Alan Johnston is free, and his words move me. In his press conference he says, “Maybe you have to have been a prisoner of some kind for some time to know how good it is to be able to do the most basic, basic things that freedom allows–like to get a haircut, to drink what you want, to walk through some doors, to speak to people that you love…” I think of the prisoners I love, the men who edit The Midnight Special (next edition coming out as soon as we get it copied and mailed). “To walk through some doors…” after years of sliding steel, banging steel, metal bars, steel grids, handcuffs, chains, and triple-thick plexiglass windows, just the wonder of being able to walk through some doors. Freedom. I think about the doors in free people’s lives, doors both literal and metaphorical.
Here it is, July 4th, the USA’s day to celebrate its “freedom.” The subject of freedom has been coming up all around me. Yesterday I met two friends I deeply love, friends who have bonded with me over concerns for our children, spiritual quests for our own souls, adventures in distant parts of the planet, and dreams–yes–of retiring in Oregon! We talked about Eugene, Portland, and Houston, and we talked about freedom. He’s turning 65 next year, and he aches for the very freedom I want to claim–the freedom to do what he wants with the time he has left, in a beautiful place, among people who care about the spirit, and justice, and books, and ideas, and the earth. He longs to do the work of walking through mountains and breathing clean air, planting peaceful footprints on the land, not clocking in at a workplace, not doing the (interesting, important, worthwhile) work he gets paid to do, not living on someone else’s schedule, attending meetings, being on committees and in task forces and focus groups. His inner clock says he has done that. He has learned what he needed to learn there. It’s time to do things another way. In Oregon, under those gray skies, on those mountains, in that cool, clean air.
His partner’s in a different place in her journey. Making a home for him, rearing children with him, she put off her own professional aspirations for years; now she’s making great strides in her career. He loves her. He wants her to have her time of being productive in ways that feel good to her, her time of serving others (she’s in the medical world) with wisdom and competence. In Houston. For now.
Laughing and speaking the kind of shorthand that people on the path together speak, he said, “The Bodhisattva way,” and shook his head, acknowledging he is not yet free to go to the northwest. We all laughed together a little sadly and shook our heads at the Bodhisattva way.
She was scheduled for an interview right after we met, and (I learned by email last night) she got the job of her dreams, the job she wanted, the job that will use all her training and energy and focus. Hooray! She wants to settle in and do it, of course; she will save lives, be part of that very focused and intense world of crisis and survival. In Houston. And he will wait for her. He has the freedom to choose to wait, as she waited before him.
Expanding on that shorthand: the Bodhisattva’s way. In South Africa I got to know Stephen Batchelor, who created a brilliant translation of a book by an eighth-century monk called Shantideva, called A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, in which Stephen and Shantideva say this:
First of all I should make an effort
To meditate upon the equality between self and others:
I should protect all beings as I do myself
Because we are all equal in wanting pleasure and not wanting pain.
We might call that Buddhism 101. They continue:
Hence I should dispel the misery of others
Because it is suffering, just like my own,
And I should benefit others
Because they are sentient beings, just like myself.When both myself and others
Are similar in that we wish to be happy,
What is so special about me?
Why do I strive for my happiness alone?
That’s the essence of what my friend meant when he said, laughing, “The Bodhisattva’s way.” So he and his partner, and their youngest son, who still lives with them and is finishing his M.A. degree, will stay in Houston a little longer.
I have more freedom. I can go. Or so it seems, at this moment, if nothing changes. I can go in March, 2008. Maybe to Oregon. Maybe to a Zen center. I can walk through some doors. I will see which doors really are open to me, and I can choose which doors, of those that are open, to walk through. That’s freedom.
After my friends left, she to have her (wonderfully successful) interview, he to return to work, I went on to keep an appointment with a doctor I hadn’t seen before–still working on my long-standing health issues. The doc, who appears to be in his forties, wanted to know what my view of the next five years is, and I told him my plans for the next few months–Zen centers and Portland, and then retirement in December and a new life in March–and he leaned back on his rolling stool, rested his head against the wall, and said, “I envy you that freedom. Portland is my absolute favorite city in this country. I love its progressivism. It’s a green city, where people can live without cars. My wife’s been trying to get me to move there for the past five years. But it’s hard, when you have a large and thriving practice, to go anywhere. I’m here–” and he looked out the window toward the shimmering heat of the parking lot crammed with acres of SUVs, “I’m here.”
I’m humbled by my friend who is living the Bodhisattva way, and by the envy of my new doctor. That takes my breath away. A medical doctor envies me. And I see why he does. Freedom is, in a sense, what Janis Joplin said it is: nothin left to lose. But it takes a great deal of courage and effort and path-blazing and intention and blind good luck to get to that point. Blind good luck being, I think, the most significant factor in that mix. I am so grateful that I can walk through some doors when I want to. If nothing changes between now and then. (I’m reminded of the rueful statement, “All the hardest choices I ever had to make in my life were never really offered to me.” We spend so much time fantasizing about choices we don’t have, about walking through doors that will never open to us.)
Then today, as if to cap it all off, I heard from a former student. She was an American student doing study abroad when she worked with me in South Africa. Now she’s a playwright, director, and actress running a theatre in the LA area, but her life in theatre has been, and continues to be, a struggle. She has just completed training as a yoga teacher, and she writes, “I like how you’re leaning to where things are opening up for you. I am just now learning to do that. I have been doing things for years and the universe has not been responding to me in that way, but other things have opened up for me and I am learning to yield to them.”
Hooray for her.
Hooray for Alan Johnston. I’m so glad they didn’t shoot him or cut his head off. I’m glad he’s free.
I’m glad I am. And yet…
“When both myself and others
Are similar in that we wish to be happy,
What is so special about me?
Why do I strive for my happiness alone?”
Good questions, Shantideva and Stephen.
Tags: Buddhism, Politics, Prisons and Prisoners, Shantideva, What does it mean?