In 1969, when I was a young high school teacher, an article by Peter Marin on freedom in education and the “fiery vehemence of youth” inspired me to drive cross-country in my VW Bug. I spent the summer in the Santa Cruz Mountains at Pacific High School, where Marin was the director, so I could learn how to start a “free school.” Over thirty years later, when I was writing a book, I again found inspiration in an essay of Marin’s, this time on the homeless, and I tracked him down to talk about the similarities and differences between the freedom of the homeless on city streets and that of homeless monks. As a frequent contributor to Harper’s, the Nation and other magazines, Marin has explored the theme of freedom from many angles through reflections on those who have been voiceless or ignored. He has been outspoken about the dangers of surrender and obedience to authority in spiritual and political contexts (both on the right and the left). A number of his essays are collected in his book Freedom and Its Discontents: Reflections on Four Decades of American Moral Experience (Steerforth Press, 1995). During much of the past twenty years, Marin has been working with the homeless as an activist and advocate, trying to create a legitimate place for them in the community. The rest of his time is spent writing and thinking. Wes Nisker and I interviewed him by phone in June 2006. —Barbara Gates
Inquiring Mind: You are certainly not a Buddhist, but like Buddhists, you are interested in freedom. Of course, the way you understand freedom may be different in some ways from the way it’s understood in Buddhism. For the sake of clarity, it would be helpful to know what experience you’ve had with Buddhism and Buddhists, no matter how minimal.
Peter Marin: It is fairly minimal. What I remember most profoundly is my contact with the Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi. When I ran Pacific High School up in the Santa Cruz Mountains back in 1968, he came down from San Francisco and turned it into a little Buddhist school for two or three days. I was struck by his presence, his profound simplicity and humility. When he put the students to work fixing the roads at the school, he worked alongside them. He obviously felt that whatever his state of enlightenment, he was indeed no better than anyone else, and what he offered was in no way over or against what other people believed. If I look at Buddhism as a way of being in the world or a genuinely transformative discipline, he would be the best argument for it that I could find.
I also spent the summer of 1977 teaching at Naropa Institute. I have to say that what I witnessed there soured me on Buddhism as a discipline. Many of the “Buddhists” at Naropa seemed to act as if their way of being in the world was superior to other ways. That’s always what bothers me about any set of beliefs or disciplines: the fact that its followers often tout it as “the” way, a “better” way or a “superior” way.
IM: So you don’t think that a commitment to a discipline or system requires a belief in its superiority?
PM: I understand devotion and commitment, but whether it’s in politics or religion, the notion that somehow your beliefs have advanced you beyond other people—not just beyond where you would be without them—is very troubling to me. There’s a huge difference between those two ways of seeing things.
My sense is simply that everything coming to meet us is fundamentally a mystery and will astonish us. And if I understand anything about the Buddhist notion of enlightenment, or the Christian mystical experience, it’s that once you experience it, it turns what you have previously believed into, as Aquinas said, “dirty straw.” The ultimate experience itself makes the discipline through which you reached it seem limited and partial. When I have something partial presented to me as if it were true or entire, why should I listen with much more than just curiosity?
I have no trouble with belief systems, but what I really want to hear is the intimacy of someone’s individual encounter with the world. Then I begin to trust them.
IM: Let’s begin with your own encounters. Have you ever experienced what you consider to be freedom?
PM: Yes, I think I’ve experienced it a lot. I think many people experience freedom, often without noticing it. If I go back to my childhood, I never felt any kind of freedom in my household or with my family, but out on the street with my friends, I experienced an intense sense of freedom. Childhood was different back then; we weren’t constantly being watched, monitored or taught. We were in a community of free equals. When I was older, I didn’t have much sense of freedom in college, but as soon as I began to hop freight trains and do casual labor, I had a rich sense of encountering the world in an unmediated way, without anyone else to satisfy.
Later, when I ran schools and taught, I wanted every situation to be basically a community of free equals. I think that happens often with friends on a Saturday afternoon, sitting around a table eating food and drinking. I think it happens playing ball, unless it’s in organized leagues, which is rather frightening. I think it happens in lovemaking a lot, though people often botch it up.
The sense of freedom I’m talking about is like sailing or flying. I would say I’ve lived a lot of freedom and tried, whenever I had a chance and was in charge, to eliminate almost all coercion. Even though I understand that coercion is necessary sometimes, I dislike it so much that I’m always uncomfortable when it plays a significant role.
IM: But freedom is not just the absence of coercion, is it? How do you define freedom?
PM: Self-determination in a free community of equals, because self-determination can sometimes be collective. I believe that people in a group, when left to themselves, can become self-determining through their relations to one another.
IM: You’re talking about freedom in relation to external circumstances or forces. People involved in Buddhist disciplines might say that self-determination requires a clear understanding of self and conditioning. You can be free externally of any coercion or social forces and still be completely unfree. Genuine freedom, freedom from conditioning, requires understanding your own mind.
PM: But this raises a really interesting problem. I can say to you, if you are my sage, teacher or master, that I trust you so much that I am going to set aside certain aspects of my own self-determination and put myself in your hands, because you understand genuine freedom better than I do. I don’t have trouble with that. What I do have trouble with is one person standing over and apart from a second person, saying, “You are not really free.” I don’t think that’s a determination we get to make about one another.
I think freedom is, among other things, the capacity to make mistakes. If you don’t have the freedom to get yourself in trouble, to do the wrong thing, to treat people badly (which is never a good thing), to figure out how to do the right thing, then you don’t have freedom at all. When someone talks about “genuine” freedom, as you just did, that’s an abstraction to me. I understand that finding genuine freedom is a lifelong endeavor, but we don’t know how many people really achieve it. I don’t know very many people who don’t have to fight with their own demons and devils much of the time.
But if people take full responsibility for being who they are—and for their virtues and their errors—I think of that as freedom. I have to say, I use the word freedom politically or culturally. I don’t mean it spiritually.
IM: You don’t mean freedom from being driven by greed or hatred or delusion? Freedom of the mind?
PM: You’re talking about freedom from something: freedom from inner constriction, freedom from inner fear, freedom from internalized compulsion, right? Perhaps, and this is something for all spiritual thinkers to consider, there’s also freedom from the need for authority. My sense of many of my “spiritual” friends is that the one thing they are not free from is the need for having somebody directing their activity. I don’t know whether I’d call that freedom or even if it can lead to real freedom. So I have a lot of questions about this, not because I doubt what other people tell me, but because I’m skeptical about everything.
IM: [Laughter] Well, that’s healthy. That’s a kind of freedom. So what is the difference between freedom and license?
PM: I would say that license is probably freedom gone awry. Remember Blake’s little phrase, “The road to wisdom leads through the palace of excess”? We all know people who came to their sexual senses after they had misused themselves in ways that made them sorry. I think license in some strange way is necessary to finding freedom, but if we get stuck in license, then it’s one of the most unpleasant things in the world. In a way what we call license is really just the way some of us learn freedom. To make a neat point of it, maybe license is freedom that has never grown up.
IM: Would you say that the goal of life is to find freedom?
PM: No. I think freedom is not a goal. Freedom is a ground. It’s a ground from which everything legitimate arises. We all know this, really, deep down. If people make love, we have to make love in freedom or it doesn’t mean anything. If we become moral creatures, as we should, if we are loyal and responsible, this has to arise from freedom or it doesn’t have the same significance it would otherwise. I mean, the true value of anything hinges in part on its arising from freedom rather than coercion.
Many of us back in the 1960s thought of freedom as an end in itself, but it’s not. It’s only the very beginning. Within our freedom, we have to decide what we owe other people and how much we owe ourselves. We have to balance out our own happiness against other people’s happiness. The goal is the deep satisfaction of knowing we are living the way we think we should. But how we arrive at that is a vast and complicated process. That requires interchange with the world, adventure and reflection, self-doubt and self-examination.
Stanley Keleman, a therapist friend of mine, tells me he’s seen more and more people coming into his office who don’t seem to have a self—an identity defined by that interchange with the world. Certain kinds of struggle or hardship or adventure really do birth a self. It’s probably closer to the true self than the one born of monitored activity and defined by teachers, schooling and parents.
I think there are some people who may find genuine freedom through one spiritual discipline or another, but others might find it through a kind of effortless grace, or in certain kinds of adventure or action—sailing the oceans single-handedly, or helping others who are suffering, in Darfur, say, or New Orleans or anywhere suffering exists. The joy of an unmediated and deeply significant relation to the world or the self can be achieved in many ways, and the shape of freedom differs from person to person. If we did not so often use family and school to destroy young people’s access to their own powers and energies, the freedom that would emerge might astonish us in its variety.
IM: That reminds me of an old paradox. You’re describing freedom as birthing the true self. Others who practice sitting in stillness might define it as losing the self.
PM: That raises interesting questions. There’s an extraordinary scene in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina where Levin goes out and works with the peasants harvesting the grain. He becomes lost in the rhythm of the harvesting. When does the self disappear most completely? My belief is that it disappears most completely for each of us in certain kinds of activity—playing ball, lovemaking or, for Tolstoy, in the harvest. There are collective and communal rhythms where the self really merges itself, or loses itself, in something much larger. My bias is that this happens more in activity than in sitting, but that may only be my experience. I think back to my time with Suzuki Roshi. In a group of thirty people, building a road together may be more important for perhaps ten of them than sitting in meditation.
IM: So you also define freedom as the losing of the self!
PM: [Laughter] This is a complicated question. There’s a rhythm, like breathing in and out. For me, the ideal would be the losing of self followed by the return to self with a changed or renewed sense of connection, an awareness of the gravity of one’s existence, and, therefore, a fuller sense of responsibility.
Losing of the self may happen when we’re least conscious of ourselves. And we are most fully ourselves but least conscious of ourselves when engaged in the truest activities. Don’t you think that all ecstatic activity, which finally teaches us who we can be, takes place in the moment when the self is lost and therefore permanently changed, in ways that resonate later, by having been lost? I would say that in the moment when we’re not aware of being self, we are more deeply into being than at any other time. Then part of the self develops an awareness that grows around the knowledge of our capacity for what we might call “deep being.” A new kind of self grows out of this deep being. It’s the serious self that is aware of the significance and gravity of every one of its gestures, and yet it has enough trust in the world outside, in the plenitude of that world, to be able to laugh.