Freedom – spiritual virtue, value or norm no. 1

In my series about spiritual values I want to start out with a virtue that is perhaps the strongest ideal in the series.

Is freedom a virtue? In a traditional religious setting taking responsibility would be considered a virtue. Freedom and responsibility can’t be separated. Those who have freedom, have a lot of responsibility. With responsibility comes the freedom to make mistakes.

Us modern people demand freedom. We demand the freedom to sin, to divorce, to change jobs and so on. Freedom is an aspect of modernity. Never before were people so free to fill in their own lives according to their own desires. Never before was there so little social pressure. And yet we don’t feel free.

On the flip side of that freedom is the virtue of tolerance and acceptance of others. The word ‘tolerance’ suggests an unwillingness to accept that other person, even while it speaks of leaving them be. Acceptance is a nicer word. I think it’s central to the new spirituality to accept that each person is free to choose their own path and with it comes the insight that not everybody is automatically going to choose the path we do. This is hard to practice – but then most ideals are. It keeps us on our toes.

In the Hindu tradition of yoga freedom is center stage. Moksha literally means liberation. This is not about the liberation of responsibility (though that’s one precondition for the path, traditionally), but the freedom from the burden of emotional and mental confusion.

I put it between brackets, but it is important enough to bold: Freedom of responsibility was in Ancient India a precondition for the path of yoga. That doesn’t mean one could just leave all responsibilities in the world. Just the opposite: only those who no longer had the responsibility of wife and children (because those children were safely married off) could really focus on the path. The Brahmin was obligated to his caste to first get a son and make sure he grew up soundly.

However sexist this image is (and it is) there is still a lesson there: responsibility can’t be ignored. Those who have kids can’t just leave them behind, unless there are others willing to take up that responsibility.

The freedom from tradition becomes almost absolute in some people into alternative spirituality. People forget that there are lessons hidden in taking responsibility. Devotion and years of commitment don’t combine well with freedom. But those who work year after year in the same religious organisation are more likely to learn from the other people there than those who only come by when it’s ‘fun’.

In short: while I think this value is one that many people embrace, I don’t think freedom is all that interesting as a norm. While my life is full of freedom (it comes with the territory of being your own boss), it only becomes interesting when you take responsibility. Perhaps the (dutch?) saying ‘the master shows himself in limitation’ [In de beperking toont zich de meester] is relevant here…

7 thoughts on “Freedom – spiritual virtue, value or norm no. 1”

  1. It’s interesting that you brought up freedom, as I’ve always considered the feeling of absolute freedom to be the equivalent of enlightenment.

    I think of freedom more as the ability to have a choice rather than not having any responsibilities. It is possible to attend to responsibilities and still feel completely free inside. I guess it depends on how one defines freedom and you gave a variety of good examples to think about.

  2. I was reminded of this post when I read today’s quote from Abraham-Hicks at

    “Every emotion, from despair all of the way up to ecstasy; from complete Connection to who-you-really-are, all the way to pinching yourself off pretty severely, all of those emotions are about your perception of freedom, or your perception of bondage—every one of them.”

    Excerpted from the workshop in Orlando, FL on Saturday, January 22nd, 2005

  3. Freedom & responsibility may also be conditions. One ‘has’ them or not. Independence & interdependence are similar but one can ‘be’ independent or interdependent… of course one can ‘be’ free & responsible. I think virtue (or value) can be static in the short term but it must be dynamic and active in the long term… like after an incarnation (or sleep) one should realize what one must do do be more virtuous next time… and actively be virtuous.

    1. I do not recall what I was thinking at the time, but I did not necessarily mean anyone could escape any of the terms I brought up, from a certain viewpoint. Maybe I did not really understand interdependence at the time, and now I certainly do not think we can escape being interdependent.

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