Thinking about freedom versus walking the path to freedom
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Is this it?
Is this really all there is?
As archaic as our drive for food, we appear to have a deep intuition that there is more to the world than meets the eye. Reality is hiding something from us. We wish to perpetually increase the scope of what’s intelligible — in hopes of arriving somewhere. There is a fundamental discomfort with the world and we are trying to do away with it. In Zen, when you begin the Search, it is said:
“Inspiration for this first step is feeling that things are not wholesome, something is lacking. That feeling of loss produces pain”
In Buddhism, the First Noble Truth is the truth of the existence of suffering. This is an acknowledgement that this sense of lacking brings us pain. So we search — we look for what is missing, and I believe there are roughly two classes of people looking: seers and thinkers. Both of these classes are concerned with making sense of this strange world — yet the means they use are radically different. Both of these people take nothing for granted. They are skeptical of all claims and have taken it upon themselves to investigate this mystery.
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise
I find this beautiful poem by William Blake somewhat characteristic of much of the Western philosophical canon. A beautiful revelation is described, plainly and succinctly. Life is so full of emotions that we are bound to experience joy, sadness and everything in between. If we cling to joy, we will suffer deeply when it departs. Kissing it as it flies by, enjoying it fully and letting it go, is intuitively what we ought to do.
How do we arrive at a place where embodiment of this is possible. No path is outlined, no series of practices is detailed in order to get us from where we are now — to where we can live in eternity’s sunrise.
While I don’t expect poetry to outline paths for self development, I often expected this in philosophy. Many ancient Greek traditions such as Stoicism and Cynicism have outlined practices such as mortality remembrance, and other mantra based techniques. Yet, I find the majority of philosophy is not so much about seeing reality as it is, but trying to pigeonhole it within the realm of rational thought. There is great benefit to this — and the bounds of the human intellect have been expanded beyond belief. From the death of metaphysics in the face of the logical positivists, to its revival and exploration into modality — philosophy can never die. Reading philosophy can be immensely soothing — giving one solace that they are not alone in questioning what is normally taken for granted.
There is a reason I contrasted Nietzsche’s picture with that of Shakyamuni in the cover image. Both of these people were deeply concerned with understanding reality — one explored it experientially and the other tried to understand it. One found deep peace and the other went crazy. Nietzsche’s works give comfort to millions of people, he inspires careers, yet he seldom directly offers a way out of suffering in his writings. He lucidly explains the way he perceives the world, the quest for power, the ascetic ideal, but offers no actual roadmap to transmute ones soul. Perhaps he does — but he certainly didn’t walk it himself.
Seeing is a visceral, immediate and undeniable. Thinking is by nature, an abstraction, one layer removed from the immediate. A commonality however it that both thinkers and the seers are curious. Curiosity is an interesting notion — it has, as its object, the exact same thing every time. We cannot be curious about something we already understand, curiosity is always about something unknown. If we stare long enough into this abyss of the unknown, as Nietzsche says, the abyss stares also into us. This can bring deep, existential discomfort. Here is the difference. When you feel sick in your own skin, when your notion of personal identity begins to crumble — David Hume would say: “Go play pool, drink a beer, forget about all of this wild thinking.”
But what happens if you sit with this feeling of terror
Don’t leave, don’t indulge — just observe. This is what the maharishis of ancient India did.
The Great Seers
In Hindu philosophy, all of manifest existence is known as prakriti. Within this realm, the creative threads of existence are known as the Gunas — there are three.
Tamas — rigid, sluggish, grief, confusion, unconscious
Rajas — active, mind, energetic, passion
Sattva — calm, harmonious, higher self, wholesome
All the gunas are present within us, constantly dynamically interacting. Sattva is not better than Tamas, nor is Rajas more desirable than Tamas — these are simply aspects of the world playing with each other. As we have all experienced, this play can often be utterly overwhelming. What was soon found out by the rishis was that as long as you identify with the body-mind (where the Gunas manifest), you are at the mercy of this play. In order to go beyond and find freedom, you must identify with something deeper.
One the oldest religious texts in the world is the Rig Veda. It belongs to a series of tombs known collectively as the Vedas — which together form the backbone of Hinduism. In each of the four vedas, the final section of each is known as Upanishads. Roughly translated to English — this word means “Sit down near” . They are a collection of dialogues between seekers of truth, and those who have directly experienced reality.
These texts were written by the maharishis — meaning great seers. They are the ones who sat down and confronted their existential terror in search of answers.
What is the difference? What distinguishes philosophers from seers. The seers have not only walked the path — but have outlined the path towards realizing these states. It is not enough to understanding wisdom as an external object of thought — but you must move into embodiment of it. Yoga has many meanings, one of which is union. Yoga is a practice of becoming whole. In Buddhism, the Fourth Noble Truth outlines the Noble Eightfold Path. A direct, experiential way to transform your cognition.
So what is the path — how do you unbind yourself from joy and sorrow? How do you live truly in the moment? The answer is not surprising — it involves practice. The Stoics nailed this part —as did Aristotle. Excellence is a habit. These meditative teachings ask you to practice experiencing the world without clinging to it. You delve within and find that which is unchanging and ever-present. In this practice you must cultivate two powers: awareness & equanimity. I will outline one of the many techniques that exsit.
Vipassana is said to be the technique of meditation taught by Gautama the Buddha thousands of years ago. It is an ancient practice of seeing reality as it is.
You start right where are you.
As a preliminary practice — concentration on a singular object is developed. Without one-pointed awareness, further progress on the path is difficult. So how do you experience the world without clinging? Firstly, you realize that experience occurs at our sense doors. The world touches us, and we experience a sensation. With your one-pointed awareness, you begin at the top of the head. Feeling whatever sensation is currently manifesting there — slowly you move your awareness to every part of your body until you reach your feet. The key of the technique is that you remain aware of the sensations without reacting to them. If you reach an unpleasant sensation you simply continue your scan from head to toe — if it’s a pleasant sensation you simply continue your scan from head to toe.
You actually practice not being affected by joy and sorrow. Right here. Right now, in your own body.
At first, it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done — reacting to sensations is part of what it means to be a human. Yet, this is the most intimate way to practice kissing joy as it flies — you pass your awareness over a pleasant area and simply keep on flowing.
Slowly, you begin to have agency when it comes to reactions. You stop instinctively craving pleasant sensation and having aversion towards negative ones. This is the birth of equanimity. When a feeling crops up that you wish to stay with — you can consciously decide to remain. In these teachings of Yoga, you are building a habit of remembering your original self. Who is it that the Gunas affect? Who watches their interplay? Who is the watcher of sensations? This silent witness, unperturbed by the world, is the Self. Pure existence, awareness, bliss. I’ve very briefly outlined one of the many paths described by the great seers. If you wish to learn about others, I’ve included a list of books that may be a good place to start.
Books on Hinduism
One Without a Second — Hali Schwartz
The Bhagavad Gita — Eknath Easwaran
The Upanishads — Vernon Katz
Books on Buddhism
Living By Zen — D.T Suzuki
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings — Thich Nhat Hanh
Dogen’s Genjo Koan — Shunryu Suzuki, Shohaky Okumura, Kosho Uchiyama