Enshrined in the Declaration of Independence is the
idea that freedom is a core American value. However, the
question remains: What is freedom? I think freedom has
three stages, and until we carefully differentiate among
them, all our well-intentioned dialogue about this vital
issue is doomed to end in frustration and confusion.
Let’s call the first and most rudimentary form
of freedom adolescent freedom. At this stage of our
development, freedom simply means doing whatever
you feel like doing. As children we are ringed with
authoritarian structures dictating our every move.
Adolescents necessarily rebel against these external
control mechanisms as they evolve toward personal
autonomy, driven largely by unconscious needs and the
forces of peer pressure. Most of us can probably agree
that adolescent rebellion is a good thing, no matter how
uncomfortable it makes us. It’s how people are made, but
personal evolution is rarely neat and tidy.
It turns out that this first stage of freedom isn’t very
free. We only think we are free. Then we grow a little
older and wiser.
At the second stage, mature freedom, we mature
beyond hedonism and learn that our best self-interest
is often served by postponing immediate pleasures
for larger long-term gains. And on an even deeper
level we learn that our best self-interest is entirely
interwoven with the interests of others. We learn that
there is no me without we—and no such thing as
private happiness or private freedom. Our freedom
and happiness cannot flourish if others are imprisoned
As Nelson Mandela wrote, “To be free is not merely to
cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and
enhances the freedom of others.”
In mature freedom, our separate sense of self
grows translucent, transparent even, as our sense of
interdependency expands. We begin to see ourselves not
merely as individuals, but as a part of a whole. We are
evolving toward the third and highest state of freedom—
In awakened freedom we drop more and more of our
cravings and attachments, we get better at accepting
current conditions without resistance or resentment, and
we move from reactivity to acceptance. Spiritual teacher
Jiddu Krishnamurti called this state of consciousness
“choiceless awareness”—to experience reality as it is
without the neurotic compulsion to have an opinion
about everything. Asked once what his secret was,
Krishnamurti replied, “I don’t mind what happens.”
Imagine how freeing that would feel.
Awakened freedom means shifting from the
consciousness of scarcity to the consciousness of
abundance. It does not mean receiving everything
we want but realizing freedom from want. Awakened
freedom means allowing the ebb and flow of life to
rise and fall unabated without taking it personally.
Sometimes we feel strong. Sometimes we feel weak.
Sometimes we receive joy unbidden. Other times
a nameless sadness overwhelms us. It’s okay. In
awakened freedom even our sadness becomes a
As contemporary teacher Adyashanti puts it, “Real
freedom is freedom from the demand to feel good all the
time.” We realize that we are deeper than our thoughts,
deeper even than our pain.
Awakened freedom means relinquishing the illusion
of control, slipping into the unbridled miracle of the
present moment, and resolving to walk through this
brief, beautiful life awash in wonder and willing to love.
Spirituality, philosophy, and mythology from the world’s wisdom traditions
PETER BOLLAND, CHAIR OF THE
HUMANITIES DEPARTMENT AT
SOUTHWESTERN COLLEGE IN CHULA VISTA,
CALIFORNIA, ATTENDS THE UNITY CENTER
IN SAN DIEGO, WHERE HE TEACHES
CLASSES ON WORLD SPIRITUALITY. VISIT
A TO ZEN