Saturday, April 25, 2015

Freedom to be who I am

Freedom has two sides. Freedom from and freedom to.
I have to be free from any situations and attachments that bring me down or hold me back. I also have to be free to be able to express my true potential.
As a child, I loved going to deserted beaches. I would sit for hours watching the seagulls happily playing and gliding around. I would ask myself, why the adults around me were so complicated and weighed down by their own decisions. Even at that young age, I was also bound by many things I didn’t want to do. Much later, I understood that the sense of freedom of the seagulls was probably connected to their closeness to being as natural as possible. In other words, they were just being themselves. In the same way, grass grows without any effort. Clouds form, rain comes, the sun shines. Nature unfolds in an inexorable symphony of what it is.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the likely inventor of the cliché, back to nature. Though he himself really didn´t get back to it as he so eloquently argued, he expressed this state in these words: "Man is born free but is everywhere in chains". Generations of people have sought peace and quiet away from the urban sprawls in their attempts to get back to nature, at least for the weekends. It is as if that nature calls to our inner nature to meet and better understand each other.
One of the greatest paradoxes is that freedom is part of the original nature of the soul itself. Before we come to this physical dimension, we have no thoughts and even no relationships with anyone or anything. In that sense, we are free originally. That is why there is such a yearning for a sense of spiritual freedom when we don’t have it any more.
One of the tenets of Buddhism is that this world is a place of suffering and that we have to become free from the clutches of the endless wheel of rebirth. We do this through leading a morally correct life, being mindful, wise and aware in the use of our thoughts, words and actions.
Jesus said that truth sets us free. Even though this may sound naïve to some, it is profound. It is not freedom itself that is our most precious possession but it is the understanding of it. If we put a wild bird in a cage, or restrain a frisky dog with a leash, we will observe them trying to get out or away immediately. In the same way, being true to myself, to my deep inner qualities and to my relationship with the Divine, will automatically show me how to remain free while doing things and interacting with others.
There is a story about a wealthy man who had an extremely lucrative business that kept him occupied seven days a week. He was so busy that it had started to affect his health. He had come from a poor family and his brother was still a simple fisherman. One day he asked why his brother couldn’t work more to earn more money. The exchange was like this:
– Why would I want to work more? I already have everything I need.
– If you work more, you would be able to buy another boat and maybe hire it out. Then you can have other people working for you.
– Why would I do that?
– So you can earn more money.
– Why would I need more money. What I earn is enough to pay all of my expenses.
– But if you had more money you could be much freer economically. Maybe you could buy another house somewhere where you could go and relax.
– But I am already relaxed. My life is simple, easy and free.

The meaning of this story is not that we all have to become simple fishermen. We have to organize our lives according to our real needs and not our imagined ones.
Once with a group of executives in Sri Lanka, I asked them to go into the jungle around where we were camped, just observe what was going on in the present, and write it into their journal. Since they would all be sitting alone, I asked them to talk aloud with nature – with the trees, rocks, leaves, insects, clouds, streams or whatever was in front of them – and see what they could learn. One of them came back with an incredible insight about trees – how they all grow towards the light, yet they don't hog the space. As new trees appear, the older ones just move slightly aside to let them also enjoy the light.
All of this brings us back to the basic question of ‘who am I?’ – the eternal teaser for questing minds. In the Koran it says that God gave intelligence to angels and appetites to animals. To human beings He gave both, intelligence and appetites. This is probably exactly where we get stuck. We develop what we think is intelligence and get into all sorts of bondages. We obey our appetites and become prisoners of the objects of our senses. Like birds holding onto the branches of trees we pray to God to free us from whatever mess we have succeeded in creating for ourselves. The Divine looks back at us and says the branches are not holding onto us, we are holding onto them.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Little relative truths and the big absolute one

We live in a world that has as many opinions as there are people. In Brazil, they say there are 200 million coaches of the national soccer team. That is the whole population!  Courageous indeed is the official coach who dares to lose an important game. At the world's favourite hunting spot for information, Google, you can discover everything both for and against everything else. Coffee, soya beans, milk, wheat - whatever you want - is either good or bad for your nervous system, heart,  liver, brain - you name it. Depends on the source or the interested party who paid for the research. Illnesses are invented to sell drugs and drugs are invented to promote or solve illnesses. Take your pick. 
In a recent retreat about music and spirituality, we asked the participants to listen to five pieces of music and check their emotional reactions - Brazilian samba, heavy metal, classical, gospel and the national anthem. Again, there was a diversity of opinions - some in agreement, others notably discordant. The former rebel of generation X who associated his pent-up feelings of the 80's with the strident chords of heavy metal could not see eye to eye with the fan of Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor. The fervour of pride stimulated by the national anthem in some came up against the indignance of others towards the present state of the country. 
In spite of the almost total plurality of points of view in the world, there is an underlying implication that there are universal truths. These become the basis of our laws, for example. Murdering others, robbing and raping them, are condemned in almost all societies, because it is perceived that morally responsible conduct is better than chaos.
Many even look hopefully to science as the ultimate source of absolutes. Paradoxically, science itself denies this, as it burrows down into further perfecting or changing its theories (and thereby invalidating previous 'truths'). Just compare what was ‘absolutely true’ two hundred years ago with today's hottest stuff. Two hundred years from now, we will probably laugh at our present scientific paradigms. 
At a more mundane level, if a dog is seen coming to and from someone's house, the neighbours say with absolute conviction that the dog lives there. However, if the owner says that it's the best dog in the world, it's only true for him. Even though only 2% of the world's population have green eyes, it doesn't mean that it is the best colour for eyes. Any colour is fine. Every opinion has some merit, at least for person who has it.
The problem is when opinions are grouped together in isms. They naturally clash with other shared versions of the same thing. This happens especially with politics or religion, when we forget that whatever the shade, they are all just different types of teams playing ballgames. They all have the objective of moving the ball of belief from one side of the field or court to the other. There are always aims related to where and how to put the ball in order to vanquish opposing teams. They each have their rules. In basketball, you can't touch the ball with your feet. In soccer, you can't touch the ball with your hands. If you do a rugby tackle on someone in the middle of a handball game, you would definitely get a red card. Nevertheless, you can't really say that one game is better than the other. They are each good in their own right. Just enjoy the diversity. 
There is a popular Brazilian song by Gilberto Gil entitled "If I wanted to speak to God". But, what if God wanted to speak to us? He or She (who knows?), would probably tell us something vastly different from anything we have ever imagined. That would be the absolute, true measure of things. It would be like receiving a ruler with which to measure all of our different beliefs and behaviours. 
Let's say He said that we were all tiny points of conscious energy animating our otherwise lifeless bodies. That we came from a dimension beyond the physical universe, we entered into bodies and that on completion of a certain vast cyclic process we go back to that dimension. That He remains always there in that home of light and silence where we all try to subtly send ourselves in prayer and meditation. What a surprise it would be if He said that He is not omnipresent in this physical world and that He only knows what he needs to know. He doesn't keep a book of all of our sins, nor does He sit up in the sky watching what we do or don't do. He doesn't send bolts of lightning to blast us where we stand when we are not behaving well. He has no favourite religion because all souls are His children.
In other words, He/She would probably refute the most sacred of human-made concepts. There are so many things that have been said about God from all sides. What would God say from His/Her side about us and our little, relative truths? The sad news is that we don't know that we don't know as we stumble our way forward. The best news is that we have a chance to be honest and accept the wonderful diversity in which we live.