Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Total Freedom

It seems everywhere we look in self-help, spiritual and metaphysical sections of bookstores, authors have come out with their own distinct methods and ways to improve our lives, heal our souls and make our dreams come true. The paths generally involve a numbered list, such as four or twelve steps. Sometimes, the first letters of each word form an acronym, or they all start with the same letter, to make them easy to remember. Regardless of format, a sort of “promise” accompanies the text. If you, the reader, will faithfully do “x,y and z,” “a,b and c” will happen. A cause and effect relationship is proposed by the author and that is what sells you, the reader, in your decision to purchase the book.

What do you think would happen if someone suggested that you do “x,y and z,”you may or may not receive anything at all? What if they told you the reward was in the asking? What if they also told you that through following their suggestions, you may likely suffer more, not less, but that through this suffering, you will unite with an aspect of God who suffers, and that this union will bring you boundless peace? Crazy, you'd probably say.

 After all, everybody knows there are a zillion methods to instant happiness, from the $20 book in the bookstore to the $400 retreat weekend. You will be told all the love you need is within yourself, that you are perfect, that you have never done anything wrong and that you can be like God or even become a god. You may also be told you will gain great wealth and “abundance” through their methods. Unlimited freedom, peace and joy will be yours. I once attended lots of workshops like this.

Once, I paid $250 monthly for a four hour workshop that met once a month. The workshop was worth a lot because of the “very holy woman” who would guide us. Now, in the beginning of most forms of meditative practice, people strive for purity or to cleanse themselves from that which would impede the meditation experience. Traditionally, in Buddhist and Christian practice, effort is made by people to free themselves from selfish instincts which impede man from following the will of God. However, for this group, I was told to thoroughly cleanse myself of “judgments” before the monthly meeting.

 Let's take a look at this objectively: Traditional religious practice focuses on using judgment to free the souls from selfishness which keeps the individuals tied to their own limited, mortal abilities. In the practices of the workshop I attended, we were told to effectively silence the conscience and begin to let selfish desires and instincts run wild. I was even told on a separate retreat experience the catch phrase that, “Our feelings are integrity.” So, the goal of such spiritual practice was to let instincts run “free” of judgment to impede them. “Total freedom” is supposed to be possible through this experience.

From a Christian perspective, passions aren't negative. However, being controlled by passions is anything but freedom. The key word here is “controlled.” How free are we when under control of our passions, just as the “enlightened” animals and babies that have no “judgment” yet? I'd wager that a baby isn't quite free. Operating on instinct as the brain develops, the infant's presence naturally brings much joy to adults. Yet, we (hopefully) grow up to learn to master instinctual impulses.

Some teachers from that tradition do stress the mastery of mind and emotion, but it is always geared towards reaching a goal the individual wants, such as to “manifest” a personal fortune, get a new car or the lover of their dreams. St. Thomas Aquinas listed four distractions on the way to finding truth: fame, fortune, power and pleasure. That's because they are not goals of real spiritual life. In order to be “free to carry out the will of God and to share in the freedom of the Holy Spirit,” profound renunciation of selfishness is required.

Choice of spiritual practice boils down to one thing: Are you looking for something lasting, enduring and reliable? Or would you rather chase down each quick and easy fad that promises you your version of Heaven on Earth? “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Notice, in this part of the prayer that God's kingdom comes to earth through following God's will, not our own.

Would it be your will to be nailed to a cross? No, and for Jesus, fully human, crucifixion wasn't that appealing either. However, because Jesus is also fully God, he surrendered His human will selflessly to the greater good for all mankind. People forget Jesus united his human will to God's will. People forget that Jesus knew ahead of time he would be crucified. He also did not fight it, although he stayed up all night “sweating blood” as He contemplated the time to come. To me, the death of Jesus proclaims how pain has no power over the disciplined soul. We can still choose to be loving in the midst of it. Inversely, pleasure also has no power over the disciplined soul. A special state of “detachment” occurs with purification of selfish instincts.

Jesus did not promise His disciples new cars (or camels) and exotic vacations and He did not take them for Himself. To do that would only distract from the priceless treasure He offered. Jesus does not promise us we will be happy. He does not promise we will be rich and always healthy. In the “myths,” there is only one who makes such promises to his followers, and that is in exchange for their very souls. Yes, you can join the cult of self-worship. You can pretend Christianity is all about fear. But, deep down, you know it can't be reduced to that.

Christianity is about freedom, but not always about feeling good. If you want to pick and choose beliefs based on what resonates, feels good, and is what you feel drawn to and like, know that you may not like the real truth. Like it or not, it will set you free. Free to know what it feels like to really learn to love as Jesus did. Even learning about Jesus is free. Don't be afraid to explore it.

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