Shanti Sadan and Self-Knowledge name
Vol.68 No.4 Autumn 2017

The Greatest Freedom of All

Let us remind ourselves of life’s supreme possibility—that of freeing our mind from fear, doubt, sorrow and frustration, and awakening to the greatest freedom of all—the freedom of enlightenment.

Nowadays, we may think of freedom as a feature of a civilised and benevolent society. Sadly, we are all too aware that many societies do not fall into this category. We want freedom for all and rightly feel that slavery is abhorrent. But is the outer freedom we enjoy an end in itself? Our physical freedom paves the way to a deeper freedom—freedom of the mind and the intellect. For we are allowed to think freely, to be creative, to exchange ideas, to disagree, and generally to share knowledge and skills.

Even this freedom of thought is not an end in itself. Our thought does not always express itself in ways that are open, liberating and agreeable. Like the biblical hero Samson, in the poem by Milton, we may be able to find rest for the body, but none for the mind,

From restless thoughts, that, like a deadly swarm
Of hornets armed, no sooner found alone
But rush upon me thronging...

True freedom must include the ability to free ourselves from unwanted and troublesome thoughts. We could even say that thought is in quest of something which is more than thought. All our efforts are reaching for something that in the end will liberate us from effort.

The highest wisdom of mankind teaches the way to inner freedom. Inner freedom is something more than free-thinking. It is a knowledge of the innermost being and consciousness that is the source of our thought, the ground of our being, the power behind our mind. It is not freedom for the mind but in a certain sense, freedom from the mind.

At first, we may associate freedom with inner strength or mastery—being relatively free from frailties of will and defects of understanding. Such rare inner freedom would enable a person to rise above those painful expressions of our psychic life mentioned earlier: fear, doubt, sorrow and frustration of various kinds. But inner freedom means more than this. A verse from the Kena Upanishad, one of the traditional sources of this wisdom, asks:

Who—or what—is the source of the mind’s power to think, the body’s power to act, the voice’s power to speak?

This question springs from an awareness of something deeper, compared with which thought is a fickle, transient expression. There can be no absolute freedom in thought, no matter how cleverly our thoughts are organised. And yet, in the quest for inner freedom that lies before us, thought will prove to be a key element, a crucial tool, or set of tools. This is because we will be working very much with thought, as part of the course that leads us to the greatest freedom of all. For we shall be cultivating our thought in such a way that our mind itself becomes lit with the highest wisdom. And this culminates in our awakening to our essential identity with the deeper reality that underlies thought—the power behind the mind. In the course of this quest we will find that our thought acquires a new value, a true purpose. For our thought will evolve a new property or power. This is the power of thought to calm itself, and to achieve a kind of transparency. Just as calm, clear water allows you to see right through it to the bottom, so our mind, when made tranquil and free from the disturbance of desires, becomes sensitive to the presence and power of the deeper reality that underlies it. This increasing sensitivity will confirm to us that our true nature is that deeper reality.

Now we become aware of true freedom, of a state of being that has no limitation. It is not to be seen objectively, as we might gaze at the sea or the sky. But we will know that this is our true nature, our very consciousness, now realised in its completeness, unconditioned by any quality. Our sense of identity is re-established as the infinite, free from the mutations of mind and matter. Here we have discovered in our own being a realm of purity, perfection, peace. This is the ultimate achievement of thought—thought aided by the supreme Source of wisdom. It is not the birth of a new thought, but the removal of the apparent veil formed by our mental activity.

Simultaneously there is spontaneous recognition of our identity as the infinite consciousness that reveals and underlies all our thinking and feeling. Once this recognition is brought about, our mind may be active in the world or quiet in meditation, it may encounter adverse circumstances or enjoy social peace and security. But nothing can eclipse the realisation of the infinite freedom at the heart of experience—the freedom of our perfect, limitless Self.

This development does not just happen in the course of evolution. It is not nature’s gift that our mind suddenly finds it has a capacity to still itself and experience something indescribably rich at its source. We have to work for it. And we alone can do it. No friend or guru can do it for us because we alone have direct sight of our own thoughts and the accompanying will to guide and supervise them. Friends, teachers and books can suggest techniques, practices and guidelines. We alone can apply them.

One of the names for this interior work is ‘yoga’. This name is not confined to the postures that are devoted to our physical wellbeing. A standard meaning of the word ‘yoga’ is ‘effort’, ‘exertion’—what we put into work generally, whether for self-development or our work in the world. The modern Hindi word for industry, derived from the Sanskrit, is ud-yoga. But in the context of the quest for enlightenment, this work is of a specific kind and this word ‘effort’ is set in a wider perspective. For, as we said at the beginning, all our efforts are reaching for something that in the end will liberate us from effort. Our efforts are intended to lead us to a poise of mind and ease of concentration that is not sustained by effort at all but has been revealed as our very nature.

Although it was said ‘we alone can do it’, if we are seekers of this highest freedom—the freedom of enlightenment—we are not left alone with the contents of our own mind. We enter into partnership, so to speak, with the freedom itself—the wisdom itself. This is the wisdom and freedom as reflected in the words of those who have found their way to freedom—those who have direct experience of the infinitude of the true Self. Their words are available to us, and have vital and transformative power. This is so whether we are most influenced by eastern sources like the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, or the wisdom of the great traditions developed in the West. But one thing is certain. When we take these teachings into our mind as dynamic thoughts that spring from the realm of infinite freedom, our mind will be changed by that influence. So we make our efforts to clarify our mind and free it from distractions and also habitually occupy our mind—in meditation and at other times— with some of the clearest, most liberating thoughts ever expressed— the thoughts of the illumined sages.

One could say that the characteristic of a liberating thought is that it has no trace of narrowness and points to the realm of freedom within our own being. We can sometimes find these thoughts in philosophy, as, for example, when Spinoza writes: ‘But the love of a thing eternal and infinite alone fills the mind with pleasure, and it is free from all pain; so it is much to be desired and sought out with all our might.’ We may consult a scripture, and brood on the words of Christ: ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you’, or the saying from the Bible: ‘the spirit of man is the candle of God’; or the statement in the Koran that Allah is nearer to us than the jugular vein. Or if we prefer we may seek out such thoughts in the writings of the illumined sages of the yoga tradition, where we will find countless expressions, such as: ‘O my mind, find rest in that most blessed peace that is ever within thee and do not follow that which is transient.’ And again: ‘Know the Self to be infinite consciousness, self-evident, beyond destruction, enlightening all bodies equally, ever shining. In It is neither day nor night.’

Ideas of this quality, purity and depth, held in the mind, act like a yeast, and slowly transform our thinking process. When we have grape juice and we want to turn it into wine, it is the yeast added to the liquid that turns the sugar of the grape juice into alcohol, and makes it wine. To apply this analogy to our inner life we could say that when we hold in our mind these enlightened insights, such is their innate transformative power that our mind will gradually be converted from its routine expression into the peace and light of the higher wisdom.

We make our efforts and are industrious in our quest, but we are also drawing guidance from the great wisdom teachings that light the way to true freedom. And these teachings in turn will inspire us when and how to change our approach when the time is ripe. This will mean moving from action, from ‘yoga’, to rest; not sleep, but restful alertness.

Deep meditation will reveal to us that true joy comes when all sense of making efforts is forgotten and our contemplation becomes, as it were, effortless. The greatest freedom of all brings liberation from the need to make efforts. This is because effort presupposes need, but in true freedom all is fulfilled, nothing is lacking. We have to make efforts to focus the mind, to overcome distractions, to collect and hold in our mind those vital ideas gleaned from the writings of those with an illumined understanding. But our consciousness deepens and our awareness sharpens when effort gives way to a complete interior restfulness.

In the Sufi classic, the Masnavi of the poet-sage, Rumi, there is a story about a man who prayed all the time that God might free him from the need to make efforts and exertions for his livelihood. He prayed for wages without work, riches without trouble. ‘I’m a lazybones’, he would say. ‘Through your power you have made me like this.

Through your power you can surely provide me with riches.’ Because he prayed in this way all the time, indoors and outdoors, day and night, he became well known in the city as the man with the deluded prayer. For people would tell him: ‘It’s only through effort and work that you get reward. Give up this nonsense and do some work.’

The paradox is that through his ardour, his perseverance, his efforts to sustain the prayer, he was in fact exerting himself far more than those who made fun of him. In his own unusual way he was a model of exertion and perseverance. There is also a hint that his prayer, seemingly outrageous, was pointing to something implicit in all human striving. For the bliss we are seeking is not in the straining and wilfulness but in reaching a condition where there is freedom from all tension and effort.

In contrast to our quest for fulfilment in the world, the freedom of enlightenment is in the deepest sense already with us as our true nature. In this sense it is ever achieved. No action, either physical or mental, will bring it about. But what we have to do is to get our mind in such a condition that the nature of our true Self becomes self-evident.

As we said before, our mind has the potentiality to calm itself and render itself transparent, so to say. It is through such a mind that the true nature of the ‘I’ is realized. Therefore our liberated understanding does not need to descend from above, or be produced, or purified. It is the ground of our being, our true home and source. While our mind is active and obsessed with the world of objects and stimuli, we overlook and undervalue the way of peace and enlightenment. But at no time are we wholly ignorant of the truth indicated in the verse from the Avadhut Gita:

Know the Self to be infinite consciousness, self-evident, beyond destruction, enlightening all bodies equally, ever shining. In It is neither day nor night.

How can we be strangers to this truth? It is our reality, our true being, the source of our knowledge.

Our position of partial knowledge is rather like the third person mentioned in the old Chinese proverb:

He who knows not and knows not he knows not, is a fool—avoid him.
He who knows not and knows he knows not, is a child—teach him.
He who knows and knows not that he knows, is asleep—wake him.
He who knows and knows he knows, he is wise—follow him.

Knows what? According to the Vedanta philosophy, this applies to the great knowledge of infinite freedom that we hold within ourselves. Like person number three, we know there is something in us awaiting discovery, something utterly special, uniquely valuable. And this awareness forces itself on us in the form of restlessness, as a sense of incompleteness, that however far we have advanced along the road to fulfilment in terms of achievement and life experience, we still have not reached our goal. It is in this sense—we know. We know there is something more. And we know this because there is something more. Our intuition that a better life experience is available to us is not a delusion. To quote Maulana Rumi: ‘That thirst of yours is evidence that water exists.’

There is the wholeness of being and the perfection of joy within us awaiting discovery—nearer to us than breathing, closer than thinking. The role of the Yoga of Self-knowledge is to show us that this most desired thing—the experience that will really bring meaning and fulfilment—is to be discovered within, for its home and eternal base is the innermost ground of our being and we can never be separated from it.