I was running on the beach like my life depended on it, and that’s because it did.
The urge to take off my shoes and run wind sprints beside the ocean on a cold April afternoon, carefully leaping over broken clam shells lest I tear my foot open, had suddenly possessed me at the start of Covid. I christened my new creation “free running,” for I was still free to run, and I was running in order to feel free.
There was panic in those first few weeks in 2020, which you likely recall all too well. I was alone on an island—Newport, RI, to be precise—fueled by the quixotic desire to live in a colonial New England town after a decade in New York. But no sooner had I arrived than the pandemic struck, everything shut down and there was talk of home confinement.
I doom-thought a prison for myself of worst-case-scenarios without end, and the autonomous act of free running helped me think clearly during the unfolding of what’s been euphemistically called our new normal.
The two sides of the cavernous abyss dividing Americans have one thing in common: Both believe their freedoms are eroding. It was inevitable, since the rallying cry of the French Revolution—liberty, equality and fraternity—is based on cognitive dissonance, or two concepts that contradict each other. Eliphas Levi, father of the 19th-century French occult revival, wrote in 1852, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity! Three truths which, in coming together, form a triple lie, for they destroy one another.” Liberty creates inequality, Levi explains, while equality’s leveling process prevents liberty. And attempting to establish them together produces “an interminable struggle that makes fraternity impossible.”
That doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate Bastille Day with wine, cheese and bread from our local Franco-American bakery. And as we stare into our empty glass, at the ruddy sediment left behind by a well-aged Burgundy, we can ponder the notion of liberty, whose etymology comes to us from Old French via Latin, and is based on the word “liber,” meaning free, and what it means at the present moment in the course of human events.
If you feel like your phone is a tool rather than a tyrannical taskmaster, and that your elected officials are working on your behalf; if you look forward to having a social credit score or a microchip implanted into your arm—or your brain—and are excited about the possibilities offered by the metaverse, then congratulations; you are a model citizen of the new normal. You sleep better at night imagining a facial recognition and GPS tracking system, because if they can do it in Australia, then why not here. Then there’s China’s zero-Covid policy—which it recently announced will continue for at least five years—that saw 25 million Shanghai residents reduced to near starvation in their high-rise apartment-prisons, while circling drones told them to stop being selfish by wanting to be free. Toss in cancel culture—the modern West’s latest way to incinerate blasphemers—and The New Normal will soon know everything you say and do, as well as everything you’ve said and done before. For the few who still refer to themselves—albeit with growing self-conscious irony—as “free spirits,” life in the United States in 2022 is not something that guarantees you liberty, but instead something to be liberated from.
Last year, in a cover story entitled “The Great Escape,” I wrote about how to liberate yourself from 2021 through the time-tested paths of art, nature, spirit and time travel. 2022 has everything last year had, plus war, inflation, food shortage and monkeypox. A shocking new Gallup Poll revealed that the world is more unhappy and stressed out than ever before, and yet no one seems to be able to see the prison they’ve constructed for themselves, probably because it’s disguised as a phone.
Shortly after the poll came out, the guy who invented the mobile phone said, “Put it down and get a life.” Perhaps he knows that we’re supposed to be spirit beings having an earthly experience, not earthly beings having a digital experience.
“Man is born free,” said Rousseau in the days leading up to the French Revolution, “yet is everywhere in chains.”
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Liberation is the goal of many of the world’s spiritual paths—Buddhism and Hinduism, notably—but what exactly are we trying to liberate? For starters, we might say we are trying to liberate untapped potentialities within ourselves, while also trying to liberate ourselves from ourselves—that is, from all our faults, including illusions about ourselves and the world. This is the paradox known to ascetics, who practice self-discipline as a means to liberation from the mind-chains that imprison us in dungeons of our own making. The Roman orator Cicero said that the highest power one can achieve is mastery over oneself.
India in the time of the Vedas and Upanishads (beginning circa 1,500 BC) was arguably the most metaphysically advanced civilization the world has ever known, and its doctrines were largely based on reaching a level of knowledge in which the physical world was seen as “maya,” which is typically translated as illusion. The Bhagavad Gita explicates the difference between what in the human experience is supreme and immutable—namely the world of spirit—and what is fleeting, impermanent and ultimately illusory.
Two millennia later, in the fifth century AD, India went through a winter period. The temples of the mysteries were overrun with weeds, forcing spirit-seekers to search for divine knowledge through direct experience. Tantra emerged as a path suitable for an age of dissolution, and the temple in which knowledge was to be found was nothing less than the body itself, viewed throughout the ancient world as a microcosm of the universe, and hiding within it innumerable secrets.
Yoga revealed to the adept that consciousness resides not in the tissues of the brain, but in a subtle electro-magnetic field running through and around the body, or what we call an aura. Kundalini, the primordial life energy, was likened to a dual-polarized serpent that lies sleeping in the abdomen, capable of releasing hidden creative, sexual and metaphysical powers. Ultimately, however, the Tantric adept seeks the liberation that comes from a neutral attitude towards every conflict and antithesis, including wealth and poverty, success and failure, hope and fear.
Most of us cannot completely sever ties with the world we find ourselves in, one based entirely on money, technology and politics, which does not recognize the existence of the individual soul, nor anything that doesn’t serve the needs of the collective. Which is why, in addition to liberation within ourselves, there is the perennial need to liberate ourselves from others, since hell, as Jean-Paul Sartre aptly put it, “is other people.” It’s easy to place a “zero fucks given” bumper sticker on your car, but quite another to reach the state where you can say these words attributed to The Awakened One in one of the oldest Buddhist texts: “I have overcome the bramble of opinions, I have gained mastery over myself, I have followed the path, I possess the knowledge and I have no one else as my guide.”
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The forces presently ascendant in this year 2022 are dangerously regressive. The individual—without understanding what they are doing, which is why it’s so insidious—is all but commanded to abdicate qualitative personal distinctions and assume their place as a soulless atomized servant of the greater social dis-organization. In extreme though increasingly common cases, the individual personality disintegrates to the point where it begins to “identify” with cats and other furry creatures, because why be limited by 140 genders to choose from, when there are 2 million animal species? In an age of chaos and crisis, the need to bind oneself to a transcendent principle reasserts itself, but announcing to your friends and family that you now identify as a dog transcends the human condition not by rising to a higher level of consciousness, but by descending to a lower form of being. Thinking that’s crazy, but allowing yourself to gradually become a cyborg is no different. Robots don’t have souls, and there are no messiahs in the metaverse. Just smiling demons urging you to never leave.
In Shadow is a 15-minute animated short made in 2017 by Lubomir Arsov that has amassed over five million views on YouTube. The film is told entirely through visuals, and grotesquely caricatures modern life as a nihilistic techno-consumerist hellscape—or everything we built over the past two centuries in order to be “free.” When the imagery becomes so dreary it’s almost nauseating, one character suddenly seeks escape, and the visuals shift from dystopian to metaphysical. The sick world of mankind’s creation is transcended, and the soaring soul finds its way back to the primordial cosmic world-tree and the womb of creation.
I had the honor of interviewing the filmmaker two years ago, and asked about his inspiration for the film.
“I wished to express the idea that we live in a limited state of awareness, disconnected from the dark causality that energizes our world,” Arsov told me, “and to suggest through evocative imagery that despite the anguish, deception and darkness, we have a choice to break through and claim the sovereignty of our souls. If we don’t evolve our sense-making capacity and reach a level of sound judgment, we inevitably fall prey to the power of manufactured narratives, which leave us stranded in a desert of materialistic meaninglessness. To navigate this trap effectively, we must awaken to the parts of our inner world that prevent us from seeing clearly, and reform them to a higher order.”
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The first impulse that grabbed me when Covid struck, besides free running, was to ruthlessly prune my possessions, and I’ve worked at it consistently the past two years. I know everything I own and where it’s located, and all the mementos and photos and manuscripts have all been organized. The computer, likewise, has only the music that really means something to me, since anything else at present just strikes me as noise.
My bookcase, likewise, has been pruned down to only what I need to read right now. If I ever feel like reading Hamlet again someday, I’m sure I’ll be able to find a copy. Needless to say, the organizing of physical possessions, the refining of movies and music down to only what I rate a 10 out of 10, brings about a feeling of liberation from the mediocre and inconsequential. The sense of dominion over as much of life as possible breeds potency, the feeling of cold inner flame that can break forth at any moment in a simple act of spontaneity.
I call these micro-liberations: sudden whims, caprices and idiosyncratic expressions of free will, spontaneous play and creativity. Buddhists are some of the most actively liberation-seeking people on the planet, and monks can spend hours methodically raking a rock garden no one else will ever see. A fool will not understand the point of it, but the very definition of a fool is someone who doesn’t know what they don’t know.
The meaning of life cannot be found within life, but only that which is prior and superior to life, in the part of life that is more than life. The escape ladder leading to liberation is vertical, and has nothing to do with American society in 2022. Free your soul, and the rest of you will follow.