“We may notice changes in ourselves, our children, and in people around us, but the deeper meaning of these changes escapes us.”—Knowledge of Freedom: Time to Change (KOF), Dharma Publishing, by Tarthang Tulku.
The Four Freedoms are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But it seems that freedom of speech has become a freedom to claim that only our own opinions matter; freedom of belief become license to treat anyone who doesn’t agree with us as a threat; freedom from want, a dream available to only a few; and freedom from fear the province of medicinal intervention. No wonder that Power Ball queues are swelling like Great Depression food lines.
So, what can be done? And can we be among those who are doing something? Does effective change start with exploration of our own inner being, or is action in the world the only path of true courage? Whatever our starting point, perhaps sooner or later we all discover that inner calm and outer responsiveness are both necessary.
The relationship between our inner being and how we act in the world seems to be the yin and yang needed for balance. If we view ourselves as having failed to become someone we respect, we will have little confidence that our actions can positively impact our world. And if we don’t try to contribute beyond our own narrow sphere, we will have trouble respecting ourselves.
Studying Knowledge of Freedom (quoted above) during a six-month retreat, I discovered that a seed of freedom had been active in my life, but that I hadn’t known it. Instead, I had lived with a belief that I had been a ghost all those years, drifting along in a life scarcely worth living.
The realization that it could be different caught me by surprise; and this occurred when I recognized that my life had had turning points all along. Strangely, they had shown up every seven years or so: in the summer of 1968 it was a fire in my apartment that launched me into a new cycle; in 1975, I gave up my job, apartment and headed to the maritime provinces, searching desperately for something new in my life; around 1982 my father died, my wife of the time lost interest in me, and I discovered Buddhism; and in the early 1990’s I got married, we had our first child, and we moved to California where a new cycle of my life opened up in the retreat.
How strange it still seems that I had never noticed these cycles before then. Until I did, I also hadn’t noticed that with each new cycle, a new version of myself had emerged to lead me into a new phase of life. With this awareness, a more engaging picture of my past life began to rise from the shadows. Forced to sit still in this retreat and really look at myself, I was introduced to the interesting journey of my life. More importantly, I discovered that, in my evolving manifestations, I could be trusted to negotiate the changes that the future keeps bringing my way.
Times of change are disorienting because we haven’t yet developed anything new to put in place of our established patterns. But when change is in the wind, a part of us is listening with interest. And we may see that we don’t have to keep drifting along with the prevailing current.
I would never have guessed that I could find in my past the seeds for cultivating a new future. But through a process guided by the practices in Knowledge of Freedom, I discovered that it’s not the past per se, but my relationship with that past that had held me in a prison of low expectations. My previous ignorance of those important turning points had sentenced me to live out a story line in which nothing significant ever happened. Now, no longer a solitary leaf driven by the winds of fate, I could face the future as a river of time to which I owed my life.
As I began to see alternatives opening, something unexpected happened to my memories. I didn’t receive a flood of lost details of past incidents. I didn’t suddenly remember, for example, the color of the jacket of the person who administered CPR, or the sound of Lake Ontario lapping against the steep rocks to which Miss Marjorie, lacking the strength to pull herself out of the water, had clung for dear life with one arm, grasping my unresponsive body in the other. I did not suddenly have total recall, but something far more extraordinary happened.
Up until then, the incident of my near-drowning had been a story told to me by others, which I had filed away in my memory banks much as a small postcard might be stored in a rarely-opened drawer. But as I contemplated my life in the context of what Knowledge of Freedom was teaching me, my memory of that event expanded and I wondered what it had meant for my mother–that her two-year-old son had strayed into the frigid waters of Lake Ontario and was only alive because her neighbor had been looking out her kitchen window.
Did time and space tighten around my mother’s heart, as she recognized what had been tottering in the balance? Caring for my six-month-old sister, as well as for me, her two-year old son, did she feel that grace had intervened. Or did she feel a foreshadowing of the death of her third child who died four years later, for whom she continued to grieve for the rest of her days?
Now, here we are at the precipice of a future in which the freedoms around our world are falling like dominoes; and hope is departing from land after land. Individually and as a species, will we be able to create communities of caring around our world? And must the first step be for each of us to be present in our own lives, so that we will be able to contribute to the path that men and women, more courageous and exceptional than me, are opening for the rest of us. Exceptional beings of courage and understanding in the past inspired allies in their own time; and without those allies they couldn’t have created new possibilities for our world. Perhaps now, we are not as isolated as we think. Whether we are exploring our humanity in quiet, local ways, or are acting caringly and bravely on the world stage, it is important that we show up however we can.
“And we can focus our energy on supporting whatever we care about—justice for all; remedies for climate change; world peace; gardening; animal rights, creating art, or simply taking care of ourselves and our loved ones.”—Gesture of Great Love; Dharma Publishing, by Tarthang Tulku