The word “freedom” is often used in the modern world. In my last post, I brought up the question: “What does freedom truly mean?” When I reflected on this question myself, what came to my mind were things like free time. Having no obligations or commitments. Being free to do what I want to do. Not feeling forced to do things I don’t enjoy. Freedom is to not be controlled, oppressed, treated unjustly, or forced to fulfill unwanted obligations. Freedom also means freedom of conditions that would limit my ability to make the choices I want to make.
In the modern world, freedom seems to boil down to a few factors: the right to do the things we want, time and money. When we are very busy with obligations and commitments or when we don’t have the means to do what we want or, most of all, when we are not allowed to put our wishes into action, we feel our freedom gets restricted.
Freedom also seems very connected with the idea of happiness. Freedom is about the pursuit of happiness. I want to be free to do the things that will bring me happiness. So the real question for me is: “If freedom is about the pursuit of happiness, then what will really makes us happy?” Walking in the middle of the street, like some of the Nepali people on the first day of their democracy, is a form of freedom, but is it one that will bring true happiness? I don’t think so. In the short term, the blocked streets might prevent deliveries and cause the shops to run out of food. In the long term, it might cause the economy to collapse leading to loss of jobs and chaos. If our idea of happiness is flawed, then freedom and even noble ideals like democracy get perverted.
The teachings show us that in our present mode of operating we actually lack freedom. We are controlled by our emotions, habits, and irrational impulses or urges. When someone says something we don’t like, we get hurt or angry and without any choice, it seems, snap back. Just think of how much harm we do to ourselves when we are in grip of destructive emotions and addictions. When we are bound by conditioning, it controls us and robs us the freedom to make conscious choices based on wisdom. Buddha compares it to being imprisoned because we are not free to react to a situation based on wisdom and true understanding.
Understanding real freedom and happiness is not so easy! The problem is that many of our wants and desires are unconscious and irrational. So we need to first learn to identify our mistaken ways and then adopt a better and more sane approach.
The freedom and happiness spoken about in the teachings of Buddhism is not about temporarily feeling good, but about finding the inner freedom of the mind that is the source of a much deeper, saner, and longer lasting happiness. This happiness is not based on inherently transient and unreliable short-term pleasure, but on a long term vision of training the mind to return to its natural state where it is naturally free, happy, and peaceful. Freedom means to truly take care of yourself. To have the opportunity to make conscious choices based on wisdom. To take care of your true being. To have the right to pursue what will truly benefit you. To be in accord with the nature of things, the way things are, the natural state.
Reflecting like this helps me to better understand my present attitude and how I habitually try to achieve happiness and freedom. It helps me see the flaws of my usual approach and work towards slowly actualizing the vision that is presented in the teachings.
How you understand freedom and happiness? How do you work with it in your practice? I welcome your thoughts and comments.