The Big F, T & L

The following is an essay I wrote a few years ago. Not even sure for what. Anyhoo it’s been sitting gathering dust in the hard drive so I thought I would let it have some freedom. As a writer and even as a uni student I am/was primarily interested in myth and folktale  – the Philosophy of  Religion and everything else all kinda linked into this interest. This is one result. The only other thing I want to add is I’m interested in patterns of convergence and if you Gentle Reader can find this as a positive, then this is a Good Thing (as they used to say in 1066 and All That). If there’s some subtext about what I believe, then it’s got to do with the immense capacity for wonder human beings have.


FREEDOM is one of those taken-for-granted grand concepts. For many it’s just there, like gravity or the rising sun. A commonplace. It’s easy to forget freedom’s maybe something to be taken away, or is like youth, something that may fade. Freedom, however, is intangible and probably even illusory. Like youth, Freedom is romanticised, but, like hot air mirages in the desert, what we think of as freedom is nothing but a hot air promise of something cool and refreshing to slake our thirst. Freedom doesn’t exist. You read it right: there is no such thing as Freedom (which you or I can apprehend).

What! I hear cries of disbelief and rejection. You may even point out in a muttered undertone I was free enough to write this. The problem is when individuals, groups, nations and cultures talk of freedom; it’s always contingent. Freedom is contextual, always limited. Human freedom is even limited by our very humanness.  I’m free to dive into the sea, but I can only go so deep, for as long as my lungs can handle. Thus, I’m free to pretend to be a fish, not actually breathe through gills. Is that Freedom (big F)? No, the freedom to dive is a freedom (little f).

Buddhists believe freedom can be found through the eightfold path[1]. But they don’t say humans can achieve Freedom, rather humans can attain freedom from suffering. Hindus are subject to karma, and are never really free from consequences as long as they are born, die and are reborn. Christians believe no one (except one woman) is free from sin, Christians can be freer from sin, but never not know it – even newborn babies are inducted into the church through a ritual cleansing ceremony: Baptism. Genesis tells us Adam and Eve were given free will by Yahweh, but then, they weren’t free from temptation.

Human beings, in fact all living things, are free to live lives, whatever they are, but we’re not free from the consequences of our actions. Choose to live as a burglar and face prison, choose to become a telemarketer and face abuse and boredom, feel free to be a used car salesman and get ‘that look’ from everyone you meet. Choose to live and your body will still die.

Other animals, particularly mammals, are romanticised as roaming Free, enjoying the wonders of the wilderness, whilst zoos are deplored for limiting freedom. Animals, though, are even less free than human beings. In the wilderness they’re subject to predation, disease, starvation, drought, the encroachment on their habitat by humans, and constant competition for resources.  Instinct governs their behaviour in response and the best adapted survive. Animals don’t just need to eat, but need to ingest specific nutrients. They’re not free to pick and choose. Nature red in tooth and claw is finely balanced. This is the reason why lions, for instance, need a lot of space in the wild: in order to survive. Take away their so-called freedom though, and put a lion in a zoo and the lion will cease to need the kind of space it required in the wild. In a zoo, a lion is provided with food, shelter and water and can generally relax about the issues of survival. Of the zoo lion or the wild lion, which, then is freer (little f)? Which is closer to Big F freedom?

It may be there’s no such thing as Freedom (big F) and this is the only Truth (big T) a human being can realise?

If there is Freedom (big F) there can be no such thing as fate, destiny, karma, ‘what comes around goes around,’ because Freedom would involve a freedom from consequences. If Freedom exists, then natural law cannot. A spider lives the life of a spider; it’s not free to choose otherwise. Dogs barks, cats meow. Animals and plants, like humans, can’t know Freedom. If there is such a thing as big F Freedom, then perhaps it is an attribute of divinity, but then even the Hellenic gods and goddesses were not free, but bowed to the authority of the Fates. The gods and goddesses of Homer’s Iliad weren’t even free to change destinies and save their favourite heroes  – like Hector and Achilles. So, whilst Hellenic gods and goddesses certainly enjoyed many freedoms, (even many more than humans) they did not know Freedom. In a similar fashion, people of the Hindu faith, while they hope to be reborn as gods or goddesses also know gods and goddesses can die and be reborn as rats and humans. Thus, Hindu gods and goddess don’t exist beyond the wheel of Karma, but are enmeshed in it, as people are; therefore, they too can’t know Freedom.

Don’t be fooled by death, either. Entry into the afterlife doesn’t automatically qualify you for Freedom. In ancient Egypt, souls had to weigh less than the feathers of Maāt to be accepted into the perfect presence of Osiris: ‘the heart, emblematic of the conscience is to be weighed in the Balance against the ostrich feather, emblematic of the [divine] law’[2]. Neither will the Christian pearly gates open for just anybody; according to Dante’s Virgil most souls must spend time in purgatory, working off their sins, before they hear any heavenly choir.  Although canon law may have changed somewhat.

Hindus are reborn and their actions and non-actions influence how and where, so no experience of Freedom there. Even if you make into the Islamic Paradise, there maybe more freedoms to enjoy, but personality, soul, even memory survives, so you’re not free of your Selfhood.

Perhaps the Taoists come the closest to expressing something of Freedom, when they talk of The Way: ‘the way that can be spoken of is not constant the way[3].’ Similarly, a Taoist might say of Freedom, ‘the freedom that can be experienced is not Freedom.’ Perhaps big F Freedom then, is the unknowable known and so utterly beyond human perception that language only just gets a handle around what it’s not, or can only allude to it cryptically in visionary, mystical language, which sounds like nonsense to the western, rational and post-scientific revolutionary mindset. Freedom is god, not godhead; Freedom is Brahma, not Atman. Freedom is maybe Nirvana, but you can’t explain it, as you’re finally free of your ‘youhood.’ So good luck if you’re on the path to Freedom and you want to tell someone.

All this is not to say I’m against fighting for and defending freedom (little f). I want to be free to write what I want, and I enjoy the freedom to live and to believe what I want. I’m glad I’m not a slave, free from ownership. I value the freedoms living in this particular country at this particular time affords me: like the freedom to vote, to work and be paid, to own property, to choose if and when I want children, to marry or not, whomever I choose, whenever I like. As a woman I would like more freedom – like the freedom to walk home alone safely at night, the freedom from the politicisation of my health choices and the freedom from being hailed with ‘hey lady’ by strangers. As a young person I was once told by my political leaders we were all going to live free from poverty by 1990. Perhaps one day this freedom will eventuate.

All these are freedoms were hard-won by men and women in most western societies and in many other countries the fight continues. But these freedoms are not Freedom, (big F).

In the end people are not free from themselves and the consequences of their actions or even their thoughts. The mind has manacles, said one poet. We’re imprisoned by desires and cravings, fears and phobias, by changing brain chemistry, by physical trauma to the brain and body, and by emotions, experience and by time.

Even the wildest realms of human imagination cannot be said to be Free; the mind behind the imagined was formed within a personality, which was shaped through family and life experiences, genetics, socio-economics, era and culture and gender. Although, imagination might be the only mental ability, which has been considered the ‘door of perception’ of Freedom. Thus, it’s imagination that expresses human attempts to gain Freedom (Big F), whether it’s in poetry of mystics like St John of the Cross; the koans[4] used in Zen (to help Buddhists transcend reason and enter Satori), or the interpretations of the singular visions of Hildegard of Bingen.

Whilst it may be imagination that describes how close humans, young and old have come to Freedom, it’s been said the best way to approach Freedom (big F) for those not mystically inclined is through the hard work and discipline of Love (big L). In a way, love is freedom. Even mystical experiences are often described as all-encompassing experiences of divine Love. It’s love as expressed in texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the fourteenth century The Cloud of Unknowing or by the patterns demonstrated in the whirling of the dervishes.

Christians are asked to contemplate Jesus’ love for and suffering on behalf of humankind and to follow his creed of forgiveness by turning the other cheek; Buddhist meditation allows individuals to overcome personal cravings to achieve alertness to the beauty, wonder and ‘oneness’ of creation. Islam requires the devout to contemplate the greatness of Allah as the Lord of Mercy[5] and to practise charity. For Hindus, work can be a form of devotion, their dedication offered up to their gods through love. Thus, the destination and the path of spiritual belief and practice is love, although, sometime’s that’s a big ask. These faiths, at their core, propose it’s through practising love (big L) humans demonstrate their highest contingent freedom. But then, feel free to disagree. Humans love to argue.

[1] 1. right knowledge of the four noble truths 2. right aspiration 3. right speech 4. right behaviour 5. right livelihood 6. right effort 7. right mindfulness and 8. right absorption

[2] Wallis Budge, E. A. Ed. The Book of the Dead Avenel New Jersey: Gramercy Books, 1995 p. 234 (originally published 1895). There are probably better more modern translations.

[3]Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching trans: D.C. Lau. London: Penguin, 1963. p. 57.

[4] The most famous Koan asks the Zen student to contemplate ‘the sound of one hand clapping.’

[5] From the Fatihah – the first surah of the Qur’an.

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