No Happiness Without Freedom

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This past weekend Still Water offered a silent practice retreat at the Charter Hall Retreat Center. In our closing sharing, participants talked about the recurring emotional energies many of us experience throughout our lives: anger or fear, distraction or ambivalence, loneliness or dependency, or some other energy. Although we may feel many different discomforting emotions at times, often there is one that predominates, or is especially baffling. It reappears again and again, especially when we are stressed or challenged. Sometimes the energy overwhelms us, immobilizes us, or causes us to act impulsively.

I think of these energies as our own personal koans. If we are to grow, we must embrace our puzzles, be curious about them, and look deeply into them. We must become experts on our particular energies. In time we will come to understand how they arise in us and in others.

In Be Free Where You Are, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that our happiness depends on freeing ourselves from the domination of these discomforting energies.

For me, there is no happiness without freedom, and freedom is not given to us by anyone; we have to cultivate it ourselves. …

By freedom I mean freedom from afflictions, from anger, and from despair. If you have anger in you, you have to transform anger in order to get your freedom back. If there is despair in you, you need to recognize that energy and not allow it to overwhelm you. . . . You can practice freedom every moment of your daily life. Every step you take can help you reclaim your freedom. Every breath you take can help you develop and cultivate your freedom. When you eat, eat as a free person. When you walk, walk as a free person. When you breathe, breathe as a free person. This is possible anywhere.

Everyone walks on the Earth, but there are those who walk like slaves, with no freedom at all. They are sucked in by the future or by the past, and they are not capable of dwelling in the here and now, where life is available. If we get caught up in our worries, our despair, our regrets about the past, and our fears of the future in our everyday lives, we are not free people. We are not capable of establishing ourselves in the here and now.

In my life, anxiety has been an energy that keeps coming back. Some months ago, in journaling about the origin of my anxiety, I gave it a nickname: DeeDee. It is short for “Don’t Displease.” My sense is that when I was very young, nurturance, warmth, and affection were episodic. Sometimes I received them, and sometimes not. In order to receive support, I oriented myself to pleasing those who could give support. Sometimes the support came. When it didn’t, I was anxious and tried even harder.

For years I have worked on understanding and untangling this particular way of responding. Mindfulness practice has helped me respond differently to DeeDee when she comes around. I’ve learned I don’t have to do what she says. Sometimes we go for calming walks together. Sometimes I can get DeeDee to talk to me, to tell me more about her history.

This Thursday after our meditation period we will share about the discomforting energies we have known in our lives. We will explore the strategy of disarming the the energy by giving it a nickname, and consider other strategies we have used to reduce our reactivity and increase our freedom.

You are invited to be with us.

Peace and joy to you,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher