Throughout the holiday weekend, in the midst of preparations and celebrations, I pondered the subject of freedom, as we do on the 4th of July. We are blessed with so many liberties here in the United States, but there is one that is universal, no matter what country or political landscape we are in: our freedom of thought, to which we are often blind. We are free to think as we please, and our perception of the world (and thus our experience of the world) is the outcome of that thinking. Granted, the societies we live in try to influence our thinking in various ways and through various mediums, but ultimately it is up to us whether to believe all that input or not. This is what I think it means to spiritually grow up, or awaken. We learn to witness our own thoughts, and choose whether or not they are indeed true and valuable, or whether they are causing us unnecessary suffering and divisiveness. As we do this, through meditation, prayer and contemplation, we start to see the barrage of thought, the barrage of input upon our thought.
How many days have I spent lost in worry? How many hours have I spent held captive by blame turned inwardly or outwardly, held captive by anger, greed, small-mindedness, jealousy, self-righteousness, victimhood? These subtle but big-blanket thoughts are usually running underneath our consciousness, influencing our words and actions without our awareness. They appear less as actual thoughts and more like feeling-tones, inner landscapes. They are like tinted glasses we wear and forget we are wearing them.
We often think that meditation is all about having a peaceful experience, but I’ve learned that this is not true. We may be moving toward peace, but much of the meditative process is coming face to face with our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations, and then witnessing just how much these experiences are calling the shots in our life. This can be painful, but it is a cleansing pain, a liberating pain, if it is done with compassion.
Freedom of thought is our greatest gift and our greatest responsibility. It is the work of our lifetime.
Here is an excerpt from Pema Chodron’s book The Places That Scare You, that illustrates the basic choice we make in our thinking each day:
“When I was about six years old I received the essential bodhichitta [open-heart] teaching from an old woman sitting in the sun. I was walking by her house one day feeling lonely, unloved, and mad, kicking anything I could find. Laughing, she said to me, ‘Little girl, don’t you go letting life harden your heart.’ Right there I received this pith instruction: we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.”
It takes courage and tenacity to look inward. As human beings, we naturally resist what might hurt, and it can definitely hurt to see ourselves clearly. It can be quite challenging to let go of a thought, too, even though we know it is causing us harm. Some, like greed, revenge, or even worry have an addictive quality, a magnetic quality. I can’t tell you how difficult I find it to let go of worry! It seems on the surface like a loving thing to do! But I know this isn’t true. Worry benefits no one and causes great harm.
As you move into the second half of 2015 (I tend to think of July 4 as the dividing line), and as you catch yourself thinking thoughts that are not lifting you up, be kind with yourself, be forgiving. But right there, on the spot, to the best of your ability, liberate yourself. CHOOSE AGAIN! I promise to do this to the best of my ability, too. We are in this together!