“What’s the most liberating thought you’ve ever had?”
This question was passed along by Rob Brezsny, author of the most liberating words I’ve ever read:
You do not have to think thoughts that make you sad and tormented.
You do not have to feel emotions that other people try to manipulate you into feeling.
You do not have to live up to anyone’s expectations.
You do not have to strive for a kind of perfection that isn’t very interesting to you.
In short, you’re free to be exactly who you want.
To me, this passage resounds like a declaration of independence. If one accepts the validity of each tenet, then the conclusion is inevitable. And yet we find it so difficult to believe that we are actually free to be whomever and however we want.
Partly it’s a terrifying statement, because it means that we’re finally responsible for who we are, for what we make of ourselves and our lives. I’ve said before that the most important work of art we create is our life.
Scholar of religion and former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong contends that spiritual practice is an art form. “Religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you.” And because of the interdependence of all things, it changes everything around you.
From Dogen’s Bendowa: “Grass, trees and walls bring forth the teaching for all beings…. And [beings in turn] extend this dharma for the sake of grass, trees and walls. The wholehearted practice of the way allows all things to exist in enlightenment.”
So if we pay attention, actively resist our karmic conditioning, and exercise our imaginations, we can create ourselves and our lives in harmony with the ideals we most cherish. There are many things in life we don’t get to choose, but who and how we are in the world is not one of them.
Zen priest Leonard Cohen observed that “Any artist who remains true to herself becomes a work of art herself…. If someone has that vocation, and diligently applies herself to the exigencies that arise, she will lose a great deal but she will have created her own character.”
If we diligently apply ourselves, and the artistry and alchemy of our practice, to our lives — what do we lose? Perhaps the thoughts that torment us, the emotions society tries to manipulate us into feeling, and the Sisyphean task of attempting to be and do things that don’t matter to us.
These are “losses” worthy of the word liberation, although I’m guessing Cohen had in mind other losses as well.
What’s the most liberating realization you’ve ever had? And what did you do with it?