Saturday, July 4, 2009


I could be bound in a nutshell and consider myself a king of infinite space.
William Shakespeare

Today, in America, we celebrate our birthday as a country. It is called Independence Day, the day we declared our independence from Great Britain. We are encouraged, at this time, to consider and have gratitude for our freedom. And these two notions, independence and freedom, have become connected. Once we were no longer dependent on a foreign power we were then free to pursue our own chosen destiny rather than being forced to follow the whims or dictates of others who controlled us. And this theme of freedom and independence for our nation is extended in our Constitution and Bill of Rights to the freedom and independence of individual citizens in relation to our own government. Each of us, even the most defenseless, including the youngest, oldest, most impoverished and infirmed, and even those accused of crimes, are entitled to be treated with dignity and have their inalienable rights upheld.

The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the continuing brave history of how those rights have been defended and expanded, is an enormous achievement and should be a source of pride and gratitude especially on this day. Elsewhere in this blog I have written about the ephemeral nature of our experience and the entire material universe. If life is merely a dream then why should it matter if we or any particular group of individuals has or doesn't have any rights or privileges? If our physical bodies are merely garments that we cast off when we are ready to move on to a different experience, then how important is our quality of life in the experience that we find ourselves in at the moment?

Let me ask you this: have you ever heard the expression "the terrible twos?" If you are a parent you probably have. It refers to the trying time that parents have when their children are two years old. The twos are terrible if you are the adult responsible for the safety and survival of the two year old. To an outside observer the twos aren't terrible at all; they are terrific. A two year old has just learned to walk, to move about and explore; and there stands the surrounding world in all its fresh glory, with every object and every person holding the promise of adventure. Everything must be touched; everything must be tasted; every thing must be smelled; every thing must be climbed on and crawled under and looked at from every possible angle. Even the movement of this fresh new equipment, this body, is a thrill to explore: it spins, and twists and stretches. And each one of these discoveries of movement is accompanied by another gush of joy. Why is there, in every child, this overwhelming urge to explore and taste and touch and hear and look at? Is there any biological "survival" reason for this irrepressible curiosity and joy? Does it make any sense to trot out the old Darwinian saw that the ones that weren't curious didn't learn enough about their environment and didn't survive, so we are the survivors with the 'curious genes'? That may sound familiar from biology classes that you struggled to stay awake in, but it doesn't really make any sense. What in the world are curious genes? And where are the remnants of those incurious ancestors that never explored their world? Their bones are undoubtedly hidden somewhere alongside those ancestors who couldn't digest, metabolize, eliminate, sense their environment or replicate. Too bad for the dinosaurs who managed to survive here for 180 million years without really being able to digest their food, breathe the air, move around or metabolize anything well enough to have any strength. And lets also shed a tear for those poor single celled microbes whose bodies were so 'crude and simple' that they were able to be here for two billion years before any of us larger creatures even arrived and able to adapt and thrive in every nook and cranny of this planet. Isn't it time we woke up from this Darwinian nightmare? We are here because we want to be here. This world was created for us and our biological equipment was created for us so that we can see and smell and taste and touch and explore and enjoy this created world. Two year olds are irrepressibly excited because this is what they have been waiting for. They are in the world they want to be in with the equipment that they want to have that allows them to explore it in endlessly thrilling ways.

Parents struggle to keep their two year old's curious impulses within the bounds of safety. They cannot allow their kids to walk into the fireplace or past the edge of the roof. And trying to keep one's equanimity and good spirits after a year of having to be vigilant at every waking moment can be a strain. Yet the good parent, while always keeping their child from endangering themselves never tries to unnecessarily suppress this adventurous spirit. Does the child arrive here with a particular agenda, with something or some activity that he or she already loves and which is his or her destiny to fulfill? Or does this child discover what he or she loves in this wondrous free interplay with their environment? Either way, every child should be entitled to have this wide range of unfettered exploration and every adult should have the opportunity to pursue the path that they have either chosen or are destined to fulfill. When we become adults our government should become that good parent who both allows us to enjoy the world and contribute to society in whatever way we believe will bring us happiness and at the same time protect us from harm and prevent us from doing harm to others.

Problems arise when tyrannical governments impose on people a way of life and commitments that they did not choose, and when these governments are organized for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. Religious groups, economic groups, military groups, even families, also can have tyrannical leaders who feel entitled to demand of their members that they serve the interests of their leaders at the expense of serving their member's own dreams. And, unfortunately, tyrannical power is usually not easily given up. Sometimes it can yield to economic pressure, to negotiation and non-violent protest. Sometimes the consciousness of tyrannical leaders may be raised. But sometimes, when all other avenues are exhausted, it falls to the bravest among us to protect hard won freedoms or to win back freedoms that were lost.

Eternal life may be beyond space and time, but it is never beyond justice. We may be eternal but we are always living in the present moment; and in that moment cruelty and oppression cannot be tolerated. You say that poor abuser, or that poor tyrant is just on a learning cycle; that he too is evolving and on his way to a deeper spiritual understanding and eventually achieving oneness. Fine! Then let you be the instrument of his enlightenment. Let you speed along his process of education by showing him, or forcing him, to see the error of his ways. We are all here because we want to be here. We have all been waiting for this moment. Freedom is the birthright of all people and tyranny can never be tolerable. Life is a dream, but it is a shared dream, and we have the responsibility for making sure that each person has at least the opportunity of making it a beautiful dream.

What about those who committ heinous crimes? Do we have the right to seek justice and take that person's life in retaliation? No. I do not think we have the right to administer capital punishment. But here is what I think we should do. When someone is convicted of a truly heinous crime, and that person, no matter what they are accused of, is entitled to the full protections of due process, trial by jury, etc.; but when they are convicted, they should not lose their life, but they should lose their relationship to people. In executing them along with all the publicity surrounding their execution, we inadvertently make them role models for twisted and publicity starved imitators. If someone is convicted of such a crime, that is the last that anyone should hear of them. The grieving relatives and loved ones of their victims need never learn about their tormentor's jail house romances, conjugal visits, drug habits, book deals, recording contracts, lines of clothing and biopics or see them on television interviews. They should be confined to a cell which has within it a window through which they can see the sky and an inspirational book of their choice; one book at a time. They should receive three very basic meals a day served through a slot and not directly by a person. Also in this room is a bottle of pills. If, at anytime, they decide to end this life of total isolation and reflection that is always their choice. But that death need not be noted in any way to the public. As far as the public is concerned, that person died the moment he was convicted. This way we not only protect our society from that person but also from their inadvertent glorification by some who might seek, by imitating their deeds, to garner similar publicity for themselves. And we punish them with something they may fear worse than death, total anonymity; and we do it without blood on our hands.

Is this cruel and unusual punishment? Certainly no crueler than death. And history tells us that there were many spiritual seekers who voluntarily put themselves in such conditions and achieved saint hood or a blissful reconciliation with the universe. Whether they become saints or take their lives in abject misery is no longer our concern. By their deeds they have removed themselves from the whole world of human caring, except, in so much, as we have provided an avenue for their spiritual development if they so choose.

All of that being said, in terms of our individual lives, when we enjoy freedom, expecially when we enjoy what we call 'too much freedom' we become anxious,even eager to give it away. We intentionally and willingly give away our hard fought freedom whenever we make a commitment to anyone or anything. In a sense freedom exists in inverse proportion to commitment. When we committ to a career or a school or another person, or even, on a more trivial level, when we committ to going to one movie, or one restaurant, or one main dish or one color dress or one type of car we immediately rule out our other options, and therefore our freedom. With too much freedom we feel adrift and we are encouraged and we encourage ourselves to make a commitment, because without commitment, what we gain in freedom we lose in depth. To develop a deep relationship to anything we must make a commitment and rule out, at least for a time, the possibility of other options. If we don't, we may have a lot of freedom but it feels more like we are window shopping our way through life without fully and deeply participating. A society or a political system is free to the extent that it can offer the possibility of many options to its citizens. The goal is not to have a citizenry with permanent unlimited freedom, but a citizenry that has the possibility of making the choices and commitments that each individual feels is best suited to themselves.

With more commitment comes the possibility of making a greater and greater contribution to our society and others, but along with that comes, on an external level, a diminution of freedom. More and more of our time is scheduled; responsibilities increase, and we begin to feel enslaved by the very committments that we once enthusiastically adopted. And once we have made a commitment, then we become invested in how these endeavors turn out. If we have a family we are committed to the health and success of our spouses and children. If we are invested in a business, we are committed to the prosperity of that business. When we are committed, no matter how diligently and responsibly we carry out those commitments, we are invested in outcomes that to a great degree are beyond our control. At any given moment our endeavors and the endeavors of our loved ones may succeed or fail, and if we are committed to that process our emotions, the quality of our experience, will rise or fall with each of these successes and failures. Where is the freedom in that?

So even if we live in a political system and an economic system that offers us enormous freedoms in terms of our range of options; once we committ to any of those options, we willing enslave ourselves, our time, our energy, our focus and our emotions to the success or failure of these endeavors. What is the way out of this dilemma? Should we make no commitments and window shop our way through life? Or should we make deep commitments and invest all our time, energy and focus in endeavors whose failure or success is ultimately out of our control? The answer is that beyond our freedom to choose and pursue our path, there is another freedom, an internal freedom that has nothing to do with how much 'free' time or 'free' cash we have to spend, or in the particular path that we have chosen or find ourselves on, or in the number of successes or failures that we happen to experience (we all have experienced many of both) but in the context in which we hold that experience; not what we experience, but the way that we experience our experience.

The ability to step back from our experience and look at it is something we all have and we all continue to develop. Judges releasing first time offenders tell them to watch themselves. Parents, when their children are off to a party where there may be a lot of temptations to do things potentially damaging, tell their children the same thing, "watch yourself." Therapists instruct their clients to 'notice' when they are about to go off on an emotional tangent that does neither themselves nor their associates any good. In fact the whole idea of rehabilitation, and the whole idea of therapy and even the idea of parenting would be meaningless without this ability that we all have of stepping back and watching ourselves.

What is this self that is watching itself? Evidently it is a higher self. Our judges, therapists and parents would be very foolish indeed if they encouraged us to watch ourselves if the self that was watching was lower, or even worse than the self that was caught up in doing whatever it is that we were doing or were tempted to do. In fact, if you think about it, it is not any instruction that we follow once we have stepped back from ourselves, but simply the act of stepping back that instantly shows us the wise or more elevated course. This self, this higher self, this observer, is the essential you; not the you that is so caught up in the pursuit of your desires that you forget yourself. This is the self that you are supposed to remember. This is the self that once remembered automatically sees the better path. And this self as distinguished from your engaged or relative self I will call the Self.

The purpose of prayer, of meditation, of chanting, or any spiritual practice, as opposed to other forms of guidance, is not to watch yourself. The purpose of all these practices is to slow down the mind, and in particular, to slow down the desires that drive our thought processes. We are encouraged not to watch ourselves but to experience the Self that I have been talking about. Yes, if you are looking at your behavior, this Self will steer you on a nobler path. But what does it feel like to experience this Self by it Self; to dwell in the Self? Does that sound very selfish, very self-involved? To dwell in the relative self and its network of desires and ambitions may be selfish, but to dwell on the Self is not selfish at all, because the Self has no ambitions. The Self just is; the Self is not concerned about the past or the future; is not concerned about time and space. From the Self's perspective it is always 'here' and it is always 'now.' There is also no sense of separation in the Self and no distinctions. While you are in it, everybody seems to be a part of it, and everybody, both friends and enemies are loved, because they are part of the same Self, and share the same desires and participate in the same games and competitions that you do. From this perspective our antagonists are really our partners. (The catalyst for this entire blog was my reaction to the writings of my nemesis, Richard Dawkins. Thank you, Richard.) We couldn't play any games without opponents. In the Self everyone is loved but in particular the entire fabric of spirit and love and intelligence that is felt when one is really in the Self is loved and the boundary where your interest ends and another person's interest begins, dissappears. We are all one. The boundaries that separate us dissolve and we feel a part of this One Being, this One Cosmic Consiousness, One God that is the essence of us all. In the Self we are no longer bounded by the choices we have made, the period of history we are living in or the body that we occupy. This experience of boundlessness, regardless of whatever our "real" economic or social or physical limitations are, is true freedom, true liberation.

Real freedom is achieved not by avoiding commitments but by being able to, at will, put our commitments and ambitions on hold and return to our true Self. Then, when we go back to our real world endeavors we return with a sense of renewal. We bring more love and enthusiasm to the table. We remember why we chose this job, this endeavor, this person, in the first place. Soon, though, old habits start to reappear and we have to start the process of reminding ourselves, of watching ourselves. But, let me suggest, at this juncture, to get back to real freedom, take a minute or an hour or a day to withdraw into some kind of spiritual practice. It doesn't have to be connected to any organized religion, or it most certainly could. But just time to separate from all your involvements, find your true Self which is beyond space and time, beyond boundaries, beyond success and failure, and which loves all people and all outcomes equally. Then start again. This is why all the major religions encourage us to have a weekly sabbath where we can do precisely that; to the extent that we have lost control and gotten out of sorts by Friday, we can regain our equanimity and our genuine enthusiasm by Monday. Try it. It really helps the world work and helps your experience of it.

I had originally wanted to have this post published on the fourth of July. But I got carried away by a lot of things that had been banging around in my mind and I just wanted to work them into the paper. Also, my apologies to Rudy Davis who is a great fan of this blog and who asked that I write a post answering some questions that he posed more than a month ago. I hope this is acceptable Rudy.

And I thank you for your indulgence. Please let me know what you think. Thanks.

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