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What is Freedom?

Thought Experiment below: Freedom From Othering by Tara Brach

The grounds of the McMichael Gallery inspired these thoughts. This walk included bronze sculptures by Ivan Eyre, a cemetery for 6 members of the Group of Seven, and a forest trail through the Humber River Valley.

“You know I hate choices! Why are you doing this to me?” This is something my 5 year old son regularly shouts at me when I ask him to make a decision… like, between a red and an orange vitamin. And I get it. I have been at many crossroads in my life where I have wanted to leave everything up to chance rather than take responsibility for untangling my own preferences. While generalizations are lazy, so am I, and I can’t help but apply his individual choice aversion to the complicated relationship we all have to freedom. Once the initial thrill of self-determination wears off, freedom can be uncomfortable because it means we are bound by our own choices, left to work out all of the complicated details with no one to blame. The more I think about freedom these days, the more it strikes me as a zen koan, a paradox that can’t be solved, its lesson only ever materializing somewhere between thoughts.

Until recently, I hadn’t really questioned my idea of freedom. Freedom was desirable. Freedom empowered people to take action, to access things, to express themselves. It was hard won from those in power and then begrudgingly bestowed upon the disempowered. Then once freedom was achieved…well, I guess that’s where things got a bit murky. It wasn’t until I read an article on The Brief, Brilliant and Radical Life of Lorainne Hansberry that I began to question my concept of freedom.

Among many other achievements, Hansberry penned A Raisin in the Sun, the first play written by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway. The following insight from that article ended up rolling around in my brain for months like a truth marble: “..she could not think of freedom as a destination but as a practice, full of intervals, regressions.” Hansberry didn’t just seek a single moment of liberation. She instead saw freedom as an ongoing commitment to live out her principles, as messy and imperfect as that effort may be. Freedom wasn’t something that was bestowed upon her; it was something she carefully cultivated. Her freedom practice not only took place in the civic space through activism, but also privately, through her thoughts and writings, where she innovated new roles for herself and others.

Recently I was listening to an Ezra Klein podcast interview with Maggie Nelson, author of On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint. After that fantastic listen, I wondered what it would look like to stop idealizing and seeking Freedom and to instead focus on regular practices that support being even just a little bit free-er. Free-er seems like a realistic goal and allows us to adapt to the funky stew of personal freedom at our own pace, tasting only as much as we are able to stomach at a given time. While championing the freedoms of all people is an important piece of living out the value of freedom, private individual practices are easy to overlook. However, it seems that without regular first-hand experiences of the joy to be had in freedom, we may be limited in our motivation and capacity to advocate for it in the world.

Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist and author who had a wonderful way of articulating the importance of exercising your personal freedom. He wrote, “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.” I would always bring up Viktor Frankl’s insights when I was teaching the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course because he helped participants remember why they were making the effort to meditate when they wanted to give up. Being able to access your wisdom, equanimity and kindness in moments of difficulty doesn’t always feel like a choice, but being reminded of that possibility definitely helps. And having practices in place to strengthen that skill are even better.

The exercise of pausing and leaving space for new possibilities may look like meditation for some, but I imagine it looks like a lot of things to a lot of different people. Personally, over the past year I’ve been journalling daily and it has been an incredibly powerful practice of freedom. Having a place where I can say whatever I want, however I want, helps me to identify and pursue the things that really matter to me. Journalling is now an essential part of my life and I really notice a drop in my mood when I skip a few days, as though I’ve been cut off from a vital source of energy.

I believe the space between thought and action is where that ‘last of the human freedoms’ can be cultivated, so making the time and effort to rest there, be that through walking, drawing or simply breathing, can be really invigorating. Once again, Victor Frankl sums it up best: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” We may never be able to resolve the paradox of freedom, or eliminate the difficulty of being bound by our own choices, but we may still be able to experience freedom’s gifts through the growth it invariably brings about.

Thought Experiment:

Freedom From Othering

This talk and meditation by Tara Brach can be found wherever you get your podcasts (45mins)

"A primary source of our suffering is the conditioning to create “bad other,” or “inferior other.” This same conditioning leads us to creating a bad self and turn on ourselves. These three talks explore how we subscribe to societal myths and beliefs that perpetuate this “bad othering,” and “bad selfing.” They then guide us in bringing a healing attention that can reveal the goodness that lives through all beings, and our innate connectedness. A core teaching is, 'the boundary to who we include in our hearts is the boundary to our freedom.'"

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