Tag Archives: freedom

A free mind

Guest blog by Tiziana Stupia

‘Often, the search for meaning does start with a sense of restlessness, which can carry us all over the world. But sooner or later every serious student of life sets aside passport and visas and settles down to look within.’ — Eknath Easwaran

This morning, I read a chapter by the great Swami Satyananda Saraswati, in which he talks about what having a free mind means. ‘The mind remains free whether you live amidst pleasure or pain, wealth or poverty, young people or old. The mind must not identify itself with the external circumstances and think, ‘I am poor’, ‘I am rich’, ‘I am in pain’ or ‘I am very unfortunate’. As sannyasins, we live a life of poverty by choice. Why? Because our minds must be free. Wealth, name, fame, passion, all these things hold down this great energy of man. We are trying to simplify our lives on the physical, mental and emotional planes so the mind will remain free. If we can keep the mind free, awakening will take place automatically, even without any sadhana.’

This is a subject close to my heart, especially now, having just returned from India. India is always transformational on many levels. In the last few months, I have been contemplating the real meaning of freedom.

Freedom, like most other things, is a journey. When I was younger, I thought that freedom meant financial independence and the freedom to do what I wanted. Doing only work I am passionate about. So I went forth and did just that – I founded a record label in my early twenties and became successful beyond my wildest dreams. I bought a beautiful house, a nice car, expensive clothes, flew business class, and I had a certain ‘name and fame’. I admit, it was a great time, being barely twenty-five. But slowly, or perhaps not so slowly, dissatisfaction crept in. A certain emptiness. Was this really freedom, to be able to buy what I wanted, to have ‘made it’? The uncomfortable feeling increased, and by the time I was twenty-seven, I was clear: this wasn’t it. I couldn’t live like this anymore. This wasn’t freedom: I felt imprisoned, in a golden cage of my own making. To the disbelief of many people, I closed down my company at the height of its success, took a year out and then enrolled at university to study psychology.

Fast forward seven years from there. I’d sold my house, downsized greatly, and was living a much more satisfying life. I wasn’t earning much, but felt fulfilled doing projects I loved. I worked part-time as a spiritual advisor in prisons, performed pagan rituals in the community, and worked on creative projects. Admittedly, this was facilitated by the money I made with the record label and which I had invested wisely. And yet, still, I did not feel free. I still had rent and bills to pay, shopping to do, a car to maintain, appointments to keep and so on. So though my life was more pleasant because I was actually doing what I loved, I felt shackled. So I decided to take it a step further. I sold my car, gave up my apartment, gave away most of my possessions and decided to travel the world by train. Perhaps this would give me the sense of freedom I craved.

At first, it really did. Sitting on the different trains crossing continents, I felt free as a bird. No appointments, no schedules, no bills. Just me, my backpack and the ever-changing landscapes of Siberia, China, Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan and India. Being so high up in the Himalayas added to the freedom I felt in my heart.

This was five years ago. I have not settled down again since, living in different countries and still moving around a lot, though at a much slower pace. Lately, however, freedom has taken on a very different meaning for me. Yes, it’s great to have (relative) financial independence, to be able to travel, to do work that I like and not be answerable to a boss. It’s what many people aspire to, and I was blessed enough to experience all this early on in life. For this I will always be grateful. But what has come into the forefront for me now is something very different. Freedom of the mind, freedom of our conditioning, our likes and dislikes that really imprison us, whether we are aware of it or not. This has been inspired by my love and practice of yoga and meditation (a result of my travels to the East). I started to realize that actually, I am not free at all. As long as my mind does its own thing, as long as I am influenced by my early childhood conditioning, by anger, by things my society or parents or friends deem as ‘acceptable’, as long as I react in ways that are not fully autonomous, I am still a prisoner. Making autonomous choices is key: choices that comes from my inner being, my soul, choices that are not my mother’s or my father’s or my grandmother’s, or heck, my neighbour’s choices. As long as I am driven by anything, be that insecurity or hunger for recognition or ambition or an old chip on my shoulder, I am not free.

Seeing this so clearly has been a revelation. It has put everything else in the background. It doesn’t mean that I can’t travel or do what I enjoy. But it has made those things optional. What we have to liberate and purify is our mind that is so full of unconscious patterns and conditionings. Then we can truly be free. We can be in any situation, good or bad, we can be rich or poor, cold or hot – whatever. But we will be at peace. Right now, most of us hanker after pleasure and run from pain. This is what all our actions lead towards. This may be fleetingly satisfying, but it doesn’t bring us true freedom and peace. True freedom is a state of non-duality, of being at peace with all there is at any moment.
How to achieve this? Meditation and yoga are a good way to start. At the very least, meditation gives us an experience of being in the moment and of watching ourselves. It slowly removes our veil of ignorance and helps us to see things as they truly are. We begin to wake up from the dream. We begin to see that there is more to life than what we perceive with the five senses and that there is a deeper purpose to it all. And: meditation shows us that we have a choice. We have a choice to not react and we can learn to control our minds and emotions through purifying the mind. And this, in my view, is true freedom.

If you are interested in yoga and meditation, I can recommend Satyananda Yoga at http://www.yogavision.net/and Vipassana Meditationat http://www.dhamma.org/

Tiziana’s book, Meeting Shiva: Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas is available here –
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Meeting-Shiva-Falling-Rising-Himalayas/dp/178099916X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1371637172&sr=8-1&keywords=tiziana+stupia


Thou shalt have

I was at a meeting yesterday to discuss the needs of travelling people – Showpeople, bargees, Romany and other travellers. I learned a great deal. I also observed there were people from a more official background who couldn’t help but suspect that maybe at some level, what travellers really wanted was to settle into bricks and mortar homes and be like everyone else. Happily there were other voices able to point out that these other ways of living matter to people, and that travellers tend to go into bricks and mortar only when no other options are available to them.

We’re supposed to want normal homes, and large ones at that. I’ve seen facebook conversations full of dismay over tiny flats. We’re supposed to want cars and televisions, and then officialdom organises everything around the assumption you have those things. Infrastructure is nightmarish this way. For a rural person with no car, getting to the doctor when you’re too sick to walk a mile to catch a bus, is a serious issue. The pressure to have, to own, to be normal, comes at us from so many angles.

The idea of people who do not want to have, is threatening to many. The great argument that you must want, you must earn more to pay more income tax, to grease the wheels of the country so that we can all have more stuff… it’s a never ending cycle, and all it does is take us deeper into unsustainability.

I’m watching friends whose desire is to have a small patch of land and be self-sufficient. To rent privately without discernible income is almost impossible. To get a mortgage without regular employ is equally tricky, even if you know you can make the money work. Some bod in an office will look at the numbers and pump them through an assessment based on the certainty that you must have a car, some gadgets, a this, a that, £500 worth of insurance for the contents of your freezer, never mind that you don’t even own a freezer…

The subtle ways in which we are funnelled down the same routes, into being similar, fascinate and appal me. Of course the more similar we are, the easier we are to manage. Fewer headaches for the planning department there. Much governmental and organisational stuff requires figuring out who will be wanting what in the future, and of course the more normal we are, the more predictable we are. It’s easier to sell us stuff, make us do things, and plan out what to tell us we want next.
Thou shalt have exactly the same as everyone else in your geographical area and economic bracket, and thou shalt be happy with it. I met a travelling showman yesterday, passionate about his way of life, determined that the system would fit in around him, rather than he and his family being pressured to change in order to fit the system. He made me want to cheer. Conformity may be convenient for some, but it is much more sterile than diversity.

We are told continually, for all kinds of reasons that there is an unavoidable trade-off between security and freedom. You can’t have it both ways, allegedly. That debate always misses out the issue of personal responsibility. And, for that matter, responsibilities held within communities. There is no need to sell our individuality to fit the preferences of corporate and government machines, but the alternative, requires us to take more responsibility for ourselves. That in turn means needing systems that allow us more choice about what we want to be responsible for. Freedom to choose different brands of toothpaste, is not freedom. The freedom to live in the manner of your choosing, be that in a yurt as a goat keeper, on a boat, in a caravan, is a much bigger and more important kind of freedom. The freedom not to own, not to depend on a car, the freedom not to stay still, the freedom not to want to be wealthy.


The happy Druid

I’ve met a lot of people along the way so far, from people who were penniless and living in single rooms in Bed and Breakfasts, to people who have big country houses and go skiing every year. People who have been invalided out of the workforce, the self-made and the downright lucky. I’ve known plenty of wealthy people who were a long way from being happy, whilst misery and poverty go together very easily. Without a doubt, the happiest people I know are either retired, or self employed, doing something they care about and feel has value, and have strong friendship networks.

Often self employed people like me work longer hours than regular employees and do so for less money, but, you get to say no when you need to. You can fit your work around your life, and I see a lot of that amongst the self employed, especially around child raising. People who work for themselves always have more scope to be creative, and get more direct financial reward for the things they get right. There are more risks, but these days most regular employment is so insecure that the risks seem a lot smaller than they used to. At least when it’s your company you can really fight to keep it going and don’t have to depend on whether anyone else is determined to make sure your job continues to exist. What I hear from regularly employed friends suggest that increasing numbers of workplaces are becoming unreasonable, disrespectful pressure fests. The self employed may not have as much cash, but we don’t endure any workplace bullying unless we do it to ourselves.

There are basic essentials that we all need. Recent discussions on facebook around food budgets demonstrate that a person who knows their stuff and has enough wriggle room for some bulk buying, can live well on fairly little. Less desire to be fashionably dressed keeps the clothes budget down. Feet as transport save money, and the cost of gym membership. There’s an art to being less affluent, and one of the key requirements is knowing that cash does not equate to happiness. Yes, life without the basics is miserable, but that’s not always a money issue. Rest and sleep are basics, plenty of highly paid, high flying jobs will deprive you of those. Human relationships are also a basic human need, and if you’ve got to work all your waking hours, or deeply antisocial hours, money costs you in terms of relationship.

The first secret to finding happiness rests on knowing what actually makes you happy. That’s going to vary for all of us, but whatever you think you’ve got, it’s worth poking it. The joy of shopping, for example, can often be about getting a temporary sense of power out of spending money, but if you run up debts, that disempowers you, it can become like an addiction. Getting drunk can feel like happiness, but there’s thinking out there that our young people do this just to blot out the reality of the rest of their lives. So just how happy a state is that? Merry is great, slightly pissed can be wonderful, but so off your face that you don’t know which way is up? Its popular, hugely expensive in terms of police costs and antisocial knock-ons.

I am able to get by on very little because I know what I need. I have books, online articles and radio 4 to supply me with intellectual stimulus on a daily basis. I have good company in the form of my bloke, my child, fellow boaters, excellent friends and a wide selection of casual acquaintances in the wider world. I need time outside and most especially, panoramic landscape views. Enough food, exercise and rest are possible to achieve, although I don’t always get that balance right. Lying in bed, snuggled with my man, cat purring in my ear, child giggling at the other end of the boat as he reads Pratchett in bed… of these things are contentment made. Happiness is not a big, dramatic sort of emotion. If I need thrills and adventures, moving the boat on a windy day, cycling a hill, undertaking an epic walk – I can challenge myself. I don’t get bored. I have the freedom to think and feel as I please, to choose a lot of what happens, or negotiate it in ways that work all round. I am free from bullying, and unkindness doesn’t feature much in my life. I feel very lucky in all of this.

I’m happy when small things go well, and when what I do works for other people, when publishers say yes, and the child says ‘today was an awesome adventure’ or things to that effect. I’m happy when I feel that I’m acting ethically, and walking my talk in some way or another, and when what I do manifestly benefits someone else. Money can be nice, especially when it represents people who bought my books. But money does not buy me the call of the cuckoo, a child’s laughter, or the man who looks at me with adoration in his eyes.


Small scale living

I picked up an article and some attendant discussions recently about living in small spaces. Apparently new build in the UK is smaller than European averages, with one bedroom flats at perhaps 43 meters square. I did the maths and worked out the boat may be slightly smaller than that, and there are three of us in it. I also gather that in Japan, small living is more prevalent.

There are challenges, let’s be clear. Having more than one person in a small space means next to no personal space. Privacy is at a premium, but not impossible. It calls for constant attention and negotiation, so you really have to get on with the people sharing the small space. We’ve not struggled on this score, although in the depths of winter when it’s wet and grim outside and we’re all fidgety, it isn’t always a joy. Laundry and wet clothes are the biggest practical problem. Again, not insurmountable. I now have little lines strung up over the sink and draining board for when the waterproof outers get soaked. Dealing with wet clothes in a small space is not entertaining, but again, wholly possible. The person with a car probably wouldn’t face this one as much.

We had to give up all sorts of things to downsize. We have to be very disciplined about buying new stuff. Actually I like this, I like living lightly and not feeling weighted down by possessions. There’s less to clean, tidy and maintain, too. Every prospective purchase has to be considered. Where is it going to live? Is something else going to have to move out, and if so, what? It makes us focus on what we value and use most. It also discourages people buying us (and especially the child) anything that is both large and useless. Another win.

There is no way we can have dinner parties. I’m fine with that, I feel no lack. We meet people other places. No frantic pre-visitor tidying up, we just go to the pub. Splendid. We don’t end up with hordes of other people’s children coming to visit. This is fine too. We go to spaces where children can rampage. I do not worry about breakages, or children getting into things they should not. More win.

Large spaces are an invitation to accumulate stuff, (Been there, done that) most of the stuff is barely used, not even necessarily wanted, but it grows to fill the available space. The smaller the space, the less you let it do that. Unlike a lot of people I know, I don’t have an attic, garage or spare rom stuffed with unwanted things I can’t let go of. This is another win. Large spaces are also an invitation to stay in while your small space encourages going out. There’s a lot of space outside. Most of the time I’ve not felt cramped in the boat, because of what’s outside the windows. There’s a lot of space outside, and in nice weather, I can sit in it, and work. My ‘office’ for writing this afternoon will be under the willows. I can also use libraries, cafes, and other public spaces. I’ve felt more cooped up in houses than ever I have on the boat.

Then there’s the cost and environmental aspects. Often we only need one light in the evening, and the heating is much reduced. More space equals more lights and more heating needed. Bigger properties occupy more land, and that does have a direct environmental impact. Think how much soil is taken out of natural use in order to support all those bedrooms and garages stacked with unwanted junk. Smaller spaces take less cleaning and therefore use fewer cleaning products. Less carpet is required. Fewer cans of paint will be deployed in decorating, and on it goes. A smaller space means less consumption, continually, saving money and keeping you greener. Furthermore it will have been cheaper to buy or rent than a big space. And that saved money will enable you to get out and do more interesting things somewhere else.

I’m conscious that anyone with mobility issues may need a bit more space to get around. That’s a different sort of issue. Some working from home options require more storage space and work area than we do – again I’d not argue with that. However, having space so that you can have more junk, and as an antidote to not being able to relate very well to the people you ostensibly live with… not so clever. Small spaces call for interesting skills, managing possessions, accumulation, and human relationships. I can really recommend it as a learning experience. There’s so much to be gained from finding out what you actually need, and what’s just weighing you down. It’s easier than you might imagine, and more fun.


The joys of good inventions

I can sound like a luddite sometimes, and it would be fair to say that I have mixed feelings about modern technology. I am very fond of the internet, and of the things I own, the netbook I’m typing this on is of particular value to me. Not that I own much hi-tech stuff. There are some kinds of technology that seem to be made purely so that someone can sell you a new thing. Many of them do nothing for me. I get far more excited about inventions that have genuine impact, aren’t just a faster version of an old thing with more bells and whistles than I have any use for at all. Technology that uses less energy than old ways of doing is a win, technology that enables new creativity. If they make 3d printers that run on old food packaging, then, and only then will I be wildly excited about them.

It’s snowing here today. As a child, snow was a source of fear. I was born with my feet pressed back against my shins, as a result my ankles are dodgy and I spent my childhood falling over a lot. Snow, ice, even frost, increased the risk of falling, and I never really enjoyed snow as a consequence. This stayed with me right up until 4 years ago, when my brother discovered and introduced me to a thing. Microspikes. Also known as fell runners crampons. A rubber upper that slips over the boot or shoe, and on the underside, chains and little metal teeth. They’re designed for those gloriously mad people who want to run over mountainous terrain in adverse conditions. Lightweight, fairly low tech, but absolutely life changing. I can walk in the snow without any need to worry, and that makes it possible to enjoy the snow rather than being mired in fear.

Every year, elderly people, especially women with brittle bones fall on slippery surfaces. Broken hips are an all too frequent outcome, leading to long hospital stays, wrecked confidence, and terrible physical pain. Many never really get over it. Add to the list of campaigns I want to start, one to get microspikes and similar things given to all pensioners as a matter of course. They’d pay for themselves in a single winter, not just in unoccupied hospital beds, but also in the well being, happiness and self esteem of the people affected.

If you’ve got a person with confidence or mobility issues who is likely to suffer in the ice and snow, consider making the investment and getting a set. Being kept in for long periods by bad weather is so isolating and demoralising, and the freedom this little bit of inspired invention gives a person, is incredible. They aren’t totally fall proof, but I’ve walked over steep and ice coated hills in them and never so much as lost my footing.


Druidic Arts: Responsibility

Ironically this is probably the worst day I’ve had in the last few weeks for trying to write about responsibility as art. Things I do not want to be carrying are heavy on my shoulders this morning, along with the promise of future unwanted responsibility to come. However, the thing about responsibility as art, is very much about being in control of it. You are not an artist if something is being done to you. Art is all about being the one who does. Responsibility is a curious thing to consider as art because so often it falls upon us with all the grace and elegance of a piano falling out of the sky, and frequently feels about as joyful. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

I learned from the existentialists the idea that we can only have freedom in so far as we are willing to take responsibility. I think this is true, and is usually useful. We can also be crushed by responsibility or rendered powerless when we are obliged to carry all of the blame but not allowed the power to act. That’s not true responsibility though, it’s a form of oppression pretending to be something else. True responsibility means not only being the person with whom the buck stops, but also means having the power to act and make change.

The first stage of the art involves recognising what we are responsible for, what we could be responsible for, and what we are told we are responsible for but seem not to have the power to fix. Seeking the power or putting down the burden is essential with that second category, although that can be a long, hard fight. Recognising that you have nominal, not actual responsibility can be freeing though. At the very least, it enables letting go at a personal level. You might still have to carry a thing, but you can stop feeling it as your own.

Recognising what we are not responsible for is also liberating. It’s very important in our dealings with other people especially, to know what is not ours to do, mend, or change. It’s easy to feel responsible when we are not, or to assume a responsibility that disempowers others. The letting go process as your child becomes an adult is an easy example. We cannot live their lives for them and they must be free to make their own mistakes. No one can be responsible for anyone else’s emotions and no one should be trying to take responsibility for making someone else change, or for living their life.

Knowing what we must carry as responsibility is a great help. We are ultimately responsible for everything we do and say, everything we think and feel. Even when provoked by others, even in blind rage, or utter despair, we still choose how to be, and cannot blame what we do on anyone else, or on drink, drugs or any other such excuse. We are also entirely responsible for things we decide not to do – the consequences of action not taken, help not offered, wrongs not tackled. That is a very uncomfortable thing to look at, and it takes time and practice to engage with the idea of that kind of responsibility. We will never see the consequences of everything we didn’t do, but looking for them helps, recognising that to do nothing is just as significant as to act. To do nothing can be to tacitly enable abuse, hold up tyranny, facilitate cruelty and crush others with our indifference.

The practicing artist of responsibility knows what they are doing. They are conscious of what they carry and what they set down, and they make those choices deliberately. I think this is about where I am at the moment, but external pressures mean I’m frequently in survival mode, and not able yet, to step up to the next level that I can see. I want to move from being a responsibility musician, to being a responsibility composer. I don’t want to just play the tunes of living responsibility, I want to consciously create acts of responsibility taking. This can include things like running events and teaching. It can also mean taking the fight to the source of the wrong rather than just fending off what comes to the doorstep. It means actively seeking out things that need someone to take responsibility for them, and picking them up, and carrying them. Or, writing them new music, if you will. The person who gets to this stage will do amazing things in the world. They will create responsibility operas and ballets of unthinkable newness. They will go where no one else has gone, and they will see what is needful, and know how to respond to it. A responsibility artist isn’t just reacting or replicating, they are making something new in the world.

I imagine, somewhere beyond there, a way of being where this becomes not a fearful thing, but a joyful process. That’s got to be worth aiming for.


Your ineffable predestination

Not so long back, Autumn Barlow guest blogged here about the idea of whether things are Meant to Be. I’ve finally got round to formulating a response, so here we go. I don’t personally believe in predestination. I do not think there are any gods, fates or forces directing our lives and setting us up for certain experiences. Nor do I believe that before this life we all got together in heaven, or some other place, and planned how we wanted it to go and what we wanted to learn. I think that life is improvisation. I also know that I do not know how reality works, and that my theories are best guesses. I therefore want the most useful theory I can find. I cannot know if I am right, but ‘useful’ is something I can measure.

However, the idea of an ineffable plan can be comforting in hard times. When all you get are setbacks, the idea that it means something, or is taking you in an important direction might turn meaningless pain into a bearable sense of significance. The only trouble is, if the plan is either that of a deity, or your higher self in another realm, you have no personal control. You can only endure and follow the path that you were fated to take. I don’t find that helps me make the best choices, and that’s why I reject it as a world view.

Sometimes there seems to be nothing to do but endure, suffer, and try to survive. Sometimes it feels like the only available life lesson is ‘you do not get to win’. But there are always other ways of thinking about what happens. We might not be able to change our circumstances, but we can change how we think about them, and that can, in turn, change everything.

On Monday I was starting to feel like I would inevitably be crushed by forces I cannot control. By yesterday morning I had reasoned out that there must be ways of not being crushed. By the afternoon I had come to realise that I do indeed have very little power because responsibility lies elsewhere. I went on to recognise that I can choose to trust the person who does have responsibility for dealing with things. This is someone who has not previously had to step up and shoulder such a huge load, but that doesn’t mean they can’t, or won’t. By this morning I had come to the conclusion that maybe this other person needs the opportunity to grow that will inevitably come as a consequence of stepping up. My role is no longer to be on the front line. I’m now at the support end, providing backup, information, resources and trusting someone else to take the lead. I feel fine about this.

A week ago, in a wholly different scenario, I found a sudden weight of responsibility descending upon me. A vast amount of work loomed as a consequence, and work that I had no idea how to do. The prospect alone could have put me down, could have convinced me that I was beaten, or caused me to relinquish autonomy to someone else as a way through. On that occasion, thinking it through, I realised that I was indeed the one who had to step up to make changes, and that I could do it. Now well under way in that process, the responsibility I took starts to feel like freedom.

In both situations I could have accepted the idea that I am fated to be crushed. Having two, or three, or four hard things fall one after the other (midweek we learned a lot about mechanical repairs) the scope for taking it personally is huge. I could decide that the gods have it in for me and mean to break me. I could conclude that my defeat is inevitable and that I might as well just lie down and wait to die. This would be a story, not a truth, and would only become real through my embracing of it and my acting it out.

Another day, another challenge. I do look for meaning, but am increasingly determined that the meaning I need to seek is about how to make the best of it. Often, there is some kind of good to extract from even the worst setbacks. Often there are ways of moving forwards even when at first it does not feel that way. The only grand plan I think is going to matter is the one I construct inside my head. If anything can be described as ‘meant to be’ it will be because things have happened as I meant them. Or as someone else human and present meant them. As I keep saying to my child, there are often no ‘wrong’ answers when it comes to life, there are only the answers we choose for ourselves. Keeping in sight the ways in which we can choose is a big part of taking responsibility, and finding freedom. It’s only when we convince ourselves that we have no choices, and no power, that we’re really in trouble.


Radical Ancestors

I’ve been reading about the history of radical faith and politics in the UK. It’s part of the research for the next book, which is not about the history of radical politics or this kind of religion, but that’s a whole other story. However, some things have struck me.

From the first radical noises in the 1200s, the first rebellions that I’ve read about, people have been protesting about the way in which money and power collect into the hands of the few who then control the law so that the money and power remain in their control. While we’ve come a fair way from feudal times (it’s your Count that votes!) I read this stuff and I realise we are having all the same arguments today. All the ‘takeover’ protests, all the troubles with bankers, and the way in which the very poor are being made, all over the world, to pay for the indulgencies and gambling of the very rich.

The history of radical politics fills me with despair, because it is so obvious that the same essential battle has been going on for centuries, and we still have power and wealth in the hands of the very few. Quality of life, life expectancy, and personal freedoms have all advanced on where they were for the early radicals, but compared to how things could be… we are living in the dark ages still. I also despair because of the ease with which the radicals of history sometimes turned tyrants themselves. The history of violence inherent in the history of protest is not anything to be proud of. Radical history has no shortage of figures who were in it for their own gain, recent history too. If we tear down the king in order to be king ourselves, we are no different from what went before, no matter what we spouted along the way.

At the same time, radical history also awes me. There were plenty of people who gave up comfort to campaign for rights. There were people who endured imprisonment, barbarous physical punishments and death in trying to improve things. I do not honestly think I would have the courage to stand by any belief all the way to the scaffold or the stake. We have at least made enough progress in the UK that being a radical is not automatically a means of courting death, but there are still countries where you can die for daring to defy oppression and tyranny. There are still people brave enough to give their lives in the hopes of making a difference. The heroism inherent in such sacrifice deserves far more recognition than it gets.

In the midst of this, I also feel hope. Wherever there have been wrongs in the world, there has always been some small, courageous voice raised against them. I feel concern because I have no doubt that many people with repressive, controlling, diminishing ideals for the rest of humanity think that they are bravely speaking up for the common good. There are people who are determined to feel spiritually, or psychologically harmed by what others do. Even if they aren’t present, directly affected, or even able to see it. The idea that someone is having gay sex, being a pagan, letting their women drive cars… is so offensive to some people that they would have no problem answering ‘an it harm none’ with the assertion that they are indeed being harmed and must protect themselves from the horror. While anyone believes they have the right (god given or otherwise) to control other human beings, in this way, we are going to have problems.

Reading about the tradition of crazy prophet women from the 1600s, writing illegal pamphlets touting ideas the elite didn’t want to hear… I think yes, this is something I belong to, just a bit. I watch the discourse across blogs, and it’s not so very different from the way people used to carry out arguments through pamphlets. Just a bit quicker, and sometimes with better spelling.

Historically, radicals have not tended to get what they want up front. It takes time to turn an insane heresy into an idea everyone can embrace. The transition from slave trading to the abolishment of it, was not rapid. Civil rights movements take time. They have to build support and belief, convince the mainstream that ‘normal’ does not mean ‘right’ and establish a whole new way of viewing the world before they take hold and themselves become ‘normal’. Every battle for human rights, freedom of expression, the equal valuing of all human life, has been slow won. But we do win more of them than not, eventually. So long as there are voices of dissent and people willing to question, there is hope.

Social fairness and the resistance of power is as much an issue as it ever was. We aren’t fighting over Biblical interpretations so much these days. The new heresies have everything to do with issues of climate change and human responsibility. The kind of radicals I’m interested in are talking radical compassion, radical resource redistribution, radical revaluing. The greatest dangers lie in thinking it’s all fine, and that we can sit back and trust that our freedoms and rights are safeguarded. Ask who has power over you, and ask what is done in your name, without your consent. One piece of repressive legislation is all it would take to turn most of us into criminals, or victims, or both.


Freedom

This time a year ago I made a momentous, life altering decision. I took my child and fled from a situation that was causing us both colossal fear and anxiety. A year on it seems like a good time to take stock, and to celebrate the freedom I have.

None of us are entirely free. The constraints of living alongside others, the calls of duty, responsibility and the limits of budget mean we all have to compromise on what we do. How much we compromise, and the point at which we should say ‘enough’ are well worth pausing to reflect on. Freedom is a precious thing, a soulful, vital aspect of being alive. The basic freedom to live without fear of harm, is widely recognised as a human right. Yet even in the UK there are plenty of people in constant fear and real danger thanks to the behaviour of others. The freedom to be your own person, and make your own choices is so important, and so easily compromised.

I’m not free from fear. I woke very early this morning, anxious. This is not unusual for me. But these days what I get is more like been chewed on, rather than torn apart. None of the threats are so immediate. My child is not free from fear either, but he feels safe enough to run off and play. This time a year ago, he was just clinging to me and afraid to be out of line of sight. We have made a lot of progress. I still find it hard to ask for help or admit when I’m struggling. If anyone around me becomes irritated I become anxious. But these days that situation doesn’t lead to anger or being told off.

I have learned in this last year that freedom is not very straightforward at all. It does not occur at the moment when the prison door flies open, or the slave’s shackles are taken off. The metaphorical and literal prison doors and the shackles stay on, inside your head. Being unfree and knowing it is far less of a problem than having been indoctrinated into a state of compliance. When the latter happens, the loss of freedom is as much between your ears as anywhere else, and that takes a long time to fix. I am learning, slowly, to think for myself, to want things on my own account even when they aren’t wholly convenient to others. Those basic, basic rights to self determination and to not feeling afraid are going to be hard won, but ye gods are they worth fighting for. Every day is to some degree a fight towards my own sense of personhood, and my ability to be free.

Issues of budget and normal restrictions aside… I can eat as I please. I can sleep undisturbed. I can say ‘no’ without having to be fearful of the consequences. I can make decisions for myself. I can choose what I wear, and I can make that choice for any reason without needing to justify it. I can be happy without fearing some kind of backlash (although I still don’t entirely trust that, but I’m getting better.) I can take time to rest.

I’m not even slightly interested in the kind of sick ‘liberty’ that enables people to do whatever they want to whomever they want without restriction. I don’t want any freedom that costs some other person unfairly. But there are very basic freedoms that we all need in order to feel whole, to feel like people. Stripped of the right to self determine, stripped of control over your own body or mind, is a terrible thing to endure. I have that freedom back now, but I am all too aware that far too many people do not have those same basic things. Not just the victims of terrible regimes in distant countries, but people whose own families, employers, and partners have made slaves of them. The sex trafficked, the abused children, the beaten women, the illegal immigrants in work gangs… there are so many for whom loss of freedom can be a step on the way to loss of life.

Cherish the freedom you have. Do not let anyone tell you they have the right to take away your own freedom to think and feel as you choose. Freedom is the most essential, precious thing and can be stripped away all too easily. Until we are all free, any freedom held individually is partial. There is a great deal of work to be done.


Responsibility

According to existentialists (forgive me, I can’t name names and cite references) freedom and responsibility go together. You can only be free to the degree to which you take responsibility. I adopted this notion in my late teens and carried it for a long way. And took a lot of responsibility.

I’ve come to the conclusion, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Being responsible for self, enables freedom. But, we none of us exist in isolation, there is the issue of responsibility to others to explore. The more responsible we undertake to be for others, the more control we might have over them. As we take more responsibility so they can carry less. If we go too far, we risk depriving others of freedom. At which point we are no longer in an honourable relationship. At the same time, when we hold responsibility to others, for others, it does impact on freedom if we are determined to behave well.

When I was blogging over at The Pagan and The Pen I was very conscious that everything I wrote would impact on everyone else. It was a shared blog space, my opinions might be taken as representing the opinion of the site. Before that, in my days as a Druid Network Trustee, I was painfully aware that anything I put out in a public space could, potentially, have an impact on a whole organisation. That was very inhibiting.

It’s very difficult to learn without making mistakes, or at least having room and permission to make mistakes. It’s hard to grow, or develop, when you have to play safe, and there is no room to get it wrong. Too much responsibility makes it very hard to take risks, experiment, or do anything radically new. One of the things I love about being a solitary blogger, is that if I do something stupid, I’m not taking anyone else down with me. I still hold an awareness of responsibility not to bring paganism into disrepute, and a responsibility not to tell people bullshit, or encourage anyone to do anything likely to harm them. But there’s a lot more wriggle room, and I like that.

It is possible to be in a responsible relationship to others, and still test the boundaries, but everyone else has to know and accept. There are places where loose cannons and chaotes can be part of the team, but it’s unusual to find one. Sometimes in a ritual circle, if you have someone calm holding the centre, the chaotic folk have space to play.

I like my freedom. I can’t imagine ever voluntarily going back into a situation where duty restricted my own need to explore and express. It took me a while to realise just how important that is to me, but now I’ve got it, I won’t sacrifice it to someone else’s cause. What I have now, is responsibility on my own terms, where I decide what duty is owed, what risks are tolerable, and what behaviours are acceptable. I draw the lines for myself, and I have not given anyone else permission to tell me I cannot do a thing for fear that it might cause a problem. I’m not overwhelmed with the desire to cause problems, I trust my own judgement. I also know I will make mistakes, but it is good knowing I do that alone, on my own terms, without dragging anyone else down with me against their will. There is no one in my life in a position to withhold permission, refuse me the scope to explore, express or create in my own terms. I like that. Now I get to ponder what kinds of relationships I can have with numbers of people, or groups of people, whilst holding that precious autonomy for myself. I think if I am entirely honest about what I am, and what I am not, and avoid fixed roles, I should be able to hold this. It will be interesting to see what happens, as I move back towards being more socially engaged again.