“Absolute Freedom” – sounds, well, rather absolute. Yet this too is conditional: this moment of writing, different, for instance, than my first moment of inspiration for it, a day and a half ago. What is the absolute part of it? That in either case, the freedom starts fresh. That in those words I wanted to say, or want to say now, lies simply an intent to reach beyond, to express the thing which is directly inexpressible, and which is no thing at all.
So, in writing about absolute freedom, only my initial intention and momentary vision is absolute, all-embracing, ever-present. My execution of it will be flawed – language itself limited as a tool of understanding, description, shared meaning – as each moment, for reader and writer alike, brings new realities and challenges, distractions and preoccupations, variations on the theme.
1. The Next Breath
That moment of inspiration – in the bath on Sunday morning – came between two breaths. I wondered then, and wonder again, do I actually have the freedom to breathe or not to breathe? I proceeded to hold my breath, first in, then out, for a long time – 40, 60 seconds or more – and then of course it was time to take the next breath. My sense inside the breath or space between breaths seemed of freedom: my choice of how long or even whether to breathe again at all. But not being at war with my body, I allowed the body itself to work the bellows as it needed to continue the process of life.
My freedom, then, was relative, limited to the duration of breaths within the working pattern of my body. I could stretch it, as an exercise of will or intention or exploration, but eventually the body trumps the exercise with its deeper need. Similarly the heartbeat can be slowed, up to a point: but we would not even want to be able to stop it willfully altogether, unless we were suicidal.
Of course, the choice to end one’s life is always there, too. But what kind of freedom is that, to trade the relative limits and opportunities of life for the absolute of death? Here it is my faith and trust in life itself which is absolute, my willingness to exercise my freedom of choice within life’s boundaries, this body.
2. True Speech – Inquiry
Language is problematical. Worse, as linguistic humans we tend to allow this web of signs and symbols to overtake our sense of reality itself. Though we set out in the beginning to use words with clear meanings in the natural world, the words themselves have taken meaning away from the world, so that now the world we inhabit is virtual, a mind-map made of verbal design.
At this point in our history, at least, if not from that very beginning of verbal language, the power of words has been recognized and co-opted for the purposes of manipulating the world-view, the operative story of those hearing the words. Sales, propaganda, media spin, religious dogma, scientific description … all these powerful forces of our civilization purport to represent the world as it really is: that is, truth. In the effort and enterprise to advance certain claims or biases for personal and group gain and power, the inherent limitation of language has been overlooked, denied, swept under the carpet. As myth has been overwritten by history, science and doctrine, it seems to most in our waking life that fiction has been replaced by truth. Ironically the reverse is more pertinent: myth celebrates the tenuous, metaphorical, non-literal power of language to describe reality, not in its temporal detail, but in its enduring essence. Meanwhile the attempt or guise of objectivity, of nonfictional verisimilitude, may have a laudable just as well as a manipulative intent (take a look at the mainstream “liberal” press, or the rationalistic bias of scientific “objectivity,” and you decide); but in either case the goal of presenting the unvarnished truth is unattainable, since language itself is a figment of the human mind, and worse, subject to individual interpretation which makes the end result, “consensus reality,” itself a chimera, a mythic fiction.
So is there no nobility or purity to be found in the use of language? Is there no such thing as true speech?
Truth in speech to me implies, at the outset, acknowledging the inherent limitations of language. As discussed above, the mythic approach actually comes closer to revealing the intended truth, because it starts with the honesty and integrity of art as artifice. No one believes that art is the reality it represents: the symbolic representation is understood as such, along with the primary limitation that the media form cannot actually be the reality it aims to represent. Yet, given that understanding, the essential nature of a thing or experience or relationship or series of events can be conveyed truly, so that a person on the receiving end can experience, on the inside, as it were, that reality. The art form, the language, serves as an arbitrary yet effective vehicle to trigger within the receiver the same experience that the artist or speaker is able to grasp.
In the artistic or literary enterprise the intent is pure: to convey the truth of an experience or reality as fully as possible, in the spirit of sharing, education, celebration. Accuracy of literal detail may or may not be part of the bargain; more important is the accuracy of essence, of meaning, of feeling at the heart of experience. In the counter claim that the vehicle itself holds the truth – the official story, the selected evidence, the approved orthodoxy – the intent is impure: to convey a particular view of reality for the purpose of obfuscation, manipulation, control, desired behavioral response.
Short of creating new myths and true fictions, on the one hand; or advancing some personal or impersonal agenda in the name of truth, on the other – is there a kind of true speech that works directly and efficiently to communicate a sense of reality from one person to another?
Here I would borrow from science its advertised commitment to gathering evidence with an open mind, in the spirit of inquiry. I begin not with an established world-view or even preconception of what I want to convey under the aegis of “absolute freedom” or “true speech” – except that in both cases what strikes me as most true is the moment-by-moment exercise of consciousness to explore, discover, reveal. I favor then not a codified version of “what is true now and forever for me and everyone”; but an approach to engaging with reality that calls into question all absolutes and certainties, all pat definitions and interpretations. It may seem ironic or even useless for the declarative or descriptive form of speech suddenly to be declared dishonest, while the interrogative becomes our slippery bedrock of understanding. Yet here we are in a fluid, unfathomable universe of shifting possibility and debatable definition, and so to attempt to map it all out and call that real is a counterproductive endeavor. More useful, or at least more honest, is to go on dancing with words around the music of what is … itself impossible to truly limit or define in so many words. So let the dancing continue …
3. Natural Life News
Having pulled up my roots in the countryside after two decades and moved back to the city, I can well be accused of hypocrisy or denial in advocating a “natural life,” and in fudging the definition of “natural” to make it broad enough to support my unsustainable urban, civilized, neo-colonial lifestyle. Fair enough – it’s all true.
Taking the impulse above to engage in true speech on the matter, however, I hereby commit myself to a deeper inquiry to the question. What is it to live a truly natural life, in today’s or tomorrow’s world? For that matter, in yesterday’s world, were those living closest to nature actually living in direct contact with it, or were they inhabiting a world intermediate between non-human nature, and social culture? Certainly humans did not survive “as animals” in the wild, divorced from cultural infrastructure and social bonds – except to the extent that all other living things also could be said to depend for their survival on a web of dependency within their own and other species. Again, as with the case of fiction/nonfiction, we face a sort of quantum irony in the dualism of nature/culture. What is natural, what is cultural? Are they truly distinct, or do they coexist, blend, overlap, interpenetrate, even among non-human species, even among “non-living” systems?
Environmental concerns, and concerns regarding justice for aboriginal peoples, bring powerful arguments in favor of a fundamentalist position on natural lifestyles. Yet like all fundamentalisms, the resulting dualism cannot neatly be assumed to describe reality. What about a tribe that chooses to use whatever modern tools or weapons come to hand, and thereby risks depletion of its resource base? What about a tribe that itself invents such tools and weapons, with the same resulting imbalance?
On a more personal and local level, it still might make sense to change my choices and circumstances, to seek a greater role of natural life forms and forces than currently exists in this urban bubble I inhabit. In fact, in the longer and wider view, such changes are inevitable – choice or not – simply due to the unsustainable levels of consumption and exploitation that continue to degrade our natural support system. Will I make such changes tomorrow, next week, next month, next year?
I don’t know yet. Here my inquiry continues without clear definition. I once did have a vision of a natural life (supported by publications such as Mother Earth News, Harrowsmith, and Natural Life); and I carried out that vision as best I could for over 20 years, homesteading in the mountains of interior British Columbia. In the end of that pursuit, I saw the vision become compromised by reality. Closer to nature, yet still dependent on fuel, modern transportation, imported foods, medical and dental service, money, cultural sustenance … I found that “living in nature” became a matter of degree, and a matter of interpretation. Could I have gone further, done more, worked harder, lived more truly in tune with nature in practical terms?
Yes, certainly, I faced those choices … and still do. Some, even today, remain committed to living with “primitive” technologies and social practices. I have shifted my own commitment to the practice of music from West Africa, long rooted in an earth-based tribal society in humanity’s homeland. Not everyone, even there, has to farm: some earn their keep by drumming in the fields, channeling sacred and social energy for the planting and harvest.
4. Music – Getting There
The vortex of fluid, malleable life force in dynamic motion, swirling currents of sound and sheer energy, dancing and melding and diverging and coalescing again, drawing in our own participatory energy and simultaneously refreshing it, through the opened and shared channel of universal flux, beingness, vibration …
In that spirit, that mode of improvisation or collective journey along a predetermined score, we join in service to and celebration of harmony and resonance, diversity and unity. Ego is irrelevant, in this greater scheme of how music works; in fact it’s counterproductive, if it seeks to focus attention on itself; rather it serves better to bring its individual gifts and talents to bear in support of the shared enterprise, to help fuel the starship of discovery. We are blessed in this joint endeavor not primarily for personal gratification and pleasure, though these are byproducts; but for the fellowship we find in co-creation with each other as musicians, dancers, conveyers and receivers of frequency. Our bond we enjoy is then the common journey of dolphin or whale, goose or gull, travelling together and soaring through the sacred ocean/sky of oneness.
Is this a form of absolute freedom? Not necessarily; there is such a thing as bad music. Ego does get in the way – even, and most especially, at the height of inspiration, communion, splendor – seeking ever to enhance its own social and psychic status. The absolute is also compromised (as in the case of language or any other art form, indeed of life itself) by the inherent limitations of form. Technique and consistency, timing and coordination, remain as ongoing challenges for the most masterful players. The instrument itself, a vehicle of divine transmission, is a mute and stubborn thing which must be coaxed and charmed, like a wild beast tamed to the service of the piece unfolding. Timing and pitch can and will be stretched, yet these fundamental forces comprising the body of a musical experience follow intrinsic rules of engagement, regularity, agreement, order.
Even the most absolute forms of “free jazz” imply conventional music forms – rhythm, melody, harmony – as a matter of contrast, avoidance. Latin music may play “around the clave” without the clave part actually being heard; yet its silent presence is real as it holds an implied, understood space for the other parts to dance with. It is the ground on which the figure appears, the canvas on which the image is outlined.
Bottom line, freedom does not need to be absolute. Absolute does not imply void, rather a fullness of possibility, and with that fullness come all the limitations we know so well. Freedom to breathe, to live or die – yes, but there is less meaning to that abstraction, for us as living humans, compared to the choices we make within this mortal body, this self-breathing flesh. Truth or lies – depends on the intention, the transparency of motivation, the acknowledgment of language as a tool for digging what is most needed in our greater understanding. Nature or culture – a false dichotomy, when the real task is to divine our true nature in every and any circumstance; to appreciate with broadest respect our connection to and reliance on all life forms; to inquire of the life spirit within every entity we are privileged to perceive in this vast and immediate universe, whether galaxy, sun, earth, rock or flower, mote or molecule. Music as liberation – both true and possible, but not in the absolute sense; as there is still a contract to be kept between the player and instrument, form and formlessness, music and audience.
Absolute freedom does not exist within the narrow frame of reference of the individual will; it does not describe the power of choice in the conventional human context. It does, however, have relevance as a concept taking us beyond the familiar bounds of our actions and understanding. Absolute is the nature of our commitment, if we wish, to the spirit of inquiry, to the journey beyond false absolutes. Absolute is real but so all-embracing that we cannot single out or claim any portion of it and call that absolute … unless we apply the holographic principle of the mystic and know that in each is the all, and the all in each. Our absolute freedom lies in our ability to know these paradoxical truths and to hold them, not as our own, not in some private reserve of action and achievement, but as aspects of the nature of existence large and small. Ours is the absolute freedom to honor and serve such a vision, and each other, and to know, accept and deal with the truth of our own limitations along the way.