The greatest threat to our freedom is so close to us we often miss it.
Picture yourself fast asleep. Someone is asking you to wake up, but you are deep in a dream, and the call to awaken is experienced as a vague awareness that something is not quite right.
We are in that dream, and in each passing moment we have the option of waking up. Whether our experience of life is pleasant or difficult, we have far more freedom than we acknowledge. Yes the world has boundaries, laws, and restrictions that may physically limit some actions. Yet there are still infinite options available to us in each moment, along with the boundless freedom of our internal world. And the greatest threat to our freedom is our own mind.
We lose our freedom the moment we forget we have it. It is easy to get lost in our own mind, in the labyrinth of thoughts and desires and fears, in the constant narrative of judgments, memories, and imagined futures. We lose sight of the infinite possibilities that exist in each moment, and we lose our freedom to choose from those possibilities.
The mind is our tool. It is quite handy for processing information and making sense of the world we are experiencing, for planning and remembering, for communicating and learning. The mind has the potential to be our servant, yet many of us behave as if we are its subjects, obeying its every whim and decree.
To train your mind to be your servant you must first recognize that you are not your thoughts. Thinking is just something that our minds do, every waking moment and sometimes even in light stages of sleep. But we do not have to listen to all of our thoughts, we do not have to get caught up in their drama, and we can learn how to observe thoughts without identifying with them. (That’s good news because research shows that most thoughts are repetitive and negative. How terrible! How terrible!)
Not all of your thoughts are truth. You probably wouldn’t claim that every thought someone else has is utter truth, so can you honestly give your own mind any more credibility? Believing every thought you have is true is similar to believing every headline you read is true. Our minds put a spin on things and we often only see one perspective. In reality our judgments aren’t always correct. We all make mistakes and we all have misunderstandings. We all sometimes arrive at the wrong conclusions. We all make poor choices somewhere along the way.
If our thoughts are repetitive, relentless, and sometimes misguided then we shouldn’t take them so seriously. We can’t easily stop the constant stream of chatter in our minds, but we can learn to turn down the volume, as if the thoughts were just background music.
What happens when we separate ourselves from our thoughts? What happens if we step back and look at things from a distance for a moment? Let’s explore this rabbit hole for a moment, let’s use our mind as a tool instead of being used by it. Ready?
You are not your thoughts. It is possible to just observe your thoughts passing by, coming and going. In deep states of meditation and in moments of peak experience it is possible to experience spacious gaps of silence as your thoughts subside.
You are also not the story of your life. You are not the things that happened to you in your past. The past is gone, the proverbial “water under the bridge”. You can never return to it in reality, it does not exist anywhere but in your mind. You can only replay fragments of it in your memory, like the ultimate YouTube. You can read about it in a book or a journal, but you are still conjuring in your mind’s eye. You can choose parts of your past to create your story, but realize that you are choosing what to include and what to omit, it is a creative process.
I’ve explored the idea that you are not your past and you are not your ego in other articles, but it seems even more pressing at this point in history to revisit this liberating concept in greater depth. We are facing a deep divide as a species, in this country and in other parts of the world, a chasm far more difficult to circumnavigate and more surreal than the Grand Canyon. We need to find some common ground as human animals or odds are we will face dark days ahead. Which leads me right to my next point:
You are not your political party. You are not your religion. You may choose to believe in these things because you’ve decided they ring true, but you are also free to change your mind about those loyalties.
You are not the roles you play in your life—wife, husband, mother, father, daughter, son, friend, employee, employer, the list goes on . . . You choose to continue performing these roles but you can also chose to stop.
It is your choice to identify with any of these concepts, and you can use these labels to paint a vision of “who you are” yet you are not these things. Why not? Because at any given moment you are free to abandon these roles and affiliations. You can choose to be, to do, or to believe something completely different. And you would still be you, you would still exist.
Of course there would be consequences to walking away from your job, your home, your family, or any prior commitment in your life, but the option is there regardless. Just because it would be disruptive or even traumatic doesn’t change the fact that the freedom to choose is yours, it is always waiting and ready to be exercised. Quiet, lurking, yet blazing proof that much of what we build our identity on is not the same as our actual “self” . . . more like a piece of art where we choose the medium and the colors and create a product, and like all art we can’t control precisely how it turns out yet we seem happy enough to declare “This is me!” or the more stubborn and ridiculous “I can’t change!”
Even if you are physically restrained you are still free to choose what you believe. You are the master of your own thoughts. No one can control what you think in your mind, unless you unconsciously and passively allow them by not recognizing your own freedom.
If you cannot control your own thoughts then that is an indication that you are being a servant of your mind instead of vice-versa . . . like a cart pulling a horse—not particularly functional and rather silly. Training your mind to be your servant takes practice, discipline, and vigilance (and likely regular doses of meditation—not the same as medication, free and without side effects). The untrained mind has trouble staying in the present moment. It is often replaying a past event or rushing off into an imagined future. The untrained mind cannot distinguish between ego and awareness, it sees only through ego and fiercely identifies with events, labels, and objects to create a sense of self.
To train your mind you must wake up. Become a silent observer of your thoughts and your identity. Waking up means considering the possibility that the ego and its story are voluntary and often arbitrary, regardless of how much meaning we slather onto them. To awaken is to recognize that we are choosing our identity in each moment. We are choosing our roles, affiliations, our faith, our thoughts, our reactions, even our moods and emotional experiences. You can’t change it until you own it.
Why should we bother to stir ourselves from such a comfortable slumber? Because when we forget that our identity is just a collection of choices we are making, we restrict our capacity to evolve, to transform our limiting beliefs, our attachments, emotions, reactions, and coping skills. We lose our ability to see other humans as our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children because we forget the fundamental things we have in common as sentient beings—experiencing this world and trying to make sense of it, all living on a planet we depend on, and all facing the fact that life is temporary.
What happens when our mind becomes our servant? What happens when we begin to think critically about our identity, when we allow ourselves to move beyond ego and witness all of this from a slight distance?
We glimpse that life is not just something we have, but rather that we are life. Nature is not something that we look at, we are nature. We begin to understand that awareness is not something we strive for, we are raw awareness. Cultivating this consciousness is critical to our future as a species. Our internal world colors every interaction we have with the external world. It’s all connected, and change in the world happens when people change themselves, one by one. Awareness spreads like the thaw of spring.