Defining Freedom and Enlightenment
Many people considered the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould very well read. Part of his genius lay in identifying the intellectual roots of a given idea or field, analogizing from previously unrelated concepts, and launching innovative ideas off the "shoulders of giants". When asked about his erudition, however, he said that he was no more well-read than an average scientist... he just remembered more of what he had read. Even as we have so much information instantly available, memory is still a very practical and sought-after characteristic. And a historian like the late Howard Zinn would argue "if you don't don't know important things about history, then it's as if you were born yesterday."
So why on earth would anyone want to live without memory?
I had a long car ride back from camping a few weeks ago with a curious engineer with a great memory. He remembered courses I had taken in my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from a conversation we had months before. He also remembered something that confused him -- that someone with an engineering background like me would be interested in sociology. So, with a beautiful open heart, he asked, again and again, "Why?" At the end of his questions, I had unraveled myself.
I compared sociology to systems engineering -- likening society to a large, dynamic, multidimensional machine with a variety of cultural and historical influences. If sociologists were right, I claimed, the history of our backgrounds and influences could explain the actual words and conversations we could have in this car, what kind of products our company could make, and whether our country was capable of paying its debt back. As a method of argument, I advanced the bold claim that all of our actions (nay thoughts) were defined by the various influences of our backgrounds. My leadership professor had likewise asked us to consider (for argument's sake) that even the morals and ideals we desperately fight for (and identify with) are actually veiled emotional loyalties to actual people that we have known, whether living or dead (consider it for a few minutes, it's pretty trippy.)
Very naturally, he asked, "Does that mean we aren't free?"
I believe that consciousness of your influences makes you free of them. You don't necessarily need to reject your influences, or dissolve them. But instead of them using you, you can use them. It gives you a choice to be what the moment is calling for, or to be what your identity is calling for. Although I'm Tennessean, I often choose whether to use "y'all" or "you". I might be of Indian heritage, but I can choose, in a given moment, to identify as an American, an Indian, a minority, or none of the above. But there are so many influences we carry with us, is it really possible to unravel them all?
Then he asked me, "So are YOU free?" I answered, in jest, "Maybe when I become the Buddha!" "What does it mean to be free?" I stand on the shoulders of other giants when I answered simply, "Being Present."
Unraveling this one concept can be shocking and revolutionary -- it's tantamount to unraveling yourself. A friend asked me a few days ago to define what I meant by "meditation" since I was using "meditation" so vaguely and imprecisely to describe various common activities from playing music to sitting silently to making love to dancing. Backtracking, I finally said, "Losing yourself." In that moment you lost yourself last week, I'm guessing you did not remember the square-root of 169, the city of your mother's birth, the central dogma of biology, or who won the Peloponnesian war. If you really lost yourself, I bet you didn't even remember your name. There was definitely some freedom there, you have to allow.
Now, the logical question is, What if you could string a life together of those kinds of instances, repeated, one after the other? Would you be eternally free? If so, would it be a worthwhile existence? What would you have to sacrifice? What about all of those degrees and analytical thinking skills painfully acquired? My engineer asked, "What would your life amount to if you lived with no goals or plan?" (I'll attempt to answer that later, Jobs did in his commencement speech :) What about the baggage from three relationships ago, knotting up our backs? What if you forget that TPS report your boss needs by tomorrow? Can you take joy in forgetting?
Now you have glimpsed enlightenment. Well, how does it sound? Attractive? Scary? Practical? Impractical?