For me this quote from St Theresa of Avila beautifully captures what we will be exploring together.
"This magnificent refuge is inside you.
Enter. Shatter the darkness that
shrouds the doorway...
Be bold. Be humble.
Put away the incense and forget
the incantations they taught you.
Ask no permission from the authorities.
Close your eyes and follow your breath
to the still place that leads to the
invisible path that takes you home."
When I say the phrase “Inner Freedom” there is often a longing that leaps within us. And it might help for you to listen again to what this idea of inner freedom tapped into in you, and what your intention is for engaging in this series. For many of us we have an idea of reaching an ideal state that we plan to reach in the future, when we get the perfect job, when the kids leave home, when we’ve paid off the bond, when we manage to take a chunk of time off work, when we are on holiday, when we are retired…
Tara Brach lists a series of spiritual goals or milestones that we hope to achieve:
If you can start the day without caffeine or pep pills,
If you can be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,
If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,
If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,
If you can understand when loved ones are too busy to give you their time,
If you can overlook when people take things out on you when, through no fault of yours, something goes wrong,
If you can take criticism and blame without resentment,
If you can face the world without lies and deceit,
If you can conquer tension without medical help,
If you can relax without liquor,
If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,
Then you’re probably a dog.
So inner freedom is not a state of psychological perfection or complete inner healing. And it is not a state of perpetual bliss. It is also not a happily ever after state of wedded bliss, healthy wholesome family life where nobody argues, or finding the perfect work situation. Watch the Hallmark movie channel for that. Inner freedom is also not a free-love hippie life-style free of cares or considerations of consequences. It is not about any form of escapism at all!
Rather, inner freedom is an openness to whatever experience we happen to be having at the time, a willingness to engage in the fullness of this human experience, what Jon Kabbat Zinn calls "full catastrophe living", the courage to face the reality of life with an honesty with ourselves about what is really happening, and a freedom to accept the nobbly, slightly damaged shape of our own humanity, (and by implication also that of others), but from a place of equanimity that we discover within ourselves, in other words a place that is quiet, contented and stable no matter what our experience happens to be. But we don’t have to try to force ourselves to feel peaceful or contented, equanimity through gritted teeth, because it's a place that already exists inside of us that is deeper than experiences that come and go, and free from conditioning.
John O’Donohue described this place beautifully:
“There is a place in the soul that neither time nor space nor any created thing can touch. What that means is that your identity is not equivalent to your biography, and that there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there is still a sureness in you, where there's a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquillity in you. And I think the intention of prayer and spirituality and love is, now and again, to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.”
This place is what Jung called the true self, and others have termed our true nature, or the unconditioned self. It is what Buddhists describe as Buddha nature, or the "face you had before you were born", what Hindus describe as the Atman, and what in Christianity is described as the mind of Christ, "Christ in you", or Christ consciousness. But I don't want us to get bogged down in religious terms, so I am going to try to be as descriptive as possible using everyday language, from the perspective of inner experience.
Now I want to reiterate that inner freedom is not about any form of escapism from the real, or finding an altered state of being. So it is not a kind of future goal at the end of a determined self-improvement project. Nobody else can give it to us. It is a discovery of who we already are, but at a deeper level than our attention usually hovers at. We can't set a destination of arriving at who we really are, so it can’t be a future goal to reach somewhere out there. Feet can't catch up with themselves by walking faster. We can only be who we really are, because we already are who we really are. But we have become separated from this in our experience of ourselves through many layers of conditioning. Beneath all of these layers is the quiet grounded unconditioned self, our true nature. And it is radically free!
OK so how do we touch on this? How do we realise it? It is clearly not our everyday experience of our lives. I want to look at this in two parts:
1. This week we will look at freedom with our minds (note not freedom FROM our minds, this is not about escaping our minds)
2. Next week we will look at freedom within the shape of our lives – both our outer life circumstances and our inner emotional terrain
Freedom with your mind
I am sure that you have all had the experience of having a very vivid nightmare. When you wake up from the nightmare it takes you a while to remember where you are, and what is actually happening in your life, and then it is a huge relief to discover that the nightmare isn't real. But at the time it felt utterly convincing, and had the power to evoke terror or hurt, even though it was not true.
This is an analogy of how our minds keep us locked in a fantasy reality. And we tasted this a bit in the exercise we did a little while ago. We are constantly building a story around stimuli and events, and then we believe this version that our minds have spun, and often keep replaying our mental videos on our inner movie screen. But our minds can not be trusted to give us an accurate picture of reality. Neurobiology research has found that our minds cling to the negative like Velcro, and these imprint on our minds, actually shaping our neural network, and this creates our impression of reality. So no matter how privileged or comfortable our lives, we will be unhappy. Rohr says that this explains why some of the most privileged people in the world remain desperately unhappy. By contrast, our minds don't hold onto positive experiences, which slip off our minds like Teflon – Positive experiences have to last longer than 15 seconds to even imprint on our minds. As Jack Kornfield says, “My mind is a dangerous neighborhood – I try never to go there alone.”
Richard Rohr wrote: "So how do we find inner freedom? We can begin by noticing that whenever we suffer pain, the mind is always quick to identify with the negative aspects of things and replay them over and over again, wounding us deeply. This pattern must be recognized early and definitively. Peace of mind is actually an oxymoron. When you’re in your mind, you’re hardly ever at peace, and when you’re at peace, you’re never only in your mind.”
Another analogy would be like playing a character in a play for so long that you have forgotten who you are apart from the character. The word "persona" actually comes from the word "personare" that was used in Greek theatre to describe the mask that actors wore to symbolise the character they were playing. So in order to remember the fuller picture of who we are, the freer picture, we need to be able to take off the mask, step back from the play, or wake up from the nightmare, and rediscover who we are before the story.
The tricky thing about this waking up is that we have lived in our mind's version and believed it for so long that it has become hard-wired into our brain structure. As neurobiologists say, "Neurons that fire together wire together". As a result many of our "choices" that we make are not free choices, but are conditioned responses that have become hard-wired into our neural structure. This is what tools like the enneagram and self-awareness practices help us to see. When we recognize our patterns of behaviour we start the process of stepping back and recognising the role that we have been playing throughout our lives.
In recent years I have been doing quite a bit of this inner scrutiny work, and sometimes it has felt as if I have lived my whole life in an echo chamber, replaying destructive patterns over and over without fully recognising what I have been doing, yet when I stepped back and became a witness to my patterns, I could see it clearly. As I have learned to do this I have discovered this place within that is not bound up in the whole narrative, that is free and quiet and okay, and always has been.
Gerald May wrote: “…we are blinded by our attachments, we are so preoccupied –our attention is so kidnapped by our compulsions – that we tune out the background of God’s love. …We want to notice divine love, but we ignore it like we ignore our own breathing, in favor of the things that have captured us.”
But sadly we can’t just think our way there! This is the tricky thing with our minds – our whole thinking system is caught up in the version of our lives that we believe, so we need to find deeper ways of knowing than merely operating at the mind level. Our minds have a very limited, 3-D dualistic way of understanding reality, and for each of us our frame of reference is ourself. (It can’t be otherwise, but we have to know that!)
The basic way of understanding that our logical minds use is dualistic, to differentiate this from that, good from bad, me from you, my interests from “their” interests, this keeps us trapped in the small picture of who we are, and limits our capacity to know who we are in the quieter depths of our beings. This is why the process of becoming free of this is often described as waking up, because it’s outside of the dualistic “dream” that our minds are caught up in. There is a fascinating word used in Christian scriptures for this kind of waking up, and that is the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, which literally means "larger knowing" – knowing from a much bigger frame than our usual self-referential, mind way of knowing.
I need to emphasise that we can not think our way out of this operating system! It is a closed system of thought. Believe me, I have tried. And I know of people who have spent their whole life reading and thinking about contemplative spirituality who are completely jammed in a corner by their mental operating system.
David Frennette gives a very helpful analogy: “God’s presence in awareness is like the cinema screen upon which all of a film’s images are projected. At the movies, we normally are quite caught up in its drama and not aware of the screen. At the end of the movie, if we stay long enough, we will finally see the screen that was there all along, silently, secretly holding the film. Similarly, at the end of your own movie, your own life’s story, you will experience the reality that silently, secretly held you throughout your whole life: God’s presence. Why not realize this presence during life? Then, you can be aware of God at the same time as you live your ordinary life. You can be at one with the screen and the movie at the same time.”
And so we need to learn ways of pausing the drama of the thoughts that we are so easily caught up in.
Using a similar analogy, Eckhart Tolle describes how we are trapped in a movie theatre of the mind, and we don’t always choose the movie that is playing – very often it is a horror show! He says that there are a number of “Exit doors” out of this movie theatre of the mind. One of these exit doors is marked “presence”. On a retreat I spent a whole morning grappling with some of my inner entanglements, feeling oppressed by them, and it felt like there were layers between me and what I was seeing around me. I was thinking all morning about the importance of being present, but only when I spent some time simply practicing presence did I find any kind of relief and freedom.
Eckhart Tolle wrote: “Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time—past and future—the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.
A scholar in interpreting the work of the great mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: “The present moment is shot through with Divine Light, because it is in the present, and in the present alone, that the world of time touches the world of eternity.” (Cyprian Smith)
This importance of the present moment where the integration of mindfulness into western medicine has been such an important gift in our time. Mark Williams is a Professor of Oxford University, and the co-developer of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. He writes: “Being mindful means that we take in the present moment as it is rather than as we would like it to be.” He goes on to describe mindfulness as "a direct, intuitive knowing of what you are doing while you are doing it…. Most of the time our attention is not where we intended it to be. Our attention is hijacked by our thoughts and emotions, by our concerns, by our worries for the future, and our regrets and memories of the past. Mindful awareness is about learning to pay attention, in the present moment, and without judgement. It's like training a muscle - training attention to be where you want it to be. This reduces our tendency to work on autopilot, allowing us to choose how we respond & react."
And so mindfulness invites us to be more consciously present in the everyday ordinary tasks that we normally drift by without noticing. Washing the dishes can be a beautifully tactile experience when we are present in the moment, rather than a drudgery which is how we experience it when we see it as a repetitive chore.This is really important, because it connects us with the fact that we are actually living, rather than getting to the end of a day wondering where that day went. Load shedding is a wonderful gift because it is an interruption of the norm, and therefore opens us to the moment in a fresh way, and to the awe and surprise of the moment. Body awareness and connecting with our senses are very helpful in becoming present. I will give you some suggested exercises for this week to practice this kind of sensory mindfulness.
Mindfulness also involves awareness, not only of what we are doing out there, but what is going on in our minds as well, and I want to look at this awareness a bit more closely. Becoming aware of our thoughts, together with a gentle letting go once we become aware, is another one of the “Exit doors” out of the movie theatre of the mind. We need to start to notice what is happening in our minds in order to become free of the narrative.
Our minds are constantly creating stories around who we are, and then we get trapped in defending and protecting this version of ourselves that we have identified with. This has been described as the “religion of me” and is the most practiced religion in all the world! An interesting Caribbean teacher named Mooji said: “As long as your loyalty to identity persists, you will fight against your total freedom.”
So we need to come to recognise the ways in which the mind is concocting this identity in order to be free of the powerful urge to defend it. And as soon as we start to step back and notice what the mind is saying, we will be shocked to discover how much repetitive, useless and defensive rubbish goes on – it’s (almost) worse than listening to a Trump speech!
Michael Singer, the author of the book titled "The untethered soul", writes: “There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind—you are the one who hears it. ... If you watch it objectively, you will come to see that much of what the voice says is meaningless. Most of the talking is just a waste of time and energy. The truth is that most of life will unfold in accordance with forces far outside your control, regardless of what your mind says about it. ... Eventually you will see that the real cause of problems is not life itself. It’s the commotion the mind makes about life that really causes problems.”
He goes on to suggest an exercise where you imagine your mind to be a room-mate, and notice how chatty and interruptive this room-mate is. One of this week’s exercises will be around meeting your inner roommate. So much of what the mind goes on about is survival, reptilian brain stuff that thinks it is being helpful, but it’s no longer needed and therefore no longer applicable. It’s the ancient brain kicking in.
And so this practice of becoming aware of our thoughts is crucial if we are to discover the exit door from the mind’s negative, lizard brain virtual reality. This awareness involves a willingness for radical truth telling with yourself in recognising what the mind is getting up to – something to watch for is how quickly the mind reversions what is happening to us. Life brings us perfect gifts of failure, humiliation and contradiction, and we so quickly spin it into the narrative of “ME”. We have to learn to slow down, notice and become deeply aware of the raw unvarnished truth about what we have been up to, of the real religion we are involved with.
Carrying around this story of myself, and defending this “me” creature that is wrapped up in it, is a heavy burden that we carry around, and we only realise the extent to which is has been a burden weighing us down when we experience the freedom and lightness of letting it go. This letting go is a multi-layered process, like peeling an onion, but the more we recognise and let these stories of me fall away, the more we are able to recognise the next time that we are caught in its grip.
But a key in this whole process is not to go to war with our minds, and this is why I prefer to not talk about freedom from the mind, but freedom with the mind – it’s about learning to live lightly with our minds whenever we catch them in the act of spinning a yarn. Minds just do that. But when we can recognise, laugh gently at ourselves, and then let it go, we learn a freedom of living with the funny human mind that we carry with us through this life.
Centering prayer or meditation has been a very powerful practice for me in starting to recognise my stories. In the practice of becoming aware of and letting go of my thoughts, over and over, I have started recognising the “top ten tunes” that my mind likes to play, and have also started to become familiar with that space that is outside of the thicket of the mind, that is free of the identification with the story-line. Sometimes it takes a long time to let go, even after the recognition, because the whole thing is very sticky, and habitual, and has all sorts of emotions wrapped up in it. But eventually I find that I can move into the quiet free space that is no longer identified with that story, and it feels like a totally different universe from the one that was trapped. I feel peaceful, and alive, and I know that nothing can threaten me, and in Christian terms that "nothing can separate me from the love of God."
Who we are in our being, in our presence, is so much more beautiful, vast, secure and peaceful than any story can get us to. And the truth of who we are is here, within us, right now. We don't have to find it "one day", that's just another story. The truth of who we are is unconditioned, has never been wounded, and can never be damaged by any story about us! No matter how lovely or awful that story. This is because it is deeper and freer than any story. And the way to find this truth of who we are is to let go of the story, and fall into the mystery.
Richard Rohr describes it as a discovery of: "… the safety, the spaciousness, and the scary freedom to be who we are, all that we are, more than we are, and less than we are.”
And Beatrice Bruteau, a Christian contemplative teacher, writes: “as it loses each of these [descriptive] selves, the praying consciousness finds itself more and more at liberty. The more you take off bondage, the freer you become; the more you lose restrictions, the vaster you become.”
Fr Thomas Keating wrote: “We are kept from the experience of Spirit because our inner world is cluttered with past traumas. As we begin to clear away this clutter the energy of Divine light and love begins to flow through our being.”
Every time we drop out of the story we are dropping into the silent space that is deeper and vaster than the story, and that knows the silent secret holding of God. We are not only held by the silent secret holding, we are invited to know that we are one with the silent secret holding, that we can be held so intimately by God that we can't tell the difference between the silence of our being and the silent secret holding of God's being.
I’ll end with a quote from Jack Kornfield:
“In meditation we can reconnect with our heart and discover an inner sense of spaciousness, unity, and compassion underneath all the conflicts of thought. The loving heart allows for the stories and ideas, the fantasies and fears of the mind to arise without believing in them, without having to follow them or having to fulfill them. When we listen with the heart, beneath all the busyness of thought, we discover a sweet, healing silence, an inherent peacefulness in each of us, a goodness of heart, strength and wholeness that is our birthright. … When we return to our original nature, we can acknowledge the ways of the mind and yet rest in peace and goodness. We discover the healing heart beyond the thinking mind.”