This morning, I read a chapter by the great Swami Satyananda Saraswati, in which he talks about what having a free mind means. 'The mind remains free whether you live amidst pleasure or pain, wealth or poverty, young people or old. The mind must not identify itself with the external circumstances and think, 'I am poor', 'I am rich', 'I am in pain' or 'I am very unfortunate'. As sannyasins, we live a life of poverty by choice. Why? Because our minds must be free. Wealth, name, fame, passion, all these things hold down this great energy of man. We are trying to simplify our lives on the physical, mental and emotional planes so the mind will remain free. If we can keep the mind free, awakening will take place automatically, even without any sadhana.'
This is a subject close to my heart, especially now, having just returned from India. India is always transformational on many levels. In the last few months, I have been contemplating the real meaning of freedom. Freedom, like most other things, is a journey. When I was younger, I thought that freedom meant financial independence and the freedom to do what I wanted. Doing only work I am passionate about. So I went forth and did just that - I founded a record label in my early twenties and became successful beyond my wildest dreams. I bought a beautiful house, a nice car, expensive clothes, flew business class, and I had a certain 'name and fame'. I admit, it was a great time, being barely twenty-five. But slowly, or perhaps not so slowly, dissatisfaction crept in. A certain emptiness. Was this really freedom, to be able to buy what I wanted, to have 'made it'? The uncomfortable feeling increased, and by the time I was twenty-seven, I was clear: this wasn't it. I couldn't live like this anymore. This wasn't freedom: I felt imprisoned, in a golden cage of my own making. To the disbelief of many people, I closed down my company at the height of its success, took a year out and then enrolled at university to study psychology.
Fast forward seven years from there. I'd sold my house, downsized greatly, and was living a much more satisfying life. I wasn't earning much, but felt fulfilled doing projects I loved. I worked part-time as a spiritual advisor in prisons, performed pagan rituals in the community, and worked on creative projects. Admittedly, this was facilitated by the money I made with the record label and which I had invested wisely. And yet, still, I did not feel free. I still had rent and bills to pay, shopping to do, a car to maintain,appointments to keep and so on. So though my life was more pleasant because I was actually doing what I loved, I felt shackled. So I decided to take it a step further. I sold my car, gave up my apartment, gave away most of my possessions and decided to travel the world by train. Perhaps this would give me the sense of freedom I craved.
At first, it really did. Sitting on the different trains crossing continents, I felt free as a bird. No appointments, no schedules, no bills. Just me, my backpack and the ever-changing landscapes of Siberia, China, Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan and India. Being so high up in the Himalayas added to the freedom I felt in my heart. This was five years ago. I have not settled down again since, living in different countries and still moving around a lot, though at a much slower pace.
Lately, however, freedom has taken on a very different meaning for me. Yes, it's great to have (relative) financial independence, to be able to travel, to do work that I like and not be answerable to a boss. It's what many people aspire to, and I was blessed enough to experience all this early on in life. For this I will always be grateful. But what has come into the forefront for me now is something very different. Freedom of the mind, freedom of our conditioning, our likes and dislikes that really imprison us, whether we are aware of it or not. This has been inspired by my love and practice of yoga and meditation (a result of my travels to the East). I started to realize that actually, I am not free at all. As long as my mind does its own thing, as long as I am influenced by my early childhood conditioning, by anger, by things my society or parents or friends deem as 'acceptable', as long as I react in ways that are not fully autonomous, I am still a prisoner. Making autonomous choices is key: choices that comes from my inner being, my soul, choices that are not my mother's or my father's or my grandmother's, or heck, my neighbour's choices. As long as I am driven by anything, be that insecurity or hunger for recognition or ambition or an old chip on my shoulder, I am not free.
Seeing this so clearly has been a revelation. It has put everything else in the background. It doesn't mean that I can't travel or do what I enjoy. But it has made those things optional. What we have to liberate and purify is our mind that is so full of unconscious patterns and conditionings. Then we can truly be free. We can be in any situation, good or bad, we can be rich or poor, cold or hot - whatever. But we will be at peace. Right now, most of us hanker after pleasure and run from pain. This is what all our actions lead towards. This may be fleetingly satisfying, but it doesn't bring us true freedom and peace. True freedom is a state of non-duality, of being at peace with all there is at any moment.
How to achieve this? Meditation and yoga are a good way to start. At the very least, meditation gives us an experience of being in the moment and of watching ourselves. It slowly removes our veil of ignorance and helps us to see things as they truly are. We begin to wake up from the dream. We begin to see that there is more to life than what we perceive with the five senses and that there is a deeper purpose to it all. And: meditation shows us that we have a choice. We have a choice to not react and we can learn to control our minds and emotions through purifying the mind. And this, in my view, is true freedom.
If you are interested in yoga and meditation, I can recommend Satyananda Yoga at http://www.yogavision.net/ and Vipassana Meditation at http://www.dhamma.org/