Living as a Free Human Being by Alan Clements
Being true to oneself confronts the status quo of our own fear, and whatever external circumstances onto which we project that fear. Only when I am really myself on the deepest, most dignified level, do I grow and change. I have slowly discovered that I am my own best teacher. My compass is my conscience. My instincts are my best friend. And they are always there. Dharma intelligence is another way of talking about conscience mixed with courage, compassion, and instincts. Dharma intelligence is a natural quality of trusting your deepest experience—a core knowing beneath personas and defenses and stories of loss or fear, beneath every compromising trick of the mind and veil of self-deception. Dharma intelligence is an intuitive flow of liberating presence that keeps freeing us every day, every way. That’s being true to oneself. That’s attuning to one’s instinct for freedom.
Meditation taught me that no two moments of perception are the same. Henry Miller said, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” The flowering of the heart, of freedom, is the same.
The essence of freedom is naturalness. That means that no two of us find liberation the same way. No two of us will “be natural” in the same way. Watch yourself dance and you’ll see what I mean. Look at the way you write. Or smile. Or walk. Or talk. Uniqueness is the quality that makes freedom so fragrant. That’s the challenge for the ten thousand employees working in front of a computer at Microsoft, or the thousands of workers on an assembly line at General Motors, or the millions of faithful Buddhist monks and nuns living around the world. “No work is insignificant,” Martin Luther King said, reminding us of the power of fusing dignity, naturalness, and freedom. “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence. If a man is called to be a street-sweeper, he should sweep the streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep the streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say: ‘Here lived a great street-sweeper who did his job well.’’’
Freedom begins as an approach that can open us to another way of living altogether. Freedom is willing to take risk. “Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious,” wrote Rumi. He was a mystical outlaw who refused to be embedded in the concrete of conformity. In the same way, by being true to her innate dignity and beauty, Rosa Parks snapped a lot of white people out of the conforming trance of their racial prejudice. My teachers in Burma were inner pioneers. The demonstrators in Tiananmen Square were heroes and heroines of freedom. Martin Luther King gave us all a reason to dream. What will it be?
Living the revolutionary life has its risks. And yes, there are numerous obstacles that keep one from going for it —from embracing one’s calling or compromising the pace of its expression.
Some will call going after your dreams fanciful thinking. Others will sneer, and try to dress you up in their own negative self-image, calling you self-indulgent, hinting that you’re not talented enough to achieve your aim. Clearly, we do not need to conform to someone else’s definition of us, nor hide in the neurotic comfort of another’s projection. It is my belief that if we really want something from our lives, we’ve got to go for it—give it our best and make it happen.
People often tell me that they do not know who they are or what it is that ignites their soul. “How do I know the real me,” they ask, “the most authentic, passionate expression of my innermost being?” I believe that each of us have a special talent, a unique gift, a skill, a strength that is our very own, whatever it may be. However deep it may be buried, no matter how unclear it may be in the moment, the fact remains—a treasure is in your chest. The spiritual journey, ongoing spiritual practice, should be in part this continuing awakening to our passions. If you are daring enough, willing to struggle, listen to the truth of your most compelling inner voices, you’ll find them.
Of course, everything has its own time. There can be urgency, but life can’t be rushed. In that sense, life must feed itself. As Gandhi said, “Victory is in the struggle itself.” But struggle is not the only thing that life has to offer. Sure, life hurts, but it has been my experience that after we’ve learned all that we can from the hardship and the pain—after we’ve hurt and cried and ranted long enough—we get back to the beautiful business of making our dream come true.
The spiritual life should not be mistaken for a totalitarian imagination where one style fits all. There is no look that one should adopt. Humans are divine beings, not entities to program into automatons, or manufacture as mannequins that serve the needs of the elite. Slavery, forced or self-induced, is a crime. The Dharma frees one from that which is folded, for the same reason as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke stated: “for where I am closed I am false.”
Finding our liberation through living involves deep personal trust in the inherent rightness of our humanness and our natural intelligence. We are not concerned with angling toward or away from any one state or the other, whether it be silence or sound, movement or stillness, being or doing, freedom or bondage, the personal or the transpersonal. Natural freedom embraces our broken human wholeness, and consciously stops attempting to synchronize with perfection. The most perfect people inevitably have the narrowest outlooks. Self-images are like that. Even the most transparent are suits of armor. Like cellophane, you can see through them, but unless you unwrap from them you can’t get out.
The Dharma also allows us to become undone. What would be the point of liberation if it didn’t free us—to create, to be ourselves, to be real, to enjoy the divinity of this remarkable world that we are just waking up to? With natural freedom we come to really know that even mistakes, even breakdowns, are preferable to artificial behavior. We know the importance of imagination, of creativity. We know the importance of openness—not settling on conclusions about wholeness, awakening, freedom.
The Dharma requires only a resounding trust in the inherent sanctity of our being. There are so many ways to enhance the dance—ways to stretch, push ourselves, release contraction, relax struggle, engender humor, and interrelate with greater wisdom. The Dharma is a metaphor for freedom, not a doctrine that can be memorized and followed step by step. While some forms of dance follow rules, the Dharma plays on the floor of infinite moves.
Live your life and struggle to be who you want to be. This is my best philosophical and spiritual advice about how to find liberation. There is no higher Dharma outside of this. It is up to each of us to be as creative and gutsy as we can—willing to make life as profound as we can. The most radical spirituality is living as a free human being. And that freedom is ours to choose. Freedom cannot be bought. Freedom cannot be sold to us. Freedom doesn’t come prepackaged. There is no right expression of this freedom. If in need of clarity about the wisdom or ignorance of an action, reflect: if what you are about to say or do will cause harm to yourself and or others, stop. On the other hand if it elevates you and others, cultivate it.
We must be vigilant in our defense against indoctrination. Do not let anyone shape you in the image of his or her dogma. Don’t even let teachers call you their student, unless that’s what you want. Rather, be on equal footing, and learn from each other. There is no ultimate teaching to learn. Existence is the Dharma. Consciousness is the teacher. Life is the living art of finding and expressing liberation. There is no core philosophy that will free your mind. Being free frees the mind. Freedom is the only religion and it’s where all true religions meet.
What fashions itself between spontaneous local beauty and the innate intelligence of the cosmos is the interrelated fabric of our social and political world. In order to discover the Dharma life that suits us, we must each come alive to the inner responsibility that our self as social and political being entails. This means opening our eyes to the world that surrounds us—from the inequities and misfortunes that force people to live on the streets of our neighborhoods to the blind logic of aggressive militarization that global powers are currently forcing upon distant nations and millions of innocent lives. We should not turn away from that suffering.
But witnessing is not enough. We must discover the conviction that declares the difference between right and wrong, the difference between status quo and making things better. It is our task, right now, to find the inner certainty and direction to commit our whole beings to bringing about the best natural freedom has to offer us as neighbors.
There’s no central plan of action for the next bold move. Let the mysterious constellation of the whole universe, inside and outside, be your guide, your guru, and your ultimate teacher.
Alan Clements is the author of Burma: The Next Killing Field?, (co-author) Burma's Revolution of the Spirit, The Voice of Hope - Conversations with Burma's Noble laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and Instinct for Freedom: Finding Liberation Through Living (New World Library 2002).