“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.
For the sake of discussion, let us entertain the idea of three roughly distinct levels of consciousness that we are able to experience or participate in: (1) collective consciousness, (2) individual consciousness, and (3) transcendent consciousness.
Collective or ‘mass’ consciousness (the modern equivalent of ‘tribal’ consciousness), like transcendent, or ‘spiritual’ consciousness, appears to dissolve or absorb individual, personally differentiated ego-consciousness (as when a crowd or mob ceases to be an accumulation of individuals and mysterious acquires a ‘mind’ of its own). Under such conditions, the individual ego is assimilated, either by the instinctual energy field or by the form-vaporizing spirit. In this respect, the integrity or cohesive ‘solidity’ of the individual ego is always potentially under threat of dissolution from both directions—from the side of the collective instincts and from the side of the transcendent spirit. The experience of being dissolved into the instinctual-collective or into the formless-spiritual level can be extremely pleasurable or extremely distressing, depending on the attitude of the individual ego that is being overwhelmed by and absorbed into the larger, more comprehensive realm.
If, however, the individual ego defensively or fearfully isolates itself—and attempts to thrive solely by means of its own limited resources—its experience of both the instinctual and spiritual realms will become increasingly restricted and increasingly adversarial. It will be cutting itself off from spiritual-instinctual nourishment and from the stable sense of equilibrium that can only be attained by venturing beyond its narrow, isolated plot. If the ego thus becomes a kind of ‘shut-in’—cut off, experientially, from both instinctual and spiritual sources of nourishment and animation—it exposes itself to a variety of dangers.
It should be noted and remembered that the individual is fleeting and impermanent, while these two enormous realms—the spiritual and the material/instinctual—are everlasting. The spiritual and instinctual principles are ‘Father’ and ‘Mother,’ respectively. All ephemeral human egos are the offspring of the less than perfect marriage between this eternal Father and this deathless Mother. As their dependent children, our individual egos receive an inheritance from both parents, of course, and all of the problems and difficulties that arise between Father-Spirit and Mother-Matter are carried over into our essentially problematic individual constitutions. In our individual efforts to work through and to work out these riddles and conflicts that are woven into the very fabric of our nature (as dependent children of this Father and this Mother), we indirectly help to nourish and preserve their titanic, shaky marriage. We human egos are, in fact, the frontline—nay, the very battlefield itself—whereupon Daddy-spirit and Mommy-matter collide. Usually they scuffle and tussle. Occasionally they snuggle and couple. But always they misunderstand one another—and it falls to our lot, as their ambivalent, fumbling children, to work more or less continuously at ‘patching things up.’ Tragically, perhaps—but nobly—we struggle, knowing that we are doomed to perish and that our names will gradually fade forever from the memory of those who come after us.
We attend to our tiny portion of this ceaseless cosmic crisis because we must. For, as was said, the battlefield is not upon some field in France or on some remote island in the Pacific, but in our battered and torn hearts, in the caverns and crevasses of our unexplored minds, in the very twists and turnings of our souls. It requires all of our education, imagination, patience, and courage to prevent our tiny portion of the cosmic war-love-fest from spilling over into our neighbor’s yard. Once that starts to happen on a large scale, things go haywire in a hurry. Wildfires, floods, raging epidemics, and devouring earthquakes are fitting images for the chaos and mayhem unleashed upon the skittish, dysfunctional family of man as soon as a critical mass of us stop managing our own individually-tailored, mysteriously allotted portions of the cosmic war-romance and allow our lacerating shrapnel and our potent poisons to assail our neighbors, who are absorbed with managing their own allotted portions.
Our experience of ordinary waking consciousness may be likened to being in a room – large or small, crowded or not – where various activities are underway: a lively conversation, a piece of music or a play is being performed, an animal is loose, etc. Meditation may be equated with stepping out of this room, where activity of one sort or another is guaranteed to be underway at all times. When we step out of the activity room, we are alone in silence and there is nothing there to captivate our attention. When we are ready to meditate, then, we head for the door that leads out of the room. We do not attempt to make everyone in the room shut up and be still. We do not hunt down and kill the animal that is on the loose. It is enough to exit the room, but first we must know where the door is. Then we must trust that when we exit the room we are not simply going to be annihilated or dissolved into nothingness.
Gradually, we learned that the activity room is not a “place” in the usual sense of a location in the external world, but a topos – or inner space – that exists as a level or type of consciousness. Leaving the room is a pictorial metaphor for shifting to a different topos or level of consciousness that is subtler than the level of the room we have left. Here, silence and “not-doing” are experienced. The meditator learns, in time, that it is possible to bring some of the silence and stillness of the meditative state back into the activity room, but the reverse is not the case. In meditation, we become so small and vaporous that we can slither through the keyhole in the door of the activity room, but nothing within the activity room is small or subtle enough to exit through that keyhole.
Eventually, the advanced meditator realizes that it is unnecessary to exit the door of the activity room in order to find the silence and the stillness of formless awareness. They permeate the space he is always in. He sees, at last, that there is no door there, no inside or outside of the room. There are only interpenetrating levels of consciousness – each one at a different level of subtlety – all the way from the densest, bulkiest, and most limited to the most rarefied, boundless, and formless. As the center of gravity of his consciousness moves from one level to the next, the mental environment changes accordingly. What appears real and indisputable on one level – say, that of sensory experience – becomes irrelevant and of little significance as our consciousness shifts to the plane of abstract intuitions and archetypal images. Disputes occur when partisans of one level or arena of conscious experience refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of another level – usually because they have yet to develop the necessary aptitude or subtlety to enter that level. Until then, they regard such unexperienced levels as delusional.