‘Motivated by the memory of its early morning enchantment, of true freshness and hope, I am in the fortunate position of being able to commit its vision to paper; revelling in the chance to explore a return, on the tail of a long journey, interspersed over many decades with session at Throssel, to a place of peace and serenity.
Each morning began with a stroll to the hut and a quiet rejoicing. What a blessing to discover an eternal home!
When the Dew on the Grass team first decided upon exploring the word Freedom, my mind was straight-away drawn to the antithesis of freedom, which is to be confined in some way, either by our own feelings or by physical restraint. In particular, I thought of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, separated from her husband and daughter, through political machinations for which she has no responsibility or control. I thought of those trapped in poverty, unable to break out of a cycle of deprivation and people subject to oppression, be that someone stuck in a violent and toxic domestic situation, unable to move out of it, or a whole nation, such as the people of Ukraine, currently living under the daily threat of war ( since writing my first draft of this post, overnight, Russian troops have invaded Ukraine – we send merit to all those caught up in conflict). This is imprisonment within the physical world. My heart goes out to all in these situations. Mankind could do so much better!
Then, there is the prison that we create in our own heads; the holding onto past resentments or grasping for things we want, can’t have, or if we already have them, fear of losing or want more of. I have done all of those things and ultimately found them unsatisfying. It is liberating to throw such entrapments, metaphorically, into the air. The things in my life that have given me the greatest sense of freedom, have mostly involved giving up something – or maybe letting go would be a more accurate description.
In letting go, there is sometimes a great shift in viewpoint, a dropping off of a heavy weight that has held me back for what seems like millennia. Mostly though, it seems I let go in increments when it becomes obvious that some change in the way I think or act, has become necessary. That hasn’t always meant that I have made a momentous decision to change, simply change has taken place and then I become aware of it. There is a light and freeing quality in being able to do this, which transcends all physical limitations.
A couple of weeks ago, when reflecting on the topic of Freedom and wondering what I should write, I woke up again, shortly after having fallen asleep and wrote these words:
Freedom is the unfurling of the hand of self,
finger by grasping finger
Feathers unfold, flutter, fly
Release into the stillness of an ocean sky
A vastness deep
Ripple upon ripple dissipates into the blue-black,
lit by an eternity of stars and moon
The warmth of coolness
The illumination of the night
Make of the words what you will but it struck me that Freedom is shaking off the self that is inhibited by our conditioning and allowing a deeper self to emerge and speak. This isn’t the type of uninhibited behaviour that leads to suffering, with no moral compass, though. There is a compassionate morality at its base. For a Buddhist, we find this through the Noble Eightfold Path, which in the beginning may seem to bind us but ultimately sets us free.
Today’s reflection on Freedom is from Anna. Anna is an artist and has brought a visual perspective to the theme, which is both remarkable and ‘eye opening’.
The sculpture Space Under my Chair by Bruce Nauman is a playful as well as a powerful pointer to an essential quality of reality that we perpetually seem to overlook.
The conditioned mind is such that we see objects rather than the space that holds the objects and enables them to exist. The narrowed vision that focuses on objects has advantages when it comes to survival. The ability to separate out and identify an approaching tiger instantly out of all the visual clues can mean the difference between life and death. However, adopting the narrow vision of the survival mode as the default way of looking and perceiving is limiting innate freedom.
The sculpture Space Under my Chair is focusing the attention of the viewer on what is habitually ignored, the space that enables the object to exist. Be that literal space that holds chairs, buildings, trees, mountains, or Mind space that holds thoughts, feelings, sensations, sense perceptions. Our point of view narrows and focuses on objects to the exclusion of the most essential. It takes an artist to point out our limited view and make us aware of how we are conditioned to ignore the most fundamental element of reality, boundless space, limitless potential, present in every moment.
The conditioned mind calls space without objects, empty, void, nothing, that is no-thing. Yet empty space contains everything, either manifest or potentially, so nothing in fact equals everything.
Whether in literal space or in mind space, widening the narrow, object-oriented view and perceiving objects, phenomena, not in isolation but in the context of the wider reality that holds them, is innate freedom actualized. It is the source of all creativity.
Over the next few days, the Dew on the Grass team will be sharing articles, poems and artwork, on the theme of Freedom. Each of us has presented our experience of Freedom from a slightly different perspective but all of the pieces reflect the seeking mind of the Buddhist practitioner. We hope that you enjoy reading them, and should you have reflections of your own on this topic, please do get in touch, via the contact page, or in a message via the Dew on the Grass Facebook page, by Monday the 28th of February, and we will be happy to share them. Please read our editorial guidelines, by clicking the ‘About’ button.
A couple of decades ago, it seemed that all the usual stresses and anxieties of life had coalesced for me into one focus. I became aware that I was suffering from severe claustrophobia. The feeling of being trapped is of course the antithesis of freedom. I found I was unable to go into places where my way out was not clear: caves, basements, the London underground in crowds, trains and planes, the backseat of two-door cars. I began to sleep with a knife when in my tent so that I could cut my way out through the fabric.
Retreats at Throssel became a challenge. When I mentioned to a monk that I wasn’t sure I could sleep in the Ceremony Hall he said, with some incredulity, ‘But we don’t have a larger space, Chris.’ I explained that it wasn’t the space around me as much as my ability to get out. And to get out of that room I would have to negotiate sleeping bodies, noisy doors, clattering stairways, deal with the fear of meeting the Night Guardian in the corridor, of not being supposed to be walking around. Thus it was that I found myself allowed to sleep in the Avalokiteshvara shrine, close to my exit route, next to plastic containers of human ashes, which was almost, but not quite, worse.
But it didn’t stop there. At home, panicked by being in bed, I would go out into the garden and stand and look at the stars. And suddenly I felt trapped on the planet. Unlike the fish which doesn’t know it is in the ocean, I knew that there was nowhere else that I could survive and that gravity tethered me to the earth. It sounds obvious, but for me, it was an experiential realisation that I am one with all things and not a separate being. I am not free to leave this planet, which provides me with the very means of my existence – the air I breathe, the food I eat. I remember RM Saido once saying ‘If you have difficulty grasping the concept of dependent origination, try not breathing for a while.’ I breathe because of the infinitely complex life of this planet. I am an earthling.
‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.’ Thus Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1755. And today, in 2022, I think perhaps we understand that we are not born free at all and really have no chance of ever attaining freedom if that is something that we seek. At birth, we bring with us our entire genetic make-up. Immediately, life starts to happen for us and we are affected by an infinity of sensations. We grow, we learn we relate and we become one of the indescribably complex beings that comprise the human race. Within that framework of my life and being, I have the illusion that I am free. But in reality, I have very little control over my life. Simply to start with, I cannot really affect my physical environment. In the words of the Tom Lehrer song – ‘Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.’ Except that of course I have no choice.
But beyond that, I am aware that every single thing I do and think is because I am me. I am pretty much unable to think ‘outside of myself’ because my thought patterns and my opinions are the product of my genetic nature and my experience. Even my wish to do ‘that which is good to do’ or to ‘do the next thing’ arises because of a fortunate concatenation of circumstance and predisposition that has led me to this Buddhist path. My human mind allows me to consider alternative paths and alternative courses of action, but I am deluded if I think I really have the freedom to choose to do anything that is ‘out of character.’
The late, Reverend Master Alexander Hardcastle, when he was prior of Telford Buddhist priory, often said,’ Nostalgia is not what it used to be’, and then would chuckle at the irony of his remark. He may have said this in the company of others, but my recollection is that we were usually alone, working on some project or other. I would laugh with him (though maybe not as heartily) and I knew what he meant. Nostalgia, which is essentially a sentimental view of the past and reflects discontent with the present, holds less sway over us once we become regular meditators. We become far more satisfied with our present reality, however difficult and painful that might feel, at times.
Remembrances of the past come and go. They are part of our brain’s natural function and can be helpful both spiritually and practically, in the everyday world. What happened in the past is part of who we are now; part of our current experience. The physical and spiritual realignment of the heaps of our being, in time and space, create a new reality, moment by moment. Within this shift, our memories float along with us.
Those that feel painful, we may shrug aside (although the cells of our body will still remember them unless we have done significant work on ourselves). Or we may do the exact opposite, and hold them tightly, in fear of what would happen if we let them go. Conversely, we may hold onto memories of good times, idealise them, hold them up as the epitome of existence. Of course, there are many permutations of how this might manifest itself.
As a nation, we are prone to do the latter. Hence the success of political promises to make our country ‘Great Again’ as if, in some perfect past, all ills were virtues and we stood, as a united and homogenous body, a paragon of unity and virtue, which was lost to a perceived evil, along the way, and to which, with the ‘right’ political direction, we can return. This is a deluded notion, of course. The world, its nations, and individual people exist in a constant state of flux within which, what we judge as good and evil continually arise, like ripples on a much deeper ocean.
In my younger years, when I was focused on work, family and the setting up of a priory – the time of life referred to by the social-psychologist, Erikson, as a time of ‘Generativity’, when we are at our most productive – I had no inclination to look back. More recently, having lost several of the older members of my family, during the pandemic, I have enjoyed reminiscences of those treasured people that I called, mother, aunt, uncle, cousin, teacher and friend. Some memories might even be termed ‘nostalgic’, having a sentimental or ‘rosy’ quality to them, mostly they have been part of a rite of passage, a celebratory ceremony of the mind, and have included, of course, thoughts of you, dear Rev. Alexander. I am grateful for them all.