Are we truly free?


On a recent yoga training course, I was asked to reflect on the statement ‘My life belongs to me’. In response, the following words came to me: ‘On a human level, perhaps. But does it really? Are we not guided by the currents of the Divine, leading us onto the path we are meant to tread? Are we not co-creators of our destiny, hand in hand with That?’

It’s an interesting question. Does our life belong to us? When I was younger, I was an avid defender of free will, most particularly, self-will. My speciality was to run my head against the wall. What I wanted had to happen, and it usually did – with the consequences in tow.  I was the doer of everything and thus felt powerful and special.

Now, that I’m a bit older, I have come away from the belief that we have free will. Our so-called free will is so influenced by our conditionings, our karma, our culture, our society and our experiences, how can it be truly free? If I have a strong desire to follow a certain career or life-style, then is this really what my true self, my soul, wants to do or is it a by-product of what others in my society do, or a rebellion against it? Is my desire motivated by fear, by lack, by insecurity or by a desire for revenge? These are all questions we need to ask ourselves honestly as we work to discover who we truly are, beneath all the layers of conditioned beliefs and illusions.

And what is our definition of freedom? Is there such a thing as true freedom in a human body? Aren’t we always dependent on something in life? We may be dependent on money, and in the rare case in which we are not, we are dependent on food, on weather conditions and on the elements. Even if we think that we are secure if we are self-sufficient and not dependent on the system and on society, it is an illusion. We are still dependent on the sun, the rain, the soil, the air, the crop and our health.

The exception to this may be the yogi. All the practices of the yogi point towards the ultimate freedom. Freedom of mind, of the senses, of the karmas, of the body, as well as dependence on as little external circumstances as possible. The sadhu who lives alone in a cave, owns nothing and desires nothing is the one who is truly free. In the initial stages of sadhana s/he may still be dependent on food. But if s/he is a serious practitioner, s/he can get to a stage where s/he will not even need food other than what s/he can find, because his or her intake of prana is so big. S/he will not need warmth and shelter because s/he can raise bodily heat at will. S/he will be able to suspend breath and heartbeat at will. Through the power of the mind, s/he will dwell in Truth and Bliss. You could argue that the yogi is thus dependent on sadhana. This may be so initially, but when the ultimate goal of liberation is reached, even that ceases to be so.

Though most of us are not cave-dwelling yogis, we can draw inspiration from these masters. Through their example, we can understand that all states of being are ultimately in the mind. Freedom, security, permanence, whatever our needs and desires are: nothing external can ever fulfil them permanently. And the ironic thing is that often we have to live our desires out externally before we can grasp that they are internal. We may have to feel secure through something external only to lose it and realize that this thing didn’t give us security at all: it was a safety blanket that created the illusion that something external could ever give us security. Personally, I have had to travel the whole world and live an outwardly very free life to realize that true freedom is a state of mind. I have had to own things to realize that owning things can create bondage as well as a fear of losing them. I have had to give up career, home and friends to learn that home is nothing but that safe place within. I have had to experience gain and loss and befriend both before I understood that the only thing that is permanent in this world is impermanence and change.

Surrendering to the belief that I don’t have free will and that everything is in constant flux has made my life much easier. Now that I have found my path and my purpose, even though this is very different from how I thought it would be when I was younger, I find it easier to trust. I have learned that beyond the aforementioned running of my head against walls, there is an easier way of doing things. It is the path of relaxed effort.

I now realize that beyond my self-will there is a greater will, and that with my actions I co-create with this greater will. And what this greater will has planned for me and how it has planned it is infinitely better and so much easier than anything I could have thought up or chosen myself. All that is required of me is to stay open and to act when I feel certainty within me. It’s kind of hard to describe. It’s a fine balance between being and doing, between equanimity and passion, between surrender and fierce determination. I don’t make huge long-term plans in life anymore, but I always ‘feel’ what my next steps are when the time is right. These steps sometimes surprise me, and sometimes they are not in line with what my ego would like. But they feel ‘right’ and I am often shown the purpose of why I had to take this path later, even though it doesn’t make rational sense to me at the time. I simply trust. It is important to not confuse emotions and what we would like to happen with this ‘knowing’. The keys for this ‘knowing’ are my spiritual practice, silence, and reading of the signs: the synchronicities that show me which way the wind is blowing. How can I dance in tune with what wants to happen right now, with the flow of life, and how can I always stay present to that?

Life flows beautifully when I stay open but don’t push. When I push, it creates resistance and paradoxically slows things down. Pushing is equal to self-will, of not trusting life enough to give me what I need when I need it and that where I am right now is exactly where I am meant to be. This is the beauty of relaxed effort, something I didn’t quite understand when I was still highly ambitious and believed that I was the one in charge. Now life is a co-operation. Even when obstacles and tests turn up on my path, they don’t knock me as they used to. I simply stay still until I know what I need to do, rather than frantically looking for solutions and advice as I used to. I have learned that I am here for a purpose and that this purpose is unfolding itself as naturally and purposefully as a flower that is coming into bloom. I can’t always see it growing, I may lose my faith and my trust sometime, but when I return to my centre and realize that everything that is happening is perfect and contributing to my growth, I can relax again. Whenever I have come through a difficult phase in life during which I thought I had lost everything, I have later laughed with awe at the perfection of life’s great plan. What had seemed like a terrible disaster has invariably always turned out one of the great blessings of my life.

Go Forward With Courage

When you are in doubt, be still, and wait;
when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage.
So long as mists envelop you, be still;
be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists
— as it surely will.
Then act with courage.

Ponca Chief White Eagle (1800’s to 1914)




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