Negative Freedom

Illusion of freedom

Compulsions, or ‘unfree behaviours’, seen during the course of time, manifest themselves as a specific (i.e. limited) pattern of living. Or we could say that they manifest as a repeating pattern. All of us have a pattern of one sort or another, and usually when we have enough space or freedom within this pattern we don’t particularly notice it. Sometimes, however, our pattern gets too much of a hold on us and it squeezes us. It starts to hurt, like a shoe that doesn’t fit us, and because it hurts we notice it. This is like an organ – such as the liver or the kidneys – which we only get to be aware of when there is a problem with its normal functioning.


Anxiety is one way in which we become aware of our constricting pattern, and so although we perceive anxiety as a problem it is actually valuable as a source of information to us. It is a source of information to us because the rules which are the limiting factors for our lives cease to be completely invisible to us, and start, perhaps for the first time, to indirectly show themselves. We know that the rules are there because they are causing us pain but rather than being interested in the existence of these limiting factors we’re generally only interested in going back to the state of being blissfully unaware of them!


Anxiety always arises from ‘unexamined rules’ – if we can easily obey the rule then the rule stays invisible to us, but if we can’t then the rule makes itself known to us in the form of anxiety. We want to obey the rule (in order to avoid the punishment that comes when we can’t do so) but for whatever reason this no longer seems like such a straightforward possibility to us. We doubt our ability to do so. A rule is another way of speaking about a limit. To take a very simple example, if my rule is that I must not go anywhere that I cannot easily escape from, anywhere that I must not go any place from where I cannot return home immediately in case of emergencies (i.e. a panic attack), then this rule – of course – limits me. The rules tell me what I can and can’t do, where I can and cannot be.


The limit in this particular case may be thought of as being geographical since what happens is that I end up living my life out within the physical boundaries imposed by my need to be able to return to the comfort zone of my home. There isn’t a twelve foot high electric fence there to keep me in, topped with razor wire and machine gun turrets and patrolled by snarling guard dogs, but this ‘mental’ barrier is every bit as effective. It keeps me prisoner just as efficiently; it doesn’t have to be physical. Mental barriers don’t just limit where we can go or travel to in space, they limit what we can do, and what we can think, and even what we can see. These mental barriers or rules define reality for us and this is the greatest constriction, the greatest limitation of all!


As we have said, for most of us, most of the time, our mental barriers (the ‘rules’ that hem us in) are totally invisible to us. For this reason, it would actually be easier to overcome a boundary that does visibly exist in the physical world around us than a boundary that we do not even know is there. If I can see what is holding me back, then I have a chance of overcoming (or perhaps transcending) it, but if I do not see the fact of my confinement then I have no chance. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe says,

None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.

Even if I can see my limits but cannot do anything about them, then this is still more helpful than not being able to see my limits because it is realistic. Whatever I think and do then will be grounded in reality, whereas if I am planning stuff and doing stuff without the awareness of my limits, then the freedom which I think that I have (the freedom to ‘do’ or to act) is wholly illusory. It is imaginary freedom. It is ‘freedom in a dream’; it doesn’t mean a thing…


The idea that we are looking at here therefore is the idea that if I don’t see my limits (the rules or compulsions that govern me) then the type of freedom I have is ‘false’, since the type of freedom that is based upon limits which are not acknowledged is no freedom at all. What is more, the very fact that we do seem to have freedom (i.e. meaningful choices) distracts (or prevents) us from seeing that we don’t. In his epic work The Dramatic Universe John G. Bennett calls this misleading or false type of freedom ‘negative freedom’, which he defines as ‘the freedom not to be free’ (or as we could also say, ‘the freedom to be trapped and not know it’). Because negative freedom substitutes for the real thing we can say that it is negative freedom that is keeping us trapped rather than the actual limitations that are operating in our lives.


This is a subtle sort of an idea, but one that is vital to understand if we are to ever actually stand a chance of getting anywhere. We started off in this discussion by saying that all of us have a fixed (or repeating) pattern of being in the world, which we aren’t normally aware of as being a limitation (or as a repetition). We don’t in other words perceive ourselves to be ‘trapped’ in the way that we are thinking and behaving. We don’t see ourselves as being trapped in routines the whole time. The consequence of this lack of insight’ is therefore that we tend to endlessly repeat the same basic pattern as if it were the only way to do things, whilst actually there are many other possibilities that are open to us, possibilities that we are sublimely oblivious to.

We then said that our fixed patterns are due to our invisible mental limits (or ‘rules’), which is more commonly known as ‘conditioning’. Conditioning may be simply defined as ‘previously established rules for seeing, thinking, and behaving in the world’. Now, the point that we are making by bringing in J.G. Bennett’s notion of negative freedom is that it isn’t the fact that there are these limits (or rules) there that are taking away our freedom, but the fact that these limits or rules are invisible to us. If I am stuck in a fixed (or ‘repeating’) pattern of interaction with the world but think that this is the only way (i.e. that it is the RIGHT way!) to interact, then this is negative freedom. If I’m stuck in my pattern but think that I am doing whatever I am doing because I genuinely want to, then this is negative freedom, If I thinking that I’m free to stop enacting the behaviour if I really wanted to then this is negative freedom.


True freedom is meaningless to me when I am in this condition, because I think that I am already as free as I can get! I only want what I am conditioned to want and so I never perceive how limited I am. The only time I do get upset or annoyed or frustrated is when I can’t get what the invisible mental rules in my mind tell me I want – which is a weirdly ‘back-to-front’ situation! It’s a situation that is completely and utterly ridiculous. In effect, I have made a virtue out of my ‘fixedness’ (or my lack of freedom) by saying that “This is the one and only way to be”.


If, however, I am stuck in an unfree pattern of being in the world, but I see at the same time that the barriers to change are only in my thoughts about the situation and nowhere else, then this is as we have said a totally different kettle of fish. This changes everything big-time. When I go through the day in whatever set of routines that I have and I don’t have the justification (or ‘validation’) of thinking that there simply isn’t any other way to do it, that there isn’t another way to get through the day, then I experience starkly the ignominy and pointlessness of being ‘trapped in a meaningless routine’. If it were the only way to do things, then I would be able to obtain a sense of meaning and security from knowing that this is the ‘RIGHT WAY’; I wouldn’t ever need to question myself, in other words. But if there isn’t a ‘divine law’ which says I have to live out my life in such an unadventurous and repetitive way, then where does this leave me? Freedom, as the existentialist philosophers say, is a tremendous challenge. It is in fact THE challenge in life – there really isn’t any other…


The stark awareness of the ‘mechanical nature’ of my pattern (which is to say, the awareness of its repetitive but essentially meaningless or ‘arbitrary’ nature) is a profoundly painful experience. It requires great integrity to witness such a thing. Instead of experiencing myself as a ‘free agent’, in control of my own destiny, I start to see myself as a helpless puppet, the slave of my conditioning. Life is rich and diverse and wonderful, but instead of being able to follow life in its unpredictable, mysterious, and beautiful dance, I am doomed to reiterate the same uninspired steps over and over again, in ignorant denial of the marvels all around me. What a thoroughly miserable and ignominious situation this is!


This thoroughly miserable and ignominious situation is what the state of ‘psychological unconsciousness’ is all about – the substitution of the banal and the mechanical for the true magical nature of life, which children are able to perceive without any effort or difficulty. Instead of being playful and open to surprise (like a child) I am dogmatic and serious and closed to anything else apart from my own ideas, my own thoughts, my own fixed beliefs, and this is another way of saying that I am closed to life. Psychological unconsciousness is – we could say – the way in which we are shut down to the ongoing process of life, life being an essentially open process (i.e. a process that isn’t defined, a process that isn’t regulated by a set of mechanical rules).


Seeing the truth of this is the key to everything because as we have said negative freedom only works when we cannot see it for what it is. That is its power. As long as we have the illusion that we are free, that we do have genuine possibilities open to us, then we stay trapped in negative freedom indefinitely. Nothing happens until I see that I am not free, and the moment that I actually see this is the moment that my freedom is returned to me. The awareness of our lack of freedom is as we have said exactly the same thing as the awareness of a ‘habit’ that we cannot do anything about. When I notice that I have a certain habit or way of reacting that I can’t seem to do anything about then this is distressing because what I am actually discovering here is my ‘inability to do otherwise’. I am discovering my ‘mechanical nature’, when I did not previously imagine myself to be mechanical. Finding out that we are ‘mechanical in nature’ is a dilemma – it is a challenge to our integrity. How does this situation sit with me? How do I feel about it? Am I just going to carry on as before?

I don’t want to keep on reiterating this habit, yet when the trigger or stimulus for the habit comes along I just react, automatically. It isn’t my free will that decides it, but some force that takes me over. In other words, the compulsive motivation to enact the pattern or habit in question is not ‘mine’ at all. The compulsive (or ‘extrinsic’) motivation comes from somewhere outside my true self, it has taken over from my free will and is leading me, ultimately, to ruin. How can handing over my essential freedom have any consequence other than utter disaster? What other consequence could there be?


Being aware of the appalling predicament that is unconsciousness, which G.I. Gurdjieff called ‘the terror of the situation’, is the end of negative freedom. I might be ruled by my conditioning, but now I know it, and this means that I am ‘conscious of my unconsciousness’. There is light in the darkness! This is what frees me, since being ‘conscious of unconsciousness’ is in fact consciousness. I am free to see that I am not free; I am free to see the truth. Not being able to see what is true -and only being able to see what our conditioning tells us is true – is the most complete absence of freedom possible. This is the thorough-going negation of freedom…


Freedom works both ways, we might say, since in order for me to be set free by the truth I must be ‘free to see it’. I don’t actually have to ‘do’ anything at all because freedom does not come about by effort of will. I can’t ‘bulldoze my way to freedom’ by sheer will-power, in other words. What is required is not action but couragethe courage to see what I am afraid to see. All I have to do is ‘be in the reality of where I actually am’ rather than always trying to be somewhere else. ‘Seeing where we are’ is genuine freedom, in other words, whilst always ‘striving to obtain our goals’ is simply a fancy way of saying that we are ‘obeying our conditioning’ (i.e. that we are ‘obeying the invisible mental rules that govern our life’).


J.G. Bennett also speaks of negative freedom as ‘the state of identification’:

Identification plays an important role in Gurdjieff’s psychology. It appears many times in Ouspensky’s books, In Search of the Miraculous and The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution.


It is one of the earliest ideas that I was introduced to when I first came in contact with this teaching. Identification is a false freedom, the illusion of freedom, where we feel free because we are doing what we want to do. Instead of finding ourselves we lose ourselves in what we are doing; and then what we are doing may be free but we ourselves are enslaved. People can also become lost in what they are doing even if it is not what they want; even when it is something they have no choice about. When we are in this state we feel any interference with what we are doing is an encroachment on our freedom. If we are, let us say, cooking in the kitchen, we become so excited, so identified with what we are doing that if anyone comes and tells us that we are not doing it the right way, we become offended and feel that we are being interfered with. We feel that our freedom consists in doing it in our own way; but what freedom we might have had we have given away, and, having had a possibility to be free to do anything, we have chosen to become slaves.


When we are identified it is true to say that we are no longer ourselves at all because we have transferred our sense of our reality to something outside of ourselves. We even make it somehow seem valuable to be identified, praising a man who is really wrapped up in his work or spending vast sums of money for the latest sensational, that is, identifying, book or film. We become the slaves of everything that we are doing, enslaved by all the people we meet and the situations we enter into, and yet there is this terrible absurdity that in all of this we think that we are free.


The essential point, therefore, is that we don’t fight our pattern of being in the world, but rather that we learn not to ‘resist’ it. When we ‘obey’ our pattern of being in the world this is resistance and when we fight against this pattern this is also resistance. The only thing that is not resistance is seeing the pattern for what it is, without any judgement of it, without any thought of changing it. This amounts to an unconditional acceptance of the reality of where I am as a worthwhile thing in itself, as something valuable in itself. It’s valuable because it’s true! It doesn’t matter where I am, because no matter where I am all I can ever do is unconditionally accept it. I can’t improve it and I can’t dis-improve it! There is no choice involved at all, since reality is not something I can ‘choose’ to either go along with, or not go along with, according to my whim. If I think it is my choice, that it is my responsibility to decide what to do, then this means that I am lost in the state of negative freedom. It means that I’m ‘in the thinking mind’, rather than simply ‘being conscious’.


Once I see that it is the negative freedom that is the obstacle, rather than the actual limits themselves, then this changes everything. I stop fighting against things because I see that my fighting is an expression of my conditioning, not who truly am beneath this conditioning. Once I understand that any solution which I might seek using goal-orientated action will always turn out to be unrealistic, imaginary, or ‘theatrical’ (i.e. done for effect rather than effectiveness), then I naturally stop investing myself in thoughts, I stop investing myself in goal-orientated activity. I stop investing because I see that my thoughts and goals are themselves a projection of my unseen limits, because I see that my goals are themselves a manifestation of the rules or compulsions that are governing me.


This reduces me to seeing my predicament, without being able to do anything about it. Very curiously, from our normal (conditioned) perspective this is the worst possible scenario, and yet from the viewpoint which we are looking at here, this is the ‘optimum’ place to be. Strange as it may sound to say it, there is never a better place to be than in the reality of where we actually are. To say that there is a better place (which of course we very often do) is to say that we would be better off escaping into the unreal world of ‘where we’d like to be’. To move into our thoughts about how we’d like things to be might feel good to start off with, but since whatever we’re escaping from is still going to be there when we get back we’re not actually helping ourselves in any real way. And if we get superlatively good – as we do get – at escaping full-time into the virtual reality of our thoughts, then this is actually a skill that is against our own best interests. Being the superlatively good escape artists that we are means that we are superlatively good as acting against our own best interests! We’re acting against our own best interests because we’re giving away the only thing that really matters – the freedom to be in reality.


The situation of confronting with one’s predicament in such a way that we no longer have any escape routes is – we might say – the ‘discomfort zone of the here & now’. This is just another way of saying that this situation is exactly where I do not want to be! Being where I do not want to be (but where I actually am) is the secret to transforming negative freedom into genuine freedom.