Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of October 5, 2009

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The Practice of Freedom

(Aspect 5 of 12 of the Path of Right Living)

We now come to the first of the four being duties of the Path of Right Living, namely freedom, or non-identification. Taken to its ultimate, the practice of inner freedom or non-identification liberates us. Its importance for our happiness and spiritual development cannot be overstated. For example, in the Buddha’s primary and famous teaching of the Four Noble Truths, non-identification enters as the third and crucial Truth, as the key to freedom.

To begin, we need to understand that we are not inwardly free, to understand what is meant by identification. It means allowing something to take our place. It means becoming that thing or that need. I cease to exist and in my stead there is only the wanting of the ice cream or the rumination over the insult I received. The ice cream or the insult become me, become the most important factor in my inner world at this moment. I abdicate my will to the object of identification and let that impulse rule my inner world. This is the opposite of freedom.

We need to understand it in practice, by directly seeing our own identifications in action, driving our inner life. The most common identification is with our thoughts, when our thoughts are thinking us. How does this work? Our brain responds to inner and outer stimuli by producing thoughts. That mode of thinking happens automatically throughout our life and without the need for any conscious intention or participation on our part. The thoughts just seem to arise on their own and think themselves. This is fine and normal. The trouble, and our identification, begins when we fall into that stream of automatically self-generating thoughts and get carried away by it. Daydreams and ruminations of all kinds can reach out and grab us and we just flow away with them. In this type of identification, the thoughts are thinking us.

The practice of freedom, of not identifying with thoughts can take several forms. First we can intentionally be aware of and think the thoughts that had grabbed us. We step right into the self-generating flow of thoughts, reasserting control with intention and with a higher level of awareness energy than the automatic by which they typically operate. Then we are thinking our thoughts rather than vice versa.

Second, we can allow our automatic, self-generating thoughts to arise and pass on their own, without us going with them. Mindfulness meditation trains us in this, trains us to be more globally, contextually aware, so that the thoughts are within our awareness rather than us being in the thoughts.

Third, we can remove our attention from the thoughts that have grabbed us and place it elsewhere. We can change our focus to awareness of our breathing, or awareness of our body, of being in our body. Or we can intentionally think about something else, something other than those identifying thoughts.

Fourth, if the identifying thoughts arise from some difficult situation, it may be necessary to take appropriate outward actions to alleviate or resolve the situation. All these approaches shift us from identification with our thoughts to not being identified.

And all those approaches apply just as well to any other type of identification. For example, if we are identified with an emotion like anger, we can intentionally feel the anger and all its components, which makes us more active and less identified with the anger, rather than being its passive host. Or we can simply be very aware of the anger and its physical components and let it rise, fall, and pass on its own. Or we can shift our attention away from the anger, for example into body awareness. We can go for a walk, be in our body, and let our emotional turmoil settle. Lastly, we may need to do something about the situation that is arousing our anger to enable the anger to subside. We need not let anger, or any other destructive emotion, take us over.

Identification can enter any of our realms, including the realm of performing our duties. We can be identified with our habitual ways of fulfilling our duties and react strongly against any interference or change. We can resent our duties. The practice of freedom or non-identification means not resenting having to work, having to do the endless little tasks it takes to keep our life together: paying our bills, sweeping the floor, polishing our shoes. We do not allow identification to take us over and prevent us from doing what’s necessary and doing it well. We do not allow identification to impose a negative view of fulfilling our responsibilities. Perhaps we would rather be golfing or at the beach, but we need not let that preference invade and color our life in this moment. We just do what’s necessary and leave the inner grumbling to itself.

If we ponder questions of identity, identification, freedom and non-identification, we might naturally ask: if freedom depends on no one being there to be identified, then who is present when I am present? The one who is present and free is at a deeper level than the pseudo selves that arise in identification. The one who is present and free resides at the level of the conscious energy: the vast and open stillness that is the foundation of awareness. At that level, our will is unified and whole. But in the lower energies, our will fractures into a mass of contradictory and competing urges. The selves of identification live in those lower energies.

We might also ask: if identification means abdicating my will to the object I am identified with, doesn’t that mean there is no one to be my will in that moment, and isn’t that the same as no one being there to be identified? If no one is there because I have abdicated my will and left the scene, isn’t that the freedom from self, the no-self spoken about in so many spiritual teachings? Again this has to do with levels. The freedom we seek is freedom from the fractured, partial selves created by identification. My fractured will temporarily creates a self around the object of identification, a self that I mistakenly take to be the real me and thus identify with. At a higher level, in non-identification, these fractured selves reintegrate into our true Self, which is free. This true Self is the same as the no-self and selflessness spoken about in spiritual teachings. No-self and selflessness mean not being in one of our partial, identified selves.

Rather than becoming monastic, we seek freedom in the midst of ordinary life. It is natural and normal to enjoy our pleasures, be they sensory, emotional, or intellectual. But we need not identify with our pleasures. The difference between non-identification and identification is the difference between having our pleasures and our pleasures having us, between eating our food and our food eating us. Similarly with the inevitable pain and suffering that life brings us: we can have pain without the pain having us.

Ultimately, in the quiet peace within, we see identification as only an impulse, one that we can let arise and disappear on its own, without buying into it, without forming a temporary identity around the object of identification. We feel its pull and let it go. In essence, we let our supposed and temporary identity go. We see through the patterns. I am not the ice cream. I am not the insulted. I am not any thought. I am neither the desire for ice cream, nor the desire to avenge the insult. If I release into the vast openness within, the insult passes right through, with no fractured self there to be the insulted one. The desire for ice cream passes through, with no one necessarily acting on it.

For this week, notice the ways you succumb to identification and practice freedom, practice non-identification.


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