The following is an excerpt from Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society.
Freedom is a powerful idea. But I am not sure we are always very clear what we have in mind when we speak of it. Does freedom mean doing whatever we feel like in any given moment? Does it mean having the power and liberty to exercise our will with no obstruction? Does it evoke a state in which we have shed ourselves of all obligations to others?
Many of our notions of freedom are based implicitly on the idea that we are utterly self-sustaining and separate entities. This model leads us to feel that others’ claims on us undercut our freedom. We experience our relationships as ties that bind us and limit our freedom. Based on this, we assume that we cannot all be free, because the freedom of one person comes at the cost of another’s. If we believe that, it is small wonder that people so often seek to dominate and oppress others. This is an idea that slips into discussions of freedom—the idea that freedom is in some fundamental way a limited resource, such that one person exercising his freedom detracts from another person’s ability to be free. But this is not the case. Freedom is not a zero-sum game.
It is possible and realistic for every person to experience real freedom. The reason we have not managed to do so is we lack an understanding of what real freedom is and how it can be achieved. We need the wisdom to distinguish the egocentric pursuit of self- interest from the pursuit of authentic freedom.
When I hear what people say about freedom sometimes, it sounds to me like longing to live out the fantasy of being independent and absolutely autonomous individuals, of being free of consequences and responsibilities—that is to say, exempt from the principle of interdependence. But there is no such thing. We cannot exist out- side causality or outside the connections of interdependence, and so freedom cannot be a matter of escaping from those connections.
Only freedom developed on the basis of a realistic view of who we are and how we relate to others can be authentic—and extended universally to all. If we acknowledge our interdependence, and take into account the vast networks of interconnections in which our lives and actions are embedded, we will find that our own freedom is inseparable from the freedom of all other people. When we truly appreciate this fact, we experience interdependent freedom—a freedom that does not detract from others’ freedom. This is the freedom that we can all enjoy together without conflict.
Freedom’s Inner Conditions
Freedom does not start from the outside. Although external conditions have a part to play, that is not where freedom originates. This might sound backward, but authentic freedom arises initially from inner conditions. Its deepest roots are within us.
Most often when we speak of freedom, what we actually have in mind are freedom’s outer manifestations. This may be the gravest error we make in our understanding of freedom. If we think we will achieve freedom when we can exercise complete control over our immediate environment, we overlook the single most important determinant of authentic freedom: our own minds.
Our mind has unlimited potential. It is not bound to any one position or viewpoint. What we think or feel—our mental state—is not simply determined by outer circumstances. Because of this, no matter how challenging our external conditions might be, we can experience freedom if we cultivate the inner resources that allow us to feel free. The basis for establishing authentic freedom is within us.
If you can access a sense of inner freedom no matter what is going on around you, you are experiencing freedom. As important as outer liberties are, freedom does not consist solely in enjoying physical or verbal liberty, such as freedom of movement or freedom of speech. We may have the liberty to do and say as we wish and yet still be deeply unfree mentally or emotionally. This is why inner freedom is key. When we have freed our minds and hearts from within, our happiness no longer depends on making the rest of the world serve our self-centered goals. Not only that, we gain freedom to work to change the external conditions that have the potential to limit or obstruct our freedom from outside, and we also have what we need to be able to work for the freedom of others.
What are we looking for when we seek freedom? Maybe at the bottom of it all, the freedom we seek is the experience of genuine happiness. Since this is an inner experience, external things cannot be the measure of our happiness or our freedom. We will come back in a moment to the question of what we mean by happiness and how it enables us to experience freedom, but I think if we examine our own experiences, we can see that whether we call it freedom or not, if we feel free, we feel happy, and if we feel happy, we also feel free. The state of mind and the feeling we seek can be called freedom, or it can be called happiness. But whatever name we give it, if we want to experience happiness or freedom, we must cultivate the inner conditions that give rise to those states.