There’s a classic conundrum, sometimes used as a test, perhaps for employment or as a psychological evaluation. On the table in front of you is a glass that has some water in it. You are asked whether you think the glass is half full or half empty. Supposedly, theoretically, your choice – or viewpoint – tells of your predisposing attitude. If you respond that the glass is half full, you are optimistic and see things in terms of abundance. If you respond that the glass is half empty, you are predisposed to pessimism and see things in terms of what’s lacking. I first saw this question when I was a child, it was posed as a TV commercial for the Peace Corps. The point was that if you were an optimistic type person, the Peace Corps was for you.
Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to put a person into a “box” based upon this type of evaluation. We all, at different times in our lives, will view the glass and water differently. When a hard-coded evaluation is made, it binds us to a personal judgement, puts us into a “box”, so to speak. It takes away a piece of our freedom. Once we’re labeled, or label, one way or another, we’re thought of, or we think of ourselves, as being predisposed to that trait. Few people, once in that “box”, learn to escape it.
If we look deeply, deeper than the labels we’re accustomed to, we will see that there is a vessel of some type on the table. That vessel has a certain amount of clear liquid inside. Those are the basic facts that we’re facing. The vessel is obviously man made, we call it a glass for convenience. The liquid, being clear, could be any number of types, straight from Nature or not. Beyond these most basic facts, and without further examination, all the rest is contained within our thoughts. The conclusions we come to are typically projections based upon previous experience.
These evaluations, judgements, and conclusions are what we – our psychological selves – are made of. Oftentimes they’re inherited, or learned behaviors, of some sort. We often work diligently to free ourselves of the ones that we don’t want, those which cause us pain or distress. We seek to be free from something. This is relative freedom. I’ve always had a difficult time accepting the limitations implied in relative freedom. Accordingly, if we look deeper, at the entire cycle and interaction of these opposites, we can see that there is another form of freedom, one that is to not be bound to the cycle itself. True Freedom is to be unbound. Freedom from one side of something, typically in moving to a different vantage point, is different, and it can often be an entry point to another form of being bound.
Looking at things deeply, in terms of only the basic elements or objects involved, can be an existential rabbit hole. Indeed, existential philosophy has the proclivity to put one into a sad and dire frame of mind. However, a more wholesome viewpoint of life itself, and most of what is contained therein, shows that Ultimate Good is possible, even prevalent. Whether I look at any or each of the pieces, and label them as good or bad, is a personal affair. However, that Life is, and what it is to us, is ultimately Good. It’s best to not fall into the darkness and obscurity of mere objects as they appear before us. It’s more wholesome to remain with the larger picture, the Totality of Life itself. This has been called Peacefulness, Serenity, and equanimity.
Sometimes, even often, the movement into true Freedom involves looking deeply into, and being patient and persistent with, that which binds and enslaves us to one side of an interaction. In other words, say I want to quit smoking, or any other form of destructive habit. In wanting to be free of the smoking habit, some people just switch to another habit, perhaps gambling or over-eating. This is not true freedom, it’s relative freedom. True Freedom is to not be bound to any of these habits. Depending on how deeply entrenched the habit has become, it may take some time, patience, and consistent effort to look into the deeper roots of the habit. However, once done, there comes an awareness of the point at which engaging the habit is seen as a conscious choice. At that point, it’s possible to not make the choice, or to make a different choice, hopefully one more healthy and constructive. It may take quite some time and effort to free the energy that’s been invested in the habit to see why it’s there and change the choice.
How does this apply to my current endeavor, hiking the Appalachian Trail? Perhaps you’re wondering if I have too much time to think while on this journey. That part is true. However, common among hikers, one of the challenges of the trail, is to maintain a focused state of mind. Many hikers let thoughts of home dominate them while they’re out here. When they get home, they let thoughts of the trail seep back in, and they wonder if they did the right thing by quitting the hike. I don’t like to let either of these “rabbit holes” win. The truth for me is that every morning I wake up, before me are a pair of boots and a pack. The trail stretches onward, upward over mountains and downward into bogs. I exercise the freedom of choice to don the boots, load and hoist the pack, and step into the trail. I’m free in making those choices, despite challenges or setbacks, because I’ve stepped toward a life long dream. I’ve always wanted to spend an extended time in Nature. And by renewing that choice, I remain unbound by that which is not on my path today.
In a given situation, True Freedom is not dependent on whether you can move into or out of that situation or not, it’s about what you make that situation into with your thoughts. The old saying “One person’s ceiling is another person’s floor” fits, in that what one person sees as freedom another sees as slavery. That would be relative freedom in action. True Freedom sees either approach as an equally valid choice.
In a second post on this topic, I’ll address emotional freedom. I’ll close with a quote from the late Krishnamurti: “The ability to observe without evaluation or judgement is the highest form of intelligence.”