Soul, and we wear a body.  Our brains are not the same as the mind.  Our minds can be controlled if we allow it, but Soul is always free.  It is up to the mind or personality to recognize this.  Governments may be able to exert control over our speech, but not our innermost thoughts.   Governments may keep the body in chains, but they cannot control Soul.

Next, we must realize that true freedom also comes from letting go of our opinions and judgments, and from exerting control over our own emotions to the point that our words and actions are not dictated by our emotions, opinions and judgments.  True freedom also comes from forgiving others and letting the past go in favor of focusing on the present, the only time we have to take action to effect change.

Finally, in order to achieve true freedom, we must let go of our attachments to material things (clothes, homes, cars), to our daily schedules, to our ideas of what it means to be "successful" (including our notions of social status), to our pet fears (including fears of people on the opposite side of the political spectrum and fears of other religions), and to things that we think might make us feel happy and secure (food, money, sex, caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs). 

Teachings of the various religions do mention this type of spiritual freedom, but they differ in interpretation and in how much importance is attached to the concept. Most religions have something to say about attachments to money.   For example, Jesus is reported to have said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Does this mean rich people can't go to Heaven?  I don't think so.  I would submit that it really means that rich people need to lose their attachment to money.  They mustn't let it get between themselves and God.  They don't actually have to give up their money; they only have to be willing to give it up, or to live without it, if necessary.   That's the view in Eckankar, as well.  Buddhists view attachment to anything – not just money –  as a main ingredient in misery in this life.   The Jews teach that money is to be used mainly for religious studies or for charity.  Islam also teaches that one must not hoard one's wealth, but use it for charity to anyone in need, regardless of his religion. 

Regardless of your religious beliefs, your cultural orientation, or your political persuasion, how do you, personally, cultivate personal, spiritual freedom?  If it is truly a daily practice, then what have you done today to cultivate true freedom?  :-)

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