Freedom from Slavery
by George Pitagorsky
"Emancipate yourself from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds"
Mental slavery is being bound to conditioned responses, habits or old mental models. It gets in the way of optimal performance because it stifles the creative thinking needed to adapt to the needs of the moment.
April saw the celebration of Passover, the commemoration of the emancipation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. It is clearly not just about the historical and miraculous events during the times of the pharaohs. Like most religious expressions there are multiple levels of meaning.
In the Passover Seder ritual there is a reminder that in every generation we must remember that we were slaves and, perhaps, still are. We remember that liberation comes with a significant effort and upheaval, and the death of the old order followed by a long period (forty years in the desert) of rebuilding a life of personal freedom and the obligations that brings.
What is freedom? What is slavery?
On the outer level slavery is the absence of the freedom to choose one's own behavior. It is a system under which people are treated as property. Freedom on this level is the liberation from slavery, oppression or detention. It is the ability to choose to act without restraints, control or interference from others.
On the inner level slavery is being subjected to or addicted to influences from the past; having to act in a certain way because of habit or cultural conditioning. It is being bound by ignorance, greed and hatred. Freedom is breaking the bonds of conditioned thinking and being able to choose. In this sense freedom is not about eliminating control by others. It is about breaking the chains of habitual thinking. Doing so, we become free from self-imposed slavery.
It is on the inner level that the cultivation of wisdom and liberation practices such as meditation and skillful behavior work. Breaking free of old habits and the decades, maybe lifetimes, of conditioning they represent, is not easy. Many are addicted to the comfort of not having to think out of the box. We repeat the same behaviors over and over again, driven by mental models so deeply seeded in our minds that they have become unconsciously identified with who we think we are.
Freedom from mental slavery is hard work. And, it can be done regardless of our external conditions. On the inner level, physical slaves can be freer than their masters.
On the innermost level, ultimate freedom is liberation from the sense of separation that comes from falsely identifying with the small self, the ego. There are many metaphors for this freedom - Nirvana, God-consciousness, unity, etc. On this level it is realization, not hard work, which liberates; letting go, dropping the constant need to be someone or to get something and simply resting in presence.
But don't be fooled by the ego's relief at hearing that all it takes is realization and not hard work. The paradox is that freedom from conditioned thinking requires breaking the habits and beliefs that keep one from realization. Freedom comes at the price of opening to the unknown and unpredictable. Sure, we are suffering while in slavery, but it is a familiar suffering. If we cut the chains, then we have to be ready for the responsibility of making decisions and taking what comes. We have to work at changing the way we think, what we say, how we say it and how we act. Otherwise there are endless cycles of unnecessary suffering - we create the same problems over and over again.
One might ask "How does this philosophical stuff inform our daily lives?" For one, it makes it possible for us as individuals to stop the thinking patterns that get in the way of optimal living. How much better an artist, business person, student, teacher, technologist, scientist, etc. would you be if you were free of conditioned thinking and the negative emotions it brings? Would there be fewer unproductive conflicts, less wasted time and effort? Would you be kinder and more compassionate, both to yourself and others?
What is your motivation? What brings you to the search for freedom? Is it a desire to alleviate the natural suffering associated with everyday life or to get better at doing what you do? Or is it some indefinable urge to experience true freedom?
© 2012 Pitagorsky Consulting