It’s been nearly two years since the last article in this series, on the meaning of peace. For me, it’s been a time of growth and learning, possibly like none other before (though I imagine later years will have more surprises). Among other things, it’s been a time of trying to live peace and not merely think or talk about it.
And this leads quite naturally to the attainment of freedom.
Last time, I explored peace as the virtue of equanimity, requiring both strength and pliancy. Meditation, internal martial arts, traditional medical practices, mettā, and so on, all conduce to the awakening of this master of all virtues. But so do more “mundane” behaviors. Along with the now-classic saying that your character is the sum of the five people with whom you spend the most time, I have found that it is extremely important for the person chasing spiritual attainments to be cautious of their social attachments. While everyone will bring some difficulty along with their virtues, the hope is to build a circle of daily contact which balances out to encourage your better nature, and those of everyone involved. Parasites must be, as compassionately as possible, kept to the periphery.
We obviously don’t have full control over every regular contact we have. Work and family quite famously bring us in constant touch with people who are not trying to better themselves, and sometimes with those who actively seek to cause problems. Some of them may even be people we can help! But we can deal with these relationships in a healthy fashion only if we cultivate peace within ourselves. Equanimity provides the calm center to which we can always return and perpetually generates the energy which can be applied throughout the day. Peace is thus nothing but a true virtue, a very real power which can be cycled within or projected without as necessary. It integrates macrocosm and microcosm through every interaction with the world.
Freedom is not a lack of obstacles—impossible for as long as one is in a body—but the peaceful meeting and overcoming of them. While peace and freedom are individual, they are not individualistic; that is, they are rooted in the individual who cultivates them, but they impact and benefit the entire community and society with which they interact. As one engages peacefully, freedom increases; the capacity to deal with every obstacle which meets one on the road, wherever one has set the waypoint, comes ever more naturally as one is able to remain calm, assess, and respond rather than react.
My own life supports this model extremely well. I am increasingly free from parasitic interactions. I am also more and more free from strife in most areas of life. Practices of meditation and mettā, as well as tantric ritual offerings to various spirits, gods, and ancestors add up to an incredible shift in perspective—our mental state making up the vast bulk of our experience as it is. For those who practice in a Western scheme, ritual magic or adaptations from various shamanic traditions can fill in a lot of gaps for achieving similar ends.
Freedom is therefore primarily negative in nature; to borrow the language of Isaiah Berlin, individual freedom is generally “freedom from”, negative freedom, rather than “freedom to”, positive freedom. This may strike some on both sides of the political aisle as too libertarian, and this may be true in the anarchic sense of Ernst Jünger, but I must again emphasize that individual does not equal individualist.
By the same token, genuine compassion will sometimes look very much like apathy. An appropriate response will not always appear to be what others want in the moment, though it benefits all in the long run. The capacity to do what is really good rather than what is demanded, and refrain from what is bad regardless of expectations, is the only true freedom in this world.
Realizing that, happiness arises.