In Dante’s Inferno, Satan, denizen of the deepest hell, is found frozen in a block of ice, utterly unable to move. As anyone who has ever tried to quit smoking or eating junk food only to pick up that cigarette or that bag of crunchy or gooey things in a burst of wild rebellion can tell you, rebelling doesn’t necessarily bring freedom. Addictions—and this can include addictive emotions and obsessive thinking—is hell, a narrowing our possibilities. Freedom means working with life, caring for the body and the rest of creation, the middle path.
Ultimately, the hope of freedom is grounded in the hope of change—the knowledge that no matter how dark or doubtful or dense things may seem there is still a possibility that conditions may move. Despair is the loss of hope. In Christianity, despair is the greatest of sins because it is a denial of the goodness of God and creation. And Buddhism offers “evil destinations,” including numerous hells and animal destinations, that have similar properties of stuckness.
The “evil destinations” are called evil because of the unbroken suffering found in them. The human world, which holds a mix of happiness and misery, and the heavenly realms are called a “happy destinations” since they contain the possibility of happiness (duh)—including the possibility of change. Freedom, however we conceive of it, requires being in a flow state, not frozen.
Once you have landed in an evil destination chained to a wheel of suffering that is very difficult to break. According to the scholar monk Bhikkhu Bodhi: “The Buddha says that if a yoke with a single hole was floating at random on the sea, and a blind turtle living in the sea were to surface once every hundred years — the likelihood of the turtle pushing his neck through the hole in the yoke would be greater than that of a being in the evil destinations regaining human status.” Usually modern Western Buddhist teachers cut off the “evil destination” part and just emphasize how rare and precious it is to be human, but it’s useful to keep in mind.
To avoid the evil destinations (also called the plains of misery), we must learn to keep watch over our thoughts, our automatic emotional reactions, our actions (in Buddhism all of these manifestations are karma, which means action). I don’t think of it as policing ourselves, the prison matron sweeping the cell of my brain with a flash light. I think of it as looking for tiny openings, possibilities of freedom, pauses. I look for times when I don’t need to act as if we are not the center of the universe—even though I am conditioned and probably even hardwired to think so. There are times when I am open to others, permeable to impressions from outside my own tiny head, times when love and wisdom from a higher level and rain down and sink in.
The summer after college, I drove out West in a VW van, searching for the kind of education I hadn’t found in college, seeking a way to be in life. The owner and driver of the van played guitar in a college band called General Malaise, an apt name because his father had been a general in a disastrous American war. I persuaded him that we should go to Naropa Institute in Colorado, where we might meet the great Tibetan Buddhist teacher Trungpa. I hoped that there we might find a path or a way out of our own particular and collective hells.
The engine of the VW bus blew up in a cornfield in Iowa. We were stranded in a little town. While we waited for a new engine, we hung around with some of the young locals we met at a bar café. I remember one night driving around and around and around the town in someone’s convertible, a six pack of beer on the seat beside us (it was a gentler time—these days it might be meth). The young driver indicated that this is what they did most nights, drove around in circles, despairing that they would ever find a way out.
It amazed me. The town was bounded by towering corn fields, but beyond that the vastness of the prairies. Above us, the vastness of stars, the worlds within world. For a moment it struck me as strange that they didn’t feel a connection with this vastness, that they were so hopeless about getting out of the small town, that they were moving but stuck, all restlessness and worry but no real traction. I saw that I was like that too, feeling trapped in my life at 21. It was ridiculous, I knew. We were all acting like hamsters scurrying around in a maze with no top on it. Above us, stars, cosmos. We could be free, but we didn’t know how to be free.
Later during that same trip, I spoke to farmers and ranchers who gave me a tip that spiritual guides would give me in the years to come. The way to freedom might be start not by looking up and out but looking down and in, seeking places of opening, attending to the body and the heart and the work at hand, finding life and hope in the flow state.