Freedom: An Illusion

Freedom: An Illusion

Do you think you are free? Why do you think this? Does this title anger you? Bother you? Not concern you at all? My contention is, as inflammatory as it may sound, the vast majority of us are not free.

We have rationalizations for why we disagree with this statement. Of course we’re free, of course I can move and think and say what I wish to, I have perfect freedom. Depending on the country in which we live, we might feel more or less of this type of freedom. In extreme situations, we may feel we only have freedom of thought. However, most persons from North America and Europe fall into the “I have freedom” category.

Let’s put these convictions to the test. How do you answer these questions, yes or no?

  • I can change my job / career at any time. I have the freedom to choose the work I desire. I never make the excuse of ignorance, limitations, or ability.
  • I can attend a meeting or visit with a friend or make time for a hobby any time I would like. I never use the excuse of “I’m too busy.”
  • I choose my own beliefs and my own thoughts about how I will act, think, or be from now on. I never use the excuse of “this happened to me in my past.”
  • I can speak whatever I’d like to speak, and voice that opinion publicly and to whom I choose. I never censor myself in front of others for any reason.

While not everyone has all of these float to their consciousness, I am guessing that at least one of these statements brought a rebuttal to your mind, if not lips. It’s easy to dismiss these statements in our own minds. I have children, and I can’t possibly make time for a hobby ahead of my children. I can’t change my manufacturing job into a tech job because I don’t know the first thing about computers. I am always afraid of water because I never learned to swim. I am nervous about flying because of airplane crashes. I have no money, so I cannot leave this town/home/relationship.

slave-to-your-emotionsWe move through our daily life wrapped in chains. These chains are mental, physical, and emotional chains; visible and invisible, they are equal in their grasp. This is one of the tenants of Freemasonry – that the applicant must be free of mind, body, and soul. But, really, who is free? It is because we can deceive ourselves that we might even apply to an organization that requires freedom. We believe ourselves to be totally and utterly free. However, if you rebutted any of the statements above, with a “well, but….” you are not free.

This might seem very black and white to some; I do not mean it to be so. I believe Freedom is a journey, and not too far off of the journey of our lifetimes. The search for that which is greater than ourselves is a journey of Freedom, is it not? Most of us live with those chains, in fear, without even thinking about it. We worry so much about the oppressor that we fail to see that the oppressor is ourselves, the things that truly hold us back. Perhaps we can look at the “oppressor” in another way.

I began doing Crossfit (a type of very intense physical weight, endurance, and cardio training) about thirteen years ago. I was not very active before that but I also prided myself on being able to ensure pain, push myself, and move forward through tough exercise and enjoy the success. I began doing the circuits and our trainer continued to increase the intensity. On one particularly gruelling day, we did a circuit of five activities, the last of which was rowing for 1500 meters. We did the circuit three times. Last circuit, last activity, rowing, I was exhausted. I kept telling myself in my head that I couldn’t do it, that I couldn’t make the time. I remember gasping for air, pushing myself to the point of feeling like I was going to throw up right there all over the machine. About 2/3 of the way through, I realized that I had been telling myself that I couldn’t do it. I changed the dialogue, revised the message, telling myself that of course I could do it, that the pain was temporary, and that there wasn’t anything stopping me except my mind. I shifted gears in my brain. It felt almost like a literal shift of gears, as I pushed on to the end. I never threw up. I sweated like a pig, but I made it. I had achieved the goal.

I realized then and there that I was in chains. I was not free and that my own mind had created the illusion that chained me. I could choose differently, if I learned a different way. If I expanded my mind. If I opened to experience.

Choice. That is the activity which binds us. It is also an illusion.

We choose every day. We choose to get up, to go to work, to feed ourselves, to shower, to help our children, to educate ourselves: we choose to do everything we do. We choose to eat cereal when we know that an egg is better for us, because we chose an easier path. We didn’t want to dirty a pan. We didn’t want to take the time. This cereal is good enough. It will be fine. We humans are master rationalizers. We rationalize that we have a choice in the matter when, in fact, we’re really moving to the universal law of entropy. In 1803, Lazare Carnot said, “in any natural process there exists an inherent tendency towards the dissipation of useful energy.” Humans fit nicely into this category.

What we once call choice falls, eventually, to what we deem binding. I have heard the argument time and again that children preclude certain activities. Focusing on education precludes certain activities. “I can’t” is either the response of the enslaved individual or one who has forgotten that he or she has made the choice that put them on their path. What we put first in our lives is that which we deem important. Let’s face it – when you choose to be with one person and shun another, you deem the first person more important to you than the second. Choices involve priorities. There isn’t shame in it. Yet don’t deny it, either. Should your choices be to the exclusion of all else that makes up our lives? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Do you believe you have the freedom to decide? Can you make that choice? Can you live with it and embrace it, without shame or fear of judgment? Priorities change. Can you understand where the chains are, and free them?

freedom2I think humans believe that freedom and choice are linked, and that freedom equates to having a choice. Maybe this is true, and maybe it is not. Here I will contradict myself. I believe that in the paths of our lives, we choose different roads because of who we are at that time. That experience in and of itself forms our destiny. In this, when we choose, we really have no freedom because we are not free from ourselves. We are who we are. If we could do something differently, we would have. We would have chosen differently. We blame parents for not treating us a certain way or teaching us to be different in the world. Yet, they did what they were able to do. If they could have chosen differently, they would have. They are who they are because of their choices.

We are who we are, and when we come to the door of Freemasonry, at the porch with pillars and high, lofty virtues, we think we have made the choice to be there. We believe that when presented with the option of Freemasonry, we have decided to apply. I say that somewhere, the authors of the application process laugh. They know that the applicant is not truly free but that he has some inking and spark of what it means to be free, and perhaps the knowledge that he is not free but seeking. We are bound by who we are and who we are is a result of the choices we make. When you choose the path of your destiny, you’re all in. There is no turning back, no do-overs. As Joseph Campbell said, “Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative.” Freemasonry is an initiatory, life-changing path. When you arrive at the door, either you are ready or you’re not. The person that shows up is presented a new destiny, if they are ready to take it.

PolarityWe humans get very stressed over the “right” path to take. Do we step forward? Do we step sideways? The core of the decision lies within who we are. Do we know that person? Do I understand what motivates, inspires, and enlivens the inner me? Do I truly know myself? Most of us say yes, when the answer is really no. We do not have the courage to embrace our life path and shake off what isn’t us. We circle back, again, to small choices. Rationalizations. The truth that we are truly not free. Freedom really isn’t about choices, I think, but about knowing yourself and being honest with yourself. It is about allowing your choices to be sometimes incorrect, learning, adjusting, and succeeding in whatever you do. Freedom is knowing what you are, owning what you are, and knowing that you cannot be any different than you are. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Is the Freemason free? Yes, because he knows that he is not.

The Masonic Pursuit of Freedom

The Masonic Pursuit of Freedom

What makes a Freemason free? I started brooding over this question one day when wondering which word is better to use, “Freemason” or “mason.” Is one term more correct? Historically, the distinction is said to be a carry-over from the medieval period of the stone masons. In a grammatical sense, both terms are used interchangeably today. Like any word, I guess you can speculate more about their deeper meanings, if you are so inspired.

Anyway, as sometimes happens, a smaller question led to bigger ones. 

What is freedom? How is it important to a Freemason?

The concept of freedom is difficult to understand because it can work in mysterious ways from within out; it is not imposed from the outside. Rosa Parks was not protesting so that she could be free, nor was Mahatma Gandhi in prison waiting for someone to anoint him with an elixir of freedom. In their hearts and minds. they were already free!

Freedom means many things to different people. Some philosophers call freedom a principle, a law, or a right. It can be defined from various perspectives like economic, social, political or religious. Freedom has also been said to be a state of mind or even a state of being when a person is liberated from the “tomb of matter.” There are a select few who don’t believe it exists at all.

Regardless of how we define it, most would agree that freedom is part of our approach to life. The very ideas such as freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom of choice all have become the very water and air of our societies. These freedoms are highly prized.

The American Declaration of Independence tells us:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Is, then, the instinctual striving toward freedom and the pursuit of happiness inherent in all human beings?

The Pursuit of Happiness by Aristotle

The great philosophers in earlier centuries had a huge impact about how we think about these types of questions today. More than anyone else, Aristotle enshrined happiness as a central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. I read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics years ago before becoming a Freemason and adopted it as much of my own personal philosophy. In the lectures he presents a theory of happiness that has carried through all my years as a mason which says a lot.

Aristotle sought to answer the most fundamental questions you can ask yourself. What is the highest good of human existence? What is the highest good achievable by action?

Aristotle suggests that human existence is an activity of soul in accordance with virtue. To understand the nature of happiness or “eudaimonia,” as he called it, we must investigate the nature of virtue.

As Aristotle puts it:

“If happiness is in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be that of the best thing in us.”

Now, I thought the conclusion that Aristotle comes to after his lecture on virtue is very interesting. He says that none of the moral virtues are inherent in human nature. For example, the moral virtues, such as fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence, can only be attained through practice and habitual action. Essentially, his line of thinking is that happiness comes from virtue, and then virtue comes from  freedom of choice. He says that “to entrust to chance what is greatest and most noble would be a very defective arrangement.”

statue-of-liberty-1746808_960_720Choices, as he defines them, are the things that can be brought about by one’s own efforts. Responsible choices are the ones that provide the greatest good for the greatest number. The freedom of choice is an essential component in the formula to happiness and consequently to becoming more “free.”

Which aspects, then, of freedom are most immediately identifiable to a freemason?

The “Free” Mason

In the writings of Manly P. Hall, we find many ideas that are in sync with Aristotle. When a mason passes through the door of the Temple and takes his seat, he has made a choice to let his entire nature be subjected to a drastic discipline of ethical training. By development of virtues, he advances in the Craft.

Manly Hall writes in The Candidate:

“There comes a time in the growth of every living individual thing when it realizes with dawning consciousness that it is a prisoner. It is at this point that man cries out with greater insistence to be liberated from the binding ties which, though invisible to mortal eyes, still chain him with bonds far more terrible than those of any physical prison.”

soul-2698886_960_720One can only speculate what Hall meant by the binding ties that chain him. 

What is the candidate being liberated from? Perhaps it could be said that the candidate is a slave to his dogmas and ideologies. He may be further tainted by the dynamics of power and profit. When a person is liberated from the prisons of ignorance and vice, then the attainment of greater freedom is automatic. There’s a greater purpose to life than the egotistic individual who is running the show.

Hall writes again:

“The eternal prisoner awaits the day when, standing upon the rocks that now form His shapeless tomb, He may raise His arms to heaven, bathed in the sunlight of spiritual freedom, free to join the sparkling atoms and dancing light-beings released from the bonds of prison wall and tomb.”

As Hall expresses, to be released from the bonds of prison wall is not a simple task. As Aristotle emphasized, it is easier to miss the mark than to hit it. For this reason, “right conduct is rare and praiseworthy and noble.” Freedom comes from examining everything in the light of whether it comes from an inner truth, or from a reaction to outer things.

In the end, why is it so hard to align with that inner truth? I say that maybe it’s much harder to hold out against it.

“Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.”  ~ George Washington

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