The Paradox of Freedom
This is a whopper of an article, or an essay, that I originally wrote for my book, titled The Cosmos & Our True Self. So if you don’t have the patience to read it in one sitting, I’ll understand. It was seven pages long in the book.
I often wonder how does one know when they are truly free. A sensible person would reply that the more you can do, the more freedom you have. But the more you ponder that answer the more it makes another side to it apparent which is that the more you have to do in life to get by, the less freedom you actually have. So which is it? The following is an attempt to describe the paradox regarding the concept of freedom.
To put the paradox into one phrase it simply boils down to this: The more you do, the less free you are to do. All right. Maybe I have to explain that a little more thoroughly. So here it goes.
There is a massive project brewing called ‘order’ that is taking the world by a storm. Everything has to be properly managed, organized, scrubbed, cleaned, kept in line, patched up and being controlled. And the more order you have, that is control, the less freedom people tend to have.
As an example take airports. Airport security is a grim business these days. And innocent people are more inclined to kept getting thoroughly checked out at them, because of this massive cultural panic about dangers in the airport. In other words, it’s getting more and more likely at being scanned and prodded for no reason at all.
Another fine example of this is of course the fantastic amount of surveillance technology being deployed all around. Cameras and facial recognition in every street corner and stores, companies tracking and following their users through their mobile devices through the microphones, cameras and software applications being used, medical databases to help keep the patient information all in one place and DNA databases to keep track of every individual down to every fibre of their being.
Large entities are enforcing their policies regarding the very source code you use every day to develop your programs or products. They need to make sure it’s their order, not yours. What do people think the End User License Agreement was created for? It’s for enforcing control. Period.
One of the funniest dichotomies in our society is when we are being told to be free. You must be free, you are ordered to. As Watts points it out, “you are part of a democracy and you have to be part of a democracy. Crazy.” And the price we pay for being more organized, more protected, is our declining freedoms in that system.
To quote Watts: “The best forms of governments that ever existed, are the ones that simply muddled through. A kind of controlled anarchy.” Because whenever the control within a system gets too much, that system will break down and set itself free. So it has always been.
But for the sake of argument let’s take this order thing to its final steps. We’re living in the middle of a full blown dystopia, surrounded by a kilometre thick graphite wall. Inside, we have a population under constant scanning, privacy transparency, living in a completely trapped existence. Everything is being controlled by a tyrant who won at the god game and is overseeing everything. But the plus side to this is, everything is completely safe and secure. Now, what is the point of being secure when it only serves the people at the very top, and gives everyone else fewer and fewer things to do freely? This is the problem of order.
One could take this another step further and say that everything that has to do with our every day biology is also systematic order that defines our very behaviour. Like the rhythms we have to take part in, such as eating periodically, taking a whizz, or sleeping every single night. Smart system, I must say, keeping us in line like that, eh? The list of disappearance of choices is endless from the stand point of the physical processes of nature.
But the argument that having more freedom means having more choices and options, is a fallacy. Take the act of making decisions. As Watts remarks once again, “when you have to decide something, you don’t first decide to decide. You just decide. And you do it. People who get called decisive are usually called that, because they don’t stop to decide. They simply grab something and make it happen. Because choice is not a form of freedom. In other words, what choice is, is simply the moment of hesitation one has before making a decision. Like some people when they are about to write something down, they dither the pen in a circly fashion above the paper, before writing.” Because they’re not too sure what to write. And this state of dithering is hardly synonymous with being free.
Now, in this day and age, this strikes as the most backwards thing to say. Because we live in a culture where the abundance of choices is synonymous with being free. And yet it is only an illusion of abundance. People don’t really get to decide what to watch on the television.
It’s collection of pre-selected channels and streaming services with a narrow selection of the most crappiest movies and series one can find. If this is the age of abundance then goodness help us. Now, of course there are exceptions.
It’s the same with news feeds. People don’t have much of a choice unless they know how to search for alternative sources. Otherwise their main narrative comes from the same few places. Or even some cases, only one. And it’s always the same few topics.
An experiment was conducted not two years ago where a decision to refrain from all news outlets was made. Just to get away from the constant anxiety these stories are designed to produce. And lo’ and behold, when a return was made, the topics were exactly the same as they were 6 months ago.
So what truly is freedom in the end is not the amount of events one can partake in, but the amount of events one can decide to not to partake in when necessary, freeing oneself to do what they really want to do. Because the more we do, the more it sparks more reactions, which compels us to do something about events following the previous events.
So it starts taking up all your spare time. It’s a diminishing of freedom. But it simply means that you have to redefine by what you mean by being free. You can play it both ways. This is just one point of view.
Now, I am not saying that people who have much to do in life are being fools that should do less. Maybe that’s their particular vocation in life, to experience as much as possible. I’m only saying that the very situation of having countless things to do, is in direct contradiction of being freed from things to do. But there is another side to this, which is that you can feel the same experience in two different aspects. You can either feel, that you are a helpless puppet, being pushed around by everything. Or equally, that you are actually doing everything. You are completely free.
If you ask me personally, I’d rather practice the art of doing absolutely nothing more often. The hallmark of being free. And people never seem to stop and think, or simply just watch what is it that is happening around them. They are much too busy getting as much stuff done in order to do something.
Sleeping is one thing, but doing nothing because you can, or rather, cannot do it is another thing. The point is that you can describe existence from these two polar opposite views but you’re talking about the same exact experience.
You see, there are those who liken existence to be a kind of trap. And those who instead considers it a dance, of all kinds of patterns. Which of them is more “correct” in perceiving the universe? Or is there a middle-ground to which both of them adheres to?
In seeing the world as a trap, it strikes me that that very word, suggests a lack of something. What is it, which makes us feel like we’re trapped, in the scheme of things? We tend to feel hostile to the world. We need to get out of its grips immediately, because if we have no control of what’s happening to us, it’s as if the entire universe was out to get us.
A thought also floats into my mind about this attitude being a precursor for a certain kind of person, who thinks that Heaven or Hell will be their reward after they die. That in this four scores and ten they have their only chance to decide their everlasting destination, of possibly failing lamentably as a genuine person. And this notion strikes me as absolutely ridiculous. There is no such thing as Hell, except that as a state of mind.
Now, in thinking that the reward comes some time later than now, is the big fallacy. Because, taking the simple illustration of expectancy. If you’re always living in the next moment, you will never experience the moment which counts. And so I would say that the “trap”, is always either keeping yourself under the guilt of the past, or in the worry about the future.
But what if it was flipped to its opposite? Of not experiencing like we’re in a system of entrapment, but that of free-floating play of energy? Well let’s take a look at this. If existence is a state of play, or a dance of patterns, how does the individual relate to that? Well, for one thing, the person would not grab too hard at things they know are going to fall apart.
In other words, in the analogy of the trap, the person takes things very, if not too seriously. But in this other point of view, since things are playful in their nature, obviously one does not take them too seriously.
And I think it’s very important to be able to view things not-so-seriously on occasion. The other side of it all being playful is that you can view everything in our world in terms of games. There’s the butterfly game, the zebra game, the platypus game, the flower game and so on and so forth. In fact, you can view the whole of society as a game. But this is a dangerous thing to do depending on what kind of a social, psychological and emotional background one comes from. If you have a “screw loose” in the wrong way, and you demonstrate your game-view of society by breaking its rules, you haven’t quite grasped the point on it.
People still hurt, and they suffer every day. And by undermining their hardship by putting it down, saying that it’s a game and metaphorically “shoving it” to them, shows that you don’t have empathy.
And so keeping all this in mind, there is indeed a very real possibility of the person in question misusing the game-view in a certain way. And yet, there is this chance of seeing it all being a play, where things are not too serious.
Most people when they hear the word game might think that it means it is something trivial. But when I use the word I mean it in a more profound sense. You wouldn’t call Bach playing the piano trivial entertainment now would you? And yet it is play. Saying it’s a game is not a way of putting life down.
Life is incredible to me, with all its patterns and sensations and experiences. But one can live on two levels at once, where on the one hand, we can get fascinated by the details of life very thoroughly. But then on another level we can be relaxed, take a step back and say to ourselves, relax, because it’s a game. We are here for kicks. Why? Because it’s fun.
And so I think a sensible middle-way for all this is seeing it at the same time as play, and a trap, in the sense that one is under the “hallucination” of the past-present-future timeline mode of thinking. And we all do that. Some of us do it more often than others. And for my part, I can say that I’m the more often ones. But I can still snap back to the present, not easily mind you, but sometimes, when I get too much into my own head.
Now the next thing that we have to take up is the problem of change, because that ties into why we generally feel like we’re trapped. There was a boy once, who said that the dumbest phenomenon in life is not that one cannot understand things, but the refusal to understand them.
So why do we have such a resistance to change? We seem to dislike anything that moves our perception away from what it is used to. Whether it is the weather or other people. We do not seem to enjoy transitions or modifications to our environment.
Our ego, that is to say, our centre field of our consciousness, or the “troubleshooter” function, is designed to select features from its perception which it deems noteworthy and disregards the rest. We then come to feel isolated from everything else. It does not see the relationship, only the individual points. And this is what keeps the ego oblivious to the rest of it.
Coupled with this is the tendency to settle for features we select that seem to be more consistent than things that are on the move. Because moving processes takes more time and work to analyse than relatively stationary processes, such as personalities in human beings. And so we feel safe with still objects, and insecure with moving objects.
The need for consistency stems from the fact that our ego is looking to the past for answers. The majority of the things we think during the day are events that have already been taken place. Because the past is something stationary, something that is simply there. So it is safe. But of course it is not there. Then we worry about the future based on these past events. We never stop and watch what is happening right now. Because the present moment is ever-changing. And this “reiteration” is what keeps the ego trapped in a never-ending cycle of self-entrapment.
We fear change because we know that part of it is witnessing our own decay. And the price for being alive is knowing that one day we simply cease to be. And every little shift in our so-called external world has as its hidden premise that it will move us to a more uncomfortable territory.
Why are we so afraid? There’s no need to be. If everything is an constant state of flux, and appears, disappears and reappears, it should give some clue as to what it is. It is a cycle. And it comes and it goes. This should not be seen as a bad thing by any case. After all, the transiency of life is part of its splendour. It wouldn’t be so magnificent were it not temporary.
Now, there are people who will argue that we have to “fix” nature’s decay, which is ridiculous. Because the problem is not a problem. Since the scientific naturalism of the 19th century, we have thought that we have to to not only beat nature into shape, we have to interfere with the physical processes themselves, and manipulate them to suit our needs. And this is very dangerous.
Obviously, we have to interfere with physical processes all the time, when for example we eat another being. But there’s a difference between doing something and forcing something. And this is very well understood in certain Far Eastern arts such as judo, or even in the art of sailing. Where you cooperate with the field of forces in which you find yourself. In other words, you use change to your advantage.
We are always playing with fundamentally two forces. One is called order, and the other is called randomness. And these always arise together. And yet human beings seem to exhibit distaste for randomness more often than they do for order. Because we like to design buildings in the form of boxes and rectangles, along with our furniture and the likes. Everything is made up of squares. Because we want symmetry, which nature seems to be missing out on.
The curious faculty of pattern recognition in our consciousness, is selective. And the way it selects is by exclusion. It excludes the unimportant and so we come to focus on the figures. But the figures can hurt us, so we look for security. Time for example holds no security whatsoever. And yet people use it in a way that gives the illusion that it does. That things will be better some time later.
And we use primarily time to keep track of changes in our environment. We can predict, or we can see what alterations were made in the past. That is observing change. And if it doesn’t tick regularly, we get uncomfortable. Because we become slaves to the clock. And we generally do not allow ourselves to simply observe change without a clock pointer attached to it.
So then. We resist change out of fear. Fear of the other side. But this other side is no other than us. It is the necessary counterpart for our inside. The fact that we don’t see it as such in the ordinary way, indicates that we are in some way asleep. And the way back to seeing this as such requires not only our presence of mind in the present moment, which is the only time that there is, it requires also our ability to withstand change. Because what change is, is the relative motion of everything else to the way you are.
And so we get to the final point, which is boredom. The quintessential human problem. The problem. Because when people get bored, they have to do something about it.
And this is how trouble begins. They have to make a move, away from their current predicament. So, they fill the void with food, alcohol, drugs, porn, internet or what have you. And this is how addiction basically works. It is the fear of emptiness.
Now, what exactly is the issue people have with themselves so that they can’t stand sitting alone quietly? Well, it is quite simply put, lack of something. The need to seek. Only, this is false seeking. Because, people are not actually missing anything. They only think they are.
And this society does not leave one without thinking that they are missing something. Take advertising. It is designed to make one want things that they don’t really need. The whole of economy depends on people wanting things that simply are not desirable. Some people spend their days shopping because otherwise they would be sitting at home with nothing to do.
The artificiality of consumer products is astounding. To paraphrase Watts: “Take ordinary store bought bread. It is not real bread. It is merely symbolic. It's a vague attempt to mimic what mama’s new bread smelled and tasted like, a squishy styrofoam blob injected with vitamins. It tastes of nothing like actual freshly baked and heated bread. Another example of this is instant coffee. It is a punishment for being in a hurry to get somewhere.”
Cars that look like they have rocket engines underneath the chassis, but which are really nothing of the kind, poorly made fabrics in clothes, electronic devices that break down right after purchase, the list goes on. They are simply not very well made. They’re a hoax, designed to grab the attention of the consumer and walk out with a ghastly substitute for real happiness.
Because, true happiness only comes from within. It is being completely with everything one experiences. And there is nothing missing from that. One already is the works. What there is. Only, perception itself is selective. It picks out things to the exclusion of many other things. And this leads to playing favourites. “This is desirable, that is not”. So, one cannot really blame this on society alone.
It is the way in which one sees the world, which determines their reactions to it. What one believes is what they see. And if one believes they are missing something, then they will see the situation as such. So this then is the essence of boredom. When one feels a lack, then they can be persuaded by anyone or anything to replace it with something. Whether it’s an object, sensation, philosophy or a religion, it does not matter.
And this is the reason why we become unable to feel free. Like we’re trapped. Because we think we are missing something. And so long as we rely on the scarcity fallacy among other things, we will never feel like we’re truly not lacking anything. But one could of course argue, that if we stopped seeking something, whatever it is, that we would stop doing things in general, and become inert, as I indicated at the beginning of the article. Doing nothing. But the difference between doing nothing and contemplation is the tremendous impact it has on you.
Because nothing is more productive than taking a sufficient break from concepts. Because it gives a breather from the one process which keeps us in the so-called trap. And whether the act of having a choice is a form of freedom, well, that’s anyone’s choice. For me it simply means selection out of specific options. True freedom is knowing who you are, and seeing it as a game, instead of a drag.
P.S. If I have the ability to choose between two options, that is of course more space in which to act than having only one choice. So it’s easy to make the distinction that there is something positive about that. But is it really the same thing as being free? Well what does that even matter? You’re given the choice. So take it. I’m choosing to eat pizza now. As always, don’t take it seriously. I’m just talking about a point of view.