And because we are called to live an ethical life, an authentic life, a compassionate life, we can feel like the choices shrink even further. I often get feel a sense of constriction trying to make the right choice, the perfect choice, I agonize about whether I am “going the right way.” I happened to be listening to an interview with Kiran Trace[i] who claims that our true nature is freedom, that in fact we have “oceans of freedom.” I really liked the sound of that. “Oceans of freedom.” I felt better just hearing her say it. But what did she mean? I think she was pointing us toward a spaciousness that is available in us and all around us if we open ourselves to it.
Years ago my yoga teacher Kent Bond used to talk about making spaciousness in our yoga poses. “Our real job is to be space-makers” he said. Even though we may be holding a difficult pose, or a boring pose, he challenged us to create a felt sense of spaciousness in whatever position we were in. For those of you who don’t do yoga, imagine an ice cube tray coming fresh out of the freezer. At first the ice is adhered to the plastic tray, but if you wiggle it a little bit the cubes fit more loosely in their cubbyholes. Sometimes we see our limits like walls around our lives, and we spend so much energy, so much attention pushing against the walls, but we can also turn our attention to the freedom we have within those constraints, even if it’s just as much as an ice cube has in its tray.
Let’s take our hero Inventor McGregor. Anyone would agree that being the parent of 5 young children provides significant limits to personal freedom, especially on a handyman’s salary. And yet within those limits, McGregor has created a life for himself where between gluing and oiling had hammering he takes time to walk the winding lane in back of his house, to paint, to fiddle, and to enjoy his family.
This is one way of looking for freedom in our lives. When we are feeling cramped by our job, our financial situation or our families we can wiggle around a bit in our lives and see where space can be found. I discovered recently that when I get up earlier (once I recover from the alarm going off) I enjoy the wiggle room of having an extra half hour to make and eat my breakfast at my own pace in a quiet house. Or I can get up even earlier and hit the yoga studio while it’s still dark out. I feel like I found a hidden cache of time all for myself. If we look for it, we may find ways to make space for ourselves, we may find freedom to choose a path that feels right to us. It may be hard to believe in oceans of freedom, but no matter how tightly we squeeze our fingers together water will always find a way to wiggle out of our cupped hands. Could we believe at least in a trickle of freedom? Could we see the gaps and spaces where freedom flows all around us?
We might start by noticing all the choices we make every day. A friend felt stuck in a job where after years of her loyal service the corporate culture around her had turned toxic. “I’m choosing to stay” she told me “I’m not stuck, I’m this is my choice.” Our choices don’t always feel good, but they are still choices. And this affirmation that she had the freedom to stay or go helped her stay sane while she put aside a financial safety net week after week until that day when she told me with both trepidation and joy, “I gave my notice today.”
Whatever the external limits to our freedom, there is always the possibility of cultivating inner freedom. This kind of freedom is much harder to define, is much slipperier, because it is so highly personal; only you know for sure when you a sense of freedom in heart mind and spirit. Many spiritual traditions encourage us to cultivate inner freedom, and in our UU principles, we talk specifically about a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” This value on freedom is not something hippies came up with in the 60s, it has been an explicit part of our faith since the Act Of Religious Tolerance And Freedom Of Conscience in 1568 when King John Sigismund declared: “no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied.” Or as the Universalists wrote in their Winchester Profession of 1803 “let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” Freedom of thought, freedom of belief is a cornerstone of our faith tradition. We believe that a sense of inner freedom, a sense of inner spaciousness, is a sign that we are headed in the right direction on our journey of spiritual growth.
When I was training to be a spiritual director we talked a lot about freedom. We talked about how avoid limiting the freedom for those who came to us for direction. It’s funny how subtle those limits can be. A casual comment like “you must feel very sad” can put your directee in a bind- you’re the authority, if you say they must feel sad, they might look at their inner experience through that lens. But what if that’s not quite what they are feeling? What if they are really feeling angry, or ashamed? Then they have to choose between disagreeing with you, or putting aside their own experience to follow your suggestion. So we learned to mostly ask questions- “how do you feel” or “do you feel sad?”
It turns out I am particularly susceptible to such things. I really want to give the right answer, I really want to be agreeable, to be easy to work with. But when they sent out our monthly reflection form I felt a sense of inner constriction. I dreaded it. I put it off. Finally I chose honesty as a starting place, and wrote this:
“I feel a surprising amount of resistance to this form. ... It just felt physically bad to have to take all the extremely personal, beautiful, deep parts of my life and put them on a form like a high school assignment or job application. I felt some inner door closing as I looked at the form. .. It puts me in a tight spot where I must answer these questions or fail to keep my commitments to the program.“
So the next retreat I went to we were given the assignment to write in our journals. Ugh. I thought, “I literally write about my spiritual reflections for a living. I love my work, but I’m on retreat.” I was filled with a rebellious spirit, determined to claim my freedom. I noticed there was a craft room right off our meeting space. I boldly went right in a signed out a box of colored pencils, and did much of my journaling for the remainder of the retreat in doodle form. And, in point of fact, some of the images I doodled turned out to be powerful and useful in my process -- transformative even. I think some of that freedom to express what needed to be expressed came from the fact that I never draw. I have no confidence or expectations of my drawing. Whereas I’ve come to expect my words to be measured and thoughtful and grammatically correct; with my colored pencils I had escaped expectations of form or technique. Such a small rebellion led to a huge opening of inner gates and locks. There was freedom available to me when I went looking for it.
I think of my little dog when he makes a bed for himself. He is so ingenious the way he pokes and shoves whatever blankets or pillows he has to work with. He hollows out a little space for himself that is just right and then rests into it. As in our human lives, some structures do not give no matter how many times we turn in a circle or dig at them. Sometimes his custom-made bed involves a bookcase, or a pile of shoes, or a laundry basket or suitcase that really doesn’t give very much at all, but he takes the materials he has and makes the space he needs, and then, satisfied with his work, flops down into it. We spend many Sundays here talking about how to move some of those big external obstacles to freedom -- economic inequality, systemic racism, mass incarceration, rigid gender roles -- but to be truly useful, our tradition must help us when the external realities of our lives are unyielding. While we fight for freedom in the outer world, we must also claim the inner freedom that is also a type of resistance,
A stream takes its form from the bed it runs in, if it weren’t for soil and rocks and roots that shape and limit its flow, it would be a wetland or a pond. Freedom may be our true nature, but limits give our lives their own unique shape. When Hector McGregor finally got the time he needed to invent- no distractions, no demands, just a clean empty page in a clean empty room, he froze. He had no inspiration. It reminded me of the 20th century composer Stravinsky’s notion of the “abys of freedom.” When all the external limits disappear, we still have to make choices or we can’t move and be in the world. Complete freedom leaves us, like Inventor McGregor, staring into emptiness. So we must ask…. freedom for what?
In his wonderful book Everything Belongs Richard Rohr puts it this way [p. 93] “We have defined freedom in the West as the freedom to choose between options and preferences. That’s not primal freedom. That’s a secondary or even tertiary freedom. The primal freedom is the freedom to be the self, the freedom to live in the truth despite all circumstances.” That primal freedom is not contingent on anything external. That is a way of being in the world, a way of being in our own hearts and minds.
I don’t want to understate the very real limits to freedom, like having to choose between the electric bill and the rent, like the brutal schedule of chemotherapy. Like mass incarceration and white supremacy culture. But Rohr suggests “the freedom to be the self, the freedom to live in the truth despite all circumstances. That’s what great religion offers us. …. That’s why the saints could be imprisoned and not lose their souls. They could be put down and persecuted like Jesus and still not lose their joy, their heart, or their perspective. Secular freedom is having to do what you want to do. Religious freedom is wanting to do what you have to do.“
Increasing our inner freedom does not always mean having more options . In Buddhist teaching the ethical limits we put on ourselves actually increase our inner freedom- if we refrain from harming others, we are free from the pain and guilt of having harmed ourselves or others. By living ethical lives we limit our options, but we feel free in heart and mind.
Our freedom and our limitations are like two sides of the same coin. We are both free and not free in every moment. Both our freedoms and our constraints allow us to be not “anything” but to be specifically who we are. For Hector McGregor, the fact of living in community, the particular problems of real people formed his creativity into useful things. The very first mark you put on a blank page limits all that comes after, but you cannot have a painting, or a novel, or an invention without it.
Every living being is limited by our biology, our eco-system, by the times we live in. And yet filling every gap like a river flowing in its bed, surrounding us, permeating us, like the air we breathe, freedom is there too. All around us are oceans of freedom, the freedom to think what we think, the freedom to love what we love, the freedom “to be the self, the freedom to live in the truth despite all circumstances”