How to be free

There’s a lovely line in one of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus which in one of the translations goes like this:
‘Alas, where are we? Freer and freer,
Like coloured kites torn loose from their strings,
We toss half-high up…’

There’s something very attractive about setting oneself free from all that binds and constrains us. In Psalm 118, the psalmist prays from a weighed down place of despair and desolation for release and the prayer is answered:

‘I called to the Lord in my distress;
The Lord answered by setting me free.’

The freedom that draws us and for which we yearn is not the freedom of young adulthood which is to do whatever we want – finally. On a walk the other day I heard a child say to their father: ‘It’s all right being a child but I can’t wait to be grown up.’ The father asked why. The child replied, ‘because then I’ll be free to do and be what I want.’ This is when the restraints and the rules seem as obstacles to the chance to be free and fulfil potential.

Rather the yearning of the psalmist is about a pull towards authentic freedom. When Thomas Merton first entered the Abbey of Gethsemani he saw that commitment as a freedom to do what he was told and so be obedient. William Shannon in his analysis of this says this stage of freedom could lead to moral rigidity and become a very stuck place. But as Merton deepened his spiritual searching he found a third stage where freedom becomes an inner reality guided from within rather than from without. He felt that freedom lay in contemplation where in the encounter with God our deepest freedom is discovered.

To be free and to experience our deepest self in God is about loosening the illusions and fictions of the false self. This is similar in part to the process of depth psychotherapy where bit by bit and hour by hour aspects of ourselves are revealed and the falsity behind which we hide is stripped away. Quite recently I was confronted through a dream by a less than attractive part of my own shadow which I had never looked at before. I was able to understand where it came from and how I had adopted this attitude, although previously I had pretended that this was not how I was or felt. Through the unexpected insight I felt I gained some chance to first of all acknowledge it in the light – out of the shadow – and then own it. Once I took it on board I could then let it go and hopefully be a bit freer. This is painstaking and unpleasant as once again the story I tell about myself is dismantled and deconstructed. But the process is also a form of freedom because it is then no longer necessary to have that false part of the self weighing me down.

This is about taking responsibility for our lives and standing on one’s own two feet and confronting one’s projections. Merton found this much harder than simply living by the rules as a monk or as a late adolescent doing what the crowd is doing. So similarly it is for each of us as we check out what is really the truth and not merely an illusory belief or disguise about oneself. It is about maturity and about accepting our humanity – we can be good and bad, happy and sad and so on.
The freedom of knowing oneself then means that one is less preoccupied with self-consciousness and self-concern. There is a lightness that allows us, like the kites torn loose from their string to fly up into the clear sky.