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Elements of freedom

Updated: Jan 12

What is your deepest aspiration? What is your highest goal? In one of his discourses (MN 29) the Buddha invited us to stop nowhere short of unshakable and complete freedom. Happiness, pleasure, power, bliss, even honour and prestige, are all meaningless without freedom. And they all come, in their own unique shade, when freedom is there.


The best definition I can give of freedom is “the art of turning apparent limitations into opportunities”. Freedom is not a thing, it is not a state, it is not a quality, it is not something you have or lose. Freedom is something you do, it is a skill—an art. Like any other process, it involves change, transformation. Freedom is that specific process that allows one to take what at first appears to be a limitation, a constraint, a boundary, something that cages our being—and then to turn that same constraint or limitation into an entry into a space of unseen possibilities, to turn the boundary into a point of reference for exploring a yet undiscovered potential.


Anything that creates a limit or a constraint has to say 'no' to something. Go this way, don't go that way—move this way, don't move that way. This first step (which is at the heart of what I have called 'primary embodiment' in previous posts) gives rise to things, objects, identities. I am also a human being because I walk on two feet instead of four. I am also a philosopher of sorts because I try to understand how reality works, rather than just letting it flow through me. Everything we do or are is defined by not being something else. Negation is essential to make something this rather than that. But all negations are ambiguous and ultimately abstract. They seem very precise and specific, but it takes a little observation to see that they always remain fuzzy. Don't walk on four feet. Sure, but how many ways can you walk on only two? When you give up one thing, a whole spectrum of possibilities opens up. In other words, a negation is only proscriptive, it takes away certain options, but by the very act of doing so it necessarily reveals many more. Like a shadow that, by hiding certain details of a landscape, allows the light to reveal others. The second step (which is the essence of what I have elsewhere called 'deep embodiment') is therefore to reclaim this whole spectrum of possibilities that any boundary and constraint entails.


In other words, we begin by limiting ourselves in order to take on a form, we are born by giving up our indeterminate potential to be everything in order to become this particular being rather than anything else. Our first step requires an act of self-limitation. But this is only the first step. As we grow and mature, we see that our original nature (the power to be all) has not been completely extinguished, but merely given a determinate shape. Now we are this, but whatever we are, we have countless ways of being this. Freedom is the ability to discover what is possible within the limited and finite, thus bringing the infinite potential from which we were born into the seemingly limited form of what we are now.


Developing freedom is not a choice, it's the natural and spontaneous maturation of a growth process. Like an acorn that grows into an oak, we grow freer. And like many acorns that do not make it (because of all the possible vicissitudes that can prevent them, from the wrong soil to being eaten by an animal), we too can fail to really develop our potential for freedom. Nevertheless, we all try, we all have a conatus towards it, and we try as best we can to move in its direction. In fact, since freedom is a process, our freedom consists more in this striving than in any definite and ultimate achievement.


The fact that freedom is the result of a natural process of maturation does not mean that this process cannot be supported and helped. Just as it can be hindered by many factors, it can also be facilitated by other factors. In this sense, although freedom is not the result of a choice, it can thrive and flourish better as a result of a particular practice. 


In this respect, my current hypothesis is that the most direct and effective practice is to consider freedom from the point of view of movement. Ultimately, any expression of freedom will be embodied in a pattern of movement. In its most basic sense, freedom is freedom to move. Likewise, most constraints and limitations are ways of restricting and hindering movement and confining it to a certain range. To articulate this intuition, the scheme of the five elements (earth, water, fire, air, space) can be helpful.


The most obvious way in which our movements can be restricted is by the gross and manifest inability to move. Stiffness, rigidity, solidity, inertia, gravity and many other factors can act as literal or metaphorical chains that prevent us from moving. These are all expressions of the earth element, which represents the quality of density, consistency, weight, containment, being determined and defined. Earth is also the element of separation and fragmentation (earth alone is pure dust or sand, disarticulated and fragmented), which also makes movement difficult, if not pointless.


If I can't move because I'm weighed down by gravity, or because my limbs are too stiff to take a step, I'm expressing very powerfully certain aspects of earth that are ultimately so strong that they're a limitation. Now, one possible suggestion would be adding some other element to compensate for these limitations: adding some fluidity (water), some power (fire), some lightness (air), or some emptiness (space). In theory this might work, but in practice it is easy to see that the real problem for anyone stuck in a particular form is precisely the fact that they do not have access to those other elements that would help to get them out of that form. If I'm stuck in earth, it's also because I don't have access to the qualities of other elements that would be so helpful in getting me out of my cage. A more effective approach is to use earth to free earth itself.


Any structure, no matter how solid and static, is based on a certain equilibrium, a certain form of balance. Even the most static statue has to negotiate its ability to stand with the force of gravity. Earth, even in its most constraining expressions, is not just a thing, but a process that constantly seeks to ground, to bring down, to condense, to give form, to create boundaries and borders, to separate and to make discrete. Because it is a dynamic process, it can always be thrown out of balance, it can always fail or dissolve. By exploring this latter possibility, earth can be used to liberate earth itself.


Imagine feeling completely stiff and unable to move. You have to stand still. That's great. You could not stand still without maintaining some kind of balance, without negotiating with gravity. Your stillness is a very dynamic dialogue between your weight and gravity trying to pull you down. When you're standing, you're actually moving silently all the time. By simply reclaiming that silent movement, you can turn stillness on its head. Play with balance, see what happens when you undermine the usual compromise your body has made with gravity. What if you stand on one foot? What if you play the game of falling? Or what if you start sharing your weight with something (or someone) else? In all these cases, you'll start to move out of your statue-like form. And as you move, the constraint of earth is gone, you're becoming freer. And that's it.

The same is true of the other elements. Water is formless in itself and tends to take whatever shape is imposed on it by the container. To be stuck in water is to be stuck in the container, to be completely dependent on what is around us and imposes its shape on us. To be stuck in water is to be 'passive' (in Spinoza's sense). Water is the element in which our social conditioning appears more clearly, as in a mirror. Seeking the approval of others, or simply imitating them, are ways of taking on an external form, ways in which our watery nature tries to fit itself into a given form. But in order to take the shape that is given to it, water needs to flow, to readjust, to remain constantly malleable.

Being stuck in water can manifest as being stuck in mirroring, in copying, in following, in being led, or in needing external approval. But if you can mirror (if you are stuck in water) it is only because you have to know how to take any shape. To do this, water has to flow, to find its own path of least resistance, to evade, to escape, to overflow. The very act of assuming a given form presupposes the freedom to move from form to form, and thus to be unattached to any form. It is precisely from within the limitations of water (from within the patterns of mirroring and taking on externally imposed shapes) that one can begin to access the ability to actually take on any form, remembering that water itself is formless and therefore originally unbound to any particular form. Again, if you find yourself stuck in the constant imitation of this or that, you can use the same power that allows you to imitate to start making small variations, deviations, detours. You can sabotage your own mirroring activity, deconstruct it from within, until your waters flow away, freer.


Fire is the element of power, born of friction, glowing flames, light, explosions. This power can be both constructive and destructive, and indeed the two processes are inseparable. By burning its fuel, fire separates, disarticulates existing structures, reducing them to ashes, freeing what was bound in a specific form. At the same time, in this very process, fire brings things together, shatters them, forces them to fuse, until they coalesce into new forms (think of what happens inside a star, with its processes of burning simpler elements and creating more complex ones).

As fire works in these two ways, one can be stuck in fire at either of its poles. On the one hand, one can be blocked in the constant attitude of deconstructing, dismantling, consuming, burning up and extinguishing. On the other hand, one can be stuck in the endless effort of building a new form, constantly cooking one's earthenware in the oven. The latter is typical of traditional contemplative and ascetic traditions and their reliance on 'disciplined ardor' (tapas). In the first case, when the fire is too strong in its destructive aspect, it is necessary to discover what is now able to take shape, how these ashes can be reinvented in new creations. In the second case, when one is stuck in the creative power of fire, one needs to allow one's own creation to burn and become new fuel, to re-enter the cycle of fire and allow the flames to tear it down and make room for something new.


Air is expansiveness. Its essential quality is the ability to take up all available space, to spread out, to expand to the horizon and to hold it. When air is confined, it shows resistance, it manifests its spring and elasticity, which is also its strength. The expansiveness of air is not just a passive relaxation, but an active, toned presence. However, because this strength is generated by some sort of reaction, it often needs to be constrained in order to be perceived. To be stuck in air is to experience only the expansive and pervasive quality of this element, to be scattered, all over the place, diluted, without tone and without the ability to access the inner spring. This has the appearance of freedom, as it shuns limitations and constraints. But in reality it is a very weak and passive form of freedom, which does not have the strength to direct its own power and remains open and defenceless to all kinds of invasions, manipulations, agitations, turbulences.

Usually, contemplative traditions address this problem with methods that promote concentration. Attention is a very clear embodiment of air, and attention is usually scattered and fleeting. So by focusing it on a particular object and forcing it to stay there more or less strongly, attention (air) can be confined, which helps it to show its tone, power, spring, intensity. But there are other possibilities.

It is possible for air to condense, to thicken, while still expanding and permeating all the directions and places it has occupied. Rather than withdrawing to one point and concentrating there, it is possible to simply be fully present everywhere, dispersed and yet present in every point of space. When one is stuck in air, experience is scattered and brittle, because it is difficult to access the power of air, to oppose any resistance, and therefore any small stimulus leads to a change of place, to displacement, to dislocation. But if you can learn how to be completely scattered, how to be rooted in this expansive state, then it is possible to be everywhere in a denser, stronger, more vibrant way. Scattering becomes the strength of omnipresence, and that's the freedom of air.

Space is the horizon, the formless container of everything (in tantric terms, space is Shiva, pure consciousness, in which the power of the other elements manifests and takes all its forms). Though it is perhaps rarer, it is possible to be stuck in space. Space has no boundaries, no limits, no walls. Yet the very emptiness of space can be something to get stuck in. This is perhaps more common in certain contemplative traditions or among certain 'spiritual' seekers, where emptiness is seen as the absolute goal of the path. In any case, being stuck in space means being unable to relate to space in both its aspects—emptiness and fullness (Shiva & Shakti). It is a desire to have space only as a pure container, undisturbed by anything else, without realising that 'anything else' arises within space and is therefore as much a part of space as its emptiness itself.

To be unstuck in space it is only necessary to realise that space is there for the sake of welcoming and loving whatever emerges to fill it. By realising that what emerges in space is just another way for space to manifest itself (as a plenum rather than a vacuum), one goes beyond the partial understanding of the nature of space (which reduces it to emptiness only) and discovers its potential to hold space for everything without being disturbed by anything, and indeed to be able to lovingly embrace everything. In fact, all the other elements are just different ways in which space manifests, and vice versa, space manifests fully only as it condense and takes up the qualities of the other elements.


These are all suggestions, just suggestions. The one underlying intuition is that, in all cases, the solution to setting movement in motion (turning apparent limitations into opportunities, thus cultivating freedom) is not to appeal to 'something else', but simply to deepen and fulfil the nature of the element in which one is apparently 'stuck'. We don't grow by becoming something else, but by becoming fully ourselves (as Nietzsche would say). We do not become freer by looking outside or elsewhere, but by looking more closely at what is already here, in front of us, under our feet, around our bodies, on our heads, beating in our limbs, in our hearts.

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