Freedom. It’s a value that is intricately woven into our national culture. It’s a value people die for. It’s the ability to pursue our rights. And what are those rights? According to our heritage, right there in our Declaration of Independence, we have certain unalienable Rights, among them Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Well, I’m going to argue that the vast majority of us are not free at all. Not because of external oppression, but because of internal activity. As human beings, we have these great big, amazing brains. Some of their defining features are the ability to plan, to think about the past and present, the ability to be creative, to imagine. However, some of these very same features, when left unchecked, are the very things that keep us oppressed.
The human brain is quite busy on a very unconscious level. The brain that can spin a spooky yarn around the campfire can create other fear-based stories when we’re not paying attention. The same brain that plans for my future can imagine every possible horrific scenario that could happen in that future. The very brain that can remember my grandmother’s loving touch and the smell of my grandfather’s study can also torture me with memories of every thoughtless, clumsy, or mean deed I’ve ever done.
If our right to Life simply means that our bodies can walk around in our environments, then, okay, we have that. However, our life happens in each moment, right in front of us and we do not participate in the vast majority of it. Our minds are off and running, planning, scheming, daydreaming, but almost never present for the actual experiences of our life. How often do we miss the birds singing, the feel of the sun or breeze on our skin? How often do we miss the smile or the pain in another person because we’re so lost in thought? Daily we miss words people are speaking directly to us because while they’re talking and we’re nodding, we’re also looking at our phone. Each moment we miss because we’re “off” somewhere else, is our own violation of our right to experience our Life.
Liberty. Now that seems like a somewhat outdated word; one I associate mainly with the big green lady holding her lantern in New York Harbor. I love the definition I found: “the state or condition of people who are able to act and speak freely – the power to do or choose what you want.” The vast majority of the way we see the world is the result of past programming. We very rarely see with what Zen Buddhists call Beginners’ Mind. We think we know how “people are”. We become habituated to very particular patterns of thinking about things and responding to people and situations. We forget that, though we may have eaten one hundred apples, we’ve never eaten this one. We may have woken up every morning to each day of our life, but we’ve never lived this day. We breathe constantly all day long, but we’ve never breathed this breath. How can we act and speak freely or choose what we want if the vast majority of our behavior is habituated, automatic responding; if we forget to be present with this unique moment?
We have the right to pursue happiness. You may remember from some of the other Monthly Musing posts, that the human brain has a negative bias. The negative centers tend to be more active than the positive centers. As our brains unconsciously interprets the infinite amount of data coming in, everything must be evaluated as positive, negative or neutral. Neutral generally gets dumped in the trash bin, but in evaluating the rest, the brain can over-estimate threat or under-estimate threat. Over-estimation may keep us agitated, but under-estimation could mean death, so the brain, in an effort to keep the body alive, tends over-estimate how bad things might be. Additionally, how much of that neutral material that’s just being thrown out could contribute to our overall happiness, if we were just paying a little bit of attention: again, the birds, the sun, the cool breezes, the presence of other people.
There is a part of our brain that monitors our goal directed behaviors. When I decide to slow down and notice these small things, I tend to notice them more. More presence, more happiness.
Slowing down, a daily meditation practice and more mindfulness in our waking lives actually helps us to experience our “unalienable Rights”. These practices allow us to free ourselves from internal, unconscious oppression and to live more freely.