Freedom is a cherished privilege in much of the world today. We’re free to make choices about where we live and how we spend our time. We can choose our careers, our mates, and our friends. For centuries, many people have enjoyed religious freedom. Citizens of free countries can travel with little restriction. We can communicate with one another freely and in any language of our choice.
Understanding Freedom According to Yoga
Eastern teachings differ in their definition of freedom compared to the familiar use mentioned above. Freedom, according to yoga, means the end of all suffering. In Sanskrit, the language of yoga, two words are used: moksha and mukti. They may be used interchangeably because they mean exactly the same thing.
Moksha is possible for all human beings, regardless of nationality. Freedom is not a right of citizenship—it’s a gift that you give yourself. When you turn within, through meditation, you discover the true meaning of freedom. Moksha is the supreme peace that passes understanding. In that peace, we experience the blissful unity of creation—the state of enlightenment.
Bondage and Suffering
To help us understand yoga’s view on freedom, we can look at the opposing principle—bondage—a form of self-inflicted slavery. Imagine the classic image of someone attached to a ball and chain. The ball is heavy, very tiresome to carry around, and the chain is unbreakable.
The ball represents our desires. Desires could include those for material goods, or for situations or experiences. A desire may come in any form, from a simple preference to a burning, all-encompassing passion. The chain represents our attachment to the things we desire. It’s not desire itself that affects our mental peace—it’s the chain, the attachment, to the fulfillment of that desire. A desire says, “Oh, look at that pretty bauble—I would like to have that bauble.” An attachment says, “I must have that bauble. I won’t be happy until it’s mine.”
Sometimes, we don’t know what we’re attached to or how it might be affecting us. But everyday life has a way of testing us at every turn. Here’s a simple example: Suppose it’s a hot day, and you feel like having a little ice cream. You arrive at the local ice cream store to find that your favorite mocha flavor has been discontinued. Do you lose your temper and start yelling at the ice cream server? Or do you calmly accept the news and choose another flavor?
When we’re attached to having things a certain way, our peace of mind is affected. Without peace, there is no happiness—and no freedom. A truly free person is not shackled by desires and attachments.
Bondage, and its close friend, suffering, are often noted in Eastern texts. Compassionate saints and sages also warn about the causes of suffering:
“These obstacles—the causes of man’s sufferings—are: ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and the desire to cling to life.” (Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: II:3)
“Possession of material riches, without inner peace, is like dying of thirst while bathing in a lake. If material poverty is to be avoided, spiritual poverty is to be abhorred. For it is spiritual poverty, not material lack, that lies at the core of all human suffering.” – Paramahansa Yogananda
Vigilance Required to End Suffering
Mental shackles are the most insidious forms of bondage. Of course, we don’t want to be slaves, and we don’t want to suffer. But the ties that bind us are often invisible—or clothed in self-deception. If you were walking in a dark forest or a bad neighborhood, you’d be on guard. Likewise, seekers are vigilant walking the spiritual path. They constantly evaluate their thoughts and motives. Where suffering exists they take steps to end it.
These famous verses from the Bhagavad Gita are worth memorizing and recalling often. They warn us of the effects of desire and attachment:
“When a man’s mind dwells on objects, he feels an attachment for them. Attachment gives rise to desire, and (unfulfilled) desire breeds anger. From anger comes delusion; from delusion, the failure of memory; from the failure of memory, the ruin of discrimination; and from the ruin of discrimination the man perishes.” (2:62-63)
The best way to end suffering and avoid this ruin is by constant mental vigilance. Daily meditation purifies the mind by strengthening its higher qualities. Then vigilance becomes easy and natural.
One Exception to the Minefield of Desires
We all recognize the existence of higher and lower desires. For example, the desire to care for the poor is better than the desire to terrorize innocent people with bombs. Most of us don’t experience either of those extremes. Our desires range from mundane to noble.
There is, however, one desire that a spiritual seeker holds dear. That is the desire for moksha, liberation. Yoga masters emphasize the importance of an intense yearning for liberation. This desire should eclipse all others.
Desire for freedom is like a shield that wards off other desires. It helps us make the best decisions on the spiritual path. This desire is like a good friend along the way. At the end of our journey, we part ways with that friend as well. The journey is complete. We experience the end of suffering and live blissfully free of attachments.
Ultimate Freedom, Complete and Eternal
Yogis recognize the existence and power of desires, attachment, and suffering. However, we don’t dwell on the negative. Instead, we get right to the business of overcoming our personal hurdles. We focus on the cures to end suffering: spiritual practices, good company, and positive thinking.
Yoga doesn’t simply give us hope. It promises that by following the spiritual path, we will achieve liberation—eternal peace and happiness in this very lifetime:
“Free from pride and delusion, having conquered the evil of attachment, ever devoted to the Supreme Self, their desires completely stilled, liberated from the pairs of opposites known as pleasure and pain, the undeluded reach that Immutable Goal: Liberation.” Bhagavad Gita 15:5
Moksha, ultimate freedom, is the unbroken experience of inner peace. In this state, our minds see clearly what is real and worthy. We see every human being as a child of God and every creature a part of His creation. Joy and love arise spontaneously and without cause. It is the experience of being one with the Divine. It is the end of suffering.
You alone have the power to free yourself from the chains of attachment. Continue your daily meditation practice. As the chains dissolve, desires will fall away. You will be free.
If you have any personal experience of suffering, attachment, or freedom, please share in the comments below.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.
If I think back to the desires that I have had in the past — whether it be a pair of shoes or a relationship. Once I received that desire like a relationship for instance — I found that the desire did not bring me much contentment and it brought me limited joy. Now, I no longer crave or desire to have a relationship “like marriage or courtship”. I found that it was more of a distraction than a pleasurable experience. As for shoes well — that desire has yet to be fulfilled only managed, because shoes can bring comfort or make your feet and walking quite uncomfortable. With anything you desire there’s always a price and if you watch yourself and question your desire I think the chains to that desire will become unleashed. Sometimes you have to feel and experience what you desire until it’s no more. My other experience with desire is when I don’t get what I desire I practice this little exercise to take my mind away from it. Just chant my mantra. It helps — it does not make the desire go away completely — I just feel at peace with what I have right now.
Thank you for sharing such personal thoughts with us, Nakisa. This reminds me of one my mother’s favorite sayings: Everything has its price. In today’s world, we can have and do so much, but it all comes at a cost. Often, the price is the loss of peace of mind. I wonder if you’ve ever heard the Yogananda quote, “A desire ever satisfied is never satisfied.” That quote comes to mind whenever I start to think that I want something, and I think that thing will be enough. It never is. — Good practice: using your mantra to fight desire. When you combine that with good common sense, you’ll overcome it. Namaste.
I hope to have a perfect relationship with my Guru. I am happy to spend time with him, and I don’t feel interested in bondage or any desires.
Thank you for commenting, Tony. If your only desire is to have a perfect relationship with your Guru, then you’re in good shape. I wish you the very best! Namaste.
I love your definition of freedom, “It is the experience of being one with the Divine.” I notice you did not say, its knowing that you are one with the Divine. I heard a talk from our Guru where he said, “You are already the Divine, but you don’t know it. That’s why you have to do right things, so you’ll believe it.”
The Divine can only do right things. A major area in life, with opportunity for doing right things which gives me ample practice is to not defend or react when people do not do what “I” want. The right thing is to work on whatever it is that protests or argues with reality, instead of trying to fix or change reality.
Thank you for an excellent post.
Interesting comment, Elizabeth. It looks like you’re coming to the realization that everything already is perfect. It’s our perceptions and opinions that need adjustment. All introspective people realize this at some point. Our meditation practice makes it very easy to make those internal changes. Namaste.
There is a picture of a bird looking out from a cage that I remember well. The bars that encompass the cage, are actually just an illusion and will slowly disappear if the bird will just open its wings and fly free across the sky.
This bird needs to drop clinging to the cage thinking it is in bondage. We are often like this bird so attached to temporal things and notions that it keeps us barred from “freedom”. Fly like a bird across the inner sky, the inner world, and true understanding and bliss are possible in the climate of “freedom”.
Freedom can lead to peace, happiness and a clear mind. It’s always been our choice.
Beautifully expressed, Sue, thank you so much. Namaste.
It has been my experience that the best method to overcome failures lies in staying on the spiritual path. There is no doubt that “spiritual poverty” is to be avoided. This writing was very uplifting for me. It is a reminder to stay vigilant and steady on our spiritual practices. Thank you Svami, for yet another “shot in the arm.”
By the way, that’s a great photo of the bald eagle!
Thank you, John, I’m happy to hear that the post was helpful to you. I agree completely about holding fast to our spiritual path. There will, of course, be bumps in the road. But that’s life, and every obstacle is an opportunity. — I’m glad you liked the free-flying eagle! Namaste.
I learned from my yoga teachings, that ego is the “chain” that links one to worldly burdens, and that love of God, and right meditation on That is the key to unlock one from these burdens, thus, freeing one to learn the Truth – Bliss!
Thank you for your insights, Tosh. The subject of ego has not yet been addressed on Quiet Karma. For the sake of those new to yoga principles: desire and attachment are products of the ego — the tendency of the mind to think about “Me” and “Mine.” Recognizing the mind’s desires and attachments, and dealing with them, are easier to most of us than actually seeing the work of ego and overcoming it. Bhakti yoga, as you mention, is indeed a mighty sword against ego, desire, attachment, and the rest of the obstacles on the spiritual path. Those inclined towards love of God travel the easiest path to bliss. Quiet Karma will address all these principles in future posts. Namaste.
I used to think of attachments as just stronger desires. The distinction you made is helpful for me to watch where the attachments really are; thanks.
Thank you, Richard. We are free to think of these terms in any way that helps us on our path. I’ve often thought of emotions as being stronger desires. What’s most important is that we can observe these thought forms and deal with them appropriately. Namaste.
Just today, I received a quote by my grandGuru: “Give up false identiﬁcation. Detach yourself from everything which you consider to be yours, and sit still. Understand this and meditate on your true Self. The Lord can be realised only by one who gives up identiﬁcation with the body, not one who discards gold or stops looking at good things.”
About 5 or 6 years ago, I became the executor of my mom’s modest estate. I already knew a reliable, level-headed estate attorney for some years. We were friendly. I thought we both were absolutely certain she would assist me with the estate. When I called to engage her, she said, “No, I won’t be your attorney.” I asked “Why?,” and she said, “You didn’t do what I told you.”
In my shock, I did not think to even ask what I didn’t do. With my illusion about how things would go stripped away, I felt like I had fallen from a luxury liner into a frigid sea.
Ultimately, I located excellent counsel. His temperament actually proved better-suited to the situation than hers. With his advice—and 2 very trying years of hard work on my part—my mom’s wishes were carried out. Along the way, a number of other illusions and notions I had about how others should act or think got burned off. I find myself much better off for all that.
Thank you for the real-life example, Rob. We can all relate to some degree. I like what you say about “other illusions and notions” getting burned off. It shows how we carry such things deep within our minds — and the need for vigilance. I’m so glad to hear that you learned and benefitted from your experience. Namaste.
Re: If you have any experience of personal bondage, attachment, or freedom, please share in the comments below.
It seems if you read some scriptures and meditate for awhile, strong desires fade away … or maybe I’m just getting older. I’ve come to believe that what is is and any opinion or theory about God and the Eternal doesn’t change anything. In other words, the truth is the truth.
I feel spiritual effort is very important but I can’t honestly say I have a great burning desire for liberation. I don’t have a burning desire for anything. I just want to continue to live a peaceful life, meditate, and see what happens. Is this okay, or should I have a burning desire for liberation?
Thank you, Dusty, for your good and thoughtful question. I, too, have not experienced a “burning desire for liberation.” Recently, I asked a similar question of my Guru. His reply was that I must have had that burning desire at some point in this life or certainly in a previous life. The evidence of this is my dedication to the spiritual path in this life. Like you, I feel the simple desire for a peaceful life, and I meditate according to my Guru’s instructions. I trust the process of yoga that promises enlightenment. Namaste.
Another great, well written subject, Svāmī Chityānanda. If everything around us is divine, then desires must be too. However, as you point out, the chain that attaches us to those desires is the link that must be broken. I recently bought a nice new car – a desire I’d had for sometime. However, 2 days ago it was smashed in a car park. I felt sorry for my new financial burden caused by its repair bill, but recognized that the car is just a pretty piece of metal, nothing more. I do not want to be bound to material things nor seek happiness in them. That kind of happiness doesn’t last. The unconditional love for ones Guru and ones partner in life, that’s the happiness I seek and already have. The rest is just fleeting and cannot be taken with us when we die.
Thank you, James, for such a fitting response to my prompt! This is perfect example. Who doesn’t experience that first “ding” to a new car (or used car or any other physical object of value)? I’m sure that your first reaction was one of dismay and disappointment. But then your continued response shows the effects of your spiritual practices. You’ve moved on and affirmed the important things of life. Good for you! Namaste.
“You alone have the power to free yourself from the chains of attachment.”
Yes. Another good word for freedom is “release.” How do you let go of attachments and baggage? Let go!
Spiritual practices give you the strength to do it right. Start small. Notice how good it feels to be lighter. Once you know deep down that it’s worth doing, you’ll want to do whatever it takes to live free.
Good insights, Roxie. Thank you. Namaste.