Most recently, I was in a hospital setting for a medical procedure during which I had to restrain my physical movements for the sake of the procedure to run its course. To me, however, those restraints put on my physical body were so distressing that I felt like being in a cage, a terrible experience to endure even for a short while. On the contrary, having completed the procedure, I was thrilled with a sense of exuberance all over me — a striking turnabout from a state of being restrained to a state of freedom. As I stepped out of the exit door of the hospital building and hurried toward the open parking lot, I said to myself, “Wow, how heartening is the freedom that I’ve regained after a brief break! Very seldom do we realize the true worth of something precious in us until and unless we miss it, a lesson that I learned for the first time from my own experience when the splendor of freedom was rekindled in me.
Freedom is a priceless treasure that the entire world is searching for, in one form or another. Although we may not be aware up front the truth that we all are searching for freedom, it is indeed our deep desire lying dormant at the very core of our personality, awaiting the right conditions for its fruition; it is for this precise reason that we direct all our energies toward that end: to fulfill our deep desire. Let me explain. Whatever we do in our lives, we do it in the name of and for happiness only — an irrefutable truth of living. It is happiness that we seek when we worship God, it is happiness that we seek in marriage or divorce, it is happiness that we seek in all our ventures involving the acquisition of wealth, health, possessions, learning, fame, and so forth, and again it is happiness alone we seek whenever we turn ego-centric. Make no mistake; it is not limited happiness that we seek but lasting, for no one aims at partial happiness that comes and goes.
The point to remember here is this: when we chase happiness, we are in reality chasing freedom. In the spiritual lexicon, freedom and happiness are synonymous terms meaning one and the same thing, and therefore they are inseparably linked together. That’s why, the search for one is simultaneously the search for the other. Thus, wherever happiness is, there also is freedom; wherever freedom is, there ought to be happiness as well.
But freedom, or happiness, won’t express itself unless we employ the right means to attain it, for which we need the right understanding of what freedom truly signifies. Freedom is said to be twofold: the real and the false. Let us consider first the real freedom regarding which many of us might have heard either from scriptures or from the great teachers of humanity. Accordingly, a person who is in possession of real freedom is considered a master of himself where he is in perfect control of both his mind and senses. He is no longer controlled by anything else other than by himself — his true Self. That is, he has succeeded in breaking free from all attachments: his body, mind, ego, and external objects. Such a person alone is capable of experiencing real freedom, and that is to be sought within, not from the outside world.
Then comes the false notion of freedom, also called the freedom of license, under which a man is free only to do whatever he desires — mostly for his own gratification. Unfortunately, this is the typical freedom that most of us prefer, adore, and believe in out of sheer fascination for the sense-world of objects. As a result, we have fallen prey to the irresistible allure of sense-objects. Are we free or enslaved? a rightful question for us to ponder.
Obviously, the difference between these two categories of freedom is quite profound. While self-mastery plays the most prominent role in achieving the real freedom, self-indulgence — which implies just the opposite — is the key player in the pursuit of the false freedom. To make a better sense out of these two opposing views of freedom, listen to D.T. Suzuki whose only focus is to remove the false notion of freedom from our minds with a powerful message: “One has to be on guard against the misunderstanding of the idea of freedom by many who seem to think it means the freedom to do what one likes, and especially, the freedom to be licentious. Real freedom is very different from this and comes from a higher level.”
If the preceding narratives are not enough to clarify our curiosity with respect to freedom, let us turn to Seneca, the great Roman thinker and philosopher, whose definition of freedom is precise and enlightening: “It means not being a slave to any circumstance, to any restraint, to any chance.” The implication of this insightful perspective is twofold: On the one hand, it is a clear reaffirmation of the scriptural concept of freedom, and, on the other hand, it is an outright refutation of the false notion of freedom — the choice of the masses down through the ages.
As Seneca’s definition points out, we are not free as long as we are enslaved by anything of this world. Needless to say, we are enslaved, whether we realize it or not. By being enslaved, we mean that we are not in control of our lives. Broadly speaking, the reins of control is not with us, but with our mind and senses. We are not free to think what is truly beneficial and healthy to us; the mind thinks what is good for the mind in the form of desires. We are not free to act; our senses act for us through our body in the form of self-gratification. What else do we need for being enslaved? Rightly understood, all these thinking and acting are mental events which we mistakenly assume as though they belong to us due to our identification with our body-mind complex, and so we suffer.
It is the greatest fallacy ever to imagine that we are the body-mind complex, which we are not. Who are we truly then? We are the embodied Spirit, the Divinity within us. Decrying our false identification with our body, H. Frederick Vogt writes: “People make the mistake of identifying themselves with their body, then if something happens to a person’s body, they think something has happened to the person. When you think about it, that’s as ridiculous as saying that if something happens to the clothing I’m wearing, something has happened to me. Our body is just what we wear. We need to take care of it, but it’s not who we are.” What a powerful and truthful statement!
As long as we remain identified with our body-mind complex, a chain of enslavements emerge concomitantly. The body we love so much, cling to, and attached to is time-bound, and it is prone to six evolutionary changes each of which is a source of suffering by being a major limitation: birth, existence, growth, old age, decay, and death; none of these changes lie within the confines of our control. The mind to which we are identified is nothing but a collection of thoughts that are in constant flux. How can we rely on a mind that is neither stable nor predictable? But we do it anyway even when the mind is the source of some of our destructive emotions such as lust, anger, greed, delusion, pride, and envy. If kept unchecked, these fiery emotions all too often overpower many of us virtually to a point of explosion. What’s more, we have to defend ourselves from being enslaved by habits like smoking, drinking, gambling, using drugs, and etc. Worst of all, we can fall prey to the claws of death at any moment, even in our sleep. When we reflect on these major limitations that land us in a lifelong bondage, we wonder how depressing and sorrowful our life is!
Regardless, we continue to entertain the false notion of being free without realizing that all limitations enslave us in varying degrees of severity. “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free,” says Johann W. Goethe. If we were free, we wouldn’t be searching for freedom in the first place. It is true that we experience some freedom, in the form of pleasure, from the sense-world of objects, but that freedom is only a minute reflection of our innate fountain of freedom that we have yet to discover and realize. The worldly freedom that we all enjoy is compared to a mirage in the desert where the mirage is capable of drawing people towards it only to end up in despair.
Similarly, our search for worldly freedom doesn’t bring us a favorable outcome. Longing for freedom, we humans search it everywhere, a lifelong search in which we leave no stone unturned, and yet we find no freedom, but only frustration. Deprived of freedom or happiness, it is deeply disturbing to watch the entire world scorching in the fire of suffering. Why is it so? To state the obvious, we reach out to the world of sensual pleasures in our quest for freedom — a wrong place to look for freedom. Instead, we need to shift gears by reversing the course of our search from outward to inward — where alone we discover what we are really looking for.
But here comes the paradox. According to the ancient scriptures of India, freedom is our essential nature, implying that we are eternally free. Here the riddle is that we do not know that we are free. Not knowing that we are free, identified as our spiritual ignorance, is the fundamental disconnect that makes us prisoners to the world of manifestation. Naturally, we have to remove our ignorance, which calls for a complex process involving many hurdles on our path towards freedom. However, none is as formidable a hurdle as our own ego, our individualized sense of being, or our sense of “me and mine.” Although the ego is an illusory phenomenon arising out of our attachment with our body-mind complex, it prevails by presenting us with a comfortable but totally false concept of our true identity, resulting which the prospect of freedom remains in the dark.
To experience freedom, our ultimate goal of life, we have to get rid of our ego by any means necessary. More specifically, the price of freedom is our own false sense of individuality, our ego. In this regard, it is interesting to hear what Florinda Donners says about the idea of surrendering the mask of our ego: “Freedom will cost you the mask you have on, the mask that feels so comfortable and is so hard to shed off, not because it fits so well but because you have been wearing it so long.” Even though freedom is priceless, our own sacrifice in which we surrender ourselves is always considered the right price.
Freedom is not a speculative philosophy, nor is it an idea. Freedom is rather an insight into a blissful state of inner reality, as opposed to the seeming world of sensual reality that we all experience as the outer world of manifestation. That unique freedom is always open to all of us for realization provided we labor for it sincerely and persistently. Upon realizing the supreme truth of our existence — freedom — all that remains is everlasting freedom where there is no individuality, no desire, no bondage, and no sorrow.