2016-06-30
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Every year of my childhood, during my family's Passover seder, we recited the following line aloud: "None of us are truly free unless all of us are free." That idea never made much of an impression on me until recently.

Now I think about it constantly, and even more so with the arrival of July 4 and all the usual odes to independence and freedom that inevitably hit the airwaves. To me, although independence from the domination of any person, group or ideology is an important and vital goal, it doesn't have much to do with freedom at all.

True freedom comes to us when we fully grasp our interdependence, not just with our immediate surroundings but with all of existence, and when we joyfully assume the responsibilities that come with it. On this point Judaism, Buddhism and many other wisdom traditions agree. But my own thoughts are less about religious or ethical belief systems and more about the quality of our everyday lives, about the way we think, feel and act on a moment-by-moment basis. It's with this focus that I propose an alternate July 4 celebration, that of Interdependence Day, a time to reassert our dedication to liberty and justice, not just for some, but for all.

To explain the evolution of my understanding, allow me to share a little bit of personal history. About 10 years ago, I had what appeared to be the perfect life. After years of therapy and meditation I was finally reaping the fruits of all that internal exploration. I had become a successful writer and filmmaker in Hollywood, and was happily married to a wonderful woman.

Then, practically at once, all that fell apart. Professionally, I went from winning prestigious awards to losing out on assignments. Personally, my wife lapsed into a destructive affair with a drug dealer and eventually attempted suicide. (Although we're no longer together, she's fully healed and we're still great friends.) All this led to a classic dark night of the soul, full of the kind of pain for which my psycho-spiritual tools were no match. Every moment felt like a punch in the gut. I knew there was something I needed to do with my pain, but what? I asked a friend, an ex-Zen monk, who said, "Nothing. Do absolutely nothing to change how you feel. Every time your mind tries to figure this out, just reel it back in. Every time you're tempted by distraction, stay put and pay close attention."

My friend's advice sounded excruciating, but it also struck a chord. I decided to try it, to just sit in the soup of my suffering. I lived that way for six months. Then one day during my morning meditation, I had a mysterious flash of grace. I was filled with peace, joy, and a love beyond comprehension. My circumstances hadn't changed, yet everything felt completely different. I thought it might be a reaction to all the pain, like a pendulum swinging, but I never swung back the other way.

It's been nine years now, and whenever I tell this story, people ask, "Are you saying you live in a state of bliss all the time?" The answer, of course, is no. It's always available to me, but I'm not always available to it.

Over time I began to investigate what brought me toward that wonderful state, and what steered me away from it. The heart of what I've come to realize and teach is this: It's not the bad things in life that cause most of our suffering, but our resistance to those things. When we can learn to recognize and release our resistance, the joy that is our innate state of being begins to permeate even our darkest days.

The most common form of resistance is a physical, mental, and emotional contraction. We literally steel ourselves against what's happening with a giant, full-body "No!" Such a response is both natural and unavoidable - at first. But when we stay that way for any period of time, it cuts us off from the flow of life, and from the Source that provides our greatest fulfillment.

So how does all this relate to freedom? There are many types of resistance in addition to the standard contraction. One type can best be called "turning a blind eye." This means recognizing that something unacceptable is happening, but deciding to ignore it. To avoid feeling bad - perhaps angry, hurt, or powerless - we make a decision not to face an important part of our reality.

For many people, this takes the form of avoiding the daily news and all its endless suffering. For others it takes the form of consumer denial - buying a pair of stylish shoes, for example, even though the shoes are made by a company that uses sweatshop labor. We often turn a blind eye in such situations because life is hard enough as it is. If we had to pay attention to every single social struggle, and watchdog every single one of our purchases, we might as well, it seems, never even get out of bed.

In such situations, our response itself is a form of resistance. We resist not only global strife, but also our personal responsibility for it. And make no mistake, we're all responsible. I don't mean that in a negative or judgmental way, but rather as an undeniable aspect of interdependence.

When we avoid news of exploitation, this allows the exploiters to continue functioning in the dark. When we purchase a product that's manufactured at the expense of human dignity, our demand helps insure an ongoing supply.

Let's use a specific example to look more closely at this relationship. When the deadly chemical dioxin is released in a faraway factory, it can drift into the atmosphere and travel thousands of miles to your neighborhood. It may end up in your body via rainfall or seafood. Tragically, it tends to concentrate in breast milk. A prosperous mother in a gated community, with the best of intentions and the healthiest lifestyle, may still poison her child unwittingly whenever it's time to nurse.

Suppose this dioxin-producing factory we're discussing is in China, like many are, and that it makes action figures of Hollywood heroes. This is where economic interdependence comes in. Most buyers are halfway around the world, here in the United States, and they want their action figures cheap. Because labor costs in America are relatively high, domestic companies can't produce the action figures at the price consumers demand. To succeed, these companies must contract with a foreign factory, like the one in our example. On the positive side, this arrangement contributes to the well being of an otherwise impoverished community. But on the negative side, since the factory has few environmental restrictions, such monetary enhancement comes at a high price-before the dioxin plume spreads all around the world, it does its worst damage right on site.

As long as most of us resist such relationships, either by participating in them knowingly or by choosing not to know, they're bound to continue. But once we accept them, and are willing to feel all the difficult emotions they engender in us, we're able to move beyond those emotions and approach the situation differently.

When that happens, profound change not only becomes possible but inevitable. If you and I and millions of consumers like us were to make it known that we're willing to pay more for dioxin-free action figures, they'd be on the shelf of our local toy stores within weeks.

So why doesn't that usually happen? First, because letting go of resistance is no easy task. It takes willingness and real courage. The second reason, plain and simple, is money. On the personal side, most people don't have the economic resources to pay more money in exchange for a healthier planet. On the business side, the vast majority of worldwide money is in the hands of a very small number of corporations. Many of these corporations foster our resistance by constantly fanning the fires of consumerism, and spend untold billions of dollars squelching any opposition to their practices. The current trend toward globalization, while holding real promise to reform this situation, has so far only served to increase it.

This is the part where most people roll their eyes and tune out, saying something like "Sorry, I get the point, but I'm just not political. The best way I can change the world is to work on myself." This common sentiment, though understandable, sidesteps the entire issue of personal responsibility. Working on ourselves, if it is to truly lead to liberation, must include a candid assessment of the ways our daily lives foster freedom or discourage it - for everyone. It must also include changing any aspects of our lives that aren't aligned with freedom, even when powerful opposing forces make such change a real challenge.

That's why, every July 4, I and many others choose to mark the occasion as Interdependence Day. The idea has been around for awhile, put into practice informally by disparate groups of friends and spiritual compatriots. Now, however, seems like the perfect time to make it more official. So please consider this article a heartfelt invitation to join us. I encourage you to email me (rc@heartonfire.org) with feedback and stories, along with ideas for rituals and activities to commemorate the day. I'll post them all on www.heartonfire.org to create momentum for next year's festivities.

Think of the difference, of the incredible healing that could come about if all Americans truly celebrated their interdependence with all the peoples of the world for even one 24-hour period a year. Together, with the same drive and courage that gave birth to our country, we can help give birth to a level of personal, political and spiritual freedom that our founding fathers never even imagined.

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