The great philosopher and popularizer of Eastern philosophy for the West, Alan Watts, described Nirvana as complete psychological freedom. He characterized this liberation, as it were, as “freedom from blocking”, by which he meant to give up clinging to the hopeless notion that the future can be completely controlled. Blocking, a trendy psychological term of the time (1960’s) can be another way of describing how the mind holds back the flow of experience when this information somehow challenges our sense of control.
The typical, human way of being requires us to continually try to predict the future (both immediate and long-term) in terms of manipulating our actions and thinking to preserve a specific and desired outcome of our actions. Our narrow focus on a specific vision of the future comes up against the thoroughly unpredictable and spontaneous flow of reality. Therefore, our beloved picture of the future is frequently dashed by disappointment. This is how suffering is described in Buddhism: a kind of “clinging” to outcome and a loss of freedom. In this way, also, the full flow of experience comes up against barriers to entering our consciousness as we are continually blocking out experience we deem as threatening to our envisioned future.
The point of Zen practice is to open up the channels of experience and allow a renewal of spontaneity. The Zen master, according to Watts, directs the student to “Show me your original face, the one you had before your mother and father conceived you”. That face is of genuine spontaneity, of an ability to act with untainted authenticity. To fully realize this way of being in the world is Satori or Enlightenment. It is what Zen names with the misleading term, “The Void”, for it is not to say that the “Void” means nothingness. What this means, says Watts, is that your attitude towards life changes when you give up trying to control the outcome of your actions. You enter a way of being you realize that what is happening now is IT and thus experience takes on an aliveness that is not apparent if we are not fully present.
But what can we do if we don’t have access to Zen training? While we hear advice to meditation and “be in the now” from the most mainstream of sources and daily it seems, there is nonetheless a timeless wisdom to the notion of presence. An ongoing commitment to stay present whenever you can allows us to practice removing ourselves out of the running narrative of thinking and placing ourselves into pure experience of being. Eventually through this practice, a different way of thinking opens up – one in which the actual elements of experience expose themselves, and how we then act is based on more the reality at hand, and less part of an ongoing attitude of “clinging” to an outcome.
Is it practical to always operate in this fashion? Perhaps not always, unless your calling is to a spiritual life. But to integrate this approach into life more regularly has been known for thousands of years to decrease psychological suffering. Does a realization that the future cannot be controlled mean all we are is dust in the wind? In a way, it does mean that. But that is to say, isn’t it, that it is this realization that allows us to use the wind as it arises to carry us – working with instead of against. That is Freedom.