Spiritual Freedom

Religious figures throughout the ages have talked about spiritual freedom. Such talk has nothing to do with social freedom, such as being able to attend the church of your choice. Instead, the focus is on the world, worldly goods, and worldly comforts. People are urged to break free from bondage or attachment or slavery to worldly pleasures. The Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba (1987), for example, taught, “One important condition of spiritual freedom is freedom from all wanting” (p. 341). He continued:

Man seeks worldly objects of pleasure and tries to avoid things that bring pain, without realizing that he cannot have the one and eschew the other. As long as there is attachment to worldly objects of pleasure, he must perpetually invite upon himself the suffering of not having them—and the suffering of losing them after having got them. Lasting detachment ... brings freedom from all desires and attachments ...

(pp. 391-392)

This idea of freedom from attachment to worldly things finds its place in literature also. In the novel Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse describes the central character's impressions on first seeing the Buddha:

The Buddha went quietly on his way, lost in thought. His peaceful countenance was neither happy nor sad. He seemed to be smiling gently inwardly. With a secret smile, not unlike that of a healthy child, he walked along, peacefully, quietly. He wore his gown and walked along exactly like the other monks, but his face and his step, his peaceful downward glance, his peaceful downward-hanging hand, and every finger of his hand spoke of peace, spoke of completeness, sought nothing, imitated nothing, reflected a continuous quiet, an unfading light, an invulnerable peace.

(pp. 27-28)

Nor is this linking of spiritual freedom to escape from worldly desires confined to books about religion. In the novel Free Fall, by William Golding, the central character at one point finds himself on his bicycle near to the home of Beatrice, with whom he is in love:

And even by the time I was on the bike by the traffic light, I was no longer free ... For this part of London was touched by Beatrice. She saw this grime-smothered and embossed bridge; the way buses heaved over its arch must be familiar. One of these streets must be hers, a room in one of these drab houses. I knew the name of the street, Squadron Street; knew, too, that sight of the name, on a metal plaque, or sign-posted might squeeze my heart small again, take away the strength of my knees, shorten my breath. I sat my bike on the downward slope of the bridge, waiting for a green light and the roll down round to the left; and already I had left my freedom behind me.

(p. 79)

Here again the sense of freedom is opposed to the sense of wanting, attachment, or desire. Although Golding does not call the freedom “spiritual" it is clear he would equate it with the absence of the desire for Beatrice.

“Worldly pleasures”—food, sex, nice cars, Caribbean vacations—these are potential reinforcers. In technical terms, these writers seem to be talking about something beyond freedom from aversive control; they seem to be talking about freedom even from positive reinforcement. If one could be free of aversive control and positive reinforcement, what control would be left? Does talk of spiritual freedom necessarily imply that people can get free of all control? Can behaviorists make any sense of such talk?

A way to understand spiritual freedom becomes clearer when we consider not only what is being denigrated but also what is being advocated. If pursuing worldly pleasure is bad, then what is good? Answers vary, but they generally advocate values like kindness and simplicity. Help others even at your own discomfort. Eat to live instead of living to eat. Give up selfishness and excess.

From a behavioral perspective, such injunctions point to deferred aversive consequences. Selfishness and high living may pay off in the short run, but in the long run, they lead to loneliness, illness, and remorse. In the long run, you'll be happier if you help others and live moderately. Such long-term reinforcement relations are just the sort that have little effect on behavior without rules and rule-following. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a rule that makes it likely our social behavior will come into contact with the long-term advantages of helping others.

Kindness and simplicity pay off with more than just avoiding sorrow; they have their positive reinforcers, too. We benefit from mutually helpful relationships with others, and moderation usually leads to improved health, and advocates of spiritual freedom point also to less tangible rewards.

This is especially clear in the quote above from Hermann Hesse. The word peace appears in the passage six times. The Buddha's detachment means attaining inner calm, tranquility, relief from the anxieties of pursuing worldly aims, getting off the emotional roller coaster of despair and elation. Meher Baba was the one who taught, “Don't worry, be happy”

In behavioral terms, advocating spiritual freedom can be seen, not as arguing for freedom from all positive reinforcement, but rather as arguing for one set of positive reinforcers against another. It is about quality of life. “Eat to live” and “moderation in all things” do not mean one should give up food, sex, clothes, or cars; they mean that those reinforcers should not be the main or only reinforcers in one's life.

The argument resembles the reasoning about reinforcement traps illustrated in Figure 9.2. Worldly reinforcers for selfishness and self-indulgence, which would be analogous to impulsiveness, are relatively short-term. In the long term, they are offset by ultimate major aversive consequences such as illness, loneliness, and sorrow. In contrast, the reinforcers for kindness and moderation (analogous to self-control), though potentially large, are also relatively long-term and incremental. Seen this way, getting free from short-term worldly reinforcers (i.e., spiritual freedom) means only making a switch, coming under control of the long-term reinforcement for simple, moderate living and for kindness toward others. We will return to the idea of behaving for the good of others in chapter 12.

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