How Free is Freedom?

We are coming up on one of the most joyous celebrations in the Jewish calendar – Passover. Passover is celebrated for eight days, begins the evening of 18th April this year. 

Jews celebrate Passover – usually at home - in a ceremonial meal and service known as a Seder. Our New Unity Seder – which has become an institution here after four successful annual events – takes place on Wednesday, the 20th. 

Passover is the celebration of the biblical story of the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, and it has become the touchstone story of the Jewish tradition. God- for Jews - is often identified as the God that led us out of the land of Egypt – a God powerful enough to defy even the mighty Egyptian civilization. 

The story of a liberating God has resonated not just with Jews but with other oppressed peoples. African slaves in America sang “Go Down Moses. Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go!” They identified themselves with the enslaved Jews and dreamed of a God that would reach out and set them free. 

As we sat around our Seder table at our home or the home of another family member - the ceremony had some wonderfully memorable pleasures. There was, of course, the possibility that we kids could get a bit of sweet Passover wine. There was the curious business of dipping foods in salt water at the table – salt water that symbolized the tears of slavery. 

There was charoset, a sweet chopped mix of apples, nuts, and wine that symbolized the mortar that the Jewish slaves used to build their masters’ pyramids, but which tasted much, much better. 

But as we spoke of freedom, the child version of me did not feel particularly free. Back then, we used a very wordy Seder text. It was long and mostly rather boring. And often, the adults in charge wouldn’t let the kids read – or would ask us to read something too hard – and it went on and on and on and I started to think that I might be happier building pyramids then being stuck at that table! 

I assure you that our Seders here are much better – equal participation, no droning on and on, festive singing… 

So there I was – a kid living in a free country, not having to worry about money, with plenty to eat, no persecution, no chains around my ankles or whips cracking around me – and I didn’t feel particularly free. 

And I wonder, how free do we really feel? 

And how free are we really? 

What would it take to, at last, feel a sense of profound freedom? 

To begin with, we have to ask about freedom itself. What is freedom? 

We think of freedom perhaps as a lack of external constraints. The people in Libya and Egypt and Syria are pleading, protesting, fighting, and dying to gain their freedom from an oppressive government. They want to be allowed to speak freely, to assemble freely, to be able to earn a living, and to have a voice in how they will be governed. 

For us, the quest for freedom is rather different, but may still feel quite pressing. Constraints placed on us include financial limitations. Just as a few examples, there is the need to work, the need to pay part of our income in taxes, and the cost of travel that prevents us going wherever we choose. 

These constraints, though common, are real and significant. The fact that most of you have to spend a large fraction of your waking hours in a job you may not particularly like in order to survive is certainly a significant limitation on your freedom. 

When do you get to do what you want? To do what nurtures you? To do what is meaningful to you if you come home from work each day too exhausted to do much of anything? 

These are all external constraints – the limitations imposed upon us by government, by fellow citizens, by culture, and even by the nature of the economic system under which we live. 

We can never be entirely free of these constraints. Societies have rules to make things work for everyone. You will not be free to walk around London naked. You will not be free to take what doesn’t belong to you. Unless you have enormous wealth, you will have the constraints of a job and costs preventing you from going anywhere you like and doing whatever you wish. And even great wealth brings its own constraints – although we might be very happy to take that particular risk. 

More important for us today though are not the external constraints on our freedom, but the internal ones. 

There have been times in my life when I was constrained – even held prisoner – by states of mind. Anxiety and fear have shackled me from going new places and trying new things. As a child, shyness locked me away from new relationships as effectively as any prison walls might have. And, at times, depression has been an isolation cell robbing me of the freedom to be active and enjoy my life. 

I suspect that I am not alone in having my freedom restricted by my own internal constraints. For some of us, the constraints we create actually result from our freedom. Kahlil Gibran speaks of this in the reading we shared earlier. “In truth” he writes “that which you call freedom is the strongest of [your] chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle the eyes.” That which we may call freedom is not necessarily true freedom. 

We might use our freedom to drink or use drugs or indulge excessively in food or television watching to blunt our suffering. Ironically, the exercise of any of these freedoms leads eventually - and certainly - to even greater constraints upon our lives – to less freedom rather than more. 

Our lack of freedom is often more determined by our state of mind or way of thinking than it is a function of the external reality. 

Of the great religious traditions, Buddhism in particular would tell us that our sense of freedom is in great part determined by how we understand and respond to events and conditions – rather than the fact of those situations themselves. I have known people who were made miserable by the slightest imperfection in their room at the luxurious Ritz Carlton Hotel and others who blithely put up with living conditions that would have made me physically ill. 

Buddhism teaches that freedom comes from knowing the true nature of reality – that it is in fact illusion. Hinduism teaches that freedom comes from knowing that the human soul and the divine are one. Taoism teaches that an ease in living – a freedom – comes of being in harmony with the Tao – the way or path that guides all existence. 

Our Unitarian ancestors focused on freedom of thought and belief – they rejected the confining dogmatic structures of their Christian heritage. 

The curious thing is that in each instance, these paths to freedom require what we might think of as the opposite of freedom – discipline. 

Discipline is a word that has unpleasant connotations today. In a culture that increasingly values individual freedom over community needs or any kind of commitment, the idea of deliberately restricting ourselves in any way can seem foreign. 

The dedicated Buddhist follows a discipline of meditation and adheres to strict rules of conduct to develop the way of being that lead to freedom. Taoists and Hindus and many other religionists also follow a variety of practices. 

And Unitarians emphasized the responsible exercise of our innate sense of reason. Freedom of belief for them was not meant to be freedom to believe willy-nilly, but freedom to believe as one is led by a responsible and reasonable personal search. 

Is discipline the path to freedom? 

I don’t mean the harsh or external kind of discipline here – the kind an ex-nun friend of mine experienced in the convent when she was forced into silence as punishment or required to scourge herself until her back bled. 

Discipline is not the way to freedom, but it is part of a path to freedom. Freedom is not attained through a throw-caution-to-the-wind approach to life. Neither is it acquired through self-damaging, life-negating, asceticism. 

Discipline is important because attending to the goal of freedom itself is not a sufficient guide. 

A student asked a Zen Master,
‘If I work very hard,
how long will it take for me to realise Zen?’
The Master replied,
‘Ten years.’

The student replied,
‘If I work very very hard,
how long will it take for me to realise Zen?’
The Master replied,
‘Twenty years.’

The student replied,
‘If I work very very very hard,
how long will it take for me to realise Zen?’
The Master replied,
‘Thirty years.’

The student replied,
‘But, I don’t understand…
why does it take longer when I work harder?
The Master replied,
‘When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.’

If you gaze at the mountain in the distance, you are very likely to fall into a hole or walk head-on into a tree. Attention to the path itself is essential. 

Seeking for freedom can bring captivity. Seeking discipline can bring freedom. 

Philosopher Bertrand Russell said “Right discipline consists […] in the habits of mind which lead spontaneously to desirable rather than undesirable activities.” 

The discipline we should seek is not about following arbitrary rules – rather, it is a matter of developing habits of the mind – the habit of mindfulness, the habit of compassion, the habit of generosity, the habit of gratitude. 

Consider how these habits would have changed my childhood Passover Seder experience. Or indeed think of how they might change your own experiences of listening to someone drone on and on, not letting you say a word… 

Gratitude, mindfulness, generosity, and compassion. These are the habits that bring freedom to our own lives and to the lives of those around s. These are the habits we must each cultivate to become increasingly the kind of community we dream of being and they are the ways of being that will influence the larger world around us toward a better, more centered, freer way of living. 

May it be so.