Dear Still Water Friends,
When I was young I understood “freedom” as the right to do what I wanted without external constraints. For me it meant not having my parents or other adults tell me what was allowed, and also not having the government tell me what was permitted.
Decades later I began to understand another kind of freedom, a freedom from reactivity and internal constraints. Often our strongly felt desires arise from conditioning. We want what we want, we act as we act, because of how we were raised and how we have been treated by the larger world. In many areas of our life, our conditioned responses are not a problem and may even be beneficial. However, sometimes our “natural” responses may repeatedly cause suffering for ourselves and others. As we become aware of the conditioning, we can begin to make freer choices. Ajaan Thanissaro, a western-born Theravaden monk explains:
the Buddha advised exploring the possibility of freedom, …. You find [freedom] by looking at where it’s constantly showing itself: in the fact that your present intentions are not totally conditioned by the past. You catch your first glimmer of it as a range of possibilities from which you can choose and as your ability to act more skillfully—causing more pleasure and less pain—than you ordinarily might. Your sense of this freedom grows as you explore and exercise it, each time you choose the most skillful course of action heading in the direction of discernment, truthfulness, relinquishment, and peace.
It is in this sense of helping us to reduce our “natural” self-centered responses that Thich Nhat Hanh often presents the mindfulness trainings as a way of increasing our freedom:
The Mindfulness Trainings should be looked upon as the practice of mindfulness, and not as a set of rules. If you look at them as a set of rules, you are caught by what the Buddha described as the attachment to rituals and rules, and this is not a good thing in Buddhism. You should not be a victim of rules and rituals. So be careful when you study and practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Consider them to be an art of mindful living, and not something imposed on you to restrict your freedom. In fact the practice of the Five Mindfulness Trainings will help you to gain more freedom every day. (From a 1998 Plum Village Dharma talk)
This Thursday evening, November 12th, after our meditation period, we will recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our discussion on the relationship between the mindfulness trainings and freedom. Two Still Water practitioners, Maria Sgambati and Mike Henry, will help us begin our discussion by sharing how the trainings have affected their lives.