Let My People Go: Mindfulness as a Path to Freedom
“Freedom is from within.”
– Frank Lloyd Wright
Every year at this time, seven or eight days honor the Jewish festival of Passover. Passover is the Jewish holiday that commemorates the story of the Exodus, in which the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. As told in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, God instructs Moses to confront the Pharaoh and tell him to “Let my people go.” This departure was just the beginning of the long journey of the Israelites out of Egypt, through the wilderness to Mount Sinai. And it is this time each year when Jews all over the world celebrate their escape from bondage and release of oppression.
Whether you are Jewish or not, you can celebrate the meaning of this holiday. After all, we each value, and aspire to have, freedom in our lives. And, through mindfulness practices, we all can attain a greater experience of it. Just as it is told that Moses led the Jews on a journey out of slavery to freedom, mindfulness is a path to freedom as well. This path, however, is an internal one.
To understand this better, it is first helpful to distinguish that the interpretation of “freedom” in the West revolves around the rights of the individual. We tend to think of it as the freedom to do what one wishes; it is determined in many ways by our external environment. While in Buddhism, “freedom” refers to a release from the traps of personal desires or attachments; this state arises from within. More specifically, according to Buddhism, suffering is understood to exist as a universal phenomenon, and every individual has the potential for liberation from it.
The main objective of mindfulness practice, therefore, is to free ourselves from the fundamental causes of suffering. In this context, the roots of suffering are considered to be certain mental events that are afflictive, that cause us pain. The primary afflictive mental events are described as desire (craving or greed), hatred (the wish to harm), and delusion (which distorts our perception of reality). There are others, too, including pride and envy.1 It is through the practice of mindful awareness that we can begin to recognize when we are caught in these afflictive mental states and only then have the choice and opportunity to release ourselves from the suffering they bring about. In other words, with mindful awareness we can start to recognize the triggers and preoccupations that cause us to react in habitually unhealthy ways and instead choose a response that may serve us better.
Instead of Moses confronting the Pharaoh with the statement, “Let my people go,” we can remind ourselves to “Let our attachment go,” whenever we notice we are caught in these unhealthy states of mind. By doing so, we can free ourselves of that suffering. This freedom from the suffering that arises within us is something we can each do for ourselves, regardless of the external conditions in which we reside. It is an ongoing practice, however, not just one pilgrimage. As we embark upon this life-long journey, the more we recognize and release our attachments, the freer we become.
1. Ricard, Matthiew. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. New York: NY, Little, Brown and Company (2006)
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
– Viktor E. Frankl