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Responsible freedom?

Traditionally, freedom is believed to be the absence of coercion and the ability to do as you want. This is a negative definition of freedom because it focuses on the absence of impediments, constraints or limits on actions. Is this kind of freedom possible? And is it acceptable? It will definitely be a very unequal freedom. If everybody can do as he or she likes, then we create offenders and victims rather than free citizens. Victims obviously cannot do as they like. And we can all become victims. Not even the strongest among us can do as he likes, because he has to sleep now and again and we are weak when we sleep. Unlimited and lawless freedom as in the definition of Hobbes therefore cannot exist, or only in a very precarious fashion. And it should not exist because if it did, most people’s freedom, human rights and other important values such as security would suffer. That is why this absolute negative freedom has to be limited. Freedom is always freedom in the state and freedom within the limits of the rule of law. Freedom can only exist together with obedience because only a state with its rules and laws can create equal and durable freedom for all. Obedience to rules opens up a space in which people can be free without fear of insecurity, coercion, domination, intolerance etc. Freedom is, therefore, not incompatible with rules, obedience and coercion.

Strictly speaking, none of this invalidates the definition of freedom as the ability to do as you like without impediments. One can say that the state merely limits our freedom defined in this way, in order to make it safer, more secure and more lasting. So we are still speaking about the same kind of freedom, but now it’s limited. Much of social contract theory – of which Hobbes is an example – posits a kind of natural, unlimited freedom, a part of which people give up when entering into a contract with a state. And instead of saying that they give up a part of their freedom or their ability to do as they like in order to gain security, one could say that they give up a part of their freedom to make the remainder of their freedom more secure. That’s the same thing. They choose not to do certain things – e.g. break the law – in order to have more freedom to do the other things they want. 

According to this definition of freedom, all coercion is bad but some kind of coercion is necessary. If people were always friendly to each other, the state would not be necessary and people would not have to accept a limitation of their freedom. State coercion in the form of laws limits freedom because it forces people to act in a way that is contrary to their wishes. Yet coercion can actually promote freedom. Coercing one person and thus limiting his or her freedom can promote the freedom of other persons. And since we can all be these “other persons”, coercion promotes the freedom of all. Coercion in fact equalizes freedom. It makes it impossible that the freedom of one harms the freedom of another. So it already becomes apparent how freedom and equality are intertwined.

Responsibility and freedom go together. If you don’t want to take responsibility, you can’t have freedom either. The two come together or they go together. If you shun responsibility, you have to accept slavery in some way or other. Now, you had dreamed about freedom without ever thinking that great responsibility will follow. Freedom you have, but you have not fulfilled the responsibility. Hence, sadness lingers around you. You are absolutely capable of removing this sadness. If you were capable of destroying your slavery, your chains, you are certainly capable of being creative.

Freedom means you will have to be responsible for every act, for every breath; whatever you do or don’t do, you will be responsible. People are really in deep fear of freedom, although they talk about freedom. But my own experience is: very few people really want freedom ; because they are subconsciously aware that freedom will bring many problems that they are not ready to face. It is better to remain in cozy imprisonment. It is warmer, and what will you do with freedom? Unless you are ready to be a seeker, a searcher, a creator… Very few people want to go on a pilgrimage or to go into deeper silences of the heart, or to take the responsibility of love. The implications are great.

You will have to dispel that darkness, otherwise sooner or later you will enter into a prison. You cannot go on burdening yourself with sadness. Before the burden becomes too much and forces you back into slavery, into imprisonment, change the whole situation by being a creative person. Just find out what is your joy in life, what you would like to create, what you would like to be, what you want to be your definition. Freedom is simply an opportunity to find a definition for yourself, a true, authentic individuality, and a joy in making the world around you a little better, a little more beautiful – a few more roses, a little more greenery and a few more oases.

Knowing that we have this great potential, we naturally aspire to freedom. But freedom comes with responsibilities. Many people in the West are very proud to say: We live in a free world, we are free! whereas in fact – from my point of view – they are not. It is true that they are given permission to think, speak and act as they wish, but when such freedom is not supported by wisdom, human beings can behave worse than animals. Although human beings are unique and intelligent, when they lack wisdom, they often misuse their so-called freedom for the wrong purpose. They abuse their mind, their speech and their capacity to act. For me, giving such so-called freedom to people who don’t have the right knowledge and the right training is like giving sharp knives to children. What can a child do with a sharp knife? He will either hurt himself or hurt others. According to my view, such freedom doesn’t really mean too much. You are legally empowered to be free, but within yourself, you are not free at all!

Most people want to be free but don’t want to take responsibilities. But freedom is inseparable from responsibility! If I have the freedom to think, it is my responsibility to think positively. If I have the freedom to speak, it is my responsibility to speak properly and meaningfully. If I have the freedom to act, it is myresponsibility to act correctly. Nobody else can take that decision for me. If every human being could feel responsible in that way, the world would be a better place. But most of us do not take any responsibility for what we say, think and do. We always find excuses for ourselves and put the blame on others or on circumstances. It is of course easier to blame others but, according to the Buddha’s teachings, this will not work, we are at least as responsible as the person we blame.

In Buddhism, we talk about karma. Some people do not want to hear that word and say they do not believe in karma. But instead of calling it karma, we can just call it cause and effect and the meaning becomes very simple. If I punch somebody, he will punch me back. If I say bad things about other people, they will say bad things about me. Everything we think, everything we say, everything we do, has consequences. It means we know that whatever we do will produce effects that we will experience. It is like cultivating a field. If we plant pure seeds, we will have a pure crop, but if we sow weeds, we will produce weeds, not a pure crop. We can only clean a field by going into it and picking up the weeds one by one. We can only weed out our mind by meditating and facing our negative emotions, no matter how painful the process may be.

When I look at what is happening these days throughout the world, I wonder how people can ever trust and believe someone else when they don’t even trust themselves, when they don’t even know what’s going on in their own minds? They don’t know themselves well enough. Many people who are mentally not doing very well only talk about their problems and pains, but the minute they get proper help and feel better, they are afraid. Even when they could experience some happiness, theyreject it because they think they do not deserve it. Their ego pushes them in the wrong direction. If one really thinks one doesn’t deserve happiness, why then worry so much about what happens, why complain and why not allow oneself some happiness? Some people are completely wrapped up in pain and suffering, but actually they don’t want to let go of that pain. They identify with the suffering. Most people are afraid of introspection because they feel they have so much unwanted information in their heads, so much unhappiness, that they don’t want to deal with it.

In this way, people project everything onto others and never accept anything as their own responsibility. They always find ways and means to put the blame on everybody else. But practising Buddhism means taking responsibility for ourselves, which means we cannot blame someone else. And if we follow the Buddhist path for a while, we may come to see that there isn’t even any me in the first place to experience such a pain. We solidify the I, and this I then comes with pleasure and pain. How can we blame others if there is no me? It is me, this big ego, who’s making judgements. Other people are like mirrors. If we have no mirror, how can we see our reflection? We cannot put the blame on others or on circumstances and take no responsibility for ourselves. This is very easy to understand and it helps us to see the necessity of practice and meditation, of learning to think, speak and act positively and meaningfully, of developing our potential properly. Otherwise we become a crazy and harmful race.

Most people confuse responsibility with obligations, duties, and requirements, which are at the root of “should thinking”. Consider how many times this kind of thinking takes over your world: “I should go visit my aunt in the hospital.” “I have to pick my kids up from school.” “I ought to return Sally’s call.” “Should thinking” is the quickest way we know to create resentment in your life and to convince you that freedom is just a fantasy. Why? Because it’s based on the belief that you have no choice in the matter. Life is full of circumstances where it may seem like your choices are limited, and you can see few ways to respond effectively. However, even in situations that seem out of your hands, you still hold the key to true freedom because you are never left without choice.

“What is freedom? Freedom is the right to choose: the right to create for oneself the alternatives of choice. Without the possibility of choice and the exercise of choice a man is not a man but a member, an instrument, a thing.” 

Thomas Jefferson

One such choice we’ve made is to relate to the idea of responsibility differently than we learned it growing up. We now choose to understand it as our “ABILITY to respond”, or our “response-ability”. It is by the very fact that we have this “ability to respond” that we always have a choice. But the question then becomes: What might be limiting my ability to respond? I believe that “should thinking” is like having a straitjacket on your ability to respond to the circumstances in your life–it almost guarantees that you will never experience the freedom you desire.

The most effective way we’ve found to overcome this limitation is to develop the ability to respond in alignment with your values. Getting good at this requires you to develop your Values Intelligence Quotient, or your VIQ. The quickest way to improve your VIQ is by learning how to avoid taking any actions unless you understand clearly how those actions support what you most deeply value. Developing this ability is the surest way we know to free your mind from impacts of “should thinking”. Even better, improving your Values Intelligence will allow you to stay open to the endless possibilities present in every situation. It’s through learning and practicing this quality of response-ability for what you value that you can begin to experience true freedom in your life.

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