The South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela spent 28 years in prison and endured hard labour, cramped living conditions, and abuse and cruelty from the prison guards. When eventually released, he achieved recognition and respect as a world leader. Among his many inspirational quotes, he said, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Freedom can be defined as the absence of compulsion, coercion, or constraint in our choice or action. In the western world, we are fortunate to live in relative freedom, which is all too easy to take for granted. Freedom is relative, personal and, as Nelson Mandela pointed out, also includes the freedom of others. We have relative economic freedom but still have to work to pay the bills. We have relative political freedom but may find that our vote does not always count. We have relative freedom of expression but find that it’s not always wise to speak out against the status quo. We have relative freedom of movement but may need to get a visa to visit certain countries. We have relative psychological freedom, but sometimes experience limiting thoughts and unpleasant feelings. Of all of these freedoms, it’s the ones that are closest to us, the thoughts and emotions that determine our relationship with the world and other people, that are the most relevant for mindfulness practice.
There are various estimates on how many thoughts we have in a typical day, from 25,000 to 70,000. Even if the former is true, that means our brain is like a busy city transport hub with thousands of passengers coming and going. No wonder we sometimes feel agitated and full of noise and stress.
Knowing that we are not our thoughts, mental freedom is about noticing:
- Where our attention is at any moment
- The difference between intentional and unintentional thinking
- Whether thoughts serve us and other people, or not
- Whether thoughts are useful, expanding and nurturing or not useful, limiting and depleting
- When we become attached and bound to thoughts
We may not experience as many emotions and feelings as thoughts during a day, but they can easily have a powerful impact, especially when they remain unacknowledged. Like the weather, we are always in some kind of mood, so noticing if our mood is bright and sunny, or overcast with occasional downpours, is a good start. Emotions come and go over the day. From experience, we know that positive emotions are non-stick like Teflon and negative emotions are like Velcro and hang around for much longer than needed.
Knowing that we are not our emotions, emotional freedom means:
- Being more aware of the mood we are in
- Acknowledging feelings and emotions as they arise, if possible
- Creating the mental and emotional space to respond skilfully rather than react automatically
- Cultivating the conditions for emotional stability
- Being kind and compassionate with ourselves and others
There are many ways that we can experience freedom through practising mindfulness: letting go of past habit patterns that no longer serve us, releasing held tightness and tension in the body and knowing that there are always options and choices in any moment. And by becoming more awake and aware of what it is to be human, we may even discover greater freedom in other areas of our lives.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then close your eyes while this meditation plays that explores freedom in our mind and emotions.
Suggested weekly practice
- Take the time to discover areas of your life where you could find greater freedom
- Notice thoughts that cultivate freedom and those that are limiting
- As a human you have the most potential of any creature in the known universe, so explore and appreciate the freedom that you already have.
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