Though I was thirteen when the song Me and Bobby McGee came out, as I listened to Janice Joplin sing, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” those words touched my heart and blew my mind and I still love that lyric to this day. Then I loved the rebelliousness of the lyric. Now I feel and think that having “nothing left to lose” is just another way to say “Awakened.” And those who have nothing left to lose are capable of what we need more of today, which is Awakened Action.
Our Perfection and Completeness
Young as I was in 1970, I understood that the kind of freedom that Bobby McGee calls out is not freedom defined in terms of doing or getting, winning or competing. It’s a freedom that recognizes the perfection and completeness that each of us has simply by virtue of our being.
Furthermore, the lived experience of this freedom, once lost, is won back by getting over the depressing story you and I keep telling ourselves about all the things we’ll need to get before we’ll be whole, complete, and Awakened. For when all is said and done, Janice Joplin isn’t singing about losing her share of life’s many alluring material goods and treasures or even her health or family. She’s singing about losing a mind filled with poverty thinking, about abandoning a heart filled with feelings that tell her she’s worthless, incomplete and broken .
In the song, Janice and Bobby have no material goods to speak of. After all, they’re footloose drifters hitchhiking through life. But unlike very many people, even “wealthy,” “credentialed,” and “accomplished” people, Janice and Bobby have no poverty mentality to sicken their hearts.
And for them and us, letting go of that frame of mind is finally letting go of everything. The result? With that “loss” one finally Awakens to the fact that this life on its own is enough. You are enough. I am enough. Awakening to this is true freedom.
Seen in this light, another name for this kind of freedom, one that doesn’t sound as youthfully rebellious or free, is contentment. For to be content is to see the goodness and completeness of this life now despite whatever difficulties one might be facing now.
All Worthy Spiritual Traditions Say So
In fact, seen in this light, life’s difficulties are part of life’s completeness and perfection. In other words, part of life’s perfection is that one already has everything one needs to contentedly work with life’s difficulties. Everything is workable.
This truth as readily applies to the minor difficulties I might face while fixing a meal, as it does to finding fulfilling work when work’s scarce, or to dealing with an illness, or to solving the crises of Global Warming, police brutality and violence of all kinds. So say Kris Kristofferson, Janice Joplin, all worthy spiritual traditions—and the Buddha. I agree.
When I first met this kind of talk as a young adult it was in the context of Zen practice. And, like every other American adult who hears other adults musing about the freedom that comes form losing everything or from living contentedly with great difficulties or with living with few material possession, I thought the people doing the musing were more than a little off.
What Can You Be Talking About? Awakened Action
At first what I thought practitioners and teachers and the Buddha were saying was, “It’s okay, just give up and be content with whatever happens.”
But that was a misunderstanding. After all, the Buddha was a deeply engaged person. He was a doer of historic proportions. And people like Thich Nhat Hanh, Sharon Salzberg, Pema Chodron and Norman Fischer are deeply engaged and committed people. They are tireless teachers, writers and communicators. They work for peace, environmental sanity, and the wellbeing of others. Yet they all teach what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the practice of aimlessness, a kind of freedom from doing.
In Nhat Hanh’s words, “aimlessness means not running after things… Whether the object is fame, profit, riches, or sensual pleasure, or even enlightenment, as long as we are attached to seeking it, we will never experience freedom from ill-being.”
A Pan-Buddhist Teaching
From this quotation it is clear that “not running after things” or practicing aimlessness means to do what I do or seek what I seek without being attached to either my projects or their outcomes. In other words, to practice aimlessness is to practice the pan-Buddhist teaching of giving up craving, attachment, aversion and clinging.
To be aimless in this sense is not to give up acting on my own behalf or on behalf of others. Aimlessness says, “Act but give up the idea that you’ll only be happy or complete if your actions succeed. It says, “Yes, act, but the world does not need to change to suite you desires before you can be happy.” In other words, practicing aimlessness is letting go of poverty mentality, the thought that I’ll only be happy if I get something new or get to have many more things my way.
The practice of aimlessness asks me to see that even before I act I already have everything I need to be happy now, that I am complete now regardless of what I do. That is, happiness and freedom of heart do not come from what we do, win, or attain. They are our birthright. And, when our actions and seeking arises from this freedom of heart, our actions can be truly beneficial and unsullied by selfishness and ego clinging. This is Awakened Action.
Letting Go Of Action
Norman Fischer calls aimlessness “letting go of action.” In the following quote he talks about this letting go of action and it’s relationship to “zazen” or shamatha/vipassana meditation in daily life and enlightened action or what I call Awakened Action.
We are living in a historical period in which we understand that it is necessary for all of us to be conscious and active in our world. None of us can ignore this call to action. And yet, if we do not practice zazen, whether we call it zazen or whatever we call it and however we do it, we cannot act in any accurate way. There has been plenty of action—too much action. What we need is not more action, we need enlightened action. And that means letting go of action. ~Norman Fischer
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