This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
The Path of Liberation
Buddhism's often referred to as the Path of Liberation, or the Path of Freedom. What exactly is this freedom that's being talked about? Freedom is not an absolute thing, it's a relative thing. Freedom is generally freedom from or freedom to. Is this sense, what we're talking about in the Path of Freedom is obtaining freedom from conceptual constraints and freedom to act or be a certain way.
Imagine a prisoner, someone who's been in jail for years and years, who's finally going to be set free. Once that person is out of prison, their freedom is freedom from the constraints of the cell that they were in or the constraints of the overall prison walls that they were behind, and it's freedom to do all the things they want to do; to be a certain way or to act in a way that they couldn't while they were prisoner. This could be as simple as going shopping.
Understanding freedom in the sense that it's a relative thing will help us to jump into another deeper level of understanding of what truth is. We've all heard the expression that the truth shall set you free, right? But free from what? How does truth do that? To understand that, let's talk about truth for a little bit.
For me, there are empirical truths and there are conceptual truths. Empirical truths would be truths that are true whether or not I believe anything. For example, an empirical truth is that, if the temperature drops low enough, water solidifies and turns into ice. It can be observed and it can be replicated. Most of our empirical truths, if not all of them, come from science and scientific research.
Science is always revealing new empirical truths for us. But these are not the kind of truths that I'm going to talk about. I'm talking about conceptual truths. Conceptual truths are truths that are true because of our beliefs, not in spite of them. I like to split them into two, societal truths and personal truths, but they're both still conceptual. An example of a societal truth would be that gold is more valuable than silver. It's a conceptual truth because it's only true because we believe that it's true. Now, if there are no humans on the planet, a lump of gold and a lump of silver next to each other in a field have no inherent value. There's no inherent value that says the gold is worth more than the silver. These things are just things, but we come along and we assign meaning to them.
Then you can scale this down from societal truths to personal truths. For example, a personal truth for me would be that eggs taste better when you put hot sauce on them. This may be true for me while it's not true for you. There are countless examples of this. Someone who thinks hot dogs are better than hamburgers or hamburgers are better with cheese, for example. Or that being a Texan is better than being a Californian. I recently read a book called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. He says that our ability as humans to go from early humans as hunters and gatherers and then collect into societies and become what we are today all hinges on the fact that we have the unique ability to tell and believe stories. It's our ability to do this and then hold to collective beliefs inside of these stories that propels us. Political systems and governments are conceptual truths. Same with religion. Same with economics. It's our shared belief that this green piece of paper is actually worth something that gives us the ability to interact with each other in commerce. It's a conceptual truth. Is it really worth a dollar? Well that doesn't mean anything. If there were no humans, that piece of paper wouldn't mean anything.
Along with this comes the ability to be bound by our truths. There is the idea that good concepts are like a golden chain and that bad concepts are like an iron chain but they all equally bind you in the end. Think about all of the daily interactions you have with conceptual truths and how you're bound by them. I don't mean bound in a bad way. But to understand freedom we need to understand what we're free from and free to do. We need to know what conceptual truths we're bound to.
Byron Katie says, "A thought is harmless unless we believe it". She also says, "It's not our thoughts, but our attachment to our thoughts, that cause us suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it's true, without inquiring. A belief is a thought that we've been attaching to, often for years."
Freedom to or freedom from has to do with our conceptual understanding of the world being at conflict with the empirical reality of the world. This is to say that there is what is, and then there's the story that we create around what is. As long as we reside inside the story of reality, we're not dealing with reality itself.
Think about this. You're driving on the road and somebody cuts you off. Immediately there is what happened, and then there's the story we create about what happened. Typically, in a scenario like that, we're thinking, "Okay, this person is a jerk. This person probably does this all the time and takes advantage of people. They think they can do whatever they want and not obey the rules. Here they are just cutting me off." There's a whole story attached to the event. If you think about it, the suffering that you're experiencing during that event has to do with the story around it, not with the event. You get cut off. That doesn't do anything to you. Nothing happened. There's absolutely nothing going on when you get cut off, but the story around it is the dangerous part. The thought is harmless unless we believe it. We believe the story that we've created. So this is what I'm talking about when I'm talking about freedom. It's freedom from habitual reactivity.
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and a psychiatrist, and he was the founder of logotherapy. He was also a Holocaust survivor. He went through some of the most difficult things that you could imagine going through. He writes that, "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response, lies our growth and our freedom."
This is really powerful. I want to talk about this. The concept that, between stimulus and response, there's a space. Because that's what Buddhism is trying to teach and really get at, that, as we go through life, we are reactive; and, even worse, we're habitually reactive. We tend to just react to things. Between the stimulus and response, there's a space. It's inside of this space that we have the power to choose our response.
There's a famous story... I think it's a zen story. There's a man standing on a trail, or on a path, and he can see off in the distance that there's a man approaching him on a horse and he's galloping at full speed. As he gets closer and closer, he's finally close enough to talk to him. He asks this man, "Hey, where are you going?" The man just says, "I don't know, ask the horse" as he gallops by at full speed.
The idea here is that we are like the horse and the rider. We have two systems in the mind. There's the intellectual part of the brain, which is like the rider. Then there's the emotional, reactive side of us, which is like the horse. The worse part is we think we're in control, but the horse is the one that's deciding where we go and at what speed. This would be an example of living in a habitually reactive state of mind. The sense of freedom, again, has to do with that space in between the stimulus and the response, which is where we actually have the power to choose our response.
Imagine again being cut off. You're driving. You get cut off by another car and then imagine if the story's different. The story this time is that there's a person in the back who's been injured. They're trying to get to the hospital as quickly as they can. They couldn't wait for the ambulance so here they are, speeding on the road. The story changes, but the circumstances have not changed, right? You've just been cut off. That's what is. The story around what is has changed and that changes everything, right? Now, in this scenario, you'd be thinking, "Everybody get out of the way!" You're rooting for this person to get to the hospital as quickly as possible. Yet, the reality of what happened is identical to the previous story. The only difference is that the story around it is now different. We do this in life all the time. All the time, we go through life and things are happening, life presents something and then we make meaning of it, and we give it a story and inside of that story is the suffering that we're going to experience.
Think about the ways that we go through life creating stories around and outside the reality of what's happening. There's a zen story that alludes to this concept and the idea is that you're to imagine that you're a fisherman and you're out on the river fishing and you decide to lay down in your boat to take a little nap or just relax for a minute. While you're lying down, you hear this loud thud on the boat. You sit up and you turn around and you realise that another fisherman's boat has crashed into yours. There's a hole in your boat. Typically, you're going to be thinking, "This idiot fisherman crashed his boat into mine".
Then, replay the scenario and imagine you realise that a log has floated on the river and collided with your boat. The scenario and the outcome is the same. Your boat still has a hole in it. The difference is that, because it was just a log, there's not a story behind it. With the person in the other boat, you're creating meaning right away. "This person does not pay attention. This person is careless." It doesn't matter whether or not the story is true, the point is that inside the story is where we contain the suffering around the event. What is is just what is, and then the story we create around what is determines how we feel about it.
When you know that and when you can understand that that's our natural tendency, then you can start to have this sense of freedom in between the stimulus and the response. This is the space that Viktor Frankl was talking about and it's inside that space that we can have the power to choose our response. When we can choose our response, we're no longer being reactive. I want to clarify that for a second, because the idea that, OK, once I master this I'll never be reactive isn't accurate. Reactivity and emotions are a natural part of being human.
Let's go back to the example of the man on the horse. Living reactively is like you're running somewhere and you don't know where. You're not in control of that horse. If you tame the horse, you can have a good relationship where you decide where it goes. You're essentially in control of that horse at all times but, if you're out in the field and a snake comes out of the grass, that horse will get spooked and you're going to have a good ten to fifteen seconds of scary, emotional reactivity where you're actually not in control for that brief moment of time. The horse is going to jump, it's going to take however many steps back, it's going to do whatever it's going to do. It might even buck. In moments like that, you're just hanging on for the ride, but that's not the habitual state that you're in. What we're trying to be free from is habitual reactivity. I hope you can distinguish the difference there because it's a very big one.
What's crazy about us, going back to the original analogy of prison, is that that's essentially us. The difference is that we are in our own prison and we are own jailers. We are the ones who hold ourselves captive and we don't even realise it. What we're held captive by are our beliefs; the conceptual truths that we believe in.
Pause at some point and think about this. What conceptual truths do you hang on to that cause you suffering? Or cause others suffering? Analyse those. It's a really powerful experience.
There's a place where we can go and experience reality as it is and not have any of the habitual truths affecting us too much. That's in nature. I love to experience being in nature, and I think the reason why is that, when we're out in nature, we are experiencing reality as it is. There's no pretending. Trees are just trees. Flowers are just flowers. Birds are just birds. It's just free to be what it is, doing whatever it does, and we get to be there and we get to experience that.
It's kind of absurd to imagine being in nature and enjoying the scenery and thinking, "If that mountain were ten degrees less steep, then this might be an ideal portrait for me". Or, "If that tree was five feet over in that other direction, now maybe this landscape would look nice". We don't do that in nature, because there's no need to. It's one of the places where we can go and we can experience reality as it is and take it all in without assigning meaning to any of it. Furthermore, it does the same back to us. When we're out there, nature allows us to be what we are and who we are. You don't hear the birds changing their song because you're wearing a red jacket and you were supposed to wear a yellow one. There's none of that. You get to experience reality as it is and reality gets to accept us just as we are and that's why it feels so good to be there.
All that goes away as soon as we're around people, though, right? Because now people have conceptual truths. And they say things like, "Why are you wearing that red jacket? I told you to wear your yellow jacket." Or, "You look better in your yellow jacket". Or "Why are you even wearing a jacket? It's warm out here." All these crazy things start to happen where there's no freedom. The freedom to be who you are can be diminished when you're around other people, but it's the same thing that we do to others.
The ultimate sense of freedom that we can give to someone else is the freedom to just be who they are. That's also the freedom that we can extend to ourselves. Of course, that's a lot easier said than done. The reason that it's hard is because of our conceptual truths; the ones that bind us, whether they're good or bad. I wanted to wrap this up with one more thought. It's my favourite parable and I know I've talked about it in an earlier podcast but it's worth repeating.
There's an old man who's out in the field farming and a horse shows up. His neighbour comes running over and he says, "How fortunate for you. You have a horse, and it came out of nowhere". The old man just says, "Who knows what is good and what is bad?” He puts the horse in the corral but, in the morning, he comes out and discovers that the corral is broken and the horse has disappeared. The neighbour comes running over and he says, "How unfortunate. You had a horse and now you don't." The old man simply says, "Who knows what is good and what is bad?" He goes about doing his thing. Later in the day the horse comes back with four additional horses and he takes the horses, puts them in the corral and fixes the corral. The neighbour comes running over. "How fortunate for you. Your horse has come back and it's brought additional horses." He just says, "Who knows what is good and what is bad?"
Then, the next day, his son is out working with the horses, trying to tame the horse so that he can use it in the field. He falls off the horse and he breaks his leg. The neighbour comes running over and says, "How unfortunate. Your only son... Your only source of help in the field has broken his leg." The old man simply replies, "Who knows what is good and what is bad?" The next day the army comes into town and they're conscripting all the youth, and they can't take the farmer's son because he has a broken leg so they leave him, and they take everyone else, including the neighbour's son. The neighbour comes running over. He pauses and says, "Who knows what is good and what is bad?" And he goes back to his house.
I think sometimes that the misunderstanding about this story is that it's saying that we should go through life and not care. That's not what it's saying. This is not resignation to life. This is an active acceptance of life as it is. The sense of freedom in this parable comes from the old man who's not bound by assigning meaning to things. That's his freedom.
I have no doubt that, when his son falls and breaks his leg, the old man's thinking, "Oh no, my poor son, you're in pain, let me help you." Or when the horse first showed up, he was like, "Woohoo! A horse!" Then it left the next morning and he said, "Oh dang it, the horse is gone. Oh well." That's the difference: the "Oh well". He doesn't attach to things or make meaning of them. That's what the neighbour's constantly doing, assigning meaning.
Everything that goes along with making meaning, that is our habitual reactivity. The sense of freedom comes between the stimulus and the response. There's a space and in that space is our power to choose our response. This is exemplified in the story of the old man, who chooses his responses. He doesn't have to be bound by his habitual reactivity.
Thich Nhat Hanh says, "We must love others in a way that they feel free". I think that's the sense of freedom I'm talking about here: the freedom to love someone without the conceptual constraints that I would put on them because of my beliefs. I love you except... I love you but... If you were just this, or if you were not that... Those are the conceptual truths that bind us but freedom transcends our conceptual truths; it allows us to be the way we are and allow others to be the way they are. It allows all of us to love in a way that feels free.
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to the full episode here.