Existential philosophy has identified the dread of non-being as the principal motivator, beyond physical survival, of human activity. In our attempt to assert the significance of our individual existences and to dispel the consequent sense of unease in life that we experience due to that underlying fear, we tend to gravitate toward the familiar. This inclination occurs on both personal and collective levels.
As a result, we seek to associate ourselves with like minded people because of the feelings of comfort such affiliations engender. The presence and agreement of others reinforces our sense of ourselves. Moreover, when with those who do not share our world views, we often attempt to convert or convince them of the worthiness and correctness of our perspective. We feel discomfited, even sometimes threatened, by individuals with interests, values and tastes different from our own.
This phenomenon, of surrounding oneself with the familiar and the similarly minded, can be observed in the family, the clothing we wear, in the foods we prefer, the colleagues we select in the workplace, the uniformity of values of our chosen religious organization, the biases of political parties, rooting for home teams, and in the multiplicity of social and cultural clubs and activities.
And yet, if we allow ourselves to examine the diverse nature of planetary life, like plants, animals, and humans, we cannot help but see that each particular organism and structure has a separate value and purpose, and that the enormous variety of life forms manifests qualities that enrich experience for everyone. Our tendency to xenophobia deprives us of the appreciation of these unique gifts and contributions of others.
What is not so easy to see is precisely how limiting our yearning for the safety and reassurance of the familiar is. It is an attachment that diminishes our freedom, for real liberty prevails only when we unreservedly allow others to express their special natures. Otherwise, fear of the foreign literally estranges us from perceiving what the new and unfamiliar have to offer.
It is interesting to consider what actually reduces freedom. We are accustomed to believing that external forces, obligations or persons prevent us from achieving or doing what we want, which has been accepted as the defining characteristic of freedom. This is viewing freedom as a “freedom to” live as we choose. Another way of understanding the essence of freedom is to consider it primarily defined as “emancipation from” restrictive influences. This change in the focus of our attention, from outside influences on us to our own, internal, individual thoughts and values, can help us to comprehend the real nature of freedom so that we might more fully realize it.
From this “freedom from” perspective, the tendency to judge can be perceived as an influential inhibitor of our ability to wholeheartedly appreciate life with its multitude of characteristics. When we judge others, we compare them to some ideal that we secretly or openly cherish, usually one that makes us feel comfortable in the world, while inadvertently precluding us from appreciating their distinctiveness. It has even been noted that love is most accurately defined as beholding the uniqueness or incommensurability of each individual.
It can also be noted that, despite the faults that we might readily identify as seeming to cling to other people (and who are we to cast the first stone?) as a basis for our dismissing them, each individual possesses and typically manifests values or virtues or good ideas that we never get to see but that benefit others in untold ways. It is this understanding that is behind the Metapsychiatric maxim, “Everything and everyone is here for God, whether they know it or not.”
Meditation is a spiritual practice designed to expand our conscious awareness of our tendencies to judge and to cling to the customary and well-known. Such realization increases the possibility of turning attention in healthier directions, of opening us to the novel, the unexpected, and the prolific variety that life offers.
So if we would attain freedom, for both ourselves and others, we need to first become aware that it is our own inclination to seek the reassurance of the familiar, to eschew the strange and unfamiliar, and to judge others on those bases, that diminishes our liberty. By recognizing that misguided and limited way of being, and losing interest in it, we become available to the infinitely rich diversity of life and gain a joyful appreciation of the freedom that is our birthright.