The Fine Art of Freedom


Glass Dome Tacoma

Dome of Glass, Tacoma


“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?


4 thoughts on “The Fine Art of Freedom

  1. Hi Molly love,
    I was thinking of you and here you are.
    The most liberating thought of late: that I’m in charge of my feelings of loneliness. There’s yet another blizzard on the way, making it harder to get out and about. In the older days, I would embrace this sense of isolation like an old, oversized blanket and do nothing to dig myself out. I no longer accept that I deserve to feel badly. So I’ll go to the farmers’ market, then to the gym, then keep a phone date with my dear friend Greg. I’ll work on my website and keep reading The Book of Joy.
    Thank you.

    • Ah, winter in Maine! I like your expression, being “in charge of” your feelings of loneliness. “In charge of” suggests that your feelings are your charges, your things to care for with compassion and wisdom…in this case, the wisdom of doing things that make you feel good. I hope you have a wonderful blizzard! BTW, I just checked out your website; it looks beautiful. Great to hear from you, and sending you a warm hug!

  2. Thanks for this, Molly! I copied Brezsny’s words and put them up on my wall over my desk at eye level. May they inspire me to put them into practice.

    A small realization I’ve had lately is that I can say no to people who ask me to do extra things at work (as you know, I have a job where there is a lot of pressure to do additional work for free) and that I don’t have to give a reason why. Until recently, I felt compelled to give a “real” reason when I said no, but that often led to me saying yes if I couldn’t articulate a “real” reason (another meeting, other work obligation). I’ve started instead just saying something vague like, “I’m sorry, I’m not available at that time”. This has felt liberating because it has allowed me to prioritize my health and happiness (and other things) over work and has allowed me, in a sense, to articulate that as my priority. I’m not available because taking on that additional project will allow me to do less of what I actually want to do. Of course, I still say yes to a lot, but it helps me do that with a more open heart.

    As always, you inspire me!

    • Hey Kat,

      That’s a great idea — to post a declaration of independence or statement of values where you can see it every day! Otherwise, it’s too easy for the things that matter most to us to sink out of sight, underneath the weight of habit or external demands. I don’t think your realization is at all small. We should all be able to say no without feeling we have to justify ourselves. As you point out, this ability enables us to shape our lives according to our values. And also makes our yes-es more truthful and meaningful. Our time and energy are precious resources for us to protect and invest. There are plenty of people and institutions eager to tell us how we should spend them. Plus our internal sense of duty, which may or may not be appropriate in a given situation. We’re the ones who have to decide that. You go, girl!

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