“Free” choice may be thought of as the limited options that remain to us after the cruder compulsions (that would otherwise choose for us) have gradually but thoroughly been burned away in the fire of experience – or exhausted, which amounts to the same thing. Such compelling (un-free) factors may be natural (instincts) or conventional (directives, duties, moral commandments, laws) or a heady mixture of both. To the extent that a man is identified or psychically merged with these compelling instinctual drives, affects, duties, and directives, his thoughts and actions can scarcely be called “free.” Therefore, what we call “freedom” (of thought or action) begins with our efforts to objectify these compelling factors – to differentiate them from our uncompelled awareness. This wins for us a crucial measure of conscious distance from them by momentarily interrupting or breaking the accustomed state of identification. It is in these moments of quiet, un-compelled detachment from the motors, gears, and driveshaft that normally propel us into and through life that we may be said to experience freedom. Thus, it should be fairly clear that when we speak of freedom what we mean is a freedom from rather than a freedom to. It is much closer to “neti, neti” (“not this, not that”) than to what the uninitiated suppose freedom to be. What they typically imagine is license – the unconstrained liberty to gratify one’s dreams and desires. I understand the path of freedom as a via negativa and not as the attainment of an earthly paradise as a reward for good behavior. But in holding such a view, here in 21st century America, I certainly am a stranger in a strange land.
If – as I do solemnly swear – I am not an elitist snob, then what the dickens am I? Insofar as the elitist, by common definition, dwells at a cautious remove from the many, I confess as much. And insofar as I have come to believe that indiscriminate intercourse with the many is both fruitless and uncongenial to me in my present state, I admit to standing apart. But if I know myself to be part of an invisible elite, it is not a haughty or self-righteous elite, but a compassionate one that is conscientiously benign in its aims and methods.
To employ a crude example, let us imagine a huge tract of treacherous quicksand. Those who are trapped in the quicksand may be spineless cowards or courageous heroes, but anyone caught there stands a very good chance of dying there. Whether one sinks ever so slowly or hastens his submergence through wild flailing about makes little difference in the end. As it would happen, there has always been a minority of persons who manage to make their way, through some natural instinct or trusted inclination, to the solid bank surrounding the quicksand and pull themselves out. In the vast majority of this minority of cases, considerable effort is required (in addition to the saving instinct) for self-liberation from the quicksand.
These fortunate escapees began to recognize at some point that the quicksand exerts a mysterious, alluring power over those in its grip. The victims were aware that they were being pulled down by the quicksand to their deaths, so they felt a natural urge to free themselves from its engulfing power. But at the same time they felt almost pleasantly at home in the very medium in which they would soon be buried forever. Their hopes, plans, and desires were ultimately stronger than their longing for freedom.
For those of us who have miraculously climbed out of the quicksand on to the solid shore, it became clear at one point that it was our unconscious attachment to an alluringly pleasant substance secreted by the quicksand that was half the problem. This substance might take the form of sensual lust or an ambition to rule over men. It might assume the guise of bars of gold or the prospect of stardom. As soon as we overcame our unconscious attachment to that ensnaring drive or pleasure state, we steadily acquired the ability to swim over the surface of the quagmire.
After we succeeded in pulling ourselves onto the solid bank quicksand bog, our work had just begun. The first step was to undergo a drying out period there on the sun-baked shore. Since much of our bulk had heretofore consisted of water, we lost a great deal of weight during this drying out phase. As soon as we started to become adjusted to our new, freer medium, our thoughts first turned to those we’d left behind in the quicksand. It seemed only natural for us to want to rescue as many of our friends and kinsman from drowning as possible. We searched for a strong limb or branch that we could extend out to these victims – so that they could grab hold, allowing us to pull them to dry land and safety. But we soon found that our best intentions met with one failure after another.
We neglected to work into our calculations the fact that their strong attachments to their quicksand hopes and dreams were stronger, in almost every case, then their desire for freedom. Moreover, the significant weight reduction we experienced during our drying out made it a lot easier for our friends, lovers, and family members to pull us back into the quicksand rather than the reverse. And each one of these fiascoes made it necessary, once we managed to climb out again, to repeat the extended drying out process – and with little success to show for our efforts.
Eventually, we began to learn that no one comes out of the quicksand who isn’t driven from within by a love of freedom that is stronger than all rivaling desires. Such persons – ripe for release – do not need us or anybody else to pull them out with a pole. They can manage on their own, for they have earned their release. Thus, the insight gradually dawns on us that, so long as we are attached to persons who, in turn, are firmly attached to their quicksand pleasures, dreams, and ambitions, we will remain ensnared by the quicksand in an indirect way. We find, as time goes on, that our compassion is most effectively expressed by simply staying in place – by remaining attuned to the silent, still point of centeredness on the solid bank. By standing there we provide the assurance sought by those in the grip of the quicksand who begin to dream – not of gold or sensual oblivion, dominion or fame – but of freedom and abiding serenity.