"You do not need to seek freedom in a different land,
for it exists with your own body, heart, mind, and soul.”- BKS Iyengar
"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price,
bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend,
oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. "- John F. Kennedy
When I was a little girl, my mom would proudly declare to any one of her Dominican friends who asked where I was born that I was “…born here, in NY. She’s American!” I found myself thinking about that this year a lot as America celebrated her 242nd year of freedom. How it was a source of joy and a “bragging right” that I was a US citizen, born in this great nation where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was the motto, especially for a family who had lived in and survived the Dominican Republic of Trujillo. She is also a naturalized citizen now as are most of my family who immigrated here in 1968.
Being a first generation American is layered. My experience is so different than say my niece and nephew- second generation citizens by birth who identify completely as Americans. I was raised between two cultures: one that I existed in at school, through books and TV, and with my friends and one that was heavily influenced by Dominican customs, music, food and language that was kept very much alive in our homes with pride and purpose. Looking back now, I realize the gift of being first generation American is this amazing freedom to move between these two worlds, to express these two sides of myself. But this vague understanding that my relatives had left and come here because they were free here in a way they couldn’t be back in the DR, whether that freedom was physical financial, emotional, mental, or spiritual- was always part of the fabric of my childhood and as such of my identity. My parents left, to come to a place that was free so that I could be born into that freedom.
As such, I reflected a lot yesterday on Freedom. What is it? What are its components? What does it look and feel like? Personally speaking, coming into this year it has been my mantra word, my intention: freeing myself of my dysfunctional patterns, relationships, limiting beliefs and fears. It has been a lonely ride because the work of freedom is HARD. Sometimes you have to say goodbye to that person just as an immigrant seeking asylum has to say goodbye to their land, maybe even their families. Freedom is not something anyone seeks lightheartedly whether its a fresh start in a new country or a new way of being.
I've found, personally speaking, that it requires brutal honesty, radical acceptance AND forgiveness, and then of course an ocean of compassion and courage to keep doing its work: to keep trying and changing negative behaviors, thought patterns that are so insidious you don’t even know they dictated any of your choices until after the fact, to keep working, doing better, believing, and going. The stuff all the sacred texts, all the guru’s, sages, bodhisattva’s, wise ones preach and teach. My deepening of my yoga practice sent me on this quest because this practice awakens the spirit-the very essence of freedom, our birthright- and asks us to go deeper, to invite our truth to surface and to live from that place, and one of the ingredients of freedom is truth.
It's been a process filled with a lot of desperate stumbling in the dark, before moving into clear open fields, where in the sweetest of moments I have met myself over and over as Rumi would say, beyond ideas of right and wrong, of past and future, of should’s and should nots, in the light of divinity and love. The time spent stumbling always feels SO much longer than the time in the field. The stumbling is when I fall back inadvertently into another old pattern, or am triggered by family dynamics and have a relapse, hear the words “Not. This. Again.” repeat in my head and heart and I really wonder what the point of it all is. The time in the field of clarity and love feels brief...it feels like a deep trust and softening, like an acceptance that comes from truth, that makes room for all the parts of me to be heard, seen, cared for...that invites forgiveness and inspires gratitude, and bathes me in the warm glow of divine love. It is powerful and affirming enough to get me through the next bout of stumbling because I KNOW the clarity, the light of the field will be there if I just keep working at it, hang in a little longer. And in that way, I know another ingredient of freedom is faith.
As I think about where we are as a nation right now, where we came from and where we might be headed, I can’t help but relate it to my personal exploration of freedom. We’ve been stumbling in the dark really since our nation was born. Our history is steeped in trial and horrifically cruel error (slavery, segregation, KKK, Japanese internment camps, continuous mysogyny, homophobia) but the truth is none of those things are exclusive to the US. We aren’t the only ones who have made similar mistakes and are still making them now. We are however unique, special and great because our foundational principles, our intention as delineated by our founding fathers was life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That liberty part, that Freedom, is the big kahuna of that US holy trilogy of ideals. We have failed it many times but we have never stopped fighting for it. We are a nation who has literally fought throughout our history, with outside forces and with each other on our own soil for the right of all beings to be free.
As things stand right now we are fighting amongst ourselves again ideologically and the worry is that the fight could become literal as well if we don’t find a way to come together around the issues that are tearing us apart, many of which are centered around human and civil rights and liberties. We have had moments of hard earned clarity and meeting in that field in willingness and love: emancipation, the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, the legalization of gay marriage…but the work isn’t done. Once freedom is won, it must be maintained. Whether that’s in our personal lives through the integrity of our practices or on the national stage. Watching as the current leadership of this country promotes division, delights in lying and incites the public to question the pursuit of truth, weakens compassion, and talks about building walls, allows immigrant children some yet without language to be separated from their mothers without any plan or process to bring them back together again …and all of this coming from the highest and most powerful place of power in our land…really is the biggest internal threat to our freedom I have ever known in my lifetime and scares me and rocks me to my core sometimes, but it also inspires me to keep doing my work - both personally and collectively and to protect and fight for freedom.
And here’s how the two are linked: the work of personal freedom, as in when we are courageous enough to be able to look at ourselves and our choices truthfully, even and especially if that truth isn’t so pretty, even and especially if its to say: “I can be greedy, selfish, biased, unfair…I am afraid of what and who I don’t understand, afraid to lose all I have or have it taken by “them”, afraid there isn’t enough for us all, afraid I maybe don’t deserve it…BUT I want to do better, and I want to be free from those ways and ingrained systemic beliefs that bog me down and in turn keep me bogging others down”…if enough of us start there, doing that work on ourselves, then freedom IS practiced and protected. Freedom isn’t just BBQ’s and a flag waving in your front yard, and it isn't just being able to do what we want…it is ensuring that everyone else has that same right even when we don’t understand the “other” or even agree with them. Its working deeper and fairly and doing our own work. Because when a person working on the freedom of their soul sees injustices on the larger world stage and platform, they don’t justify or support it- they fight it, resist it. Freedom is a spiritual battle: this is why the greatest freedom fighters have also been mystics like Joan of Arc or ministers like Dr. King Jr., or visionaries like Ghandi: immersed in their own inner work, in their internal striving for freedom and able to then offer those lessons, principles, courage, hope to us.
When you love yourself you want what’s best for others because you understand how hard this human business can be and you have compassion and you CARE. That’s how it was done in our past: first a persons mind and heart was changed, and enough people’s perspectives were shifted, that the country and even the world changed. This is how it needs to be done now again, and maybe more than ever. It is not easy, and the stumbling in the dark requires faith that we will get to the field and meet each other beyond our limitations, beyond our apparent differences in the tireless but honorable pursuit, maintenance and support of our freedom… which feels like the most important ingredient of all: love.