Freedom in Chains: A Practice of Open Awareness

By Thomas McConkie, adapted from an episode of the Mindfulness+ podcast.


In his book Man's Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl reflects on what enabled him to not just survive, but to thrive during the Holocaust. 

There’s a quote from the book that for me incapsulates something beautiful about what we're working with in a mindfulness practice and in a human life. Frankl writes, "When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."

Here's a person writing from the extreme of the extremes — a witness to some of the most atrocious acts ever committed in the history of human civilization. And yet he talks about his ultimate power to not respond to outward situations, which we don't often have ultimate control of, and instead move to a kind of inner freedom where we choose our response. 

If we pay close attention, we notice that our days are full of moments where we feel oppressed or we don't feel free. Or perhaps we feel extremely limited, burdened, and oppressed in really significant ways. From a conventional standpoint, what we tend to do in those situations is get really moody and mad at everything and everyone around us. We want things to change. And sometimes we get our way, and sometimes we don’t. Often we don't. In extreme situations, we might come upon incredible hardships that last for days, weeks, months, years, even decades.

So it's not the conditions of our lives where we find actual freedom. And I think that this is where a mindfulness practice is so relevant to all of us. 

I'm talking about the movement at the deepest level of our being that desires to be free. Can you feel that? Can you feel that stirring in you, that deep desire to be free? And yet the paradox is that we're always born into conditions. Having a human body is a condition that limits us in many ways. Depending on the culture we grew up in — the political, economic, and social environment we grew up in — we were denied certain freedoms and gifted with other freedoms. So certain conditions work in our favor, they're positive, they’re supportive. Other conditions, such as Viktor Frankl’s, are at the extreme opposite end of oppression and limitation. And yet there's something in us, there's an awareness, there's a suchness and a beingness beyond all conditions, that knows freedom right now. 

At the deepest level we're already free.

Of course, I'm absolutely not asking you to take anything I say just based on my words. The invitation is for you to investigate this directly and see if you're able to access this quality of freedom that goes beyond all conditions. 

It's an amazing paradox and a poignant contradiction that Viktor Frankl, chained and tortured during the Holocaust, learned to access his deepest freedom in the very conditions that we would suppose are the antithesis of freedom. 

Let’s take a look at this experience at a personal level

*start practice* 

Take a moment to settle in. Find a comfortable posture. Feel the shape of the body, the posture of the body. Notice the impact that has on your experience in this moment, on your awareness. And just breathe. Let the breath move through you like a wave. Notice all of the rich sensation associated with breathing.

Take another moment to just soften, to let go of whatever you've been carrying with you from the days work, from the night full of dreams, to just empty out. To soften. To unwind. 

Feel the spaciousness of your awareness. Notice that it's no effort to be aware. You're aware of sensations in the body, emotions, thoughts in the mind. You're aware of sounds, activity in the world, and it's no effort to you; you are this awareness, this intelligence. Notice any conditions in this moment that feel limiting, that feel troubling in any way. Perhaps pain in the body, challenging sensations, emotions. Maybe the mind is busy and you'd like it to calm down. Or if in this moment, the body, the mind, are relatively at peace, relatively blissful, you might open up your awareness to relationships that are challenging, work life. Just the demand to earn money to provide for yourself and maybe others. And if everything is amazing on this front and effortless, you can open up your awareness to the challenges of the world.

The huddled masses of immigrants who are driven from war-torn, famine-stricken countries. Climate change disturbing environments, ecosystems, communities. Political strife, division, the threat of war. All of these conditions, they're in the air, and if we look closely we feel it in our bodies. These conditions that challenge us, that would seem to limit our joy, limit our freedom. Whatever conditions are particularly challenging to you in the moment, you can pick the one that, if you could wave a magic wand and make it disappear, you would. But rather than making it disappear you actually open up your awareness even more, become even more present and just feel the presence of this condition in your life. The way it colors you, the way it pushes on you, the way it impinges. And rather than pushing back, rather than resisting, rather than trying to change it, perhaps you can allow awareness to simply more fully receive it. Not that you're giving up action, not that you don't allow conditions to inform you and evoke the appropriate response, but to just fully be present to this condition, this limitation, this challenge. 

And recognize that when you don't tell a story about it, when you don't jump to a meaning about it, when you just dwell in the immediacy of your experience in this moment — the immediate experience of having a body, being in sensation, being aware, being alive, being intelligent — notice what this does. Allow this condition to fully inform you to become completely present, so present that you become one with it. This condition is your life, it is you. It's part of what makes you you. 

And when you let this condition be fully present you're actually free not to react. Not to react in a desperate way that tries to make this go away as quickly as possible, but act in a way that's intelligent, that's responsive, that's appropriate, skillful, whatever that is. Whatever that is to you. But first you can taste the freedom in open awareness.

*bell to conclude*

I'll invite you to stay with this practice. You'll notice when you pay attention, countless times throughout the day where we notice this vague sense of dissatisfaction, of oppression, horns blaring in traffic, a long, slow moving line at the grocery story, a vaguely boring or uncomfortable interaction with a friend, a colleague, a neighbor. In these moments when you're most inclined to react and change circumstances immediately, see if you can first escape into circumstance. Finding your freedom in the chains of conditions. Going beyond conditions all together, into freedom beyond any condition.