Is freedom possible? Do we even know how to be free? Do we even know how it feels to be free?
Life does seem to put limits on our freedom. Society puts constraints on the way we act and communicate with one another. It would seem that there are even limits for the artist, although thank God they are constantly being broken down.
Creativity often flows from coming to terms with life’s challenges and through learning to communicate with a variety of people. For me this is becoming the key to ministry. It has taken me time to develop spiritual intimacy with the communities I serve and to learn how to communicate with the people I share worship with.
Unitarians claim freedom of the pulpit but we don’t have absolute freedom to do whatever we fancy, reason and tolerance are the counter balance to this. We do need to push boundaries though at times. If our history had not been littered with folk who were prepared to do that then we would not exist today as a free religious community unconstrained by creed and dogma. That said I am not convinced that we enjoy total freedom, societal norms and human expectations constrain everyone at times. And there are positives to this as it gives people stability and a groundedness that any community needs.
I have shared the following story before in a previous blog (This version was written by Rev Darlison). I love it, it speaks powerfully to me. I believe that it is strikingly symbolic of Hindu spirituality.
While travelling alone through some rough terrain, a man called Mitali stayed the night in a wayside inn. Tired from his journey, he went to bed and was on the point of falling asleep when he heard a voice calling, Freedom! Freedom! I want to be free!” from the courtyard below his window.
“Someone must be trapped nearby, “ thought Mitali. “I’ll go see if I can help”
He descended to the courtyard and looked around, but he could see nobody. Thinking he must have imagined the voice, he was about to go back in the room when he heard it again: “Freedom! Freedom! I want to be free!” but it wasn’t coming from a person; it was coming from a parrot sitting in a golden cage.
“How cruel”, thought Mitali. “no bird should be imprisoned like that”. He walked over to the cage and opened the door. “off you go!” he said to the bird. “You can go free now”
The parrot sat on its perch, calling out “Freedom! Freedom! I want to be free”, but it didn’t move. Mitali put his hand in the cage, but the parrot cowered away, all the while calling for freedom but making no move towards the open door.
Gently taking hold of the parrot, Mitali tried to drag it through the caged door, but the parrot resisted mightily, pecking at his would-be liberator’s hand until the blood flowed copiously. Undaunted by the pain, Mitali finally released the bird and threw it up in the air. “Your free now my friend. Go off and enjoy your liberty!” The parrot flew off, and was soon lost to sight in the darkness of the moonless night.
Feeling very pleased with himself, Mitali went to bed. “Captivity is wrong for man or beast,” he thought. “Birds should be free to fly; they shouldn’t be forced to sit in cages for the entertainment of human beings. At least I’ve helped one creature to escape to freedom.”
He slept very soundly that night.
With the dawn he awoke, and he smiled as he remembered his good deed of a few hours before. But then he heard the voice once more. “Freedom! Freedom! I want to be free!” “The parrot hasn’t gone very far,” he thought. “He must have perched on a nearby tree or rock. Perhaps he is sitting on the roof of the inn.”
Mitali went down to the courtyard to have a look. But the parrot wasn’t perched on the roof of the building. Nor was he on a nearby tree, or on a rock. He was back in the cage, shouting for freedom, and the cage door was open.
In many religious traditions the soul is often symbolised by a bird and it’s the same in Hinduism. The Hindu term for what we understand as the soul is the Atman. The Atman refers to the eternal none material aspect of the self. It never changes and is distinct from the mind and body. This real self is beyond the temporary characteristics of race, gender and even species. Ideas about reincarnation are natural extension of this concept. For Hindu’s consciousness, in whatever way it may manifest, is merely a symptom of the soul. Therefore for the physical life to have awareness it requires the soul.
The story of the caged parrot is symbolic of the soul becoming trapped by the body and or the mind, it is crying out to be set free. It is offered freedom but fights against it. Finally it is set free, but does not like or want this freedom and therefore returns to the cage, crying out for freedom “Freedom! Freedom! I want to be free”
As Rousseau said “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”.
How can we free the soul? How do we attain this freedom? How do we set the soul free? How do we truly live as ourselves amongst others and with others? How do we escape the chains that bind us? How do we leave the cage behind? What can we do to stop ourselves from opening the cage door, climb back in, sit on the perch and squawk “freedom, freedom, I want to be free” How can spiritual freedom be attained?
For me the key to spiritual freedom has to be self transcendence. In my experience it is through self sacrifice that we truly find ourselves and we set our souls, minds and bodies free to live as we were born to live. This seems to go against the grain of much 21st century thinking which seems to be all about me feeling good about me, right now. More, more, more, now, now, now!
The Rev Alex Bradley, the principle at Unitarian College Manchester, where I trained for the ministry suggests:
“People sacrifice themselves to others in various ways. In doing so, they find themselves. They give themselves in the lives they lead. They may be seemingly ordinary nameless people or ones whose names live on. Margeret Barr in lifelong self service, James Reeb in prophetic witness at the cost of his life. Real freedom is lived in relation to others: real freedom is found in community.
Real freedom is about choice, and sometimes it is found through the narrow gate. It is found in the true self and it is found in self denial. Jesus spoke of the kingdom as a great feast for all. He also said that those seeking to save their lives would lose them, and those who lost their lives would find them.
Here is the spiritual paradox that all the great faiths have taught. Here I believe is real freedom.”
Alex makes a very powerful point. Through self sacrifice, in community, the true self is revealed and we are set free from the cage, we stop squawking about freedom and begin to actually enjoy it.
The great twentieth century Hindu Gandhi saw Jesus as the great example of this. He held him up as the ideal Satyagraha, which is resistance to evil through soul force. Gandhi, a Hindu, studied the Bible everyday for years and was greatly impressed with the New Testament particularly “The sermon on the Mount”. Like many Hindu’s it was the gentle figure of Jesus that he admired, who taught his followers not to retaliate and to resist violence. For him it was not the historical event of Jesus that mattered, but what the example of the message of his life had to offer humanity. For Gandhi Christ exemplified what it meant to serve your fellow humans and saw this as the guiding principle of his life. He saw the cross as being the perfect example of this sacrifice. He saw the cross as the perfect metaphor of self transcendence.
So is self transcendence the key to freedom? There are those who will say no to this and cry out “If I lose myself what will be left?”
Well self transcendence is not about destruction of “self” it is actually about the discovery of the “real self”. It is the key to “real freedom”. It is not a new idea and is a message found at the root of the great religious traditions, theistic and non-theistic. I like to call it the "Diamond principle". Through self transcendence our “real” nature is fully revealed; the “Great Reality”, deep down within every man, woman and child and all life for that matter. Some call this the “Cosmic Christ” or “Cosmic God”, what Matthew Fox has named as the “I am” in everything. It is a faith based on change, dare I say transformation, because this “I am” can reshape matter for ever. It is a change that is brought on by the spiritual activity of self giving love.
Self transcendence is “really” about delighting in our very being, by understanding that we exist beyond the confines of ourselves. Keith Ward has described it as “Non – egoist delight in being” Karen Armstrong suggests “For human beings transcendence is part of our experience of the world”. It not only changes how we are as individuals but how we relate to the world. It opens our eyes to a far more universal perspective. It enables us to see the world through the eyes of others and not just from our own narrow perspectives. This breeds compassion and leads to a “real freedom” that transforms the world for ever.
To be really free requires courage. It requires us to speak and be our truth and to do so in love. We need not be afraid to express who we are and where we are coming from; we need not be stifled by the fear of what others may or may not think of us. Freedom is not something to merely talk about as an abstract concept but something to be experienced and expressed, but I don’t believe that happens in isolation. It happens when we come together and meet and give of ourselves to each other. You see by dancing our dance and showing others they can do likewise, we encourage one another to know how it feels to be free.
It is no good merely squawking about freedom, “Freedom! Freedom! I want to be free” We need to show the world what it means to know how it feels to be free.