Love sets us free
Whether someone admits it or not doesn’t matter, I think everyone wants to be touched — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Everyone wants to be loved. To be heard. To feel special. People want to be swept off their feet — erotically vibrant with all circuits go. How beautiful it is to be with someone who genuinely adores you, who wants to know everything you think and feel. They delight in you. They celebrate you, draw you out, contact the most sexy, gorgeous, and evocative places in your heart and mind. Imagine becoming someone who is radically willing to be the love they seek, to be the chemistry they long for, to be alive — right now — rather than walking around, hungry for what they see as missing from their lives.
To be touched by one’s own life may well be one of the greatest miracles of all. Can we ignite the miracle of love in us, so much so that we kindle an awe of being alive — as tender and fragile as we are? Is it possible, at this time, with all we know, to be that bowled over?
Where exactly is the wisdom that compels us to rethink our priorities, our attitudes — the entire way we hold the world, ourselves, and our relationships? How do we learn to feel something with every ounce of our being? Is it something we can learn?
“Security is mostly a superstition, it does not exist in nature, nor do the children . . . as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” This quote by Helen Keller offers us a powerful reminder of the importance of seizing our life right now, and challenging the forces of limitation.
We exist on earth for a brief time. Life is an experience that is always interrupted. What would it feel like to be in the final days of our life? It’s certainly happening, whether we think it is or not. How empty and precious everything would seem — as it actually is — if we knew that today was all we had.
I think of my friend Liliane in Sydney, Australia, who at thirty was diagnosed with an inoperable cancer. Her response was a stunning and courageous example of ubuntu and bhavana. After her diagnosis her doctor compassionately discouraged her from chemotherapy, giving her three to four weeks to live. But Liliane refused to die without a fight.
Every weekend she would go to the hospital for treatment and from Monday through Wednesday she would vomit and be so sick and weak she couldn’t get out of bed. Never once did she complain or lose hope. Thursdays were the only day of the week she was strong enough to walk, before going back into the hospital on Friday for forty-eight more hours of chemotherapy.
I remember every Thursday walking with her slowly along the beach in the windy chill of winter. Every Thursday Liliane would undress on the spot and jump into the frigid ocean. I remember telling myself that I wouldn’t do that even if I were the one dying. Her spontaneity and fearlessness were in themselves a magnificent teaching. Liliane turned her illness into a gift for herself and those of us who were blessed to be near her.
She smiled at strangers, and even asked sometimes if they cared to stop and talk for a few minutes. It was her one free day a week and she used it completely. She would dance on the beach, and sometimes fall over because she was so weak. She would sing children’s songs to the sea gulls as we walked. She would hang out with the homeless and ask them questions about their lives.
She cared more about life each week, despite her doctor’s insistence that she stop hoping because there was no hope. She didn’t stop. Eventually we did stop going to the beach on Thursdays. Instead, she went back to the hospital and comforted the women in her cancer ward who were also terminal. Liliane lives today. She thinks it was her love of relationship that saved her life, the healing power of liberating intimacy.
World Dharma points to the power of engaging our human interrelatedness with wisdom, compassion, and creative integrity as the basis of developing freedom and dignity. The wisdom of World Dharma is carried in this comment by Nelson Mandela: “It was during those long and lonely years [in prison] that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.
I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.”
Liberation through living comes alive to the extent that we feel ourselves as contextual beings. Our every second of life depends on forces both internal and external. We are simultaneously unique and indistinguishable from the whole. We are everywhere at once and at the same time challenged to come to terms with our apparent separateness and mortality.
The awakening of liberation through living accelerates from a deep recognition of relatedness. There is a shift from my separateness from my circle of friends, my sangha, my family, my community, my nation — into the beauty of being related wherever you are, even when alone.
A few days before I was forced to leave Burma in March 1996, I met with my dear friend U Tin Oo. We had been monks together in the early 1980's. He was now the chairman of the National League for Democracy, the political party that Aung San Suu Kyi serves as general secretary. He is yet another wise and courageous statesman who was imprisoned under unimaginable conditions. I asked him what it took to emotionally and psychologically survive the severity of eleven years of prison and solitary confinement. His answer lives with me today as essential to World Dharma.
It’s the love the sets you free
“Oh, I had ways to keep my spirit alive,” he said with a beautiful boyish smile lifting his radiant seventy-six-year-old face. “My hut within the prison was detached from the main cells and was encircled with barbed-wire. I was indoors all the time, and the wire was a constant reminder of how precious freedom was. Like in the Buddha’s Dharma teachings, obstacles can be seen as advantages; the loss of one’s freedom can inspire the reflection on the preciousness of freedom. This filled me with joy.
Also, I knew from my years as a practising monk the benefits of sati — mindfulness meditation. Just do everything you do with awareness and there is no room in one’s mind for negative thoughts. I approached every day in prison as I did as a monk in the monastery, mindfully. I tried to notice everything that occurred in my mind and body: everything you see, hear, taste, think, and smell becomes simply an experience, without anything extra placed upon it. Just phenomena.
So in that way, too, the thought of imprisonment is seen as just a thought. It comes and goes. And without attachment to it there’s no problem. It’s just a thought. In this way I could keep my mind free of afflictive emotions.
I would also regularly recite the Buddha’s discourses in Pali as well as study them, which inspired me greatly. In addition, a small book containing quotations of Jesus was smuggled through to me. I very much liked his attitude of forgiveness and sincerity.
Also, I made it a habit to give dana — the offering of a gift — to my jailers. I wanted to overcome any feelings of seeing them as the enemy so I tried to make it a practice of sharing a little of my food with them. They, too, had a hard life in prison. This eased my emotional and psychological pain to some extent.
I abstained from taking food after midday. There are many people in my country who are hungry due to the policies of this dictatorship. By not eating after noon I remained in solidarity with them.”
He paused and closed his eyes for a moment. He opened them, saying, “But most importantly I would reflect on the preciousness of my friendships. So in moments of difficulty I would envision their faces one by one and talk to them a bit. I would recall our moments of laughter and the joys we shared.”
He then turned to me and held both my hands with his own, and with a warm tender smile said, “It’s the love that you feel that keeps your sanity. It’s the love the sets you free.”
This story reminds me of the importance of our shared presence, the importance of bringing my very best qualities of my being, to the moments of my life — alone and in the company of others.
I ask myself as often as I need to: Can I renew my courage to love? Can I be in direct communion with the myself, others, and the world, simultaneously? We are in this together. We need each other to actualise our full potential to love, our full potential to liberate ourselves and each other, together, as we evolve life into the future.
To embrace the Dharma requires that we envelop life in this very moment as all we have. From such an awakened state of presence we are free to live and die, while between them both we are ready to touch and be touched.
The Natural Life
Natural freedom is not a separate, exclusive condition. It is an all- encompassing vision of the world as a whole, the human as a whole, the cosmos as a whole, the holy whole. One doesn’t discover freedom, one presumes it, breathes it, lives it, is it. Natural freedom is instinctual. It is beyond qualifications, outcomes, and strategies. It is expressed exactly in the same way you kiss.
Can you engage life as naturally as you kiss? When we kiss, or when we smile, we are free, for a moment, from conflict. Our awareness and presence are dedicated to a creative expression of intimacy. The dilemma of looking into the past or the future for some idea of a resolution to the present is gone, not by some strategy, but through the sensuous particularity offered by the kiss itself. Can you abandon yourself to life that fully, and really know that freedom is identical to living the Dharma?
The wisdom of the natural life sees that there is no indestructible realization to seek, no final solution to existence, no goal of life, and no required insight apart from the wisdom to be true to yourself and respectful of others. When you relax supernatural fantasies of escaping existence or attaining some perfect truth, you gradually make peace with being in your body, in life, now. Natural freedom makes no more excuses; one is free to fall in love with life again. From this revitalizing innocence one is tender and gentle as well as raw and immediate.
There is no spirituality to seek; it is the very nature of life. It is as innate to existence as the breath. One doesn’t need to learn to breathe. One doesn’t need to become more spiritual or less material. We only need to be inspired to do something remarkable with the vitality that a full breath provides us.
Once we start embodying the magnificent, weird beauty of being hyperconscious, biologically encased creatures, we begin to live more creative, engaged lives. We look at things differently. We hold ourselves with more dignity. We listen to the voices of instinct and intuition more carefully. We use our imagination more. We dream more freely. We take greater risks. Simply, we are more dynamic because we are no longer afraid that we are somehow in the wrong place, or that there is some better place to manifest the Dharma.
For me, natural freedom most spontaneously arises when I cease seeing myself as a separate entity looking out at an external world. This is like a timeless conversation, or like making love. At some point when we make love we cease worrying about how close or far apart we are with our partner.
When we cease occupying centrality and abide in mutuality we go from being two individuals to a flow or a dance of energy. Boundaries cease to have the fixed meaning we normally assign them. If there is deep trust, inside and outside, the self and other blend into an intimate unity from human to quantum, from sweat to silence, from eroticism to stillness. It is my sense that when we make love we effect totality. How could we not, when that is who we are?
Transcendent perfection is beyond this world. We reach for this ideal state, cleansing ourselves of human corruptions through the rigour of spiritual discipline, balanced effort, and patient practice. To imagine and aspire and dream perfection is one thing. But there is a catch: we are merely human. It is paradoxical but that humanity is precisely what makes it so worthwhile.
Recognising our innate mutuality helps to dissolve the given dichotomy between ideal and real, between inside and outside. Why divide up the playground between profane and sacred? Why participate in the spiritual apartheid of my religion? There is more instinctive music than comparing oneself to a hierarchical gradation of spiritual understanding based on ancient doctrines and modern translators. The Dharma is not a dance contest. No one is measuring the quantity of air we are breathing.
There is no predetermined program that will guarantee your own happiness. It would be like someone telling you what an orgasm should feel like. Should it be transpersonal or personal? Should it be Buddhist or Jewish? Should it be self-involved or should it be absent of self? Should it be in this world or beyond this world? Should I worry about mine, or my lack of one, or should I see myself as natural? Should I be thinking or should a real one take me beyond thought? Am I being spiritual when I have an orgasm or am I avoiding my higher self?
The ways in which we discriminate between this or that are endless. Seeking perfection is a full time job, and a thankless one. You will always be graded by a lie: your own unwillingness to be you — human. Perfect has to be reinvented every moment.
By Alan Clements, founder of World Dharma, author of many books and teacher of the interweave of earth and sky, spirituality and the mundane. For more information on Alan and World Dharma, visit