The Freedom of Restraint

Freedom, in the meditation traditions, is often referred to as the freedom of restraint, a freedom not to do what one desires. This is a paradox – and it is certainly counterintuitive in a culture that fights against restrictions and limitations of any type. Many people would say that freedom means freedom to do anything in any way at any time. I am free, one might think, if I can do whatever I want.

The vastly different perspectives come from how one understands what might limit one’s freedom. We live in a world where our freedom is seen as limited by external factors – repressive powers, rules, or conditions. And indeed, our struggles to insure basic rights and freedoms is a part of our movement toward true humanity and sane co-existence.
Yet with mindfulness we can see that there may be a deeper level of freedom, and unexpected sources of limitation. We can begin to explore how much of our time is ruled by aggression and desire, and how easily we are captivated by moment to moment changes in our minds. At the mercy of aggression and desire, we are not free. Lost in our stories, we are not free. Endless amount of material fulfillments will not free us.

Freedom is experienced when we are free not to follow the infinite and exhausting demands that mind presents to us. Freedom reveals itself when we discover that we are not our minds and we are not our desires. This is the freedom of restraint. Some mindfulness teachers compare this to coming out of the scorching sun into the cool shade of a tree. In the cool clarity of wisdom and restraint, we find a peace and joy that is the true mark of freedom.

Our Endless Stream of Thoughts

One of our biggest challenges well might be how to deal wisely and compassionately with the endless stream of thoughts that our minds produce.  Jack Kornfeld, in his book The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, calls this stream the Waterfall.

We must learn some things about this waterfall that are at first not obvious.  First, it is not an accurate representation of ‘reality’.  What seems to us a description is more like a distorting lens that turns our perceptions into installments in our ongoing story.  And second, perhaps the true foundation of wisdom and compassion, is the recognition that this stream of thought is not who we are.  These thoughts are not our identity, we do not own them, and we do not produce them.

As this understanding deepens, we can compassionately question our thoughts and return to the presence of this moment.

The waterfall is not a problem – its presence is part of our humanity. What is missing is a clear understanding of its nature and the compassionate skill to embrace the stream of thoughts without getting swept away.