It’s commonly said that Buddhism is a path of liberation…but what does that really mean? In this episode, I will discuss the concept of freedom and truth. I will also discuss how can we extend freedom to ourselves and to others. If you are interested in attending any retreats or workshops, please visit secularbuddhism.com/retreats/ to express your interest.
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Transcript of the podcast episode:
Hello. You’re listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 13. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I am talking about freedom.
Welcome to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This podcast is produced every week, where I cover philosophical topics within Buddhism and secular humanism. Remember, episodes one through five, serve as a basic introduction to secular Buddhism and general Buddhist concepts. So if you’re new to the podcast, I definitely recommend listening to the first five episodes in order. All episodes after that are meant to be individual topics that can be listened to in any order.
Before starting, a quote I love to share by the Dalai Lama. He says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in the podcast episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to share it, write a review, or give it a rating in Itunes. Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.
I’m really excited to be talking about freedom today; specifically, freedom in the Buddhist understanding, from the Buddhist worldview. Buddhism’s often referred to as the Path of Liberation, or the Path of Freedom. What exactly is this freedom that’s being talked about? Freedom is not an absolute thing, it’s a relative thing, right? Freedom is generally freedom from or freedom to. Is this sense, what we’re talking about in the Path of Freedom, we’re obtaining freedom, it’s relative to freedom from conceptual constraints and freedom to act or be a certain way.
I want to jump into this and really talk about this but first, imagine a prisoner, someone who’s been in jail years and years, and they’re finally gonna be set free. Once that person is out of the prison, their freedom is freedom from the constraints of the cell that they were in or the constraints of the overall prison walls that they were behind; and freedom to, freedom to do all the things, to be a certain way or to act in a way that they couldn’t while they were prisoner. This could be as simple as the prisoner can now go to a store and go shopping. They’re free to go to a store and go shopping. That’s a freedom that they didn’t have before.
Understanding freedom, in the sense that it’s a relative thing, it’s freedom to or freedom from, will help us to jump into another deeper level of understanding of what truth is because what we’re talking about here is … We’ve all heard the expression that the truth shall set you free, right? Again, free from what? How does truth do that? To understand that, let’s talk about truth for a little bit.
I like to categorize truth in two major categories. This is for me. I didn’t get this anywhere, I just … For me, there are empirical truths and there are conceptual truths. Empirical truths would be truths that are true whether or not I believe anything. For example, an empirical truth is that if the temperature drops low enough, water solidifies and turns into ice. That’s an empirical truth. It can be observed, it can be replicated. Most of our empirical truths, if not all of our empirical truths, come from science, scientific research.
Science is always revealing new empirical truths for us. Those are not the kind of truths that I’m gonna talk about in this podcast. I’m talking about conceptual truths. Conceptual truths are truths that are true because of our beliefs, not in spite of our beliefs. For example, another way of saying this would be truths that are true whether or not there are humans, those are empirical truths. If there are no humans on the planet, we would still see, during the winter months, when the temperatures cooled and water turns to ice, there would still be these empirical truths happening, right?
Now conceptual truths are true because of humans, because of the beliefs that we have. So an example of a conceptual truth … I like to split this into two other categories: societal truths and personal truths, but they’re both still conceptual. An example of a societal truth would be that gold is more valuable than silver. That is a societal truth. It’s a conceptual truth because it’s only true because we believe that it’s true. Now if there were no humans on the planet, a lump of gold and a lump of silver next to each other in a field have no inherent value. There’s no inherent value that says the gold is worth more than the silver. These things are just things, but we come along and we assign meaning to things, we create stories, and inside of our conceptual understanding of the world, we have decided that gold is worth more than silver.
With the gold and silver example, it’s not just because someone said. Supply and demand. Scarcity of gold verus silver. All those things went into determining the value of gold being higher than silver; but still, overall, it’s just a conceptual truth and yet, it’s true. It’s even … You could argue it’s factual. You could go into the pawn store, into the pawn shop, and have one ounce of gold and one ounce of silver and you’re going to get a lot more for your gold than you’re from your silver. A societal truth, it’s conceptual though. These are truths that are true only because of our beliefs.
Then, you can scale this down from societal truths down to personal truths. For example, a personal truth for me would be that eggs taste better when you put hot sauce on them. This may be true for me while it’s not true for you. There are countless examples of this. Someone who thinks hotdogs are better than hamburgers or hamburgers are better with cheese. I keep using food analogies. It’s not just applicable to food, but any kind of personal conceptual truth. Being a Texan is better than being a Californian. Well of course that’s what a conceptual truth that you would hold if you believe that Texas is better than California. Now if you don’t believe that, that’s not a conceptual truth for you.
I like to imagine conceptual truths categorized in these societal and personal views, but I recently read a book called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s a brief history of humankind and in this book he … There’s this compelling argument about our ability as humans to go from early humans as hunters and gatherers and then collect into societies and become what we are today, all hinges on the fact that we have the unique ability to tell and believe stories. It’s our ability to tell stories and then hold these collective beliefs inside of our stories that propels humans to where we are now. With our ability to have a collective belief, that gives us the ability to have politics. Political systems and governments are conceptual truths. Same with religion. Same with economics. It’s our shared belief that the value of this green piece of paper that has a one on it is actually worth something, gives us the ability to interact with each other in commerce. It’s a conceptual truth. Is it really worth a dollar? Well that doesn’t mean anything. If there were no humans, that piece of paper doesn’t mean anything.
There’s a fascinating insight in this book Sapiens that illustrates how is our ability to tell stories and believe stories that gets us to where we are today. Along with this comes the ability to be bound by our conceptual truths. This is where the idea that good concepts are like a golden chain, bad concepts are like an iron chain, but they all equally bind you in the end. That’s pretty powerful to think about. Everything that we hold as a conceptual truth binds us and that we’re bound by it. Think about all of the daily interactions you have with conceptual truths and how we’re bound by them. I don’t mean bound in a bad way. I don’t mean that we’re bound by things as if that’s bad, but to understand freedom, we need to understand that what we’re free from and free to do. To do that, we need to know what conceptual truths we’re bound to.
Byron Katie mentions, “A thought is harmless unless we believe it.” I think that’s a powerful statement. A thought is harmless unless we believe it. Again, we’re talking about conceptual truths here, right? Not empirical truths. She says, “It’s not our thoughts, but our attachment to our thoughts, that cause us suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring. A belief is a thought that we’ve been attaching to, often for years.”
When you think about conceptual truths and the beliefs that we have through what we consider to be conceptual truths, you understand what binds you, what you’re bound to, and that’s the sense of freedom that we’re talking about here. Freedom, again, freedom to or freedom from, has to do with our conceptual understanding of the world being at conflict with the empirical reality of the world. This is to say that there is what is, and then there’s the story that we create around what is. As long as we reside inside of the realm of the story of reality, we’re not dealing with reality itself.
Think about this. You’re driving on the road and somebody cuts you off. Immediately there is what happened, and then there’s the story we create about what happened, right? Typically, in a scenario like that, we’re thinking, “Okay, this person is a jerk. This person probably does this all the time, takes advantage of people. Think they can do whatever they want. Not obey the rules. Here they are just cutting me off.” There’s a whole story attached to the event. If you think about it, the suffering that you’re experiencing during that event has to do with the story around it, not with the event, right? You get cut off. That doesn’t do anything to you. Nothing happened. There’s absolutely nothing going on when you get cut off, but the story around it is the dangerous part. The thought is harmless unless we believe it, right? We believe the story that we’ve created. So this is what I’m talking about when I’m talking about freedom. It’s freedom from habitual reactivity.
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and a psychiatrist, and he was the founder ologotherapy. He was a Holocaust survivor. He went through some of the most difficult things that you could probably imagine going through. Something that he says … He talks about freedom in the sense that, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space, is our power to choose our response. In our response, lies our growth and our freedom.”
This is really powerful. I want to talk about this. The concept that between stimulus and response, there’s a space, because that’s what Buddhism is trying to teach and really get at, is that as we go through life, we are reactive; and even worse, we’re habitually reactive. We tend to just react on things. Between the stimulus and response, there’s this space. It’s inside of this space that we have the power to choose our response.
There’s a famous story … I think it’s a zen story, but the story goes like this. There’s a man standing on a trail, or on a path, and he can see off in the distance that there’s a man approaching him on a horse and he’s galloping at full speed and he just watches. As he gets closer and closer, he finally is close enough to talk to him. He asks this man, “Hey, where are you going?” The man just says, “I don’t know, ask the horse,” as he gallops by at full speed.
The idea here is that we are like the horse and the rider. We have two systems in the mind. There’s our intellectual part of the brain, that’s like the rider. Then there’s the emotional reactive side of us, that’s like the horse. You can read about this. Several books talk about this concept. The idea here is often times, we go through life like this man on the horse, that’s running full speed and we don’t know where it’s going. We don’t even know … The worse part is we think we’re in control, but the horse is the one that’s deciding where we go and at what speed. This would be an example of living in a reactively. Habitually reactive state of living. The sense of freedom, again, has to do with that space in between the stimulus and the response, where we actually have the power to choose our response.
Imagine again being cut off. You’re driving. You get cut off by another car and then imagine if the story’s different. The story this time is that there’s a person in the back who’s been injured. They’re trying to get to the hospital as quickly as they can. They couldn’t wait for the ambulance so here they are, speeding on the road. The story changes, but the circumstances have not changed, right? You’ve just been cut off. There’s reality. That’s what is. The story around what is may have changed and that changes everything, right? Now in this scenario, you’d be thinking everybody get out of the way. You’re rooting for this person to get to the hospital as quickly as possible. Yet, the reality of what happened is identical to the previous story. The only difference is the story around it is now different. We do this in life all the time. All the time, we go through life, things are happening, life presents something and then we make meaning of it, and we give it a story and inside of that story, is the suffering that we’re going to experience.
Think about the ways that we go through life creating stories around outside of the reality of what’s happening. There’s a zen story that kind of eludes to this concept and the idea is that you’re to imagine that you’re a fisherman and you’re out on the river fishing and you decide to lay down in your boat. Take a little nap or just relax for a minute. While you’re laying in your boat, you hear this loud thud on the boat. You sit up and you turn around and you realize another fisherman’s boat has crashed into your boat. There’s a hole in your boat. What kind of reaction you’re going to have. Typically, you’re gonna be upset thinking, “This idiot fisherman crashed his boat into mine.”
Then, they replay the scenario and ask you to imagine your the fisherman. You’re out on the river and you decide to lay down and rest, or take a nap, and then you hear the thud and you sit up. You immediately turn and realize a log has floated on the river and collided with your boat. The scenario and the outcome is the same. Your boat now has a little hole in it. The difference is that in one scenario, what you feel can be anger towards the scenario. Thinking, “Okay, well that stinks.” Because it was just a log, there’s not a story behind it. With the person in the other boat, you’re creating meaning right away. This person does not pay attention. This person is careless. All the … It doesn’t matter whether or not the story is true, the point is that inside of the story is where we contain the suffering around the event. What is is just what is, and then the story we create around what is determines how we feel about what is.
When you know that and when you can understand that that’s our natural tendency, then you can start to have this sense of freedom in between the stimulus and the response. This is the space that Viktro Frankl was talking about and it’s inside of that space that we can have the power to choose our response. When we can choose our response, we’re now longer being reactive. I kind of want to clarify that for a second, too, because this idea that okay, once I master this, I’ll never be reactive. That’s not accurate. Reactivity and emotions are a natural part of being human.
Let’s go back to the example of the man on the horse. Living reactively is you’re running somewhere and you don’t know. You’re not in control of that horse. If you tame the horse, you can have a good relationship where you decide where it goes. You’re essentially in control of that horse at all times, but if you’re out in the field and a snake comes out of the grass, that horse will get spooked and you’re going to have a good 10 to 15 seconds of scary, emotional reactivity where you’re actually not in control for that brief moment of time. The horse is going to jump, it’s gonna take however many steps back, it’s gonna do whatever it’s gonna do. It might even buck. Moments like that, you’re just hanging on for the ride, but that’s not the habitual state that you’re in. Reactivity versus habitual reactivity. What we’re trying to be free from is habitual reactivity. I hope you can distinguish the difference there because it’s a very big difference.
What’s crazy with us, going back to the original analogy of freedom, and imagining someone who’s in prison, that’s essentially us. The difference is that we are in our own prison where we are own jailers. We are the ones who hold ourselves captive and we don’t even realize it. What we’re held captive by is our beliefs, our conceptual truths that we believe in.
Pause at some point and just think of this. Empirical truth versus conceptual truth and what conceptual truths do I hang to, or hold to, or believe, that cause me suffering? Or cause others suffering? Analyze those. It’s a really powerful experience.
There’s a place where we can go where you can experience reality as it is and not have any of the habitual truths really effecting you too much. That’s in nature. I love to experience being in nature, and I think the reason why … I’ve thought about this a lot … I think the reason why is when we’re out in nature, we are experiencing reality as it is. There’s no pretending. Trees are just trees. Flowers are just flowers. Birds are just birds. Everyone, everything’s what it is. It’s just free to be what it is, doing whatever it does; and we get to be there and we get to experience that.
It’s kind of absurd to imagine being in nature and enjoying the scenery and thinking, if that mountain were ten degrees less steep, then this might be an ideal portrait for me. Or if that tree was five feet over in that other direction, now maybe this landscape would look nice. We don’t do that in nature, because there’s no need to. It’s one of the places where we can go and we can experience reality as it is and take it all in without assigning meaning to any of it. Furthermore, it does the same back to us. When we’re out there, nature allows us to be what we are, to be who we are. You don’t hear the birds chirping and then they change there song because sorry you wore a red jacket and you were supposed wear a yellow jacket out here. There’s none of that. You get to experience reality as it is and reality gets to accept us just as we are and that’s why it feels so good to be there. That’s my theory at least.
All that goes away as soon as we’re around people though, right? Because now people have conceptual truths and inside of these conceptual truths, you do have things like, “Why are you wearing that red jacket? I told you to wear your yellow jacket. Or you look better in your yellow jacket. Or why are you even wearing a jacket? It’s warm out here. I’m not cold, why are you wearing” … You know, you get all these crazy things that start to happen where there’s no freedom. The sense of freedom … The freedom to be who you are can be diminished when you’re around other people, but it’s the same thing that we do to others.
The ultimate sense of freedom that we can give to someone else is the freedom to allow them to just be who they are. That’s also the ultimate sense of freedom that we can extend to our yourselves is the freedom to allow ourselves to just be who we are. That’s a lot easier said than done. The reason that it’s hard is because of our conceptual truth. The conceptual truths that we believe in bind us, very much like the golden chain or like the iron chain, whether they’re good or bad. That’s the ultimate sense of freedom here and I wanted to wrap this up with one more thought. It’s my favorite parable and I know I’ve talked about this before earlier in another podcast episode but it’s the parable of the horse.
The parable of the horse goes like this … There’s an old man who’s out in the field farming and a horse shows up. His neighbor comes running over and he says, “How fortunate for you, you have a horse, and it came out of no where.” The old man just says, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” and he goes about doing his thing. Puts the horse in the corral. Later that night, [00:22:35] in the morning, he comes out and discover the corral is broken and the horse has disappeared. The neighbor comes running over and he says, “How unfortunate. How unfortunate for you, you had a horse and now you don’t.” The old man simply says, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” He goes about doing his thing. Later in the day the horse comes back with four additional horses and he takes the horses, puts them in the corral, fixes the corral, the neighbor comes running over. “How fortunate for you. Your horse has come back and it’s brought additional horses.” He just says, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” He goes about doing his thing.
Then the next day … His son is out working with the horses, trying to tame the horse so that he can use it in the field. He falls off the horse and he breaks his leg. The neighbor comes running over and says, “How unfortunate. Your only son … Your only source of help in the field has broken his leg. So unfortunate.” The old man simply replies with, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” and goes about doing his thing. The next day the army comes into town and they’re conscripting all the youth, and they can’t take the farmer’s song because he has a broken leg so they leave him, they take everyone else, including the neighbor’s son. The neighbor comes running over and he says, “How fortunate for you that your son had broken his leg.” and then goes on with his normal routine and pauses and just says, “You know, who knows what is good and what is bad.” and goes back to his house.
The moral of the story here … I think sometimes the misunderstanding with this is to think as we go through life we just don’t care. We don’t care about things. Who knows what is good, who knows what is bad. That’s not what we’re talking about here and I clarify this in my podcast about acceptance versus resignation. This is not an active resignation to life as it is. This is an active acceptance of life as it is. The sense of freedom in this parable comes from the old man who’s not bound by assigning meaning to things. That’s the freedom.
The reactivity is there. That parts there. I have no doubt that when his son falls and breaks his leg, this old mans thinking, “Oh no, my poor son, you’re in pain, let me help you; or when the horse first showed up, it’s like, “Woohoo, a horse!” Then it left the next morning. “Oh dang it, the horse is gone. Oh well.” That’s the difference, the oh well. I go about doing what I need to do and not attach to things, and even worse, I’m not making meaning of things. The old man in this parable is not making meaning of things and that’s what the neighbors constantly doing, assigning meaning. This is fortunate. This is unfortunate.
Everything that goes along with making meaning, that is our habitual reactivity. The sense of freedom comes, again, between the stimulus and the response. There’s a space and in that space, is our power to choose our response. This is exemplified in the story, this parable of the old man, where he can choose his response. He doesn’t have to be bound by his habitual reactivity and making meaning to things.
That’s the sense of freedom I wanted to talk about in this podcast episode. I think the ultimate source of freedom that we can extend to someone is the freedom to be who they are. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “We must love others in a way that they feel free.” I think that’s the sense of freedom he’s talking about here. The freedom to love someone without the conceptual constraints that I would put on someone because of my beliefs. I love you except … I love you but … If you were just this, or if you were not that … Or if you were … Those are the conceptual truths that bind us, and freedom transcends our conceptual truths, and allows us to have the freedom to allow ourselves to be the way we are, to allow others to be the way that they are, and to just love in a way that feels free. That’s why I wanted to talk about this topic: freedom.
Like with all my podcast episodes, if this is a topic that you’ve enjoyed, I would love to interact with you on our Facebook study group. If you just search for Secular Buddhism, you can find it there. I’ll have a link to it on our … On secularbuddhism.com … or on the Secular Buddhism Facebook page, that’s easy to find as well too. If you enjoyed this podcast, please feel free to share it. Give it a rating in Itunes, that really helps. Just feel free to reach out to me. I love talking about this stuff and I look forward to another topic next week. Thanks.
One more thought before I end the podcast. I’ve been working with a couple of other companies on developing an idea around doing some retreats. I’ve been really interested for quite some time to put together either workshops, like part-day or full-day workshops, where we explore topics about mindfulness or meditation, and learn as a group in a workshop type setting, and also doing retreats. One of the retreats that we’re discussing is actually a really exciting one. It would be a week, or even two week, long retreat going somewhere like Africa, Uganda specifically. Where we would have the … Part of the retreat, we’re teaching the foundations of mindful living in the evenings but then during the day, we’re doing experiential work with humanitarian projects. Whether that be working on building schools, digging wells, interacting with the local communities providing a hands-on help to different programs that are involved in villages in Uganda.
I’m really interested in gaging what kind of interest there is. If we were able to open this up for 10, 15, or even 20 people to do … I’d love to gage your interest, so if attending a retreat like that, or even just a shorter workshop is of interest to you, please visit secularbuddhism.com/retreats. There’s a form you can feel out there that will help me to gage what kind of interest there is, and if there’s enough interest and this is something I’d like to maybe put together as a retreat going and learning the conceptual understanding of Secular Buddhism taught in courses, but also the experiential hands-on aspect of it. Actually doing humanitarian work in Uganda. This would be probably late January or early February, but go on there and express your interest on secularbuddhism.com/retreats. That will help me to gage what kind of retreats we should put together. I look forward to doing something like that with several of you. Let me know if you have any questions. Thanks again. Until next time.