Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Last Human Freedom

Freedom is an interesting word. It can mean physical freedom, such as not being in prison or enslaved. It can mean emotional freedom, as I wrote about three years ago. It can mean political freedom, which we are watching unfold around the world, but particularly in Egypt and Syria right now. And that is what we in the United States celebrate on July 4th every year.

There are all sorts of arguments we are not free in our lives. We are expected to work and pay off debt. There is no country in the world without a government. And certainly there has been a lot of discussion about freedom when our phone logs are being watched by government agencies. But as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, governments “deriv[e] their power from the consent of the people.”

But as I have said many times before, I am not publicly political. What I think of the revolutions happening in Syria and Egypt, and what I think of Edward Snowden and the NSA, is not really important. But I think all these situations reflect perfectly what Jefferson said. We have to consent to any limitations on our freedom.

And that includes limitations on any type of freedom. Our deepest freedom, however, is one that we should never consent to limit, though many of us (including myself) often do.

Viktor Frankl, who was a holocaust survivor, said, “The last of human freedoms - the ability to chose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances.” We get to choose how we respond to any situation. We can respond with anger and revolt. We can respond with acceptance. We can respond with fear. We can respond knowing we have joy and contentment within ourselves, and nothing external can change that. But we have to remember to consciously choose that response. Frankl further stated, "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."

I think it is important to look at the larger, political freedoms, not only for ourselves but for others. We live in a world where child prostitution and human trafficking occur. We live in a world where Google and Facebook are not allowed to exist in certain countries. But even if we had all of our political freedoms, how many of us consent to our own lack of personal freedoms? How many of us forget that space between stimulus and response to get to our last human freedom of attitude? 

Lawyers can be great at helping people obtain political freedoms as well as keeping people out of prison. But law does little to help us break free of our personal freedoms. Yoga, however, helps us there. It is not always easy. These are the limitations that are much harder to see. There is no whisleblower inside us to tell us when we are limiting ourselves. We have to learn to listen. And in that listening we have to ask if we are reacting or responding.

I notice when I am getting caught in my limitations when I am driving. Even after more than a decade of yoga and trying to learn to let go of my anger, when someone cuts me off on the road, I sometimes go into a fit of rage. Some days I can let it go quickly, but other times it boils inside of me even when I know it serves no purpose except to drain my energy. I know I am not alone in this. Road rage is a pretty serious issue and sometimes leads to death. Thus, driving is my teaching time as well. And I do a lot of driving.

Another common area of limiting freedom is our response to our physical bodies. We often feel defined by them rather than our higher Being. I cannot tell you how often I hear people say, “I’m too fat,” “I’m not flexible,” or “I’m in too much pain.” We let our bodies limit our souls. There is no doubt that our bodies have limitations at times. But look at the amazing examples of people who have done so much despite their limited bodies. Stephen Hawking, Roger Ebert post cancer, and all the stories you have hopefully heard of people on their death beds with a smile on their face and love in their hearts.

Our Being is bigger than our bodies and bigger than our road rage. No matter how limited we feel, we have to consent to giving up the freedom to choose our attitude. We can also choose not to consent. We can choose to feel that freedom regardless of external consequences. So, while people are celebrating a revolution over 200 years ago with barbeques, parades, and fireworks, how are you celebrating your internal freedoms?

Are you remembering to breathe deeply? Are you taking the time to ask if you are doing what you were put on this planet to do? Are you letting yourself forgive others as well as yourself? Are you finding gratitude in moments that at first are difficult? Are you choosing an attitude to serve your highest self or one that makes life more difficult? As Viktor Frankl said, this is the last of human freedoms. Nothing external has the power to effect us without our consent. It may seem difficult, or even impossible, to choose a different attitude in the face of adversity, but the choice is always there. What attitude will you choose?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The post, The Last Human Freedom, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

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