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Updated: Dec 1, 2021

Freedom. As long as I remember myself, that’s been my longing. Freedom from pain, freedom from limitations, freedom from responsibilities. The freedom to play, to travel, to create, freedom of opportunity. Being as I was, driven, determined and ambitious, I pushed hard for it. I learned to fly like a bird off airplanes and precipitous cliffs, to swim among dangerous sea creatures, to dive to the bottom of the ocean on a single breath hold. I craved freedom from arbitrary taboos and social constructs and so I also explored and studied polyamory, tantra and bdsm. I wanted financial freedom, and so I became a freelancer, a wandering artist without a permanent home with various creative and lucrative endeavors the world over.

When told I’m not allowed something, I’d do the opposite, to the chagrin of the dowdy old Soviet schoolmarms. When told something was impossible I’d prove it possible. When told something was ugly, freakish, twisted, and strange, I’d find a way to make it beautiful, soulful, meaningful, and universal. When I realized there were not only external but also internal limits to freedom, I went inward, exploring a variety of spiritual, psychological and psychedelic experiences. From age sixteen onwards I set out to be, consciously or not, an example of the impossible. A contradiction, a resounding ‘yes’ to the naysayers and hesitators and prudent folks all around me. And I did it, or thought I did, amassing an impressive resume to back up my credo of freedom-or-bust. But I was wrong.

Before I tell you why and how I found this out, I better tell you what a koan is. A koan is a paradoxical anecdote or riddle used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment or revelation. It is an opportunity for direct experience or realization about something - in my case, about Freedom. And so it came to pass that for two weeks, on a small Greek island, with no access to technology or the outside world, I dedicated myself to the repetitive task of asking myself various questions about my most defining traits and these brought me to the koan ‘what is freedom?’

Day after day, hour after hour, during every activity, tuned out from the outside world and turned inwards, I remained intimate with my koan. After a few such days of active self-inquiry, I found myself unexpectedly confused, frustrated and trapped. My mind, instead of feeling free, turned out to be a prison full of overwhelming emotions, paranoias and projections. Physically pained, my body feeling tense and constrained, I found myself protesting: hang on, didn’t I join this exploration to discover freedom?

And then I saw: I was free to do many things, but the “I” who was running the show was far from free. My identity of “freedom chaser” turned out to be a fallacy revealed, a fancy mask worn by someone who was not free at all. That someone turned out to be nothing but a psychic turmoil of impulses, fears, wounds, aspirations, desires, engaged in unceasing struggles. If so, then who was this “me” inquiring about freedom?

Strange loops of internal voices that exposed themselves as my younger selves, stuck in survival patterns of searching for parental love, trying to prove their own worthiness, rebelling against schooltime torture, this was the “me” behind the freedom seeker. I thought I had left behind my parents, my school, and Russia a very long time ago, but childhood memories, traumas and unprocessed emotions had apparently become the automatic basis of my reasoning, desires and inclinations - reinforced by a habit. What a trap! The one pretending to be free was in fact still locked in that post-Soviet school, waiting to be freed. That vulnerable side of my Self was not alone - it was met by another aspect of me - brute control. Ignoring, repressing, proving reality wrong, hiding behind my smile, always in a hurry, seeking and finding challenges. In short, doing everything to avoid feeling vulnerable. I was able to observe all this not from a place of logic or emotion, but from that more fundamental space of awareness. It was there that I recognized real freedom.

In this place I found a self that was free of dramas and survival games. From this vantage point it became possible to offer this freedom to my inner schoolgirl too. Freedom to her, not from her! Being embraced rather than abandoned, she could now confess her fears and shed her tears, she could honestly express her rage while being understood and loved unconditionally. It became clear that the meaning of the word “I” as well as the essence of freedom for that “I” were not just philosophical inquiries, but very pragmatic ones. Exploring them opens the possibility of a life in which actions and responses are made from an unconditional, unshakable foundation. This, I realized, is freedom.

Bodhi Zapha

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