The long story of awakening from cell to reptile to
mammal to humankind…is reflected in the human mind.
– Anne Hillman
For all that has been – Thanks! To all that shall be – Yes!
– Dag Hammerskjöld
In the renewal period during the decades following the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church, the women with whom I share community life affirmed our collective mission with the words: being freed and helping others enjoy freedom in God’s steadfast love. As a result, for more than 25 years now, the issue of “freedom” and what it truly concerns have been a subject of my reflections at various points.
In this blog post, I will share a few of the insights I have gained through recent readings that touched on our human freedom. Again, what is new for me in this is how to consider freedom from the perspective of the emerging scientific story of our evolving Universe. I want briefly to cover my learnings on three points:
- The evolution of a human brain capable of freedom;
- What blocks our freedom; and
- The spirituality of freedom.
This will only be a beginning, but I hope it helps move us toward being able to make better personal and collective choices.
A freedom-capable brain
In essence, human freedom is the capacity to choose to create our own future. Today, we now know through our Universe Story, that our capacity to choose is the result of millennia of evolution that shaped our human brain. We also are acutely aware today that as a human species, we stand at a juncture in which that capacity may be placing at risk the future of Earth’s entire community of life.
One place I recently dipped into the topic of human freedom was Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. Human freedom is an essential point for Covey (2004), who writes, “We are all born free.” It was the presumptions in that statement that got me thinking about its validity in light of the evolutionary story. It occurred to me that for each of us it may not be quite as simple as being “born free.”
Instead, it seems more accurate to suggest that human freedom is tied to the nature and capacities of our human brain. Since the 1990’s, the development of new technologies capable of measuring brain functions has led to a new awareness of the workings of the human brain and the reality of our multiple intelligences. Anne Hillman (2008) suggests that we live in relation to ourselves and others from the perspective of three “foundational” intelligences: body, heart and mind.
As infants, explains Hillman, we initially interact with the world around us through our body and its sensitivities to pleasure and pain. These sensations are registered through what neuroscience calls the “reptilian” brain. This is the first of the three brains that evolution joined together to make up our present humanbrain. Though capable of unconsciously regulating all of our body functions, this brain, similar to that of a snake, registers no feelings and has no sense of relationship. Making no distinctions because it is not aware to do so, it only knows the energy of instinct – passion, desire, and fury are all the same to it. In other words, this brain does not thoughtfully respond to what it encounters in the environment; it simply reacts to it.
What Hillman calls the heart’s intelligence is centered in what neuroscience calls our “limbic system.” This is the second step in the evolution of our human brain, and it surrounds the reptilian layer. It also is inaccessible to our normal awareness. Evolved over a period of more than 200 million years, it allowed our mammalian ancestors to develop capacities for feelings and memory required to nurture their young and form supportive relationships. Much of what this second brain does is also a pre-programmed reaction.
Constructed over these two primitive “brains” is the most recent development in humans, the “neocortex.” It is this layer of our brain which houses the foundational intelligence we know as our “mind.” It provides the capacity for thought, language, reason, planning, and conscious awareness.
Covey (2004) equates freedom with our capacity to use our neocortex to develop a disciplined, conscious self-awareness. It is such disciplined self-awareness that allows us to become more attuned to the instinctual and emotional reactions to the environment which take place in the other two areas of our brain. Eventually, we become able to sense in our body and feel in our “heart” what these reactions are. We learn to pause long enough to take control over how we will choose to respond in a given situation, rather than simply react. As Covey writes:
Most people equate discipline with an absence of freedom. “Shoulds kill spontaneity.” “There’s no freedom in ‘have to.’ ” “I want to do what I want to do. That’s freedom, not duty.”
In fact, the opposite is true. Only the disciplined are truly free. The undisciplined are slaves to moods, appetites and passions (p. 74).
As we can see, then, we are not necessarily, as Covey suggests, “born free,” but simply possess brains with the capacity to grow into freedom, if all works out for the best in our development. However, that is not always the case.
What blocks our freedom
One of my favorite books on brain development is The Compassionate Brain: How Empathy Creates Intelligence by the German researcher, Gerald Hüther (2006). He describes in very simple terms the evolution of the brain structure of reptiles, early mammals, and humans. He notes that one of the most crucial aspects of experience from birth onward for all creatures who possess a brain is the brain’s reaction to perceived threats in the environment. This reaction is closely associated also with the experience of fear, which prompts both physical and behavioral reactions known as “stress.” Writes Hüther:
The most enduring experiences that a bird or a mammal can undergo are experiences that help it to cope with fear. Every newborn is afraid when it is taken away from its mother. We are all familiar with the cries of ducklings, kittens, or puppies – all of them birds or mammals – at such a time. This fear is coupled with a stress reaction (p. 50).
Hüther goes on to say how this experience is for the human child:
When children come into the world, they are dependent on the help of adults. They need someone to keep them warm, fed, clean, and to look after them generally. And whenever they feel fear, they need someone who stands by them and shows them that it is possible – and later how it is possible – to overcome this fear (p. 90).
However, for most of us our childhood was never completely without the experience of unresolved fears. As Hüther (2006) suggests, this experience is critical in the development of self-confidence, and for many people this lack can result in an ongoing need to “stay put in a dependent relationship with their primary caregiver or seek out a partner with whom they can continue to have the same kind of dependent relationship.” In either case, these individuals never achieve true freedom.
The lack of self-confidence rooted in an unsatisfied need for security, then, is one of the important ways Hüther (2006) suggests that we are blocked in our growth toward freedom.
During past week, I read about a related approach to what blocks our freedom introduced by Judah Freed, who is an international media and politics journalist, and a global thinker. In Global Sense: Awakening Your Power to Save the World. Freed (2008) suggests that the power of our instinctual and emotional brains can prevent us from being free through what he calls “authority addiction.” Freed defines “addictions” as “how we avoid our unconscious memories of emotional pain” (p. 61).
Freed believes that authority addiction is related to codependency, or “the compulsive need either to have another take care of us or to be a caretaker of someone else.” This compulsive need is fed by feelings of insecurity. “People stuck in codependent relationships need external validation or compliance from others to feel secure” (p. 62).
Freed goes on to say, as does Hüther, that these feelings of insecurity can originate in childhood and can affect how we relate to authority throughout our lives. Based on his personal experience, Freed offers insights into four social roles specifically common to authority addiction:
Leader – We feel safe only by being in total control, harming those we govern, wishing to be both feared and adored.
Follower – We feel safe only by obeying a leader, fearing to think for ourselves, too timid to be our own boss.
Rebel – We feel safe only by fighting authority or else causing an uproar, mistaking aggravated attention for love.
Hermit – We feel safe only by refusing to be a leader, a follower or a rebel; we isolate ourselves, hoping to be invisible (p. 63).
These roles are all natural and necessary in a healthy group or society. It is when we feel compelled to perform in one all of the time, that we are addicted, suggests Freed, and have surrendered our freedom.
Both Freed and Anne Hillman suggest that is it only through a commitment to our own spiritual development that we can move beyond a stage of being enslaved, as Covey puts it, by our instinctual and addictive emotional responses to the events in our lives and relationships.
The spirituality of freedom
Our growth toward true freedom, writes Hillman, is a journey beyond fear. It is a letting go of our need for security and saying “Yes!” to whatever Life brings us. Explains Hillman,
Letting go is our leap to freedom. This kind of “Yes!” to Life runs counter to every protective device the ego has perfected – counter to our plans, our expectations, and our hopes – especially our hopes. It leaves us open to hurt and to disappointment, and unprotected against unexpected wounds from others (p. 176).
Hillman writes that it is within the spiritualities and religions of the East and West that we find the systematic methods for dealing with our ego’s protective devices. These methods include such practices as meditation, prayer, ritual, and journaling. “Spiritual practices like these provide the means of yoking mind, heart and body to the greater Life” (pp. 261-262).
In summary then, it seems the evolution of our capacity for freedom has left us with both a vulnerability to our own enslavement, and the means for achieving true freedom. The latter involves learning to identify and overcome our elemental fears, while growing to trust in the Life process that has been unfolding in our Universe for some 14 billion years.
We now have the capacity and also the responsibility to choose to act in harmony with the Life force of our Universe, thereby continuing to fulfill our own individual destiny, and contributing in freedom to the continued unfolding of the Whole.
Covey, S.R. (2004). The 8th habit: From effectiveness to greatness. New York, NY: Free Press
Freed, J. (2008) Global sense: Awakening your power to save the world. Denver, CO: Media Visions. [3rd edition.]
Hillman, A. (2008). Awakening the energies of love: Discovering fire. Wilton Manors, FL: Bramble Books.
Hüther. G. (2006) The compassionate brain. Boston, MA: Trumpeter/Shambala