I keep thinking about the five-year old child’s question—“What is freedom anyway?” (See "Out of the Mouths of Babes" posting.) On Martin Luther King day, a good moment to pause and consider. One of my favorite definitions: “My freedom to extend my arm goes as far as your face.” That takes care of all those self-absorbed “you can’t take away my SUV!!” interpretations. We’re living together on a crowded planet and we are free up to the limit of causing harm. Of course, just being alive causes harm—ask your local cow, mosquito or parent. Thus, true freedom is always bound within our interdependent co-existence. Those bound for freedom must accept the boundaries within which freedom operates.
This is the kind of thing a teacher needs to figure out running the community of a classroom. Kids come to school free in their young innocence and we teach them to line up and raise their hand and why not? It helps things run smoothly and when well-done, such social amenities are like a beautiful choreographed dance. Steps are proscribed, but for a purpose. And maybe there is a place to break out and do your thing.
The 60’s had many marvelous things to offer, but the reaction to the emotional, bodily and political repression of the 50’s swung the pendulum too far to the side of “whatever.” I worked in several of the dubiously named “free schools” and quickly discovered that no rules could become a greater tyranny than too many rules and stunt children’s growth even more. Free jazz musicians discovered that after the exhilaration of freedom from chords, scales, set rhythms, came the longing for the structures that gave shape and deeper expression. And if they didn’t, their listeners certainly did!
The Zen master I have studied with worked in the early ‘70’s with many of the hippies who got to the end of the road of their “do your thing” freedom and still hungered for more. Zen practice is perhaps one of the most outwardly rigid forms, with strict schedules, proscribed motions for walking, eating, entering a room, two or three choices of meditation posture and no wiggle room. Sorry your legs hurt, but ain’t no one movin’ until the bell rings—and I have a stick to whack you if you do. But unlike a strictly military discipline, the aim is liberation of the spirit and you quickly discover that the dance of the schedule helps you to fly while seated on the cushion. And in your daily interviews with the Roshi, he gives you full freedom to express yourself to answer your given question (koan). Amazing how often you discover that you have nothing worthy to say. Back to the pillow! And so our quest for freedom turned out to be so much more complex than we thought!
It goes without saying that freedom’s first step is towards choice, the possibility, privilege and right of self-determination, freedom to define oneself, freedom to walk the full measure of your dreams without the world slamming doors in your face. But it’s just possible that the last step of freedom is no choice. We are bound by the limits of our bodies, by organic cycles of growth and decay, by gravity, DNA and other stark realities of the physical world. And then come all the forces that shape us in the course of a life— the upbringing by our parents, the brain’s synaptic connections that get made by our choices and experience, the schools and places of worship we attend, the cultures we inherit—in short, the whole catastrophe. How can we talk about freedom in the face of all these pushes and pulls? What is the actual range of our choices?
The urge to escape the things that seem to limit us, our struggle to push against our constraints, is one of the great dramas of this life. But in the end, we must always submit to both our particular and our universal boundaries to find freedom within the limitations, As Rumi put it, “your boundaries are your quest.”
Perhaps freedom is not so much choosing what you do, but working on how you do it, with the full measure of your attention, awareness, imagination, talent and commitment. That’s why Duke Ellington was freer than the hotel owners who refused him a room, Miles Davis freer than the policeman who pulled him over for the crime of being black and driving a nice car.
And so a nod to the national hero of this day, Dr. Martin Luther King, who apprenticed himself to the most difficult freedom of all, the conquering of hate through love. Tomorrow, 190 children in my school will sing his praises and be encouraged to dedicate themselves to a path of freedom longer, more rigorous and steeper than they can ever imagine in their young innocent lives. Of course, mostly they will be worried that the ceremony might spill over into their recess. But one hopes that the spirit we will stir in that room will echo down the years to keep them company.