On freedom

IMG013
Sculpture representing a fist, Paris, 2011 (film, Nikon) © Gabriela De Golia

 

The following text was the foundation for a sermon I preached at my church (the First Church of Middletown, Connecticut) the Sunday before the 2018 Fourth of July holiday. I touch on numerous topics, but the central one is freedom. I share my perspective on how freedom’s very nature is interconnected with servitude, along with examples of how various spiritual traditions teach this beautifully paradoxical idea.

The text is slightly different from the actual sermon delivery, but the larger sentiments and themes remain the same.

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May the words of my mouth
And the meditations of all of our hearts
Be aligned with you, oh God,
Our rock and our redeemer.
Amen.

Good morning dear friends. My name is Gabriela, and I am a deacon here at First Church of Christ in Middletown. I am honored to be delivering today’s sermon in Julia’s stead as she enjoys some vacation. A special welcome to all of you who are new with us today as we begin our community worship.

This year, in part due to national and world events but also given that we are currently hosting community summer worship and inviting new friends into our space, First Church has chosen the theme of Radical Hospitality as a focus for our sermons this month. We as a church are constantly seeking to create an evermore welcoming and safer space for all individuals, and we wish to reflect on how we could do that even better within and beyond the walls of this sanctuary

So for the next month, you’ll be hearing reflections on this theme that touch on different topics. For today, given that the fourth of July holiday is approaching, I thought it would be fitting to reflect on the notion of freedom and how it intersects with this theme of radical hospitality and inclusivity. Because, really, what do we actually mean when we say “I am free,” or that we live in “the land of the free”? We use the term often, but I don’t think we are often invited to reflect deeply on what we mean by freedom. Especially in times of political and social unrest, I think it is vital to reflect deeply on its meaning because, depending on how we understand the term, our lives and our society shift radically, including who is safe and welcome in it.

So let’s, as a church, get our intellectual hands dirty and unpack this idea of freedom for a bit. I propose that we start with some basics: a definition. If you are anything like me when you are struggling to define a concept, the first thing you do is go to Google — which is exactly what I did for this sermon. According to my search, Google defines freedom as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint”. Please raise your hand if this is roughly the definition of freedom you were taught.

Right. For many of us, it’s the definition we were taught, and I would argue it’s what most Americans believe freedom to be. While I believe our nation’s passion for freedom is one of its beautiful strengths, I would like to reflect on what I perceive to be some troubling flaws in this definition that our larger society embraces with regards to freedom. I would then like to offer an alternative vision of freedom that is not so centered on personal power but rather is centered on an understanding of freedom that is far more expansive and wholistic.

Part of my skepticism towards a conception of freedom as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint” is that it negates some basic facts of life, including the fact that none of us, even if social circumstances permit it, can ever do whatever we want whenever we want, because none of us is in full control of our circumstances. Every single human being, even the most privileged, has restraints on their circumstances beyond their control. One could even argue that it is inherently human to live within these restraints. Otherwise, we would be God; but we aren’t. Can I get an “Amen” to that?

So how can freedom, then, be possible in our human reality of living within limitations? If we stick with Google’s definition of freedom, it’s inherently impossible, because it would be a negation of terms. But if we look towards spiritual texts and how they explain freedom, we hear a different story. A story where limitations are not barriers to freedom but precisely that which defines the path to freedom. I know this might sound a bit nonsensical, so let me give an example.

As you may know, the first, critical steps towards freedom from addiction in 12 Step programs is first: the acceptance of one’s own powerlessness over the addiction; second: the belief in a power greater than oneself; and finally: a full surrender to this Higher Power’s plan and an abandonment of one’s own self-will. I don’t think it’s often appreciated just how radical and revolutionary these steps are in a time and place where we often hear “if there’s a will, there’s a way.” But self-will has never freed an addict from addiction. Rather, freedom from addiction is achieved by forsaking one’s own willfulness and limiting oneself to following, through discernment and action, a plan presented to us by a Power greater than ourselves. We might not always like this plan from Higher Source and we might not always want to do it. But to be free from addiction, an addict has no choice but to limit themselves in this way. Such limitations are not barriers to freedom, but precisely that which permit true liberation from the horrific plight of addiction.

There is something very powerful in 12 Step programs that everyone—not just recovering addicts and their loved ones—can benefit from. While we might not be addicted to a substance, just about every one of us is incredibly and perhaps unhealthily attached to our opinions, our expectations, and our desires. The 12 Steps programs offer a model for achieving true liberation from that which binds us to suffering, whatever it is: admit we cannot control that to which we are attached; trust in a higher power’s ability to offer a solution to the situation; and following that power’s guidance without hesitation.

Amazingly enough, this model of liberation is reflected in many faith traditions, including Christianity. Consider, for instance, a beautifully poetic and seemingly contradictory statement in 1 Peter 2:16, which we heard earlier today: “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.”

There is a lot going on in this one sentence, so let me repeat it: “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.

Notice how being free here is not the opposite of being a servant; nor does freedom equate to doing whatever one wants. Rather, we are told that in order to live as free people we must be servants of God — a God who is Love — and to limit our actions to those that are aligned with God’s goodness.

Do you see how the Bible is, in typical fashion, turning everything on its head? To be free, I must enslave myself to God and put limits on my actions. I can choose not to enslave myself to God and do whatever I want, but then I would not be free. I find it to be beautifully paradoxical, and it is my conviction that there is a deeper truth hiding here that Jesus is encouraging us to see and embrace — one that does not pit freedom against servitude but rather brings the two together. Rather than seek out the ability to do whatever we want, we are being told that yielding to our role in God’s plan for us (which does not include playing God) and limiting ourselves to do what God wants (rather than simply what we want) is where true freedom resides.

Such profound teachings are present in spiritual texts beyond the Bible, such as the Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam. As Christians living in an era of rampant Islamophobia, I think it is important that we remember that these two faiths are sisters who share common spiritual blood, and whose teachings are complimentary. Like Christianity, Islam is described by many as a path towards liberation through communion with God. But get this (and this might prove useful for a trivia game, so listen closely): the very word Islam, while denoting a religious path towards freedom, actually means “submission” in Arabic. So here again, we see the false binary between freedom and submission being toyed with and ultimately broken in Islamic teachings, similarly to Jesus’.

The Qur’an is not speaking here of submission as an abusive relationship between an authority figure and a subservient being. Rather, “submission” is meant to denote the state of being that all of creation is already and forever in as part of the realm of God. Similarly to the Bible, the Qur’an beautifully emphasizes that we are ultimately at the mercy of whatever fate the God of Love has planned for us. To accept this position of our relative powerlessness in the face of God’s will is seen not a sign of weakness in Islam, but rather a way of being that is in perfect resonance with God, offering us true freedom by opening us up to God’s guidance and loving care.

In Christianity, Islam, 12 Step Programs, and many other spiritual paths, we are told again and again that to find true freedom, we must surrender our own will and align ourselves to God’s to the best of our abilities. But when we as a society focus on freedom as simply being able to do whatever we want without hindrance or restraint, we think it’s all about us, rather than about all of us. We start to view anything that limits or challenges us as a threat that must be eliminated. This leads to defensiveness of our so-called freedom that can even result in mortal harm. Such an individualistic notion of freedom leads to laws like a “zero tolerance” policy at our border that offers no love for immigrants and refugees. It leads to a Muslim ban because we perceive difference as dangerous. It leads to the destruction of sacred Native land for the sake of oil. It leads to the disproportionate imprisonment of black and brown people so that white folks can enjoy their “freedom” more comfortably.

This kind of false freedom closes us in behind walls of fear and defensiveness. But true freedom through servitude and alignment with the God of Love opens us up and keeps us on a path that is healing for ourselves and others. The path to true freedom reminds us of all of our connection to each other and to God, in whose image we are all made. When we reject the false belief that freedom is based on limited resources that mustn’t be shared with others and chose instead to trust that there is an abundance of divine love to go around, radical hospitality and inclusivity become possible and heal the wounds of the world.

Freedom for ourselves and our communities is not about achieving the power to do whatever we want. Rather, freedom is the task of diligently staying a course whose North Star is Love. It is not so much our ability to choose that grants us freedom but our decision to choose, over and over, to follow God’s will for us that allows us to achieve true liberation and become a truly welcoming and transformative presence in the world. For the freedom offered through God’s plan for us is far greater, more benevolent, and more loving than any other type of freedom.

May each of us and our whole community be a source of refuge and love for all of God’s creation, and may we find radical liberation through the grace of God, our only true source of freedom.

Let it be so. Amen.

On rest

Walking meditation
Walking meditation, Blue Cliff Monastery, 2016 © Rob Walsh

Sabbath, or rest more broadly, has been on my mind these days. This is partly due to personal circumstances and largely because my friend and pastor, Julia, is planning a well-deserved sabbatical for herself in the year 2019. The topic also feels pertinent on a much deeper, philosophical level.

The Sabbath’s roots are religious — Jewish, specifically, yet most other spiritual traditions have a practice of pausing one’s “normal” life and recommitting to the God(s) of their understanding. Yet a Sabbath (which is at the root of the word sabbatical) needn’t be centered on the divine per se, in my view. Buddhists sometimes call it a “Day of Mindfulness”, for example, where the intention is to clear one’s mind of the mental and emotional debris left in the wake of our speedy lifestyles. It also has taken on professional connotations, such as in the field of academia.

The idea of dedicated time to take Sabbath — that is, time to rest, renew, restore, and re-center — is completely countercultural these days. It’s even revolutionary, in my opinion, and I mean this in the best of ways. In a world where we get calls through our watches, have access to email 24/7, can shop whenever we want, and are sucked into the virtual infinity of the Internet, to temporarily lay our daily tasks and habits to the side with the intention of making contact with our deeper foundations is viewed as either a luxury one can’t afford or a nuisance one doesn’t care to practice.

Buddhist sutras sometimes refer to our way of existing as a kind of sleep-walking, an unconscious forward movement devoid of any real awareness of our actions or their consequences. To me, this is powerful imagery. It’s a bit like The Matrix: the idea that we live in a dream world in which have little to no control over our circumstances simply because we are not “awake”. By awake, I do not simply mean the opposite of sleep; I mean the act of intentionally bringing one’s attention to the here and now and to each facet of our existence (good, bad, and ugly), thus giving us the opportunity to choose how we respond to the events of our lives.

When we are existentially “asleep at the wheel”, we are under the control of powerful beings that do not have our best interest (nor the collective’s best interest) at heart. These beings are what, in Christianity, we might call “false idols.” Some think of these as Pagan gods, but such an interpretation is short-sighted. More accurate false idols would be perfection, wealth, fame, busy-ness, others’ opinions of us, and our own expectations of ourselves.

To practice intentional rest that is meant to shed these false idols and re-center us on true icons (that is, those ideas which speak to the interconnectedness of all things, such as “God” or love) is to practice acting in defiance of inhuman and unjust practices such as exploitative labor, consumerism, and greed. To take time each day, each week, each month — however often feels appropriate yet transformative for you — is to be a revolutionary in the cause of awakening. It is a practice of shattering the chains which keep us beholden to idols that do not serve us. It is a practice of remembering our humanity.

To practice re-centering rest — which is very different from merely “catching up on sleep” — is to reprioritize our time and our actions in such a way that love is the guiding light. It is an acknowledgment that, while there isn’t enough time in the day to do it all, whatever one can accomplish in the day is enough. It is a statement that one’s worth is not linked to our productivity, as capitalism and the Protestant work ethic suggest. Instead, it is a declaration that our worth is linked to our inherent, irrevocable essence. This is a chief teaching of healthy spirituality and/or psychology, yet it is terrifying for the ego. For, if our worth is not linked to our productivity, what purpose does our ego serve? The ego hates undeserved worthiness because such grace renders it nearly pointless. To survive, the ego needs external validation for its efforts, but Sabbath flys in the face of that. By claiming we are valid in spite of our inability to “do it all”, in spite of “doing nothing” (which is what some suggest Sabbath amounts to, though I find that to be an interesting use of the word “nothing”), we begin the work of dismantling the ego and, in that process, opening ourselves up to deeper truths.

It is on us to trust that even if we take time away from our worldly commitments, the world won’t fall apart. Unfortunately for the ego, yet fortunately for our beings, we are not that indispensable. Existence can — and will — move on even if nothing on our to-do list gets checked off. Life crises teach us this: we get hit with a serious case of the flu and suddenly all our work plans have to be delayed; a loved one passes and we have to cancel all other commitments to be at their funeral; a child is born and suddenly all the things we thought were so important are not worth our precious time compared to this new life. This isn’t to say that such events are not challenging (for they certainly are). Rather, what such circumstances prove to us is that, if we are forced to put aside our usual plans, a reorientation of priorities is possible. Unfortunately, we usually require massive (and sometimes tragic) events to be shown this truth.

Perhaps there’s a healthier way to learn how to awaken from our existential sleepwalking. Given that practice makes better, to regularly engage in intentional re-centering and reprioritization — in other words, Sabbath — is to better equip ourselves for those times in life when unforeseen circumstances require such a reorientation on our part, whether we like it or not.

Sabbath does not require money, for it is not the same as expensive, capitalist-oriented “self-care” practices (think: pricey retreats at yoga centers that are disconnected from the spiritual roots of yoga). All we need is our intentionality, our trust in the process, and a willingness to sit with the initial discomfort caused by our lack of “doing” (remember, the ego hates Sabbath). And rather than thinking of Sabbath as a full-day, weekly practice, we can think of it in broader terms: as a friend once said, “I practice Sabbath-moments, rather than Sabbath-days. It just works better for me.”

In short: we rest in order to awaken. We stop in order to move forward. Sabbath is an act of loving resilience and resistance, an act of rooting ourselves deeper in order to rise taller. Just as the depths of a lake become visible when the surface is still, the depths of our own being become visible when we practice stillness within and without. So let us pause, then, and return to the deeper truths we yearn to reconnect with.

Resources for practicing intentional rest

On suffering

underground cave
Underground cave, Craters of the Moon National Park, 2011 (film, Nikon) © Gabriela De Golia

I write this essay from a deeply personal place, even though it may come across as a bit cerebral. As someone who suffers from various mental illnesses, including major depressive disorder, suffering is a companion I have become very intimate with over the years. I have known suffering and I have been blessed with the deepest form of transformation thanks to that same suffering. I view my joys and my sorrows as interdependent. My hope is to help others see how this can be the case for them, too.

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Suffering is, perhaps, the most ubiquitous experience in human life. Countless spiritual traditions speak to this fact. The most fundamental declaration of Buddhism, the First Noble Truth, states: there is suffering. So simple and powerful. So honest, it is a relief to even read it, for it declares that one is not wrong for suffering; one is merely human for doing so. Indeed, suffering is arguably the most human of experiences.

Yet it is also the most avoided and feared.

This aversive reaction to suffering (or even to the mere thought of suffering) is at the root of many personal and social ills, in my view. Our addictions, our exclusionary politics, our incessant attempts at self-perfection (or the perfecting of others, such as our kids, our partners, our parents, …) are by-and-large manifestations of our inability and unwillingness to witness and sit with our own discomfort. While this avoidance is, on the one hand, incredibly logical (including from an evolutionary standpoint) it leads to a tragic accumulation of missed opportunities.

Nature is filled with examples of how suffering is crucial to the development and survival of various beings. Take the butterfly: it must struggle out of its cocoon, almost to the point of breaking itself, in order to emerge as a strong and capable creature. Should one attempt to help it out of the cocoon (“doing it a service”, as it were), they would ultimately kill the butterfly. This is because it wouldn’t have had the opportunity to eliminate excess fluids from its body, rendering it unable to fly.

Take another example, made somewhat famous by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh: a lotus, the most sacred flower in many faith traditions, cannot come to life without the mud from which it grows. “No mud, no lotus.” Compost and manure show a similar story: it is literally from the muck, the shit, that new life comes forth.

Why not, then, look to our own human suffering through the lens of transformation and regeneration, as nature so beautifully demonstrates time and again? Why not dismiss the notion that humans are separate from nature, adopting instead the idea that we are part of the natural suffering/growth/suffering cycle? Why not look to our sufferings from the perspective of them being openings into new and better futures?

I believe the main reason for which we don’t look at suffering in this way is that there is a frightening element of the unknown in the suffering/growth/suffering process of transformation. In other words, there are parts of the process we cannot predict nor control. Indeed, to accept that suffering yields growth is to yield to that same suffering, to stop trying to control its course and, rather, let it guide us somewhere we haven’t yet been. This is a terrifying concept for most of us. We’d rather fail at controlling something than risk deeper defeat by letting it take us somewhere new and mysterious. “The devil you know…”

To clarify: I do not mean to imply that yielding to suffering means listening to its directives, especially when said directives are self-harming. Obviously, there are certain situations in which one must gain control over a particular kind of pain. To not seek help (perhaps even medical attention) during a suicidal episode, for example, is downright dangerous. Let us not conflate yielding with harmful self-sacrifice.

To view suffering (the kind that isn’t life-threatening) as a guide sent from beyond and/or from deep within us is to take a radically new stance on life. Whichever origin you feel more comfortable with (that is, the notion of suffering being a guide from within or without) serves the purpose of transformation, so long as you don’t think this guide is under your control. While you may be able to avoid your suffering temporarily through various means, you do not control it.

Indeed, suffering often arises without our permission and it only retreats when its work in us is done. We might be “done” with your suffering, but it’s a matter of whether or not our suffering is done with us that determines when we are released from it. Our resistance to its movement within us only prolongs suffering’s presence in our beings. Deep down, I think we can each acknowledge this. Until we learn the lesson our particular suffering is striving to teach us, it will follow us in our dreams, our relationships, our habits.

Viewing suffering as a teacher, rather than an experience to be avoided at all costs, means taking ownership over one’s fate in a deeper way. It means opening ourselves up to methods of healing and growth we didn’t yet try due to our fear of the unknown. Perhaps our suffering is telling us to go to a Twelve Step meeting, to love ourselves more, to start medication with the help of a professional, to make amends to someone we’ve wronged (either ourselves or another). So the question becomes: are we humble enough to admit we do not — cannot — know all the answers about our pain and our path to healing? And are we willing enough to listen to a deeper intuition than our conscious minds can provide and act on said intuition’s guidance, even if we still feel scared to do so?

This point about connecting to intuition is one of the reasons why every major faith tradition has taught a contemplative practice, such as meditation or centering prayer. Without making room for your conscious mind to settle and for a deeper knowing to arise, we remain imprisoned within “the wheel of suffering” / “hell” due to an inability to learn from our pain and emerge from it more whole. To practice contemplation is to choose transformation over stuckness, whether it be through meditation, prayer, art, or any other practice of stilling the mind and connecting with that deeper self. If you seek liberation from your suffering, you must find a practice that grants this kind of opening towards healing.

A shadow requires light to appear: even if you cannot find any redeeming quality to your suffering, you can at least begin to determine the location of the peace from which your pain is contrasted. Find ways to navigate your darkness, read its signs, and grope your way towards growth. To be human is to suffer; do not throw away your true nature by avoiding this fact. Instead, learn from this reality. Your suffering, however deep, however old, however strong, is your guide to the deepest parts of your being, to your whole self.

Welcome

Welcome to CONSULTING WITH MUSES, a blog populated with written pieces on a variety of themes in no particular order.

While working on a writing project, a mentor once told me, “consult with your muses and then work your magic.” His guidance beautifully encapsulated what I believe the writing process is: a union between personal power and a deeper well of knowledge that extends beyond oneself. The name of this blog arises from his words.

Writing is a practice through which I come to better understand my internal landscape and the external realm in which I live. My pieces are thus deeply personal, political, and spiritual. They serve as windows and mirrors; openings into new worlds and reflections of present circumstances. My wish is for my words to be aligned with the wills of my muses. I hope you are nourished and stretched towards new places by virtue of your time here.

– Gabriela De Golia

Index of topics I’ve written about: boredom, freedom, grace, hope, queerness, queerness and mindfulness, resonance, rest, suffering.