The Paradox of Freedom and Imprisonment in Spiritual Practice

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“O one who has been freed from the Fire by His owner! Be cautious of returning to enslavement after having been freed.”

–Al-Hafidh Ibn Rajab

Ramadan ended just over a week ago, and something very strange is happening to me. People keep saying, “You must be so relieved! You can eat and drink now!”

I could eat and drink during Ramadan; just not in every precise moment I felt the urge to do so.

For thirty days, I didn’t satisfy each craving I experienced throughout the day. Now, however, I do. Yet, in contrast with how I was feeling when I wasn’t eating during daylight hours, I’m now, mysteriously, starving all the time. And, although my sleep is no longer interrupted, I’m exhausted all the time, too.

Instead of waking up at 4:30 a.m., feeling a fleeting moment of resistance but determined to get up and eat so I could make it through the day with no food or water until sunset, I now set the alarm for 6:30 a.m., groan when I hear it, and then snooze for thirty minutes, missing my morning meditation that is intended to keep me grounded and clear. By some strange bending of time, these thirty minutes that had been allotted for meditation but were replaced by sleep go unaccounted for, and, inexplicably, I am soon running very late.

So I skip my breakfast and drive as fast as traffic on the 101 will permit. I change lanes frequently, trying to predict which lane is moving the fastest at that particular moment, and then I become agitated when the car that was behind me in the lane I was previously in passes me. I alternate between cutting people off and being cut off, with a regular exchange of honking and cursing and near-accidents while everyone fights to get on and off the freeway. I then arrive at work twenty-five minutes late.

Because I’m exhausted by my commute, as well as having to wake up at 6:30 in the morning, I succumb to my coffee cravings and drink a double espresso. Then, I counteract the ensuing anxiety and inevitable caffeine crash by eating a toasted bagel with butter on it at 10 a.m. By noon, I’m not really hungry; I just had a bagel. But it’s lunchtime, and my colleagues are all eating. So, I eat. And, because I can no longer tell what my body is communicating to me anymore, which I could do much better when it was empty of food and, therefore, more of my physical and emotional states were perceivable to me, I overeat. By mid-afternoon, I’m experiencing a carbo-coma, and I just want to crawl under my desk and take a nap. So I eat a cookie.

By the time I drive home, I’m too hungry to go to the gym, and too tired to go to the grocery store, so I skip them both and scrounge to find the most readily available thing I can put into my stomach so I won’t die of hunger. Which is usually something akin to toast. And since I end up feeling dissatisfied by my inadequate dinner, I eat another cookie.

After this relentless stream of carbohydrates has wreaked havoc on my insulin levels, I’m too tired to do anything productive, so I decide to watch a movie. But all of the movies I peruse on Netflix seem boring, so, after an hour of searching for a life-changing documentary about something profound, I finally settle on seeing Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter, and I watch grown men bloodying each other in an attempt to knock each other unconscious. By then it’s about 8:00 p.m., so I decide to read a book. By 8:15, I fall asleep on the couch with my book closed over my thumb, marking page two, because that is how far I got before I fell asleep.

What’s happening to me? During Ramadan, I took care to mindfully prepare and consume the two meals I ate each day. I often met friends to eat iftar together once the sun had set. We’d talk or play music or cards until 1:00 a.m., after which I’d drive home, sleep until 4:30 a.m., wake up to eat, sleep a bit more from 5:00-6:30 a.m., get up and meditate for thirty minutes, and be at work by 8:00 a.m., feeling quite grounded and clear. Because part of the practice of Ramadan is to abstain from negative emotions and behavior, I managed to get through my entire commute without honking at anyone. I smiled at people if they honked at me (not in a cheeky way; I swear), and I didn’t even bother to change lanes unless it was to let someone else into traffic.

I’m so disillusioned by the realization that this is just sort of the way I live my life that I’ve started to wonder if I should go back to fasting again. People seem very concerned by the whole idea of it. Abstaining from eating and drinking is presumably not healthy in the long-term, nor is it sustainable or desirable. Fair enough; I do like to eat. Yet, these same people seem to have no qualms with watching me sustain my current lifestyle, which, now that see it in print, looks appalling.

“You’re done fasting? Great! Let’s meet for drinks!”

“Hey, let’s do brunch! How about chicken & waffles…oooh, and a side of cheese grits and home fries…”

It’s as if filling myself with food and liquid that has virtually no nutritional value, poisoning my mind with violent words, actions, and images, and neglecting to nourish myself with consistent prayer or meditation, is not slowly, or rapidly, causing a deterioration in my mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

It’s hard to get back to “real life” after a period of immersion in a spiritual practice. The difficulty in sustaining the desirable effects of these practices in the context of societal habits and expectations is probably why some people choose to become monastics. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to spend three months living in Deer Park Monastery—one of the practice centers of the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Although my mental afflictions still accompanied me like loyal companions while I sat and walked and ate and slept, it was easier to observe and take care of my persistent little gremlins when I wasn’t battling SUVs and their aggressive owners. Subsequently, I wasn’t stuffing myself with food and coffee to numb the psychic discomfort that is an inevitable part of human existence.

Beyond the benefits of being extracted from the “outside world” in order to limit distractions and focus intensely on my practice, I was surrounded by a sangha—the equivalent of what, in Islam, is called the ummah—a spiritual community. Thich Nhat Hanh, in fact, insists that he would never leave his practice center without being accompanied by members of his sangha. Although he is a spiritual master who has been practicing for many years, he is adamant that nobody can sustain a practice without the support of a community.

One of the most powerful aspects of the practice of fasting during Ramadan was the feeling of being supported by the energy of an entire community of people all over the world, who were all participating in the same ritual, with the same struggles and triumphs. But now, the energy of togetherness has faded. I see myself grasping to get that feeling back. Now, in addition to having reclaimed the anxiety and craving that lay somewhat dormant for the past month, I am, in essence, battling my addiction to Ramadan. Wishing I could recreate the freedom I felt within the discipline of controlling the habits of my mind.

I remember leaving the monastery after three months of mindfulness practice there. Although I left the center a few times while I was living there, mostly to go shopping for snacks, for the most part, I stayed within the boundaries of the spacious but determinate grounds. Staying within the confines of that finite space both freed my mind and body from the traps and illusions of the outside world, and, paradoxically, left me feeling imprisoned. Of course, I was there of my own free will and nobody was confining me anywhere or to anything. But, after three months with no movies, no car, and only limited access to Trader Joe’s, I felt a strong pull to get back into “the world.”

Re-entering the world, I felt the same paradox of freedom and imprisonment that I’d felt while living in the monastery, only it was accompanied by a gradual loss of the open-hearted expansiveness I had obtained while living there. Now, once again, following a month of tapping into that depth of expansiveness, I am experiencing a return to my old familiar patterns and afflictions. It’s a painful process of self-awareness. But, slowly, slowly, I’m learning, through practice and attention. Or, rather, I am re-learning, that transformation begins with those intense periods of committed practice. And it continues to deepen when I lose faith and struggle to regain it. It goes in cycles of sleeping and awakening. These cycles are what expand my heart and strengthen my faith. Now that the Holy Month is over—now, my renewed commitment to transformation begins.



  1. I never knew that when I hurt, I create an imprisonment foe myself and for whomever else is around. That’s not fair to myself or to anyone else. Let go and let GOD. You will destroy your learning process and growth from the hurt and pain experienced. I am looking foe right, truth, and justice in this thing called relationship. I believed God had me go they what I needed to go thru for myself And to discover it for myself. As my own downfall that can set me back in a lot of ways. How a

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