The vulnerability of the organism is the root of both pain and pleasure, because the organism must evaluate the stimuli which impinge upon it in terms of their significance for its well-being. But the greatest source of human suffering and delusion is the reality principle itself-- which ironically is the mind's very solution to the problem of the body's vulnerability. Treating its experience as real is its primary adaptation to the world upon which its survival depends. The reifying tendency of the mind is its capacity to extend reality, or "objectness"-- on the model of literal physical reality-- into areas which are non-physical or not literal. It is, in effect, a form of hallucination. The solution becomes the problem when the sense of reality runs amok.
Therefore, the ability to question one's experience, to treat it not as reality but as a creation of the nervous system, is a great boon. This ability to bracket experience as subjective is the hallmark of modern consciousness, the culmination of eons of physical and cultural evolution. It can be intentionally cultivated as a discipline. It is the source of the inner freedom promised in the great spiritual traditions. Unfortunately, it is also the source of a further vulnerability-- of the mind which lives in an inner world of images.
Mobility, flexibility and masslessness may be the evolutionary advantages of thoughts over things, but these same properties are also their hazard. The inner world is much easier and more economical to manipulate than physical materials. The physical world resists human whim, but thoughts can be molded to desires. Deception and rationalization are possible only in a mental world. Knowledge of the processes by which mind interprets reality allows for its deliberate and skillful manipulation. The very cues the mind uses to assure itself of a valid interpretation, are just those that can be carefully and cleverly forged to produce the impression of authenticity.
The most effective way to control people is to define the games they will play-- including the cognitive games by which they experience the world and themselves. Perhaps the essence of intelligence is the ability to make mental connections leading to a global, comprehensive, and adequate model of reality upon which appropriate and effective action can be taken. To manipulate or obstruct the information flow of this modelling process is to control or limit the behavior arising from it. Disinformation is communication given out to control the model-- either by creating a distorted image in the subject's mind or by flooding the communication channel with irrelevant information. Facts are disarmed, or become outright lies, when isolated from their proper context, history, or unity with other facts in a total picture.
The mind in transition from the pre-subjective state to full subjectivity is in a vulnerable position. It projects its hopes and fears as real and external, in the form of non-physical entities suggested by the discovery of the subjective domain, yet also projected as objectively real. It is susceptible to the tyranny of superstition-- gods, demons, and invisible forces that terrorize the imagination. And of course it is vulnerable to manipulation by those who would exploit this aspect of mind to their own advantage.
Relative freedom is always contextual. In a "free" society, one is at liberty to drive along the street of one's choice, but not on the wrong side of the road. One can vote for one among several candidates, but these options are pre-selected in an elite process. Freedom is therefore the possibility of playing in a limited range of limiting games. In that light the important questions are: who shall define the game? And is it the largest, least limiting, and most engaging game one can play?
The absolute freedom spoken of in spiritual traditions is, above all, liberation from the tyranny of the body-mind, the compulsions of organic existence. The dilemma of the conscious subject is the poignant realization of being a potentially free point of view-- consciousness-- riding upon and trapped within the machinery of a deterministic physical universe. While the tragedy of living in a "meat machine" can be expressed abstractly, it is also very personal-- the essence of one's relationship to the body and the world. This relationship is felt most directly as the compellingness of experience-- the sense of reality which reflects the body's programming and the power of the world.
The tyranny of the body-mind is also experienced as the incessant flow of thoughts. The inner horizon, in other words, is not still, but seething with thoughts, feelings, activity. The biological purpose of all this mental activity is to anticipate and control experience-- that is, to evaluate the significance for the body of events and possibilities in the world. Its job is to sift good from bad, because by adhering to pleasurable experiences and avoiding painful ones, the survival of the organism in favored.
The subject is interior to all experience and to all behavior as well. It is witness and chooser. The freedom of the subject from the compelling meaning of experience is identical to its freedom from behavioral compulsion. This is so because the organism's experience-- whether a thought, an emotion, a bodily sensation or a perception of the world-- is its perspective on its behavioral options.
To remain interior to an experience is to disengage from its meaning. This meaning refers to the associated behavior because the meaning is a judgment and the behavior is an action concluded from the judgment. To identify with the experience is to identify with the response, and to be free from one is to be free from the other. I am free to contemplate my thoughts, my feelings, my body's pain, for example, to the degree I am free of compelling responses to the any of them. The perception and the behavior contain the same information, refer to the same situation, and are aspects of the same response carried out in perceptual and motor pathways. The experience and its associated behavior have the same meaning, deriving from the same intentional connections.
The ability-- indeed, the compulsion-- to assign a value and meaning to events in the world, is a product of natural selection. Our minds are dualistic because otherwise we simply would not have evolved. But consciousness is able to embrace this fact itself. We are aware of our circumstance, of our conditioning, and of the nature and limits of the platform upon which mind is built-- just as we are aware of our physical circumstance in the universe, as a life form on a planet in a galaxy of billions of stars, among billions of galaxies. That this is a fragile understanding is signalled by the enormous resistance to Darwinism and to Copernicanism before it (both negate a literal interpretation of the Bible-- the Catholic Church did not remove Galileo's book from the forbidden list until the nineteenth century).
The human mind is potentially an open system. Working within its own limits, it is able to see greater truths than what is built into in the system. This remarkable fact is the essence of what sets consciousness apart from animal servitude to instinct. To pursue a modern idiom, it is what gives us a degree of freedom that machines do not possess. It is the basis of the longing for transcendence at the core of the religious and intellectual traditions of both East and West.
Freedom is ultimately freedom from "reality". The desire for outer freedom addresses the power of nature, society and other people over us. The desire for inner, or spiritual, freedom is rather a response to the programming of the organism-- the principal symptom of which is the sense of reality (including the reality of the self). Now, this programming is itself a response to the power of the external world over the organism. Perception, emotion and thought are strategies in how to deal with the world and its dangers and opportunities. In other words, the whole normal range of human experience is simply an inner view of the programming of the organism. We experience our identification with this programming as the compellingness of the events around us-- that is, as the believability of our perceptions, thoughts and feelings. We gain freedom from it by restraining the sense of reality, by questioning our experiences and mastering the impulses to act which are based upon them. Since it appears to be forces in the world-- the environment and other people-- which have power over us, as a first line of defense we gain freedom from these forces by affirming a self that is apart from them and aligned with the organism in its quest to survive. But then we realize, in subjective consciousness, that interior forces act within our minds. So, going deeper, we realize that freedom is not only freedom from the dictates of the world, but also from the dictates of the organism and its mind.
Spiritual freedom is freedom from identity itself, from who we think we are and what we think we are entitled to. Ultimately it is freedom from being anyone at all. Just as we are innately convinced of the realness of the world, so we are convinced of our own reality as well. We believe we must exist because there must be someone to "have" experience. But as we have already affirmed, the subject is no object. And the subject, to be free, cannot be identified with any object-- neither the body nor the mind nor any of its contents.
We have learned not only to regard part of the phenomenal world as real and out there, but also to regard part of it as subjective and in here. The part of the continuum of consciousness that constitutes an experience of the body is held to be me, not something in the world. Similarly, we identify with the contents of consciousness that constitute thoughts and emotions: my thoughts, my emotions, as well as my body.
But my body is actually a physical object in the world. It is not a private experience but a public fact. It is an object with which this consciousness has a special relationship, because this brain is connected to this body, rather than to other bodies or external objects. The body-- as visual and somatic experience-- stands as object in relationship to consciousness which is subject. Therefore this body is not who "I" am, although I am free to call it "me" or "self" in deference to the special connection this consciousness has with it.
Similarly, "my" thoughts and emotions cannot be "I", the subject. Though they are not objects in the world, they are objects of consciousness, as external to "I" as objects in the world. The appropriation of these sectors of experience as part of "self" refers to their special connection with this body and brain as an ongoing background and source of the subject's experience. The self is taken to be the subjective realm in contrast to the world of external objects. But strictly speaking "I" does not exist as any sort of thing, neither in the world nor in the subjective realm as an object of experience. It is merely a point of view.
Spiritual freedom may be cultivated first by understanding clearly what it is. Worldly freedom is freedom of the ego. Spiritual liberation is freedom from the ego-- that is, from identification with the body-mind and its needs. It is not a carte blanche (… la New Age) to pursue one's desires-- nor indulge one's fears-- based on more sophisticated perceptions of what is real and desirable or dangerous. On the contrary, it is liberation from the appetites and fears of the conditioned body-mind which fuel such perceptions. Interest in it does not usually arise until there has been some disillusionment with images and formulas for success-- even spiritual success-- and the cycle of desire/action/result/desire. There must be some realization that "needs" are inherently insatiable, action inherently limited, and results inherently disappointing. The longing for spiritual freedom does not often arise before there has been a loss of confidence in the strength of one's perceptions and ideas of what is reality and where one is going within it. We do not usually question life until it fails us. Worldly freedom is the power to change one's experience. Spiritual freedom is the complementary power to change one's relationship to it.
So we must be clear about what we want. Do I want to have my way or protect myself in what I believe is the reality of this situation, or will I surrender to the unknown of what is? Is it enough to receive what is happening, observe it, be curious about it? Either I am rejecting this experience and conniving to get a different one, or I accept to meet this squarely as experience. A choice must be made between the desire for a different reality-- which implies judgment, agitation, emotional charge, struggle, drama-- and the desire for peace, which implies relaxing in the acceptance of what is.
To accept experience, however, does not necessarily mean to accept the conditions in the world that give rise to it. It is not a formula for passivity. It simply means we are not compelled by our conditioning, but are free to act rather than merely react. It means we are not possessed or duped by the mind, but are at liberty to use it as an instrument for examining and acting, when appropriate, upon the world.
If we choose surrender, often we find our whole perception and definition of the situation shifts. We see that what is is valuable in some unexpected way when we accept to face it. Often we see that nothing real of itself was causing us suffering, but only our way of thinking about it or stubborn insistence on having our way. In this, we are little different than small children, whose dramatic sufferings often seem so exaggerated to adults.
The basic longing of the subjectively conscious mind is for transcendence, for freedom from the constraints of whatever system it perceives itself to be immersed in. Self-consciousness is thus the root of the Fall from a state of grace within the natural order, because it is a perception of one's limiting condition. Animals are just as ego-centric as humans, and even more bound by their conditioning, but have no context within which to consider these as a limitations. Their state of grace is a simple relationship to the forces that govern the organism's fate-- a relationship of unselfconscious participation in the game of survival.
In the biblical myth of the Fall, taking in the knowledge of good and evil implies the right to judge, to evaluate experience. But this puts the cart before the horse, for this "right" is the precondition for survival of the body, the essence of the natural state of the organism. The self-conscious human mind may feel itself trapped inside a system whose premise is survival of the separate embodied ego, so that the Fall in effect is conceptualized as the fall of the soul into nature and embodiment. In this ancient view of the existential position of consciousness, we are spirit sojourning in a fallen material state. This is directly opposite to the more modern view that we are material systems which, having passed a threshold of self-consciousness, are dualistically aware of the limiting context which is the very condition of our being here as consciousness. On this reading of the myth, the Fall was the fall from a pre-subjective state into self-consciousness and its Faustian desire for freedom and self-transcendence.
The myth of the Fall carries another interpretation, in which to be naked in the Garden is to be totally self-accepting, spontaneous, non-judgmental. To be naked emotionally and psychologically is to be uninhibited, guileless, intimate, fearless of the others' responses, without guilt. When our eyes were opened in self-consciousness we lost our innocence and covered this naked vulnerability with all manner of psychological defense against the possibility of pain and all manner of calculation to achieve pleasure. The Fall was thus the fall from the innocence of the small child into the defensive personality structures we associate with adulthood, the fall from essence into ego. From this point of view, the spiritual goal is to recover, within adult autonomy and creative power, the natural state of innocent surrender to life.
The world always surprises us, and no formula adequately captures it. The longing for peace and transcendence cannot be parlayed into a program to avoid entanglements, for then this desire would have its disappointments and create its own suffering. We must be free even from the desire for peace, ultimately even from the desire for the freedom of desirelessness. We simply are free-- to choose surrender-- in each situation as though for the first time. As a discipline or practice, a conscious relationship to experience is simply the willingness, each and every moment, to meet what is. Spiritual freedom is not freedom from pain and suffering, and does not guarantee the ego's concepts of happiness, but is freedom from a self that craves happiness and abhors suffering. When we are willing to be fully in experience without having to do anything about it, then even death can have no sting.