Journey Toward Freedom*
has not escaped from will, no will hath he.
Rumi, Divani Shamsi Tabriz, XIII
the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty.
2 Corinthians, 3: 17
not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also
Galatians, 6: 7
is a harmony of opposite tensions.
he who is not true to himself will not see the truth.
order is lord of all, and disorder only a name for that part of the order which
gives us pain.
The wish of human beings to
be free, both as individuals and as citizens, is universal and fervent; but,
ironically, we seem to be given to limiting and even destroying our own freedom,
the very thing we most prize. Furthermore, while we may know what we want
freedom from, we are unclear as to what we want freedom for. There is also the
pressing question today as to what freedom or sell-determination of individual
societies can represent in an interdependent world system. The ultimate problem
would seem to be an inadequate comprehension as to what, in truth, freedom is.
Yet there exists a rich
legacy of wisdom on the true nature and meaning of freedom, found notably in
world scriptures and in enduring observations on freedom by philosophers and
scientists of the highest rank and of widely different times and places. Recall
that the world religions are centrally concerned with the means for attaining
freedom—called by such terms as liberation, redemption, moksha,
satori, and nirvana.
What these traditions say is
as true today as ever. Moreover, they converge on a number of propositions:
We tend to think of freedom
as dependent on circumstantial or external factors, but these propositions point
us inward, suggesting rather that freedom is a state of consciousness and that
it depends on ourselves. Indeed it is something to be won, something to be
attained commensurately with becoming more truthful, or more attuned to and
aligned with the abiding inner, metaphysical, or moral order or law.
Socio-political and economic
freedom or liberty, in turn, would depend (at least in the longer term) on the
predominant level of consciousness of the citizenry.
What is suggested, in other
words, is that a human being is not perfectly free to begin with, but is
potentially capable of self-transformation in the direction of fuller freedom.
This is the premise of the various religious traditions and Western psychology
alike. Each world religion prescribes a Way or Path to self-liberation,
consisting of a set of psycho-spiritual or ethical teachings or laws. It is,
moreover, significant that while each religion couches its teachings in its own
particular language, the religions cohere with each other in their prescriptions
and proscriptions: common teachings include the need for personal detachment or
disinterestedness, the immeasurable worth of every human being, the unity of all
life, the brotherhood of humanity, compassion, nonviolence, and the capacity of
each person to attain to a far higher state of life (mental, moral, and
spiritual) than the present one.
The problem concerning inner
freedom may be briefly stated. On the one hand, each of us is self-aware and
seemingly able to act according to our own dictates. On the other hand, we feel
bound and limited by our own character. We feel ourselves to be both free and
not free. That is the paradoxical and universal human condition.
APPROACH TO FREEDOM
The present paper will
inquire into freedom from a non-dualistic, more particularly, a theosophical
approach. Unlike the Aristotelian “either/or” view, the theosophical
philosophy does not see freedom as opposed to inner law or necessity, but as
inseparable from, and indeed dependent for its very realization on the
ever-operative inner law.
Now, we are not only limited
by our own character, but are inextricably woven into the whole web of life. Yet
here again there is an ambiguity: on the one hand, nothing exists outside the
life chain; on the other hand, every life form, even a minute living cell,
displays a kind of mind of its own. That is to say, every life form is vitally
dependent on its environment, yet sell-organizing, indeed, autopoietic
Planet Earth is of course
embedded in the larger scheme of things. If we place freedom in the broader
context of the whole universe, what do we find? We can characterize our universe
thus: our universe, together with everything that exists within it, is one,
interdependent, self-organizing, self-evolving whole. This is not only an
esoteric view of the universe; it is also the perception now of many scientists
and other thinkers.
It follows that the very
nature of our universe makes freedom possible but quintessentially paradoxical.
At all levels, entities are both self-organizing and interdependent.
We come to see that,
paradoxically, autonomy depends on relationship! Relationship is then a crucial
factor in probing the nature of freedom. And inasmuch as all relationships are
subject to order of some kind, inquiring into natural freedom and human freedom,
in particular, requires probing order.
Theosophy proposes that all
existence is grounded in and subject to boundless and impartible order—an
order that just is, and that cannot be circumvented. It is noteworthy that
religious teachings concur with this notion if only by implication. In
particular, the Hindu-Buddhist doctrine of karma presupposes an
illimitable order that somehow registers and interrelates all our acts, and even
our intentions. A parallel Christian teaching is that an individual reaps as he
or she sows; this, too, implies an abiding spiritual order. Perhaps one can say
that all moral and ethical principles in reality subsume inner order.
I might at this point note
that my non-dualistic stance diverges from the position of those (many) academic
philosophers today who discount the value of metaphysics. I maintain, on the
contrary, that metaphysics is an indispensable component of philosophical
My position also differs from that of those post-modern deconstructionists and
other schools of thought who frown on relationship as inimical to freedom. How
they can maintain such a view given our universe of infinite connections, I do
TYPES OF ORDER WITHIN THE ONE UNDERLYING ORDER
Now we experience and
observe different types or kinds of order. The postulated illimitable order must
subsume all of these; it must encompass and interrelate them and any other
possible kinds of order; it must hold within itself all existing and future
possibilities—one may understand why esoteric philosophers sometimes refer to
it as “the plenum void.”
One of the types of observed
order is mechanical or linear order, as exemplified by a machine. Newtonian
physics is based on this kind of order.
It is, however, inapplicable at the subatomic level, where, according to
quantum physics, subatomic particles can change into each other and also
intercommunicate instantly across time-space.
Organic or biological order
displays yet another type of dynamics—an irreversible process wherein things
grow within each other.
Psychological order is yet
another type. Reason or logic, the chief mode notably of philosophers, is still
another type of order. Beyond reason lie the intuitive and the spiritual modes.
These do not entail or depend on logic but are immediate ways of knowing.
The different types of order
correspond, we see, to our disciplines for their investigation, including
physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, and religion. As I have elsewhere
attempted to demonstrate,
these different avenues to understanding are in principle mutually harmonious
and complementary. This again is only consistent with the postulate of an
impartible ultimate order.
THE UNITY OF
Another related proposition
of non-dualism—it is implied in its very name—is the unity of dualities, or
pairs of opposites, for example spirit and matter, universal and particular,
good and evil, light and dark, young and old. Theosophy holds that the pairs of
opposites which pervade life exist in terms of each other—that each pair of
opposites are mutually defining and mutually necessary poles of being. More than
that, it makes clear that their interaction and integration are the
indispensable means whereby anything constructive and creative can happen.
To give a few examples of
the creative meeting of opposites: electricity is produced through the union of
positive and negative electrons; individual plants, animals, and humans issue
from the conjoining of male and female poles of germ cells; a new ideology is
produced from two existing or older ideologies.
We ourselves are a
polarity—both particular and universal—particular in our mix of gifts,
limitations, dispositions, etc.; universal as members of the human species and
of the larger manifested Cosmos. Our universality must account for the
possibility of experiencing unity with beings or entities beyond all
differences. Most of us have had experiences of empathy and unity from time to
time—with another person, with a landscape, with works of art, with a crystal,
a flower, an animal. In William Blake’s phrase, we may “see the world in a
grain of sand.”
In such experiences one
discovers, I believe, a paradoxical thing: the more that I, a particular, unique
being, can identify with other beings, the greater will be my fulfillment and
self-realization. It is fulfilling to realize, for instance, that I am a human
being first and foremost, not only a woman. It is similarly satisfying to be
able to transcend the religion of my birth—to perceive that it is but one of
the world’s remarkable spiritual traditions which complement each other and
which together point beyond themselves to the transcendent, ineffable Truth.
It will be obvious that this
perspective has far-reaching implications for our present interdependent but
sorely divided and conflicted human society. (We will later glance at some of
The human estate, as H.P.
Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, made clear, confers upon us,
through manas (mind), the possibility of uniting “heaven and
earth”—or the infinite and the finite.
More generally, as she
further remarked, both poles of every duality are but aspects of One Reality in
which they are synthesized.
TOWARD A HIGHER LIFE
We saw that freedom of will
is something to be attained by self-effort or self-evolution. Put the other way
around, the fuller meaning of freedom emerges in the evolutionary context.
Let us then examine, if only
briefly, what is meant by evolution as such. It will be interesting to compare
the theosophical view of evolution with that of leading-edge science.
Blavatsky’s masterwork, The
first published in 1888, is in one sense an immense meditation on evolution.
Blavatsky saw evolution not as a mechanical or merely physical process, but as
an unfoldment “from within without.” For her, the evolution of matter is
preceded by the involution of consciousness into matter, a process described as
involution/evolution. In her system, “involution means the movement from unity
to diversity; evolution is the realization of unity in the midst of diversity”
(Sellon and Weber, 1992, p. 322).
Blavatsky saw evolution as a
journey in consciousness in which all beings co-participate—an eons-long
journey toward a higher life, toward ever deeper realization of unity.
It is interesting that
science is coming to a view which resembles Blavatsky’s in many respects, and
that this newer theory draws upon and appeals to many scientific disciplines
(see Jantsch, 1980).
According to this newer,
still unconventional theory, evolution is an overall dynamic process that
embraces cosmic, biological, and social systems. More particularly, the process
continuously generates these systems or wholes which form a dynamic continuum of
ever-more inclusive and capable wholes, describable as an interactive and
interpenetrating hierarchy of levels of organization. As systems theorist Ervin
Laszlo states, “The process begins with hadrons, leptons, and quarks;
continues with atoms, molecules, and cells; and it extends under suitable
conditions (such as those on earth) all the way to organisms, ecologies, and
societies” (Laszlo, 1987, p. 27).
This remarkable continuum
described by science reminds one of’ Saint Paul’s words: we are all members
of one another.
In terms of this theory,
evolution is a co-participatory, co-creative, open-ended process with an overall
(or transcendent) direction toward the formation of wholes of ever-greater
complexity of organization and higher functional ability.
We should understand how a
new whole comes about. What is involved is a new integration of existing diverse
entities. Differentiation is followed by a new integration at the next level of
the continuum. As Arthur Koestler once put it, differentiation followed by
integration is a process of attaining a new kind of unity by a detour through
diversity. To give a few examples: cells specialize (enormously), and then
become integrated into a tissue; organisms or creatures combine to form a
population; diverse populations form an ecosystem (and, we are learning, because
of environmental problems, that biodiversity is vital for a thriving ecology);
the ecosystems comprise the biosphere; and Planet Earth’s biosphere is so
unified that it has been compared to a single cell.
What is of primary interest
to us, naturally, is the leading tip of this remarkable continuum—namely,
human beings and human society. We ask ourselves: could not human society form
itself into a new whole? Could it not evolve to the next, more inclusive, more
integrated level of consciousness? Why should the evolutionary process that has
taken billions of years to reach its present juncture, terminate at this point
when human beings and human society, at least on this planet, are so far from
what we can imagine them becoming?
The fact is that human
society has already converged into a very complex new whole. That is to say, the
polities of the world have been drawn into a world system whose myriad elements
and processes interact such that human societies are interdependent materially,
ecologically, socially, morally—a situation wherein everything affects
everything else and makes us all mutually responsible.
interdependence to a degree never before experienced is, to my mind, a momentous
karmic/evolutionary development. It is karmic in that it was brought about by
ourselves (at least by human agency) and in that it now deeply challenges us in
a way that may well result in an evolution of consciousness. It is karmic in the
way it interrelates all the dimensions of our life, including physical,
psychological, and moral dimensions. It is karmic in the fact that it devolves
That is to say, the global
problems we face, such as environmental decline, elitism, poverty, hunger,
racism, militarism, violence, fragility of economies, and so forth, are due to
shortcomings in relationship—that between industry and the environment,
between government and the governed, between rich and poor, between the
industrialized North and the less-developed South, among ethnic groups, among
races, among political factions. The relationships are defective in that they
infringe the principle of wholeness. We can infringe wholeness all we like, but
owing to the unbreakable inner order, we cannot infringe it without adverse
At present we are
intensively interdependent but sorely disunited—divided over numerous old and
new issues of race, color, creed, and ideology. This represents a profound
dilemma—a life-threatening planetary dilemma. As many thoughtful observers
have said, it could only be resolved by a fundamental change of consciousness on
the part at least of a critical number of us.
As we have seen, life is
through and through interdependent. No entity, no group, no society can be an
island unto itself. Each must balance its natural wish for self-determination
with its equally natural dependence on and shared practical and other concerns
with its neighbors and indeed the whole planetary community.
Political and economic
freedom and democracy are no less inseparable from inner order or necessity than
is individual freedom of will. Nor is a “free market” the be-all and end-all
of “freedom.” It is a practical but amoral instrument. It demands a
framework of appropriate civil institutions and laws.
In this connection, what has
been transpiring in the different parts of the erstwhile Soviet bloc, including
Russia itself, is instructive. Upon their liberation from Communism, the
citizenry discovered that freedom can be abused. They had known that they wanted
freedom from totalitarianism, but on the heels of tyranny’s overthrow the
question arose: what is freedom for?
Many of those citizens, not
unlike many of us here in America, confuse freedom with egocentricity. They,
like we, tend to be far more self-involved than concerned with the common good.
But as we have seen, evolution is an ongoing process; we have the potential for
self-transformation (that this is a real possibility is evident in the example
of history’s sages, saints, and saviors).
The late philosopher of
Integralism, Haridas Chaudhuri (1974), compared egocentric and cosmocentric
individuality. He said that the former is the product of ignorance and therefore
is in a sense unreal, whereas the latter is marked by a sense of spiritual
kinship with the entire universe, a feeling of responsibility for the entire
living creation, a sense of dedication to cosmic welfare. The cosmocentric
individual responds to the world in its wholeness by virtue of an inner
realization of the wholeness of Being.
One need only summon to mind
the enormous diversity displayed in every domain—in
nature (in flora, fauna,
human physiognomies, skin colors, shapes, etc.), in culture, in the arts, in
theories of science and philosophy, in religious traditions—to see that
diversity is a pervasive fact of existence. As we have seen, alternate
diversification and integration are inherent in the evolutionary process, a
process that has evidently been ongoing from the beginning of time. Human
history shows that the intermingling of blood, cultures, languages, and
traditions has been continual. This cross-fertilization has been an enriching
process, and of course it is totally irreversible. If anything, this process is
accelerating now by virtue of greater human mobility and mass communications. It
is a fact that innumerable individuals today are born of mixed parentage—that
even the members of a single family may differ in their skin color.
The American experience is
instructive. Our culture, arts, science, and skills of every kind are
continually infused by contributions of gifted individuals of every racial and
ethnic provenance—blacks, Caucasians, Latinos, Asians. Diversity is in fact
our strength. Yet in America, too, we witness a high incidence of polarization
over issues of race, sex, abortion, religion, politics, economics.
But I believe that people
are coming to see increasingly (again, mass communications are a force in
broadening and deepening people’s perspective) that polarization over any
issue is futile, foolish, and destructive. As this paper argues, from the
viewpoint of wholeness, truth is expressed through the unity of opposites, not
Ravindra, discussing karma, points out that the more important causes of
human bondage are not external but within ourselves—that we are prisoners of
our habits, fears, prejudices, sell-importance. He says that “… when viewed
from the perspective of a whole person, the Law of Karma can indicate to a
person willing to undertake the discipline involved in the cleansing of his
perceptions what the knots are in his life which compel him to act the way he
does, even against the will and understanding of his right mind, and how to
resolve and overcome these” (Ravindra, 1991, p. 347). The law of karma,
he says, is: “as one is one acts; and as one acts so one becomes” (p. 346).
expositor of freedom was the late Lama Anagarika Govinda, who wrote that
expressing freedom is expressing one’s true nature, and that one’s true
nature is all-embracing and universal. For Govinda, the epitome of freedom is an
awakening to our universality—to our own true all-embracing nature. He writes,
“No individual exists in its own nature, independent of all other factors of
life… Since no first beginning of any individual or of any inner or outer
phenomena can be found, it means that each of them has the totality of the
universe at its base. Or, if we want to express this from the standpoint of
time, we could say that each of these phenomena, and especially every
individual, has an infinite past and is, therefore, based on an infinity of
relations, which do not and cannot exclude anything that ever existed or is
liable to come into existence. All individuals have, therefore, the whole
universe as their common ground, and this universality becomes conscious in the
experience of enlightenment, in which the individual awakens into his own true
all-embracing nature” (Govinda, 1976, p. 10). Is this not a superb elucidation
of what is meant by universality?
And to round out this brief
survey, we might further recall Blavatsky’s uniquely encompassing vision of
the nature, meaning, and ultimate goal of our long evolutionary journey. A
succinct but superbly faithful statement of it is found in a paper (unpublished)
by theosophical scholar Emily B. Sellon: “The involution/evolution spiral is,
it is said, from unconscious perfection (undifferentiated oneness) to conscious
imperfection (the struggle for self-hood and self-expression) to conscious
perfection (a state of fully aware oneness, as exemplified by the Buddha or the
Christ). Thus it is only through the experience of the limitation of finiteness,
of embodied life, and the conquest of this limitation, that consciousness can
free itself from the illusion of the separateness of self and world, mind and
body, and thus win enlightenment.”
Lest we lose faith in human
prospects as we daily learn of humanity’s sell-defeating ways, its apparent
inability to master racial and ethnic prejudice, and its failure so far to stop
barbarities and murder, it is well to realize that this is only a part of the
whole picture. For there is also evidence to suggest that societal consciousness
continues to evolve despite, or perhaps in very response to the distressing
decline and atomization we observe.
Here, in broad terms, are
some of the positive and interrelated developments I see:
Combined, these developments
signal, I submit, a new impulse toward a broader, more unitive, and truer
I am reminded of a prophecy
of the theosophist Dane Rudhyar. He wrote in 1977 that the 500-year period which
began around 1900 will be driven by a search to discover a new means for
planetary integration. It will resonate to vibrations of harmonization, to
vibrations of the union of opposites, and of the love that synchronizes
polarities at all levels. To succeed it must avert and turn back further the
disastrous and self-destructive atomization and self-involvement, which could
only culminate in utter unrelatedness and indifference (statements he made some
years before the advent of the depravity of ethnic cleansing).
Rudhyar noted that up to
now, people have mainly clustered together on the basis of common cultural
roots, a common language and tradition, a rootedness in the collective
past—that is, on the basis of sameness. By contrast, the emergent type of
society will operate at a higher level of consciousness and inclusiveness. Its
members will envision and will help shape a more harmonious human society,
entailing a new, more transcendent way of interrelating.
By the evidence, a new
evolutionary phase has indeed begun. Our greatest fulfillment will surely lie in
attuning to and fostering it.
To conclude, the gist of the
theosophical understanding of freedom is this: Knowingly or not, all of us are
embarked on a common journey in consciousness whose goal is our full awakening
to our unity with everyone and everything beyond all differences. And since it
is a common journey, none of us can be truly free until all of us are free.
Blavatsky, H.P. 1888 (1979). The
Secret Doctrine. 3 vols.
Madras, Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House.
Chaudhuri, Haridas. 1974. Being,
Evolution, & Immortality. Wheaton,
Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House. A Quest Book.
Govinda, Lama Anagarika. 1976. Creative
Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness.
Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House. A Quest Book.
Jantsch, Erich. 1980. The
Self-Organizing Universe. Elmsford,
New York: Pergamon Press.
Laszlo, Ervin. 1987. Evolution: The
Grand Synthesis. Boston
& London: Shambhala: New Science Library.
Lemkow, Anna F. 1990. The Wholeness
Principle: Dynamics of Unity Within Science, Religion, and Society.
Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House. A Quest Book.
Midgley, Mary, 1993. Can’t We
Make Moral Judgments? New
York: St. Martin’s Press Inc.
Ravindra, Ravi (ed.). 1991. Science
and Spirit. New York:
Paragon House. An ICUS Book.
Rudhyar, Dane. 1977. Culture,
Crisis, and Creativity. Wheaton,
Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House. A Quest Book.
Sellon, Emily B., and Renée Weber. 1992. “Theosophy and The
Theosophical Society,” in Modern
Esoteric Spirituality. Antoine
Faivre and Jacob Needleman (eds.). New York: Crossroads.
Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. 1993. The
Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
® THE QUEST, Spring 1994.
** Anna F. Lemkow is author of The Wholeness Principle: Dynamics of Unity Within Science, Religion, and Society (Quest Books, 1990). She formerly worked in the U.N. Secretariat in the field of socio-economic development. She enjoys exploring integrative approaches to science, religion, and world affairs.
The Aristotelian controversy of freedom versus determinism has, as we know,
remained unresolved for centuries and, to my mind, it is irresolvable
because it fails to comprehend the inseparability of freedom and law.
As philosopher Mary Midgley states (Midgley, 1993, pp. 169-170), metaphysics
“is a necessary condition of all extended thought. To have a metaphysics
is to have a conceptual structure of one’s world picture, a general map of
how the world is and how it can possibly be. Metaphysical doctrines include
obviously necessary things like views about causal necessity… about the
reality of physical objects and the possibility of knowledge, about the
proper way to think about mind and matter, time and space, and—of most
interest to most of us—views about human nature and human destiny. They
are the most general presuppositions of our thought, without which it would
remain a hopelessly shapeless collection of scraps….”
Mechanistic determinism, we should note, raised a new complication in the
long-standing freedom-determinism problem of Western philosophy, but physics
itself later refuted mechanism as a world model. However, Western
philosophy, in struggling with the paradoxical human condition of seeming to
be both free and conditioned, continues to employ Aristotelian or either/or
logic, and therefore remains unable to resolve this controversy. Only if it
is understood that freedom cannot be attained except by obeying order can it
be resolved. By the same token, it is futile to look for an escape hatch
from determinism by recurring to “chance,” as some thinkers tried to do
with the advent of quantum physics. For this again misses the point that
freedom cannot exist without order.
Notably, in my book The Wholeness Principle.
 This position is substantiated in The Wholeness Principle, chapters 11-16.
Therefore, all our disorders are, paradoxically, meaningful expressions of
order! That is the burden not only of karma but also of the most
ancient book of Chinese wisdom, the I Ching.
Interestingly enough, this insight has surfaced in a new way in chaos
The imperatives of sharing one small planet have already impacted on the
world scene in a major way—including the establishment of the United
Nations nearly five decades ago, and the existence today of some 20,000
other international organizations of which some 18,000 are nongovernmental.
In 1909 the total number of international organizations was 176.
In The Wholeness Principle.