What Does It Mean to Be Free?

I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom because of the July 4th holiday. I’ve been wondering, what does it mean to be free in today’s world when many people are not allowed to live their lives? When they are shot for running down a street? When they are killed in their beds? I’m referencing publicized murders of Black people in the United States of course, but I could also start listing crimes against indigenous people, people of color, those in the LGBTQIA community, Jews, Muslims, and many others. But what’s interesting about this time we’re living in is there’s an added layer about freedom for all of us.

I’m sure you’ve noticed we’re still experiencing a pandemic and many people, regardless of how they identify, are quarantining. A large swathe of us are unable to live our lives the way we used to before COVID-19 struck. Many of us are exclusively working from home. We can’t get our hair cut or work out at the gym. We can’t celebrate together in large groups. We can’t even hug our friends. So again, I ask, what does it mean to be free? I keep thinking about an expression I’ve heard: prison is a state of mind. Surely that’s not true, is it?

I’d like to reference writer Rayya Elias who was incarcerated at Riker’s Island for drug dealing and possession. After she was clean and sober, she wrote a memoir, Harley Loco, and she was invited to speak at the opening ceremony of the prison’s library. Various people filled the audience, including current prison inmates. Elias spoke to the incarcerated women directly and told them this is not who you are, a prisoner in a jumpsuit, and this is not where you live, Riker’s Island.

Pointing to her heart she said, “This is who you are.” Pointing to her head she said, “And this is where you live.” She reminded them that would always be true – they would always be the people they are in their hearts and they would always live inside their minds. Her statements have stuck with me because she’s right, we do live in our minds and so perhaps that’s where freedom lies as well. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying we should sit back and do nothing about all the injustice going on in the world because we all just live in our heads. What I’m advocating is a three-pronged approach: free our bodies, free our minds, and free our spirits.

A way that I know of to free the mind is to practice meditation. Doing so can free the mind so that a person feels content even while physically imprisoned. That’s not conjecture, by the way. My spiritual teacher modeled that for me. He was jailed and fasted on two cups of liquid for more than five years, but he was still as content as could be. He was an extraordinary human being but he was still a human being. That means he has demonstrated for all of us what is possible. He has shown us that no matter where we are, no matter our circumstances, we can still feel free.

My teacher said practicing santośa, or contentment, will cultivate that feeling. When discussing the intuitional practice of meditation, he said santośa is contentment with receiving things we did not ask for, which to me sounds like freedom.

I dream of a world where we work to free ourselves in body, mind, and spirit. A world where we work to improve the lives of ourselves and others. A world where we remember we live inside our heads. A world where we understand what freedom really means.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

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