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What does freedom mean to you?

In recent days the UK government has announced a bill curtailing the right to public protest. I’m very interested in this topic, as I have been supporting Extinction Rebellion (XR) actions, and I’m planning to participate/organise an event in Glasgow this November to coincide with COP26. It’s led me to reflect on freedom as a human need more generally.

The measures in the Bill will allow the police to take a more proactive approach in managing highly disruptive protests causing serious disruption to the public.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021: protest powers factsheet

Freedom has been an important part of my life and has meant different things at different times. When I was a child, I longed for the freedom to make my own choices about when I slept, ate and played. I saw that the adults had control over my life, and I wanted it back!

When I was a teenager I longed for the freedom to wear what I wanted, think what I wanted, go where I wanted, listen to whatever music I wanted and love whomever I wanted. I wanted the freedom to live the kind of life I chose for myself, rather than that promoted by my parents, school and society. I wanted freedom from material things and freedom from money as the sole way of valuing things.

At the same time, I came to realise how fortunate I was to be free of the fear of war, famine, enslavement, nuclear annihilation or disease. Also, as a relatively tall man, I enjoyed the freedom of the city streets at night, without fear of rape, kidnap or murder.

As a young adult I got sick with ME/Chronic Fatigue, so I longed for freedom from this illness, the freedom to continue with my ‘normal’ life. I wanted the freedom to write, to create, to study Buddhism, to meditate. I was willing to forego other things such as marriage, career, house, car and holidays in order to achieve this.

Now I’m 55 and I’ve come to value the social and political freedoms that we have in the UK such as freedom of lifestyle, association, religion, political views, sexual orientation, gender identity, protest and so on. I’m well aware of friends in India who are afraid of losing them. I now recognize that freedoms entail responsibilities, including the responsibility to uphold those freedoms.

I imagine that as I get older, these freedoms will remain important to me, as well as the physical freedoms that come with health and vitality, and the ‘realizing one’s potential’ freedoms of wisdom and compassion. One area that I am fascinated by is how awareness can bring an increased sense of choice and freedom.

The more we become aware of the choices we’re making, the more choice or freedom we have about doing things differently in the future. As Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

This corresponds to the Buddhist teaching of the gap between feeling and craving. As the Buddha said, “Just as the sea has one taste, the taste of salt, so my teaching has one taste, the taste of freedom.”

How to make sense of all these different aspects of freedom? One way is to imagine a pyramid, rather like Maslow’s pyramid of needs, with physical freedom at the bottom, emotional and psychological freedom in the middle, and ‘realizing one’s potential’ freedom at the top. It’s only a suggestion, as the image suggests a hierarchy of value, rather than something that is continuously overlapping.

Coming back to the new legislation: if the government responds to protest by trying to stifle it rather than engage with the issues, it could bring out onto the streets a much larger number of citizens who are motivated to defend our freedoms. What do you think?

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash