Many people think that freedom means my absolute and unobstructed freedom to choose to do anything I may wish. That my wishes and desires must ideally reign supreme over everything else. And society must bend to my wishes/desires, which are treated as sacred. But this is immature and even dangerous thinking.
The ancient sages in yogis taught that this was a false idea. I can be freely making choices but simultaneously I will be accountable for my actions. I will have to pay the karmic price and be forced to eat the fruit, both the sweet and the bitter results that arise from my actions. That is not real freedom.
The texts I quote in this talk:
A person who is not disturbed by the incessant flow of desires — that enter like rivers into the ocean, which is ever being filled but is always still — can alone achieve peace, and not the person who strives to satisfy such desires. – Bhagavad-gītā 2.70
I, the infinitesimal spirit soul, on the other hand, have embraced this mind, which is the mirror reflecting the image of the material world. Thus I have become engaged in enjoying objects of desire and am entangled due to contact with the modes of nature. – Bhāgavata Purāṇa 11.23.44
Today you have opened our eyes and revealed how to cross to the other side of the ocean of darkness. By our past deeds and by the arrangement of superior authority, we are entangled in a network of fruitive activities and have lost sight of the destination of life; thus we have been wandering within the universe. – Bhāgavata Purāṇa 4.21.51
Before giving up this present body, if one is able to tolerate the urges of the material senses and check the force of desire and anger, he is a yogī and is happy in this world. – Bhagavad-gītā 5.23
Although a self-realized soul may live in various material bodies while in this world, experiencing their various qualities and functions, he is never entangled, just as the wind which carries various aromas does not actually mix with them. – Bhāgavata Purāṇa 11.7.41
If someone is ignorant and addicted to the path of samsara, how can one who is actually learned, merciful and advanced in spiritual knowledge engage him in fruitive activity and thus further entangle him in material existence? If a blind man is walking down the wrong path, how can a gentleman allow him to continue on his way to danger? How can he approve this method? No wise or kind man can allow this. – Bhāgavata Purāṇa 5.5.17
He who is satisfied with gain which comes of its own accord, who is free from duality and does not envy, who is steady in both success and failure, is never entangled, although performing actions. – Bhagavad-gītā 4.22
Aum Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya
So, this evening the topic that we’re going to speak on is Freedom to Choose vs Freedom. Some people may not really pick up on what that actually means, and what we’d like to establish in our talk tonight is that having the freedom to be able to choose to do something should not actually be equated with freedom in the truest sense. A lot of people now, they actually really think that freedom means my absolute and unobstructed freedom to choose to do anything that I wish and this means I’m free. This is the understanding of liberty. But if we take that idea and separate it from a bigger picture, this can be actually almost a dangerous situation, an unhealthy situation.
From the point of view of the transcendentalists, true freedom has a much deeper spiritual connotation. It’s about becoming actually free from even the implications or consequences of the choices that I make.
The idea that having the freedom to make a choice and being able to do that, that idea as being the highest understanding of freedom is very much rooted in this massive cultural shift that has occurred in the last 100 years. Prior to this time, or even during the early stages of this shift, when people made choices they automatically took into consideration a broader range of things: the implications that my choice will have on me, the implications that it would have on people I have a relationship or connection to, all this type of thing. There was this much broader sense of community and of duty and of responsibility.
The introduction of the consumer economic system has led to this tremendous shift of people becoming far more self-centred than humanity has been,generally speaking, for the last thousands of years. In the BBC documentary that I’ve mentioned about many times, The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis, the documentarian that produced this four-part, very brilliant, four-part series, in speaking about it, the series, he said that it was the story, and I’ll read his quote: He said,
“It was the story of the rise of an idea that has come to dominate our society. It is the belief that satisfaction of individual feelings and desires is our highest priority.”
This is actually quite, maybe startling for many of the people in the world, particularly the developed world today, that there was any other way that society operated, and this idea that the prime necessity of life, that the satisfaction of an individual’s feelings and desires is our highest priority.
It was so common, and is still very common in a lot of the older cultures in the world today, that people’s—yes, while they desired to fulfill individual desires, there was a very strong undercurrent of my connection to family, to society, and the idea of duty and responsibility, to this bigger picture, the greater good, whether that greater good was just to my family, or whether it was to a larger society; but that was very, very much something that was present. And so what we saw was this tremendous willingness of people—and we still see it in these old cultures—of people to make sacrifice, to set aside the ideas of instant gratification for some for some greater good.
And this is something that has become tremendously eroded in, particularly, the developed world. So we have this situation in the world today where everybody thinks that their personal desires must somehow reign supreme over everyone and everything else. And then along with it there has been the growth of this idea that society must bend to my wishes or desires. It’s as if my desires are somehow sacred and worshipable. But the reality is that this notion, this idea is actually childish, and even dangerous, if one actually becomes immersed in this type of thinking.
So I’ll give you one little example. I saw an article in a British newspaper, but it was related to a story that had come out of Australia. So I’ll just read you:
“A teenage girl now reportedly identifies as a cat, with the Melbourne private school where she attends supporting her animal behaviour.”
So we have a young girl, a teenager, attending a private school in Melbourne, Australia, and she’s chosen to identify as a cat, and the school now feels it has to support her animal behaviors.
“The year 8 student does not speak during school hours, according to the report in the Herald Sun, despite being described as a phenomenally bright student. A parent reportedly told the paper that the school let the girl behave like a cat as long as it did not distract her or other students.”
And I’ve got my eyes closed so you don’t see my massive eye rolls here. I mean what a ridiculous statement, that the school is going to tolerate their behavior as long as it doesn’t distract the girl or other students.
“In March it was reported that female students at an elite Brisbane private school were walking on all fours and cutting holes in the uniforms for tails because they identify as cats or foxes. When a girl went to sit at a spare desk another girl screamed at her, and said she was sitting on her tail. ‘There’s a slit in the child’s uniform where the tail apparently is,’ a concerned parent told the Courier Mail. ‘No one seems to have a protocol for students identifying as animals, but the approach has been that if it doesn’t disrupt the school everyone is being supportive,’ a source close to the family told the newspaper.”
So I don’t know what you think of that, but I find it incredibly disturbing. And I find it incredibly disturbing, that what should be intelligent and mature minds, the adults in the room, if I can put it that way, are confused about what to do. I mean everybody knows that this is silly. Everybody knows it, and yet people feel now, because of all this pressure, that if somebody decides they want to identify as something that you have to utterly support that in all ways, otherwise you are being mean and cruel and causing psychological harm. The idea that being supportive is causing psychological harm is probably not even on the horizon.
But it would be kind of like—there are some lines being drawn, but I don’t know how long they’ll remain to be drawn—if you had a person that had a healthy body and healthy limbs, but they had been identifying as an amputee for some time, and then they went to the doctor and asked them to, “Please remove my left arm, because I’ve been identifying as an amputee that has no left arm for the past 18 months, and now I want to be more united with my desire, with this choice I’ve made.” A doctor is bound by the Hippocratic oath, where they are meant to follow the principle first do no harm; and on that basis I don’t think doctors at the current time would comply with a person who was identifying as an amputee, and facilitating their ability to live true to themself.
This idea that because I have a particular desire, I have my own truth, and society must bend to my wish or desire, that this is a good thing, we really have to question whether this is actually true.
Since more or less the 1960s you’ve had this increasing focus on the idea of personal freedoms and people prioritizing personal freedoms over and above everything, and they’re saying that this is the way I am truly free, and if you impose any limitation or restriction then I’m not truly free and therefore not happy. These ideas went back and actually began really coming to the forefront during the period of the 60s, when there was the big sexual revolution where it was strongly promoted that anyone who wants to indulge in whatever form of sexual fantasy and turn that into a reality, that a person should be able to do that without any feeling of guilt, without any hang-ups, that we should be, we will be actually free if we can live this way.
Well, the ancient sages and yogis taught that that was a false idea, and they had a very profound reasoning behind that and great amount of wisdom behind it. If we are to explore why they propose that, then it’s tied to the idea that while I may potentially be free to choose, to make choices and to act, I may simultaneously be free to do that and yet still both be bound and enslaved. And that’s like, whoa, now we’re talking about a serious idea. When I use the term “bound”, the reality is that everyone is bound by the stringent laws of nature.
For instance, you cannot, just because you want to identify as an astronaut floating in space, you cannot just arbitrarily overcome the laws of gravity. You actually have to go into space and to become free of the pull of gravity of the earth in order to have that experience. Building a replica of a space station in your room and wearing a space suit doesn’t actually get you there. You are actually bound by these laws of nature.
The great sages and yogis also reminded people that we are bound by the laws of karma. Somebody will say, “Well I don’t believe in that.” Well I’m sorry, but whether you believe something or don’t believe something has no bearing on whether it’s true. So having great faith in your own belief system doesn’t make something true or false. One has to look a little bit further beyond such ideas. People have known for thousands of years—there is this principle, “As you sow so shall ye reap,” as it was famous famously stated in the Bible, that when you make choices, when you choose a particular path or action there will always be consequences. And I think that this is one of the serious gaps in people’s thinking now. People think that just because they have the desire, and they make the choice, it’s as if there will be no consequences. Either that, or there is a blind faith that because I have made the choice therefore I will be happy. If I can just live out my fantasy then I will be happy.
In the work that I’ve done in prisons you can see one of the major reasons that people get themselves into such a mess, by making bad choices, is they don’t practice in any form what’s called “consequential thinking.” There is simply the idea that if I become fixated on that which I want and I can get it then I will be happy. Whereas we are taught by the great spiritual teachers that we need to engage in consequential thinking. I have to look at things, not just in this initial step, but then what will happen as a result of that, and what will happen as a result of that, and then what will happen as a result of that, of being able to look further down the road.
We’re seeing this in the world. I mean this year, probably more than any year before it, we are now seeing the world creaking and groaning under the effects of global change in weather patterns, and people are starting to get a little bit worried. We’re seeing massive amounts of flooding, and in other places huge droughts that people have not experienced in their lifetime before. You see in the Colorado basin in America the water supply of 50 million people is massively drying up. It has been for the last 15 years, and now it’s become incredibly critical.
There have been warning signs that unless we curb the way we are living we are going to suffer tremendous consequences. It’s happening politically. It’s happening in terms of social ideologies. I mean we’re seeing a catastrophic amount of people using vast quantities of psychoactive substances, the greed to consume more and more, and all of the mental health problems that are arising at the same time, the rates of depression, the rates of suicide particularly in the last five years. I mean it’s just going up exponentially. It’s not like a gradual increase. It’s a massive increase.
All of these ills that society is experiencing can be directly traced to people making choices. I want to be free to choose whatever so I can enjoy some immediate gratification, this instant gratification, and let’s worry about the future in the future. And the fact that my choices are contributing to massive problems that humanity is going to have to face is kind of like almost irrelevant. One cannot just artificially or in their mind fantasize that there’s not going to be any consequences to my choices. No. We are bound to the stringent laws of nature, we are bound to the laws of karma, and one cannot escape these things with wishful thinking.
So I mentioned that a person can have complete freedom to choose but yet at the same time still be simultaneously bound and enslaved. We’ve covered bound, now enslaved. I’ll give you just one example. When people cultivate or feed a strong attraction that can easily become an addiction to pornography, which is having a massive effect on the world that nobody is really speaking up about, nobody’s really addressing what’s going on. And the reports of what’s happening with children is utterly heartbreaking. But people feel like, “Well, they’re making their choice. Everybody should be free to do whatever they want to do.” One analyst stated that with pornography and developing an addiction to it, that it actually decreases your baseline happiness, but increases your “need” for another hit, which is great for revenue generation. I mean I just saw a statistic where more people last year visited porn sites, particularly Pornhub apparently is one of the biggest ones in the world, more people visited that than people who conducted Google searches or used Facebook. That’s like massive!
But the point that we’re making here, that yes, I may be free to attempt to fulfill my desires but I should not think that that’s not going to have any effect on me. And as is the case in a lot of the compulsive behavior that’s coming through from social media use, addiction to social media, to pornography, to all these different things, as people become more engaged they feel more compelled to consume these things. And so on one hand, yes I’m stating that I’m free to choose, and I think I can be free to choose, but I’m not truly free. I’m becoming enslaved to my desires, to different mental states, to insecurities, to the attempt to fill up emptiness by just engaging in relentless consumption of videos, whether it’s just something on Youtube or social media stuff, Tiktok. I mean it just like—people are not actually free. And you know that because if everybody had to have their devices taken off them and locked up for a week most people would initially completely freak out.
So these attempts to fulfill desire, whatever that desire is, can produce and often does produce increased desire. Usually people, they have the idea there’s some desire at the forefront, and I just think if I can do that, or if I can experience that or consume that then I’ll be happy, and I’ll be fulfilled, and there’s all the evidence to show that that is absolutely not true, and what we end up with is increased desires, increased emptiness.
Just going back to the thing I read in the very beginning, Adam Curtis the documentarian, in his statement about his outline of what that series was, The Century of the Self, and he states,
“It was the story of the rise of an idea that has come to dominate our society, and it is the belief that satisfaction of individual feelings and desires is our highest priority.”
And of course, that can lead to an amazing degree of enslavement, where everybody simply becomes victims who are being exploited by the people that are stimulating the desire and offering things that will supposedly fulfill the desires or satiate the desires. And we’ve been now, society as a whole has been really, not just encouraged, but actually really herded down this road where the focus is about fulfilling desire. You know, this is what life is. This is what’s going to make life worthwhile. And of course, that’s so shallow, and that’s so empty. It’s so crass to think that this is what life is actually all about.
When we become caught up in the idea of simply trying to fulfill desire we often do not question, “Where exactly are these desires coming from? And when I follow this path to try and fulfill them where exactly will it take me? Will it truly make me happy?” And of course, we could talk for an extended period about this, but we don’t have, of course, the time to do that. But it would be good if we all became much more responsible and much more introspective, where we slow down a little bit and begin to actually think about these things intelligently, ask these questions.
One of the things I felt incredibly heartening when I when I run the prison programs where we run this program of mindfulness and meditation, and we teach them about consequential thinking, We teach them about not just acting on impulse, not just reacting to heightened states of emotions but learning to step back from things and to really calm down and then carefully consider, “What should be my course of action? What’s in my best interest? What’s going to produce the outcome that I actually desire, that’s beneficial for me long term and beneficial for others?”
And one of the things I often heard repeated from murderers and big gang people and people in prison for all kinds of things, you ask them, “Why do you keep coming to the program?” and the short answer that I would always get is, “Because it works. I tried some of these things, and it actually works.” And it’s like this massive realization to people that have never exercised restraint. They’ve acted impulsively most of their life, and it has got them into big trouble.
I mean much of criminal activity is based upon the exact same things that we’ve been talking about, but when you look at those—you overlay those principles to criminal activity, when somebody goes in, for instance, to rob a store, they don’t see a victim. When somebody commits a violent offense, even a sexual offense there is no perception of a victim. People are simply overwhelmed with the desire. They get fixated. They’ve been thinking about this particular thing, whether it’s the money, whether it’s the, what they see as a sex object, or whether it is property crime or whatever, they don’t see a victim. They see what they want that’s going to fulfill that desire, and anybody that sort of comes in between them and what they want, that person often becomes a victim, but in the mind of the perpetrator that’s not a victim.
And learning now to really think beyond just the feeling of a need to fulfill an immediate desire, to move beyond the instant gratification makes it so that people can grow in many, many ways.
From a spiritual perspective the big problem is that when a people have no concept whatsoever of the spiritual being who is occupying the body, that I am an eternal spiritual being. I am temporarily located in this gross physical body, and I am also having to deal with this mind. When I reduce everything down to simple material things like a physical body and a mind and I identify that as me, then the most natural thing to conclude from that is that satisfying the urges of the senses and of the mind will make it so I become fulfilled and happy, and that should be my purpose. And to be free to choose to do whatever I want to fulfill my desires is what I would consider to be ultimately freedom. But from a spiritual perspective, where I embrace the understanding that I am an eternal spiritual being, this body, this mind, is not me, and no matter how hard I try to stimulate my senses and my mind through material activity, through sensual gratification, I do not become fulfilled. The happiness that I may experience is fleeting, and it’s not really that great, and so as a natural consequence I will feel that it’s never enough. Sounds like a song, Greatest Showman, “Never enough, never enough for me.” That pretty much captures everything. It’s another version, I guess, of the Rolling Stones way back when, “I can’t get no satisfaction, and I tried, and I tried, and I tried. Can’t get no satisfaction.” And these were big time hedonists saying this. They had the money, they had the fame, they were going for it, and they admit that it wasn’t providing satisfaction. The problem then becomes, because it’s not satisfying, that I become dissatisfied.
So these two perspectives: I accept that I am material, or I will accept the idea that I’m actually a spiritual being temporarily residing within this body. And then when I look at the broader perspective of yoga philosophy, and I take into consideration that I’m an eternal spiritual being, that I will spend a limited time in this body, my body will undergo death, and then the spiritual being will move on and occupy another body, reincarnation, that for every action that I take there will be a reaction, there will be a consequence, and that is inescapable. And all of that rolls into the big picture of this term they have called samsara, this repeated cycle of birth and death.
When our focus is narrowly projected onto this idea of material experience and stimulating the senses, the bodily senses, if I do not accept, even though I’m experiencing, but if I do not accept that I cannot be fulfilled, that these activities and experiences cannot grant lasting happiness, then I have to really rethink purpose. In this context being free to choose doesn’t mean that I’m free, that I’m experiencing freedom. It simply means that I’m making choices that will lead to my perpetual entanglement and the having to experience the karmic consequences of all my actions good and bad. And it was for this reason that it was advised that if one wants to become truly free then one should be seeking to become free from the karmic consequences of choices.
Being free to make a choice doesn’t mean that you’re not going to suffer. It’s just like there’s a big rat trap there, and there’s a piece of cheese there, and I want the cheese, and I make the choice to go for the cheese, and the consequence is I get slammed by the rat trap. My fingers get crushed. That’s pretty much the reality of material existence. So rather than simply fanning the fires of desire and constantly seeking to find perfect happiness through all this activity, I need to be realistic about this world, and I need to exercise restraint, to exercise control, to have purpose in life, to exercise consequential thinking with everything I do.
So there’s a beautiful verse in the Bhagavad-gita, in the 2nd chapter. It says,
“A person who is not disturbed by the incessant flow of desires — that enter like rivers into the ocean, which is ever being filled but is always still — can alone achieve peace, and not the person who strives to satisfy such desires.”
So here you have, like whoa, this is a very strong recommendation. This is a massive dose of reality, that it is through the exercise of restraint and tolerance, and not simply constantly trying to both stimulate and then satisfy all the desires that may arise from the mind and the senses, that a person who does that can alone achieve peace and not the person who strives to satisfy such desires. Then it will go on to say in another verse, “and how can there be happiness without peace?” So from the Vedic perspective entanglement in material existence was understood to be a significant problem. Diving into material existence and looking to perfect it doesn’t produce the desired result.
In another verse from the Bhagavata Purana it states,
“I, the infinitesimal spirit soul, on the other hand, have embraced this mind, which is the mirror reflecting the image of the material world. Thus I have become engaged in enjoying objects of desire and am entangled due to contact with the modes of nature.
And yet another quote also from the Bhagavat Purana:
“Today you have opened our eyes and revealed how to cross to the other side of the ocean of darkness.”
So this is a reference to material life when one is simply immersed in it without any higher understanding or perception. It’s compared to an ocean of darkness.
“By our past deeds and by the arrangement of superior authority, we are entangled in a network of fruitive activities and have lost sight of the destination of life; thus we have been wandering within the universe.”
Describes the condition of the living being from a very, very big perspective. The yogis, having this other perspective, chose to live a different type of life in order to seek actual freedom. In the Bhagavad-gita in the 5th chapter:
“Before giving up this present body, if one is able to tolerate the urges of the material senses and check the force of desire and anger, he is a yogī and is happy in this world.”
I become so sad that because of the erosion of higher moral principles young people are not really being educated and taught how to progressively exercise restraint, dispassion, tolerance and to build towards a life that is more purposeful and more meaningful. And that verse that we just read really explains that which is really, really important.
In another verse from the Bhagavat Purana, and it talks about how such a yogi, what is their experience when they live in the world with this type of enlightenment, with this type of realization.
“Although a self-realized soul may live in various material bodies while in this world, experiencing their various qualities and functions, he is never entangled, just as the wind which carries various aromas does not actually mix with them.”
Anybody that’s been able to actually listen to this and consider it may ask the question, “Why do you care? And what business is it of ours what anybody else is doing? Why should we care?” In answer to that, from the 5th canto, 5th chapter of the Bhagavat Purana:
“If someone is ignorant and addicted to the path of samsara, how can one who is actually learned, merciful and advanced in spiritual knowledge engage him in fruitive activity and thus further entangle him in material existence? If a blind man is walking down the wrong path, how can a gentleman allow him to continue on his way to danger? How can he approve this method? No wise or kind man can allow this.”
So this is the bigger view. The bigger view was that not only should we strive for a higher understanding of life, for a more principled and spiritual existence, and tasting the sweetness, the nectar of such an enlightened life one cannot tolerate the suffering of others. And so how does such an enlightened person live? What is this freedom? In describing the life of such a person, again in the Bhagavad-gita:
“He who is satisfied with gain which comes of its own accord, who is free from duality and does not envy, who is steady in both success and failure, is never entangled, although performing actions.”
So, massive subject, and difficult to deal with in a short period of time, because some of the things we have just touched on could be easily misunderstood if people don’t have a broad enough understanding of all of the finer points of what we were talking about. But my hope is that at least the bigger message might be considered and perhaps embraced to different degrees by people that hear this discourse, that the freedom to be able to just choose whatever you want is not true freedom. There will always be consequences to all choices that you make, and invariably if we are making choices that are simply material in nature it will lead to our undoing; whereas if we live a more spiritually directed life, we practice restraint and tolerance, we become more focused on looking for happiness within rather than outside of ourself—it’s like we’re always looking around for something to get hold of and bring it to us to consume it or to hold it or to absorb it somehow or other, this is how I’m going to become happy. And the answer is, no. A certain amount of happiness can be experienced but it is fleeting, and there’s always a price attached to it, that we have a tremendous capacity for happiness. That is because its origins are spiritual, and because we are eternal spiritual beings.
And through the practice of yogic meditation, meditation using spiritual sound, it makes it so it brings increasing clarity to our life, to our thinking. Our life becomes more purposeful and spiritually directed, and we become increasingly more fulfilled and happy. So with that I’d like to thank you very much, and ask you to join with me when we chant Aum Hari Aum. Thank you very much.