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Imprisoned by Freedom: Why it Helps to Have Structure in Your Practice

When I was in art school I was surrounded by some extremely creative and talented individuals who possessed good vision, good intentions, and good esthetic sensibilities. However, many of us resented having to learn any kind of technique or to apply any sort of discipline to our painting, drawing, writing, photography, music or sculpture. To us it seemed antithetical to the creative process--after all, art in our view was meant to be FREE;  untamed, wild, spontaneous, open, and unencumbered.

As a result of our ideas of what it meant to be an artist, many of us often struggled tremendously when it came time to produce a piece of work for an assignment or group event. Some complained of feeling too restricted by the assignment, the deadline, the venue, the other students, etc. There was always some reason why we couldn’t or shouldn’t be expected to produce our Art under such narrow and restrictive parameters. 

In the end many of us would be late producing the project, some of us just wouldn’t do it at all and a few of us ended up with a mediocre version of what we were truly capable of. But those of us who could be systematic, consistent and precise with our creativity really flourished, both as students and as artists. 

Many people come to meditation practice because they want to be released from the habitual thought patterns that bring about a lot of unhappiness in their lives. They understand that in a very real sense, we live as if we’re prisoners of our narrow perceptions of who and what we are. So eventually (and usually after a great deal of frustration) we’re inspired to connect to something deeper, more expansive, and more enduring than what we’ve been taught defines who we are. 

Ironically, what often causes people to get in their own way is our cultural tendency as Americans to grasp at our concepts of what it means to be free or independent--that is, to do it our way, to steer clear of any kind of spiritual structure or tradition, to pick and choose what we like from various spiritual practices in the hopes that the hodgepodge of ingredients we accumulate along the way just might be potent enough to help us reconnect to our inherently complete and perfect state. 

Freedom can be the worst kind of prison if we attach to our ideas about what its supposed to mean. Our small, limited concepts of freedom can end up being the very shackles that hold us back from freedom in its widest, truest sense; the freedom from suffering and the thought patterns that contribute to our suffering. 

To be truly free means to let go of our ideas of what it means to be free. The best kind of freedom can be found within a structure that whittles things down, limits the choices a bit, and enables us to walk straight ahead with crispness and clarity.

A practice without any kind of regularity or specificity is just laziness masquerading as openness. An approach to practice that eschews any kind of structure, consistency, and discipline is not going to be as effective as a practice that embraces some kind of structure, consistency, and discipline. 

I’n not calling for rigidity or dogma, just accountability and a willingness to commit to something in particular for some length of time.

Just as all of us in art school had to eventually buckle down and learn the technical side of our crafts in order to produce works that transcended those techniques, all of us on a spiritual path need to apply some discipline and direction in order for our practice to be more whollistically integrated into the rest of our lives. When we do this, we can more clearly see what is going on around us, what our role in the situation is, and how to respond in the most appropriate and compassionate way.

- Lawrence Grecco

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