As Independence Day on July 4th approaches here in the United States, it inspires me to consider the significance of that celebration. What did our founding fathers really want for us? Well, we know that they wanted freedom – freedom from tyranny, freedom from taxation without representation, and freedom to enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
Here we are, over two centuries later, and we have (arguably) the freedoms that they sought after. But are we truly free? Are these freedoms that we established at the birth of our country really bringing us the happiness that was desired?
On an external, material level, we certainly have a lot to be grateful for in our country – we’re able to enjoy a standard of living that the majority of the planet doesn’t. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t seem to have brought more happiness, more satisfaction. People speak out, using their freedom of speech, and they don’t seem to be happy. People own their own businesses, are able to vote in elections, bear arms as the constitution gives them the freedom to, and yet do they really feel free?
The philosophy of yoga has quite a bit to say about true freedom. Certainly these external freedoms are important and essential for the evolution of the human race, to treat each other with more respect and with equality. But if we only focus on these external freedoms, we become dependent on them to be happy – certainly not the idea of independence, by any means!
Yoga calls liberation mukti, or moksha – the true internal freedom. What is that internal liberation? I don’t claim to have experienced it yet, but here are some thoughts about the attainment of spiritual liberation from some of the great mystics and yogic philosophers of our time.
Mukti is considered to be the inherent state of our existence. One of the great sages of the 20th century, Ramana Maharshi, states that “liberation is our very nature. We are that… all that is
necessary is to get rid of the false notion that we are bound.”
Attachment limits freedom
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet consider how many notions we have that bind us and limit us, restricting true freedom. How many of us have ideas that we need a certain income in order to live? How many of us believe that we need to possess certain items in order to be comfortable? We are bound by our possessions quite easily in our culture.
A jivanmukti, or one who attains the state of liberation while alive in this body, can drop any possessions at any moment, without a thought of attachment. Now that’s quite liberating! Think how difficult it would be to just drop your car, and not think anything of it. So having possessions is not the problem, but our attachments to them that limits our freedom.
Georg Feuerstein, a well-known yogic philosopher, asserts that “all of India’s liberation teachings affirm that whatever our present condition and life experience might be, we are inherently unfettered and absolutely blissful.” No matter what is happening in our lives, we can be unmoved from that natural state of bliss. Sick or healthy, we can still be free within. Whether we’ve gained capital in the stock market or lost everything, our inner, inherent state of mukti is unchanged.
This isn’t mere happiness, but a much deeper state that doesn’t divide life’s experiences into happy/sad or good/bad. It is a state that is able to meet all of those experiences without holding back, resisting, or pushing away.
Bound to our thoughts
Our minds tend to cling onto what we like, and avoid what we don’t. This results in being in the state of bondage to what our thoughts believe, desire, fear, etc. True freedom lies in recognizing that these thoughts bind us, and detaching ourselves from them.
The Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist text from the 4th century, states that “the mind should be kept independent of any thoughts that arise within it. If the mind depends upon anything, it has no sure haven.” Thus independence in the deeper sense is stepping back from the thoughts that constantly swim through our mind, and instead recognize we are the mind-space in which the thoughts arise. This is liberation. This, say the great seers, is a state of bliss.
Rumi said it so beautifully in this poem: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,/there is a field. I’ll meet you there./When the soul lies down in that grass,/the world is too full to talk about./Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’/doesn’t make sense.” That field is the place beyond our thoughts. It is free of beliefs, attachments, aversions, and embraces the fullness of existence.
OK, so how do we get to that field, that place of true freedom? This is the difficult part! But we are given some clues. The yogic disciplines of non-violence, self-observation, purity, truthfulness, and self-control all help us to get there. Selfless service (Seva, or Karma Yoga) can lead us there, as does heartfelt devotion to one’s own understanding of the Divine (known as Bhakti Yoga). Perhaps most critical in attaining mukti, however, is self-knowledge.
In the yogic philosophy, the ultimate self-knowledge is to know and experience that we are not separate from anything else. We are in a state of union with all of life, and it is our thoughts, habits, and beliefs that get in the way of experiencing this. When we are one with everything, what is there to be bound by? That’s mukti.
Cleansing the mind
Georg Feuerstein says “yoga is the means by which we can discover our innate freedom, and this is accomplished through an extensive process of self-purification; the cleansing of the mirror of the mind. So long as the mind is clouded, we believe ourselves to be limited.” This process of un-clouding the mind requires continual practice of self-awareness, and clearing out what is in the way of seeing our true nature.
Meditation aids us in this practice. As we watch the thoughts, we come to realize that there is a watcher of those thoughts; we aren’t the thoughts, but are witness to them. This is one step towards the experience of mukti, which is our true nature.
Revealing our essence
Ramana Maharshi tells a story to help us understand. “We dig a well and create a huge pit. The space in the pit has not been created by us. We have just removed the earth which was
filling the space there. The space was there then and is also there now. Similarly we have to throw out all the age-long innate tendencies (samskaras) which reside inside us. When all of them have been given up, the Self will shine alone.” When we dig out the thoughts that cloud our minds, our essence that has always been there will be realized.
Our external freedoms, of which we have so many in this country, are vitality important to the world and to each human being on this planet. As we celebrate this liberty represented by the birth of the United States, let’s also turn ourselves inward to the practice of reaching that ultimate freedom – mukti, the liberation of the self. No matter what happens in our country or our world, we always have the ability to be free within, unconditionally. Let freedom ring!
Copyright 2002, 2013 by Constance L. Habash
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