Generally, we pride ourselves on having choices. Even more, we take pride in our ability to recognize and weigh all the choices we have, even to the point of self-induced paralysis between conflicting interests. It’s all about assessing risk and reward. What will be most satisfying with the least risk? It’s all totally American, totally western. It’s what we market. It’s what we export and import. The corporate view is: even if you don’t like the choices we are offering, we’re determined to give them to you—even if you don’t need or want them.
But from a more personal view, choice, or lack of it, implies something more complex. We don’t like to be cornered in our decision-making. We also don’t easily accept any limitations on our choices. We call that freedom. We want an array of alternatives for everything we do. We want options that appeal to every possible nuance of preference, which cater to every whim, every impulse, even if they exploit every fear and every base desire. At the same time, actually looking into the heart of our process of evaluation is not so common.
We can set the temperature in our cars to the exact degree we prefer. We can “choose” from hundreds, if not thousands of options for things to wear, eat, drive, watch, listen to, read or use for a myriad of activities, deriving manifold benefits from them for comfort, pleasure, satisfaction of every degree and kind.
This is all on the conscious level where, ironically, the choices we make have little more than transient importance. It’s all about feeding and refining the constructed self, the ego-self, reinforcing the thinking mind. While it may be appealing, it tends to obscure and trivialize the importance of deeper personal choices such as whether we want to believe the thinking mind at all.
Typically, we are making unconscious choices all the time out of habit with little or no consideration for their automatic nature. We could be driven by fear, anger, aggression, greed or lust and have no consciousness whatsoever of our motivation. In that sense, we become like a dog chasing the same stick thrown repeatedly by the mind.
Even harmful choices are part of our freedom. There always seems to be a tenacious struggle about any collective attempt to remove a harmful choice (slavery, pollution, cigarettes, cars without seatbelts, sugary sodas, carbon emissions) from the field of choices by those who are certain that more choice is always better, even if that choice happens to hurt someone else.
We call this progress. There are even those who hold a more extreme belief that if everyone is given the same freedom of choice, then the aggregate of all those choices will be a benefit to all. Some people, you know who I mean, are convinced that the field of choice is intrinsically benevolent, that agreeing to provide and protect all that choice will turn out just fine for us all in the end. Any limitation of that progress is regarded as something other than freedom.
Kris Kristofferson wrote that line at the top as “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” But you knew that. It defines freedom as non-attachment, freedom from obligations, responsibilities, freedom from all conventions, freedom from feeling. “Nothing left to lose” is a desperate state, a state of perpetual loss, an irrevocable distance from and a resignation from all the aspirations and trappings of convention. The one who is down and out is free. When ya ain’t got nuthin’, ya got nuthin’ to lose.
Yes, having nothing is a version of freedom. Material things do have a way of weighing us down, grounding us to a single place, a narrow lifestyle. They get in our way. At times they distract us from the moment, the spontaneous nature of the unstructured present. No baggage. The impulse to shed all our “things,” the weight and structure of our lives, is pretty strong sometimes, isn’t it?
We imagine only two choices: having or not having. Or, in the case of emotional attachments, feeling or not feeling: accepting the limitations and responsibility of ownership or the risk embodied in the fantasy of utter non-attached spontaneity.
But having or not having is not the true choice we are facing in each moment. Tsoknyi Rinpoche says “freedom begins with a ‘no’.” What he means is not a forced renunciation or a self-denial of connection or feeling. Neither is it a denial of the primary motivations that we would regard as self-clinging. The “no” that he is talking about is more like setting a paper boat of our ego-driven clinging behaviors (and beliefs) adrift on a lake, watching it slowly disappear over the horizon. In its place we discover awareness, true presence.
True presence doesn’t need to have or be anything. There is nothing to identify with.
The freedom of nothing left to choose implies something much deeper: that the habit of choice itself entails some degree of identification with the person we believe ourselves to be, with all the attributes we collect about ourselves like gems in our pockets, but which have no relationship whatsoever to the person we truly are. The continuous and occasionally overwhelming automatic pattern of assessment, deliberation and decision in every nano-moment, is a form of slavery, not freedom at all. Indulging every whim, reviewing every impulse, is a form of addiction, ultimately a false freedom that finds us lost in perpetual hunger, seeking to satisfy myriad appetites without much reflection on their source, their nature, whether they are innate or cultivated or whether they serve our ultimate comfort at all.
What are we chasing? Freedom? Happiness? Security?
Nothing left to choose implies a different kind of satisfaction, a different quality of peace. Having no choice means not being driven by addictive impulses of hidden beliefs. My friend Lion Goodman has created a powerful process to look into and let go of those beliefs.
Rather than being restrictive, having no choice but to respond to a sustained inner attention is, ironically, freedom itself. I’m not referring to a world in which there are no alternatives. I’m referring to an easy residence with all options, as if they are driven by the same determination.
Rather than being hung up on the fine distinctions between options for acquiring every kind of satisfaction, true freedom is the visceral certainty that happiness is not in the balance, regardless of what choice is made. Real happiness does not depend on how we look, what we eat or drive, what we have or whom we know. Real happiness arises as a pristine awareness, an innate, indestructible purity of creative impulse that can only happen in this moment, distinct from any striving for some future condition. Choose anything. Own nothing. And give it all away in every moment.
Thanks to Jan Frazier for her lovely book, The Freedom of Being.