No one ever said that the spiritual journey was easy.
R: Are we really free?
Mr. B: What a silly question.
And with that remark I sulked because it seemed to me that Mr. Babushnik was remonstrating me for asking such a naïve question. Though, of course, today I realize it was his gentle way to provoke the reaction that would lead us into fertile metaphysical ground
R: I guess that was a stupid question. Of course, we’re free. We live in a free country.
Mr. Babushnik’s next response was even more surprising than before.
Mr. B: A silly question? Yes, indeed. A Stupid question… not at all.
R: Why is it a silly question then and not a stupid one?
Mr. B: Because the fact is we are not free at all.
R: We’re not.
Mr. B: Whoever told you that you’re free must be really quite stupid.
Quite naturally, I began to scan my memories to see if I could catch the culprit who had first told me such a stupid thing. It must have been the deep furrows in my brow that made Mr. Babushnik chuckle so loudly. I looked up and with that Mr. Babushnik looked back at me, squarely in the eye.
Mr. B: What do you mean when you say that you are free?
I was quite sure that I could tell Mr. Babushnik exactly what it meant to be free. After all we had been hearing in school for several years now that we were all quite free. And though I couldn't really remember who had first told me so, it was well known that "we were free".
And so I took my breath and was about to speak when I realized I didn’t know what to say. It was as though I was that proverbial parrot. I could easily say the words: "I am free." It was as much a part of me as the way I combed my hair or what colored shirt I put on in the morning. But the moment I tried to explain what I meant by it, I felt that there was nothing there at all. It was as though I was mere paper scenery -- a painted facade held up by nothing more than plywood and struts.
I must have mumbled something for Mr. Babushnik asked again:
Mr. B: Well, what do you mean when you say that I am free?
I stumbled forward knowing full well that I was heading into a hopeless morass.
R: Well, I guess it means I can do anything that I want to do?
Mr. B: Is that so? Well, then I presume that if we are to test this premise, then we need to know exactly what you want to do. So… what do you want to do?
My response was more than typical of most young boys my age. I simply shrugged my shoulders. Mr. Babushnik was clearly not impressed.
Mr. B: That is not much of an answer. If freedom is doing what you want, then you must first know what you want to do… and then see if you are really free to do it. Again, what do you really want?
R: I don’t know.
Mr. Babushnik looked up. I followed his gaze. Across the grass lawn was a man and his cart, a vendor of snacks and treats that are often sold in parks.
Mr. B: Would you like to eat a hot dog?
The image of a hot dog came into my mind. Almost instantly I felt saliva moisten my tongue. Mr. Babushnik must have noticed the change in my countenance became he continued.
Mr. B: With mustard
I could now smell the mustard.
Mr. B: And smothered in warm sauerkraut.
Leading us into small fantasies of guilty pleasures was one of the few ways was one might say that Mr. Babushnik enjoyed torturing his young protégés.
Mr. B: Then why don’t you go get a hot dog?
R: I don’t have the money.
Mr. B: Oh, then are you free?
I stared back at him completely confused. But the look on Mr. Babushnik's face was one of complete delight. I knew there was no point in resisting.
R: I guess we are not free.
Mr. B: Is that it? Is freedom to you just having a hot dog when you want it? Is that what you really want?
I knew immediately that a question a big as freedom must be more than that.
R: One day I will vote in the elections?
Mr. Babushnik raised an eyebrow.
Mr. B: And who will you vote for and why?
Rising to the challenge I countered with something else I had heard in school:
R: I have freedom of expression.
Mr. B: Good, and what will you talk about?
Feeling frustrated I demanded perhaps a bit too loudly:
R: So then what is freedom?
Mr. B: How should I know?
Our eyes met, locked almost in a glare. Then I asked an even more challenging question:
R: Are you free?
Then I saw the soft light and kindness in his eyes. He looked away for but a second before answering.
Mr. B: Perhaps… but only occasionally at most.
This seemed a most quizzical answer.
Mr. B: You see, we are all in prison, not free at all. I am sure you are quite convinced of that by now.
Now I was concerned. For here we were on a bright summer day, green lawns surrounding us. Yet somehow I began to feel claustrophobic, as though I was trapped in a small room with no windows or doors.
R: But I don’t see any prison.
Mr. B: But you are in prison. You are in a deep dark prison, secured by the hardest, strongest bars ever invented.
I looked around. All I could see were the toy sailboats on the lake, children playing on lawns, the trees along the winding paths, the few clouds floating in the blue sky overhead.
R: But where are they?
Mr. B: Inside your head. Okay, well not really inside your head per se, but inside your experience.
R: Where are they?
Mr. B: Perhaps the better question to ask now is not where are they, but what are they?
R: Okay, what are they?
Mr. B: Why they are your thoughts.
R: My thoughts?
Mr. B: Yes, every single one of them make up another bar of your own very personal prison. It is most remarkable to see this prison.
I looked even harder to see if there was really a prison that I might see inside myself. And then deep within that something I call myself, I saw a small light, though I could not say whether it was a perception or a feeling. Still it was a light of understanding.
R: I can see how old thoughts can make up a prison. Repeating the same old thoughts every day stop you from trying new things.
Mr. B: Very true.
R: But what about new thoughts. Don't they lead you to new things, new ideas and experiences?
Mr. Babushnik nodded, clearly pleased to see how his many months of tutelage had begun to bear some fruit.
Mr. B: The only problem with new thoughts though is how quirky they become old thoughts. It's done in an instant. With every new thought there is the briefest of moments. A lightness, a lifting of the darkness. But before you can turn around, it is already turning into an old crust-ridden, creaking old thought. What was shiny and transparent is now gray and cold.
I must have looked quite depressed. For what seemed the grandest of ideas was no more than another dead end. But on the other hand Mr. Babushnik was a cheery as ever.
Mr. B: Still there is some thing that can set you free -- one thing that can be the key to your freedom. . Being a child is a blessing in that one's moods and feeling can change in a twinkling. Thus upon hearing the news that there was a key to freedom I was once again enthused. I was suddenly sure I knew the answer.
R; Is it a thought?
Mr. B: it certainly can be.
And with great pride I announced:
R: It's the thought, "I am free."
Mr. B: Heaven's no. The thought "I am free" is simply the most dangerous thought there is. The thought "I am free" is so dangerous because it makes you think you are free, when in truth it is only part of the prison. So you walk around thinking you are free, when you are still in prison, only more so because now you must break out of that particular prison first, before you can break out of any other prisons. There are many, many prisons you know and that particular prison is a very tricky trap. You must avoid it at all costs, as no other thought keeps you more trapped in prison than the thought 'I am free."
Feeling totally entangled by Mr. Babushnik's inescapable logic I could only nod in agreement and ask:
R: Then what is the key to freedom?
Mr. B: Why that's simple. Why didn't you ask that in the beginning? It's the thought: "I am in prison". Once you know that, you are free… but usually only for a moment.
R: The thought, "I am in prisoner" makes you free?
Mr. B: But only for an instant.
R: So it's like new thoughts that become old thoughts.
Mr. B: Pretty much. For even the thought "I am in prison” soon becomes an old bar of your prison. And then all the thoughts come back and lock you in a new prison. You are always breaking the prison walls and they always reemerge. The best you can do is to escape prison occasionally or be truly free momentarily, And the moment you turn around you find yourself locked in prison again. Only this time the locks and bars are even more difficult to break because they become more invisible and are harder and harder to see.
R: So every time you break out of prison you just find yourself in another prison? . Mr. B: Pretty much. It's the way the cookie crumbles. It's like those Russian dolls when you open one, only to find another, and then another, only it goes on to infinity.
I was lost in thought as his words passed into me. I tried to give them meaning, but with no apparent luck. I must have looked very discouraged.
Mr. B: But that what makes life so interesting. It really is quite a lot of fun. Unlocking the mystery day after day. It's the grandest game you will ever play, like playing peek-a-boo with God.
R: And that's it? That's the path to freedom. Why?
Mr. B: I don't know. I guess that's the way God wants it to be.
R: And it goes on forever.
Mr. B: At least until you die. But then again I've never died before so I really don't know.
I pondered what he had said for a few more moments formulating my next inquiry:
R: So let us say I practice my whole life breaking out of prison. And then let's say that finally for a few moments at least I am free. Then what do I do?
Mr. Babushnik smiled in his delightful way with that special sense of mischief that he had just shared the greatest of secrets and said:
Mr. B: Go get a hot dog.
And with that Mr. Babushnik suggested we go for a skip. He rose from the park bench and moved off skipping lightly toward the vendor on the other side of the lawn, as though he was just a young boy my age and not an elderly gentleman. I tried following him, first trying to skip myself. But soon I felt awkward, and falling behind. I started to run after him. Yet still it was hard to keep up. Finally, I stopped slightly winded and watched Mr. Babushnik skip down the path around the lake and towards vendor’s cart. I marveled how easily he skipped, how smoothly he moved and how he appeared to be so… and then only word came to mind… “free”.