Degrees of freedom

Dear President Trump,

It isn’t often that I choose a title for a letter to you before the letter is written, but this afternoon I decided today’s title needs to be Degrees of Freedom, which really, is kind of ironic since by choosing the title ahead of time, I boxed myself in to talking about this idea. Of course I could have ignored my thought and either chosen some other title or to wait and pick a title after the letter is written. But nope, I’m going to go with the original idea and see where it takes me.

The title popped into my mind when I was listening to another dharma talk, this one by Brother Phap Ho at the Deer Park Monastery on March 22nd. The proximal prompt was when Brother Ho explained that our wounds, our notions, and our habits are opportunities for growth (or can serve to keep us very stuck). He drew a three-part Venn diagram on a white board with each of the three concepts in one of the circles, showing how they overlap and inform one another.

He didn’t put it this way, but I think I landed on the degrees of freedom idea in part because he talked about how we are able to decide whether to hold onto our particular notions (attitudes and beliefs) and whether to keep our particular habits (behavioral patterns), but we can’t decide whether to have our particular wounds – we just have those. We do, though, have degrees of freedom or choices about our notions and our habits in relation to our wounds. In other words, wounds are inevitable but how we think about them, how we act in response to them, determines whether we suffer. So in this equation, we have two degrees of freedom, notions and habits being the two vectors that can vary, and what we choose to do with them determines how we experience the vector of our wound(s). In statistics we’d talk about independent vectors acting on or influencing dependent vectors but because notions and habits almost always inform each other and the quality (and quantity) of our wounds influence our notions and habits, it really doesn’t work to try and force these messy constructs into a neat mathy sort of equation.

How this is relevant is that most of us are probably feeling as though our degrees of freedom have been severely curtailed by the coronavirus and the subsequent shut down of normal life. Most of us are confined to our homes, or if we are deemed essential, we shuttle back and forth from work to home with maybe a stop at the grocery store but no movies or eating out or pleasure shopping or, or, or. Our worlds have gotten very much smaller in terms of the numbers of choices we have regarding where we go, whom we hang out with in person, how we spend our time, and for many of us, these constraints feel like wounds and we are suffering for them.

But what if by constraining our choices and making us slow down and stop filling our time with whatever instant gratification object we can grab, we are actually increasing our degrees of freedom since we are being forced to reckon with our notions and our habits? It’s like this wound is so big and all encompassing we can’t shove it under the rug or stuff it in a closet and shut the door. We really can’t escape it and we therefore can’t escape ourselves, so we have to figure out how to adapt and that likely means adjusting our expectations, our notions of what we can and cannot tolerate, what we will and will not do for one another. It means we have to adjust our habits, our behavior patterns – we have to make conscious choices about if and when we go outside, whether we put on a mask, how wide a berth we give the other travelers we encounter. This is forcing us out of our mindless autopilot existences where, really, our true degrees of freedom were very limited. It’s challenging us to be present, to make conscious decisions, which paradoxically is giving us far more freedom than many of us are accustomed to.

May we be safe to be present.
May we be willing to examine our notions and our habits.
May we be strong and healthy enough to change our notions and habits if they aren’t serving us.
May we make peace with constraints without glorifying want or oppression.

Tracy Simpson

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