Freedom is a spiritual quality. Like love, or peace, or stillness, it is essential, and only truly cultivated within. Equally, freedom, like love, or peace, or stillness, is experienced in the world, or more accurately, through the world. While worldly freedom can be attained, spiritual freedom is unconditional. This freedom is not the absence of difficulty, but freedom despite difficulty.
Consciously or unconsciously, many of us seek liberation from addictive thinking patterns, ego-based limitations, fears, insecurities, anxieties, and other forms of suffering. Spiritual freedom, or liberation, is rare and, even for those with a dedicated practice, often fleeting. Most of us have to engage in the pursuit of happiness, to build a life that is circumstantially free, and aim to alleviate suffering through action.
Desiring worldly freedom is not a spiritual failure. Worldly freedom, sometimes called liberty, is defined as “being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behaviour, or political views.” Emphasizing spiritual freedom can dismiss the detrimental impact of a lack of liberty, and ignore, or even enable, oppression or abuse. But seeking liberty without liberation frames freedom as the absence of difficulty.
Liberty and liberation are two pathways to freedom. One without the other is incomplete. Each pathway, and their interdependent relationship, must be understood, and must stay in its own lane, to maximise benefits and navigate treacherous terrain. I believe the two paths eventually merge into one, the true path toward freedom.
Philosophies of the Two Pathways
Liberation traditions centre around spiritual freedom. These include Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Hermeticism, and Gnosticism. They note the paradox that seeking worldly freedom causes suffering, and direct seekers within. Tantra in its original form, and not hedonism under the pretence of spirituality, is an interesting bridge of the worldly and the spiritual. It teaches liberation through the pathway of the senses, rather than liberation by retracting attention from the senses. It avoids the paradox by integrating spiritual freedom into that process.
Liberation traditions are designed to free individuals. Dogmatic religions, on the other hand, don’t want “free spirits,” a term created to belittle Christian mystics who disobeyed the Church’s doctrine by practising direct union with God. Dogmatic religions force compliance by making freedom conditional on following rules, with punishment for disobedience. Free spirits were killed for heresy.
When freedom is weaponised it becomes a red herring that followers are never to find. Freedom is pedestalled and elusive, and used to yield power over others. The weaponisation of freedom isn’t exclusive to religious dogma, but any disingenuous or self-serving group; be it governments, institutions, cults, subcultures, family dynamics, peer groups. If you comply, one day you’ll be free. You’re free, until you don’t do this, or do that.
When freedom is defined, it is by default conditional, and won’t meet everyone’s definition — even when well-intentioned. This can affect subcultures or “progressive” political movements. For example, the American dream defines freedom in the context of capitalism. Freedom is yours if you learn how to play the game, pay your bills, work hard, and obey social and civil agreements. The punchline? For most, even that’s not enough.
Such philosophies are adept at working with the mechanics of the world, making them more adaptable. They’re born from a desire to master the world, conquer it, to be distinct from nature, a freedom granted to a select few. In contrast, liberation traditions support individuals’ path to spiritual freedom, but lack potency, direction, or practicality in confronting worldly oppression.
The question is, then, what systems allow for genuine worldly freedom? And how does spiritual freedom integrate into those systems?
Worldly Freedom: Positive Liberty, Negative Liberty
No one can escape the interconnected, relational aspect of the world, unless you go full monk mode, or get really hung up on the idea of the world being an illusion, and your apathy is disguised as spiritual intelligence. Individual freedom must complement collective freedom. Without that, liberation is no different from the American dream; the “liberated” only liberate themselves.
Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty is a useful framework for what collective freedom could look like. Berlin focused on political philosophy and freedom in the context of civilisation with his concept of negative liberty (freedom from) and positive liberty (freedom to). In a healthy society, Berlin argued that people should be free from constraints, and free to pursue worthwhile goals.
Considering where the world is currently, Berlin’s model is aspirational. However, positive liberty isn’t true freedom. Self-mastery, which Berlin argued necessary to pursue positive freedom, equates rational thinking to freedom. Without the dimension of liberation, this leads to suffering, by viewing rationality as the ultimate higher power, or conflating freedom with self-control.
The imbalance toward liberty is tirelessly attempting to manipulate the world to “attain” freedom. Obstacles will be blamed for the lack of freedom, revered for providing freedom, or searched and destroyed. Seeking worldly freedom can become hedonistic, relying on fleeting sensory experience to feel free. Life will always present obstacles, thus, this seeking becomes its own prison, like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill.
Spiritual Freedom: Suffering and Liberation
“The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not ‘the thinker.’ The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. You then begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind. You begin to awaken.”Eckhart Tolle
The Buddhist notion of liberation (sharing the French liber with liberty, meaning free) is freedom from suffering. The Buddha’s approach is paradoxical: to be free from suffering, accept pain, because pain is inevitable. Suffering is caused by resistance, attachment, judgment, denial, ignorance to the nature of life and death. Liberation transcends the mind’s limitations and trickery.
Removing the shackles of self-defeating narratives or beliefs, allowing space for difficult emotions but not being controlled by them, noticing unconscious processes that trigger automatic reactions and acting differently… These are all forms of freedom. As is the realisation, as Tolle notes, of not being the thinker, and connecting to the vast realm of intelligence beyond thought.
Crucially, Buddhism presents the idea of Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who choose, through immense compassion, to free others from suffering. Due to their awakened perspective, they comprehend the interconnected, relational aspect of the world, and see others’ suffering as their own. Their spiritual freedom makes them more effective serving others, free from the burden of the weight of the world.
American priest and spiritual author, Richard Rohr, notes liberation theology as the Biblical equivalent to the Bodhisattva. Using the story of Moses as an example, Rohr writes:
“The voice Moses hears from the burning bush immediately calls him to confront the pharaoh and tell him to let his people go! The voice does not tell Moses to build a temple or to go to one. Here we see a primary inner experience that immediately has social, economic, and political implications!
“Liberation theology shows that spirituality and action are connected from the very beginning and can never be separated. Some people set out to act first, and their inner experience is given to them on the journey itself. Others have an inner experience that then leads them into action. It does not matter on which side you begin, but eventually action and spirituality must meet and feed one another.”
The imbalance toward liberation is neglecting the world, or ignoring intuitive actions that spring from new insight. Denial of worldly oppression runs the risk of spiritual bypassing. Obstacles can be ignored, even if their removal would fast-track freedom. Seeking spiritual freedom can lead to asceticism and masochism. Pride around facing life’s hardship can fuel spiritual ego and lead to passivity or indulgence in suffering. That is worldly freedom in disguise, because it remains conditional.
Ordinary Suffering, Extraordinary Awakening
Liberation traditions warn that seeking freedom in the world can offer temporary relief, which is why it’s so easy to get caught up in the chase. Life’s conditions can be just right. However, this freedom is an illusion, felt subtly as dissatisfaction, restlessness, or unease — ordinary, tolerable suffering. That suffering comes from attachment to maintaining just right conditions, a denial of one of Buddhism’s ultimate truth; everything is impermanent, and always changing.
As we’ve covered, spiritual freedom isn’t easy to cultivate. The rhetoric of instant and lasting enlightenment misses this part of the picture. That doesn’t mean gurus are selling a lie, but true liberation is a lifelong practice, with brief glimpses of the promised land. If you’re lucky, that might expand into days, weeks, months, even years. But what happens when worldly limitations surface? Or you face injustice, hostility, illness, death, or your world falls apart? Does spiritual freedom remain?
The more intense suffering, oppression, or attachment in the world, the more difficult it is to maintain spiritual freedom. It’s easier to cultivate inner peace on a retreat manicured and primed to remove distractions or unpleasantness. The beauty is, the more you’re able to remain free despite difficulty, the more depthful that cultivation becomes.
Even if life’s conditions are just right and things are going well, awakening involves plunging into the psyche’s shadow. The mind has self-oppressive qualities independent from circumstances. If liberation is freedom from suffering, could that imply that, the greater the suffering, the greater the opportunity for liberation? The denser the dark, the brighter the light?
There are many cases of people who have had profound awakenings through trauma, from warfare to grief to incarceration. Dr. Steve Taylor, a former podcast guest and author of Extraordinary Awakenings: When Trauma Leads to Transformation, writes:
“Abraham Maslow coined the term ‘nadir experiences’, referring to ‘peak experiences’ of great joy and liberation that are induced by turmoil and crisis. As Maslow saw it, peak and nadir experiences are not simple opposites but have a close, symbiotic relationship. Experiences of death, tragedy, and trauma can be important learning experiences bringing permanent change to a person’s outlook and character. In this way, nadir experiences can help to bring about what Maslow called ‘self-actualisation’.”
Nadir experiences challenge the idea that freedom is related to conditions being a certain way. Liberation doesn’t require liberty. But it’s common sense that a healthy society shouldn’t rely on trauma as a path to awakening; even the holocaust led to profound experiences for some prisoners, as Viktor Frankl articulates in Man’s Search for Meaning. Framing traumatic experiences as some form of divine plan is a slippery, slippery slope.
Some spiritual teachers and students dismiss the desire for liberty as attachment. I believe that view comes from attachment to the idea of the world being an illusion. Have you heard the parable about the Zen master who had a mug that said, “you don’t have to have liberty to be liberated, but it helps?” Liberty can make the conditions for liberation more favourable. No one is awarded Most Spiritual of the Year for ignoring that.
The Relationship of the Pathways
I’m sure most of us, myself included, oscillate between the two paths, or have areas where spiritual or worldly freedom is pursued at the expense of the other. Neither is wrong or right — both are understandable, and if pursued without harming others, even commendable. The dual pursuit of liberation and liberty avoids the imbalance of primarily seeking one or the other, the false promises leading to hedonism or masochism.
Part of the challenge of merging pathways is considering how liberty and liberation can saturate the wider-world through networks of free spirits, Bodhisattva’s with the intention to alleviate suffering, the implications of their awakening eroding the shackles of oppression, reminding others of the power of inner freedom and outer action, with compassion the primary motivation.
These principles apply to the individual and to society as a whole. When I talk of the world, I include the world stage, and what might be defined as your world — the circumstantial sphere within which you exist and have influence. The friends, family, acquaintances, pockets of the world you encounter and engage with day-to-day.
Your world becomes our world. Our world meets their world. And eventually, the world stage can be influenced by the value of spiritual freedom, liberty infused with liberation. And all of it begins with you.