My choice of lifestyle is often associated with freedom. I can supposedly freely move around, have no ties to any particular place, no long-term commitments, no debts, no attachments… Although nothing of the above is entirely true or entirely false, one thing is certain: a homeless person gets to think and talk about freedom a lot.
A couple of months ago a dear friend wrote in a letter about all the material possesions I had shed—many of which he kindly took the challenge of further distributing. He wrote that “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose“, promptly asking himself whether that is actually true. In a sense, that may be the only real freedom, at least the way we define it in our culture. And thus we probably only achieve it seconds before we die. Because, don’t we, until then, always have at least something left to lose?
Yes, shedding my posessions freed me enormously (although I still posess way too much). Perhaps it is freedom of a rather physical, practical nature, as material things need to be cared for, need a place to be, or space to be carried. Shedding posessions removes some worry, of course, and distractions. But is that the way to freedom? Getting rid of stuff, leaving friends and family behind, isolating, insulating ourselves?
I’ve been, during the last year or so, confronted with the concept of “letting go”, and how letting go gives us freedom. After deep and moving discussions with well-read friends, fleeting looks into books, and a lot of pondering, I am still at a loss. What does it mean to let go of things? And how does one achieve it? More importantly, is that the road to happiness?
I see the point of letting go of material things… Some of the things I left behind kept beautiful memories for me, but those memories I can carry inmaterially. And most things I had did not really contribute to my happiness or even my well-being.
But when the concept extends to inmaterial things such as friends… what does letting go even mean? And how does it gives us freedom? Are friends and loved ones, are our connections to people a burden? Or do we mean to let go of the idea of posession of others?
Is choice what gives us freedom? Many of us have the so-called “freedom of choice“, that is, the opportunity and autonomy to select avenues of action from between at least two options. Our society capitalises on that idea by offering us an excess of “choice” and masking it as freedom. For example, we are “free” to choose between an increasing number of “energy drinks”. Or are we? Do we really choose freely, or do we follow what our peers do, or what the market dictates? More importantly, does this “choice” bring us anything good? In the case of the energy drinks, probably not… The energising effects mainly come from caffeine and sugar, and long-term consumption can have dire health consequences.
The opportunity to autonomously choose between different options can certainly be a good thing, but it often brings a burden with itself: it can be a source of “paralysing uncertainty, depression, and selfishness“. I can vouch for that! I’m blessed with an array of possibilities, something that the generation of my parents didn’t have. So I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering which route to take, weighing the pros and cons… or, more recently, attently listening to my heart. Which is often as confused by the choices as the rest of me.
Perhaps freedom, if it at all exists, is indeed based on choice, but an internal one. The choice we almost always have on how to respond to life’s circumstances. Is the glass half full or half empty? Or, more importantly, does it matter? I feel that for me it doesn’t matter so much anymore. Is that a sign of letting go? To know that I have the choice of being content, grateful, optimistic no matter what, is indeed a freeing experience. To put it in practice… well, that is work in progress. And an often taxing one! Still, I am convinced that practice will bring expertise. And with practice it seems indeed to become easier to be grateful, to look for the positive and beautiful things that life offers me at every step.
Not long ago I realised that, to me, freedom and the idea of home are interconnected. Home has often been associated with a physical place, with things, a landscape… Not necessarily posessions, but tangible things. We call our flat, our house, our land “home”. I am now “homeless”. Well, being part of the “standard” society—having a job in order to pay the rent and feed myself, having a place where all my belongings were—might have seemed like a home to me before. But now I see that home is not necessarily outside of me. Perhaps home comes from that feeling of being grounded in myself, of knowing, and especially accepting and loving myself. Knowing what my needs are and honouring them. And my limits, much like an invisible protecting cocoon, have become the walls of a wonderful home, where I feel safe. Perhaps, for me, that type of home is freedom.
Still, I’m trying to learn how to let go… As the lovely Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.” [The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching]. I’m not ready, or perhaps not convinced that it is good to let go of love, of friendship, of connection and interdependencies. If that is the price of freedom, well, I leave it for those more eager than myself. May they be content. And write about it.
I did not start this adventure looking for freedom. Or at least not of the kind associated with being a nomad (which is a kinder word for homeless). I’m not looking for excitement, or lack of commitments. I’m not looking for isolation, independence, or adrenaline kicks. I’m looking for sources of learning. I’m looking for connection with the world, the real, raw and natural world. For connection with other beings, other humans. I’m looking for connection with myself. Perhaps therein lays freedom. And perhaps I’m finding it, simply because it’s always been there. The freedom of choice within me. The glass is not only half full. It’s a very beautiful glass…