Freedom 1 – Freedom is an Inside Job

“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.”

~ Nelson Mandela


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True freedom is an inside job. Regardless of circumstance, we can feel enslaved or liberated. It’s a personal choice.

Freedom is one of those values that means something different to everyone. Rather than staking out my own position on this, I’d rather explore aspects of freedom we can all easily agree with.

For starters, Mandela’s quote emphasizes that freedom is more than a value to enjoy for oneself. It must include others. He should know, having been imprisoned for over twenty years. What’s remarkable about his story is that, among many marvels, he developed a loving friendship with his personal guard. And when he was released, he expressed no bitterness towards those who had imprisoned him. He went on to become President of South Africa on a platform of forgiveness.

He demonstrated that it’s possible to feel free even in jail. Now, that puts our own challenges into perspective!

One online definition of freedom is “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” That’s true but limited. True freedom includes enjoying life as part of the whole. Typically, we humans have excluded ourselves through our concept of exceptionalism, resulting in the epidemic of loneliness that has skyrocketed suicide rates in recent years.

Even with expensive toys to play with and conveniences to make life easier, thousands of people every year end their lives because they simply don’t want to live any more. They may or may not feel free to “act, speak, or think as (they) want without hindrance or restraint” but they are obviously not free within themselves. A friend just told me about an acquaintances daughter who was recently released from a rehab center where she paid $95,000 a month for treatment of her alcoholism. Not only did the treatments fail, she’s become psychotic.

Another friend told me a story about a doctor who was called to the hospital bedside of a patient who had tried suicide unsuccessfully. When he arrived, he found her surrounded by sympathetic family members. He took a different approach.

“What a loser,” he said. “You couldn’t even do this right.” Of course, family members were shocked and offended. But before they could protest, he added: “If you really feel you’re so worthless, then you should end your life. But all of us here love you. We know your value and we wish you did too. Why don’t you start loving yourself as much as we love you and get a real life?”

Apparently, this application of tough love worked. His patient was jolted to her senses and went on to recover and live a long life. Others in her situation are not as fortunate to have someone to help break the spell of disempowerment that propelled them to such a desperate precipice.

This case illustrates a phenomenon that some researchers are exploring, that many people are actually in a trance-like state much of the time. And, that identifying and understanding that state might be a step towards liberating them from their traumatic wounding. As one blog on hypnosis states, “Identifying the deep trance phenomena behind a problem points the way to a solution, as that trance state can be changed or broken. This raises the interesting possibility that hypnosis works by bringing people out of unhelpful trance states – unhypnotizing them, in effect!” 1

It’s illuminating to ponder our own condition of freedom or lack of freedom from this perspective. How free am I, how free are you, moment to moment, from trance-like conditions that limit a full experience of life?

Prejudice certainly comes to mind. We all have them but may not realize their influence on our day to day experience. For instance, presented with an unusual opportunity might provoke an unconscious defense. If it took shape as words we might say, “Sorry, I don’t do that.”

Why not?

Perhaps this is where the phrase, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” originated. For instance, some people might feel it’s too late to begin meditating. Why? Meditation has been proven effective in reducing stress and increasing enjoyment of the simple things in life. When would it ever be too late to do that? It certainly doesn’t require special skills, it doesn’t take much time, and it’s free!

We all want freedom in our lifestyle and liberation inside our minds. And we can easily achieve both: just treat every moment as an opportunity to express an attitude summed up by the words, “I’m free to be myself in this moment!” and learn mindfulness techniques like meditation to free yourself from the bombardment of negative thoughts, one of which might be “I’m not free.”


Progress – Crossing the Finish Line… Never

“The real meaning of enlightenment
is to gaze with undimmed eyes on darkness.”

~ Nikos Kazantzakis

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We can be drawn to the light and ever remain a planet, or we can become the sun for our world.

There’s a story about a man in a mental institution who spent all night every night beside his window with a bucket, frantically scooping at the air and finally collapsing at sunrise with a relieved sigh: “I finally got all the darkness out of this room.”

Are we any less crazy? How much faith do we have in sunrise? So many of us object to the darkness – in whatever form it comes – and feel we must act to get rid of it. We can take issue with other’s sexual orientation, their politics, their lifestyles. And we can champion alternatives, sure that we know what’s best for them. Do we?

This reminds me of the story about a boy scout who retuned to headquarters battered and bruised, with his clothes torn. “What happened to you?” asked his scout master?

“I helped an old lady across the street,” he replied.

“But what happened?”

“She didn’t want to go!”

That’s what happens when we impose our will on others, even with the best of intentions. And why do we do that? Because we decide that something is wrong and we know how to fix it. In other words, the way things are right now needs to change. For spiritual seekers, it means that this could never be enlightenment.

Author and blogger Roy Biancalana writes, “… any practice, method or teacher that promises some future result, some future realization should be avoided. By holding out the “carrot of promise,” that one day you’ll go to heaven, they actually keep you from it. You are turned into a Greyhound dog chasing the rabbit at the dog track. You keep chasing the damn thing and you can never catch it. But if you stop chasing, if you stop seeking, the rabbit will come all the way around and hit you right in the ass! “It” finds you when you stop seeking “It.” 1

There is no finish line for enlightenment, regardless of what any religious program may promise. To conceive of enlightenment as a result is to fundamentally misunderstand what it is. True enlightenment is well described in the opening quote: “The real meaning of enlightenment is to gaze with undimmed eyes on darkness.”

One is enlightened when one is shining. “Be the light!” could be the best spiritual advice available. Of course, to be the light we need to be lit up and no one can do that disconnected from the source of light. We are transmitters of light but the transmission doesn’t start with ourselves. Something gives us life, moment by moment, and that is what we can transmit.

Something is beating your heart. Something is steering the stars. Something is ensuring that billions of simultaneous activities everywhere in the cosmos somehow coordinate together to give us the stability we depend on to simply function. We can call it what we want to and disagree on words and beliefs but the reality remains. And we have faith in “it.” We don’t worry that we’ll wake up one morning and fall off the earth.

Since humans began to think we’ve wondered about our place in all this. Of course, the search for answers, the quest for personal meaning and a more understanding of the purpose of life will never end. The path is endless and it doesn’t proceed in a straight line. We can acknowledge our human birth and death as beginning and ending points for this human experience, but the deeper we explore the path of awakening the less constrained we feel between those two book ends. As we sense more of a kinship with life itself, the life that informs our bodies, we begin to transcend those limitations.

Our basic understanding of self begins to transform and it leads to this liberating realization: “I will never be enlightened.”

You may become “enlightening,” that is, you may develop into someone who brings light into the circumstances of your life. You may evolve your understanding and experience in ways that mark you as an advanced human but not through what you believe or think or say or even do, but because of the bright revelation of who you are, moment by moment.

And, darkness wouldn’t scare you. Think about it: where is light needed most? Where there’s lots of light already present or where there’s darkness to dispel? Not with a bucket, struggling to right a wrong, but with the natural rising of the sun, the arrival of one’s own shining presence.

During this series of blogs we’ve explored what is and what isn’t spiritual progress. Now, here in the last one, we can expose the big lie about enlightenment. Yes, there will be more “progress” to make – for the rest of our lives! But this is the moment to shine.

You are already “it.”


Progress – The Reason for Being

“Whatever you think the world is withholding from you,
you are withholding from the world.”

~ Eckhart Tolle


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What can assist us along our journey of awakening? Everything the world gives us… plus everything we give the world.

“It is better to give than to receive” is a well-known phrase attributed to Jesus and it champions the natural generosity of spirit. If we want a tangible example, just look in the sky. The sun gives its light and warmth regardless of anything it receives. Another Biblical quote says that the “rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.” It’s comical to imagine these forces of nature negotiating!

What’s being illuminated is no-strings-attached kind of giving, giving without thought of reward. Most of us have experienced how enjoyable this is. In fact, it’s said that if you are feeling badly, the best way to make yourself feel better is to help someone else.

In fact, human beings are designed to give and receive freely. We all know it, we have memories of those kinds of exchanges, where our motivation was simply to share. Exchanges that involve money and things often engage other motivations, like greed and fear. A sentiment creeps in: “How can I get the most for myself while spending the least?” Everyone likes a deal.

In these last few blogs we’ve been exploring themes related to the direct experience of spirit in our lives. We can avoid the debate about what to call “it” and focus on the experience. What helps and what interferes with our growing experience of spirit?

A primary obstacle is our belief that spirit is disconnected from form, that “this is not it.” It’s easy to take issue with what’s going on right now, imagining that something is wrong and wishing things were different, wishing they were more “spiritual.” On that basis, we distance ourselves from the unconditional giving and receiving that reconnects us with the natural way of life.

A stream does not complain when a hiker walking by shifts a few rocks. It flows around or over them. Imagine the stream saying: “I preferred the way those rocks were before… I was flowing perfectly. I wish it was the way it was before. In fact, I refuse to flow now. Until that thoughtless person rearranges the rocks exactly as they were… I quit!”

Similarly, imagine the sun refusing to shine because it’s cloudy. “Forget it. I’m not shining when no-one can see me. I’ll wait until those clouds dissipate.”

Withholding love as a kind of punishment is often used to motivate people, a kind of emotional blackmail. Of course, we do it to ourselves as well. In a prior blog we considered the quality of our thoughts. That inner critic has a lot to say about how inadequate we are. We withhold love from ourselves for any number of reasons but, again, it all comes down to one primary judgement: “This is not it.” What I said or did, what she said or did, what they are doing… it doesn’t match personal judgments about merit.

What if we were to reverse our position and assume that whatever is happening is happening for good reason? That nothing of value is ever being withheld from us and that there is never any reason to withhold love from ourselves and others?

This describes unconditional love, which includes both giving and receiving. Love flows both ways. So, we might take a moment to examine our personal habits around this. How able are we to welcome the gifts of the moment – the warmth of the sun (seen or unseen), the rain as it falls, circumstances complete with challenges, people who do and say things we disagree with – and how able are we to give back freely, unconditionally?

Seeking enlightenment is a high path but where does that path exist? Have we conceptualized it as some kind of inner journey best aided by meditation and peak spiritual experiences? If so, we’re probably excluding 95% or more of the possibilities for making true spiritual progress. Or does it exist in the real world where we live, complete with daily details?

What if we re-framed this journey as a deepening of capacity to appreciate (and to freely give and receive) the gifts of the world? Imagine calibrating our fulfillment, neither in terms of what we’ve acquired nor the inner state we attain? How about a spirituality that included everything and everyone 24/7, that made no distinctions between what had value and what didn’t?

As Eckhart Tolle said in the opening quote, “Whatever you think the world is withholding from you, you are withholding from the world.” How the world changes when we take this piece of wisdom personally and commit to giving and receiving unconditionally. Suddenly, this is it! All of it.

Ironically, that’s the destination we’ve always aimed for, what some call enlightenment. Could it really be this simple?


American Indian

Progress – Why is the Still Small Voice Still Small?

“Then a Voice said: “Behold this day, for it is yours to make.”

~ Black Elk, Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Medicine Man


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History abounds with stories from those who have heard voices guiding them in life. Many of us can tell our own modest tales. What does this phenomenon mean?

In the Biblical story of Elijah besting the prophets of Baal in a dramatic contest, God speaks to Elijah afterwards in a “still small voice.” A scriptural website explains: “The point of God speaking in the still small voice was to show Elijah that the work of God need not always be accompanied by dramatic revelation or manifestations.” 1

While we’d all probably love to hear heavenly pronouncements regularly and receive wisdom to direct our lives, most often we’re given advice like, “turn off the oven before you leave,” or “I-5 is probably jammed right now; exit here to take the 405.”

In terms of our progress along the path of awakening, these intuitive messages are worth respecting. They may not be dramatic but they are imminently practical. We can all attest to the value of listening and, at least as often, to the damage that occurs when we ignore those directives or never even hear them in the first place.

There’s another reason that voice, however it may manifest for each of us personally, remains small: we’re barely paying attention. The world is noisy and insistent voices assail us from every direction on multiple frequencies, 24/7, so that voice can easily get lost in the midst.

Here is the primary reason why regular meditation is so essential for any genuine seeker. What we seek is what we find when the noise fades, when thoughts flee, and when we are left with a deepening awareness of awareness itself. In that exquisite silence, Spirit speaks.

We can pay attention, not just in meditation but throughout the day. While most people claim extreme busyness here in the 21st century, when we examine the content of an average day, it’s likely we will discover countless interludes.

Our lives are not really the non-stop action dramas we may think they are. In fact, we often find ourselves waiting. We wait for software to load, for red lights to turn green, for lunch to arrive. The tendency is to automatically fill those available moments with more busyness, the favorite tactic being to play with our Smart Phones.

Apparently about half of us check our phones every five to ten minutes. More than 1 in 10 GenExers admit that they probably couldn’t last an hour without their phones and 16% of Americans take their phones to bed with them. 2

We are addicted to the connection we make via technology with a world beyond our senses and intuition. As we become more and more tuned in to that virtual world, we lose touch with both the material realm and the domain of spirit.

Still, that small voice speaks. And we make our own choices as to what we listen to. We could decide to not automatically fill those spaces with texting or surfing or any of the countless other activities that drown out the subtler messages that are also being broadcast moment by moment.


Indian Girl


Black Elk, the Sioux Medicine Man I quoted at the beginning of this blog, advised: “Perhaps you have noticed that even in the slightest breeze you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree; this we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit, for not only men, but all things and all beings pray to Him continually in different ways.”

This comment illuminates another possibility: what we “hear” may be more than the “voice of God,” if we were to phrase it that way. Perhaps we are hearing the prayers of all living things. Perhaps there’s a conversation in progress, all the time, one that we can participate in.

It’s interesting to consider that our consciousness may be alive with another level of communication entirely, beyond FaceBook and YouTube and Instagram and beyond even our own incessant thinking. The term “innernet” has been used to describe this invisible domain and some have even suggested that the Internet is meant to provide training wheels, helpful to develop our own inherent extraordinary perception, an aspect of what I call E.S.P. (Elementary Spiritual Powers) so that, eventually, we can progress beyond the technology..

If you can recall dining with friends in a noisy restaurant you’ll remember how your hearing improved when you focused your listening. That’s also a good technique for improving our ability to hear this still small voice.

We can pay attention where it counts and progress our ability to tune in and remain intimately connected with this inner world, while engaging in the material world to make of each day what we choose.



sprout between hands

Progress – Choosing Our Thoughts

“There are two types of seeds in the mind: those that create anger,
fear, frustration, jealousy, hatred and those that create love, compassion,
equanimity and joy. Spirituality is germination and sprouting of
the second group and transforming the first group.”

~ Amrit Ray


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We can choose our thoughts, just as we choose what channel to select on the remote control for our television.

In one of my recent books I told the story of a disciple asking his master how long it would take him to reach enlightenment if he meditated two hours every day.

“Five years,” his teacher replied.

“And if I meditated four hours every day?” pressed the eager student.

His master chuckled and replied, “In that case it would take you twenty years.”

Spiritual progress does not accelerate with extra effort. You can’t strive to let go! Instead, you can relax from the deeply ingrained habit of efforting, you can unlearn and deprogram… ultimately, you can shift to an entirely different operating system.

The old OS equates work over time with results. More work plus more time, equals more results. The new OS is not linear. More is not necessarily better. What matters is quality, not quantity.

As Amrit Ray wrote in the opening quote, we do have different kinds of seed thoughts and what we choose to focus on will grow. Seeds, of course, always become what they inherently are. A carrot seed has never become a watermelon! And a hateful thought cannot be changed into a loving one. It’s a choice: think the hateful thought or think a loving one.

Our thoughts do influence our progress, if we want to call it that. They also influence other people. In his book, The Shape of Thought,” H. Clark Barrett writes: “Investors’ beliefs about the state of the economy influence stock prices, which in turn, influence others’ beliefs, goals, and behaviors.” 1

They say that birds of a feather flock together (and fools seldom differ!). Our thoughts birth the words and behaviors that attract/repel others. In this way, all of us create a personal world of relationships based on which thought seeds we nurture. We end up with our own mutual support network.

There are pivotal moments in every life where a person takes stock and realizes some sort of deep change is necessary. This could be, and often is, stimulated by an emergency, like a dire health diagnosis or an ultimatum from a partner: “Change that behavior or else!” Confronted with an urgent crisis like this, we often try to change that behavior in order to get different results.

It seems to make sense and this is known as first order change. It can work, temporarily. But there’s a more effective long-term strategy, known as second order change which focuses on shifting our mind set. Athletes know very well that changing their mindset is what changes behavior to develop improved results. “Fake it ‘til you make it” is a popular success strategy.

This works in many aspects of life but not relative to our spiritual life. We can’t fake experiencing the truth of ourselves! We can choose which thoughts to entertain. And, like seeds, they grow… if they are nurtured by our attention.

The most effective mindset for making progress in the truly important aspects of our lives – experiencing meaning, growing loving relationships, etc. – is to embrace our inherent worthiness. Self-esteem problems routinely sabotage even the most concerted efforts to grow and change.

But self-esteem issues can’t be solved with proclamations to the contrary. For instance, manipulating thoughts into affirmations like “I am worthy, who I am is perfect,” is a mental imposition based on judgment. Who would repeat such words to themselves? Certainly not someone with high self-esteem! Likewise, trying to solve financial problems by repeating words like, “I am wealthy; money is pouring in from the universe,” is not a strategy a wealthy person would adopt!

Toiling in the jungle of ego ambition is futile and it’s the virtual opposite of what we’re discussing relative to choosing our thoughts. No, we choose from those thoughts that present themselves, understanding that we are not required to manufacture thoughts but rather to select from the momentary thought menu, just as we choose where we go, what we do, and who we engage as friends.

Our thoughts are emerging, not just because of influences from the physical environment that our senses detect but also in response to our inner connection with Source, in relationship to our own unfolding destiny.

The Bible refers to “the still, small voice.” In this series of blogs we will explore how to culture that inner knowing in order to change our thoughts at that deep level and generate real progress in life.

1. The Shape of Thought: How Mental Adaptations Evolve (Evolution and Cognition) by H. Clark Barrett, page 128