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.