Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom. Maybe you have too.
I don’t have it bad. I’m at home with my family, and we have what we need. But not everyone is so fortunate. And I’m aware every day that I’m supposed to stay put—I think of that thing I want from the store, or I notice we need something repaired, and I think, No—I need to stay here. Like many, I’ve canceled trips, and visitors have said they’re no longer coming. Everything is on hold, and we’re staying put.
You may look out the window and think, I want out. You were so free just weeks ago, and now you’re trapped. You’re confined. Things are tight. Most of us, if we talk about this feeling today, immediately jump to the pandemic and our current state of isolation. But if it were a few weeks ago and I had said I want out, your mind would have jumped to something else—fear, maybe, or a regret. Something normal. The truth is, we’re always up against circumstances we can’t change. And it’s here that Buddhism really shines—not in transforming your reality or in breaking down that wall, but in honestly facing what we cannot change.
Buddhism speaks of three “seals,” or foundational realities, that we just can’t step away from. One is that everything is impermanent—all things change, whether we want them to or not. Everything arises, and everything, ultimately, also passes away. There’s no way around it. Another seal is nonself, or interdependence, essentially the truth that nothing operates independent of anything. Nothing is unaffected, and nothing (and no one) is able to exist without affecting others. The third is that we all suffer. Each of us, at the best of moments, is in a chronic state of dissatisfaction; we’re holding an awareness, maybe only at the back of our minds, of how things could be rather than how they are. Some traditions would say that we can eventually transcend that dissatisfaction, that sense that something is off, completely. But at least in Zen circles, I’ve never heard anyone say that. We can notice it, we can change our relationship to it, we can even use it as a tool for deepening compassion, but we never escape suffering.
Which brings us to freedom. There is freedom to be found, even in the face of what’s unavoidable, but escape is never a part of it. To be free is simply to be unencumbered. But how do we do that? How do we free ourselves from the burden of something we can never put down? We do it by deciding not to—by agreeing to the burden, by resolving to stop trying to let it go. By saying yes.
I hear a strong cultural message—not just now, but all the time—that we should “embrace” our circumstances. That’s not what this is about. Embracing your situation, making the most of it—that’s wonderful, but it’s also a particular act of will, a pulling away—when you lose the energy for that embrace, your most likely landing place will be resentment of where you are. To say yes to self-isolation during this pandemic doesn’t mean you decide to like it or to make it fun. It just means that, for now, for this moment, you let go of the idea that it could possibly be anything else. You just plant your feet, right here, and decide not to go anywhere else.
There will be good days and bad ones. And as the world moves and the situation changes, what you’re saying yes to will change with it. It isn’t romantic, and it isn’t easy. But in that rootedness to reality as it is, in our agreement to how things actually are—there is freedom. May we all find it.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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