Already Free: Summary & Review

already free book cover

Already Free (2014) is a self-help and mental help book that bridges and combines Western therapy and Eastern Buddhist practices and approaches, helping the readers get the most out of both.

Exec Summary

  • The Western approach is hands-on work, to look at the problem objectively, working on it, and practice improving your life
  • The Eastern view is to find contentment no matter what you have, looking at the problem not even as a problem, but neutrally, as part of life, and to be content in spite of whatever you may experience, positive or negative
  • Both approaches are valuable
  • Combining both yields the best results

FULL SUMMARY

About the Author:
Bruce Tift is a practicing psychotherapist with many years of experience and a student and practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism for several decades (including a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a controversial figure and popularizer of Buddhism in the West).

Freedom is Contentment

Freedom is by its very nature hard to define. It seems to include the qualities of freshness and spontaneity, expansiveness, contentment and well-being, completeness, openheartedness, and open awareness. Freedom is also experienced as inherently satisfying and meaningful, not as a means or condition for some greater good.

In the West, we tend to think of freedom as an absence of limitations, but the absence of limitations can only go so far.

It’s not like with freedom everything becomes perfect, but we feel that everything is workable, and we don’t need anything else to be OK.

Most People’s Goals Stand In The Way to Freedom

By contrast, many of our more familiar goals—a good relationship, good health, money, political and social justice, and so on—are usually seen as conditions that will bring about a greater good. “If I just had better health, more money, etc., then I would be happy.”

Goals, and even more the way of thinking that we “have to” reach certain objectives inherently negate freedom because tell ourselves that we need that something we to be joyful and content.

The author says that the root cause of almost any issue with his clients is that they all have a “basic sense of dissatisfaction” based on the idea that “something is missing”.
This is the opposite of freedom, since with freedom we feel that “nothing is missing”.

The Western View: There’s An Objective Problem to Solve

The Western approach to well-being is in working towards the issue:

The first view is basically that of Western psychotherapy. The Western tradition says there are actual difficulties in our lives that can and should be resolved.
(…)
from the Western view—which I will also refer to as the developmental view—we try, appropriately, to improve ourselves and our circumstances

Features of Western Approach:

  • Becoming (vs being): the Western view is about changing and becoming, improving, and living to our full potential, while the Buddhist approach is about being, accepting, relaxing in the moment and being cool with it
  • We have traumas to heal: we have wounds or traumas that need to be healed before our lives can be positive
  • We need to bring the unconscious into the conscious: while the Buddhist view doesn’t differentiate and accepts and is “cool” with being a mystery to ourselves, the work of the developmental approach is to bring that which is unconscious into consciousness
  • We’re independent existing selves
  • Improvement-oriented

The Western Approach Limits Our Power To Govern Our Feelings

Albeit neither the author nor many zen practitioners may refer to it as “power”, in the end, that’s what it feels to me to be:

in the West, we believe that a better quality of life comes from improving our sense of self and our life circumstances.
(…)
this means that our experience of freedom depends on a combination of external circumstances and how we feel—neither of which we have full control over.

The author says that while he started with a Western approach, it was not enough for him:

my baseline—what I returned to, spontaneously, off and on, every moment—was feeling, to some extent, like a problematic person. I was always trying to improve, trying to wake up, trying to feel completely at peace. From that ground of dissatisfaction, moments of clarity, peace, and freedom would arise. But those moments were temporary
(…)
Since this shift, my baseline has been an experience of open awareness, freedom, and well-being.

Looking Into The Past To Fix The Present

The Western psychoanalytic approach postulates that the experiences we have as children, mostly in our families of origin, profoundly impacts the rest of our lives.

In response to difficult experiences, we create strategies or behavioral patterns to help us deal with what we experience as threats to our emotional or physical, survival.
And while appropriate for the age when we came up with those strategies, we often carry them over to adults, when they don’t serve us anymore.

The problem is that since we formed them as responses to disturbing and even dangerous realities, they’re usually associated with anxiety and mental discomfort.
We avoid feeling this anxiety by pushing these strategies out of our awareness, where they continue to operate for the rest of our lives.
That’s also an issue, because by pushing part of us aside, we are not dealing with the truth of our lives and we perpetuate a sense that there’s something about us that’s not workable.
Western psychotherapy seeks to bring them into awareness as adults to challenge them and dissolve them.

The author says there’s a potential problem in looking at the past to fix our present:

we may start to think that an improved present is dependent on clearing up the past.
Any memories about the past are speculative, incomplete, and partial.
If we start to believe that the past is causing our present circumstances, then we’ve positioned ourselves as powerless victims.

Stages of Dissolving Our Internal Divisions

  1. Awareness of the issue
  2. Learning to tolerate the fears, our worst fears for which we developed defensive mechanisms.
    1. Trusting that it the fears won’t kill us
  3. Acceptance, and feeling less anxious and panicky when the core vulnerability comes up
    1. Approach it with kindness: “The choice is whether we’re going to approach ourselves with fundamental aggression or with fundamental kindness. If it’s the latter, we are able to say yes. “I’m going to say yes to this experience of feeling abandoned. I don’t like it. It’s one of my worst fears. I wish it were gone, but what can I say? If it’s there, it’s there. I’m going to say yes to it.
      “You’re not just saying yes to your fears, you’re saying yes to your (full) self”
  4. Kindness to our fears: “as we move with kindness toward what’s difficult, the disturbance—which up until this point has felt bigger than us—starts to feel more manageable
  5. Wanting to feel the fear: we say, “I want to feel this feeling. I want to feel abandoned. I want to feel dependent. I want to feel my rage.” We don’t want to feel it because we like it; we’re never going to like these feelings. But we want to feel these feelings because they’re us. (…) We’re starting to get some clarity that all of our experience is us. We are not actually divided against ourselves”
  6. Committing to the truth of our full integrated self: We may find that we have still been operating on the subtle hope that if only we do this work—if only we are kind to our disturbance and so forth—our disturbance will go away. Now we invite the feeling that this pain or fear is a completely valid part of our life, of us, and we commit to living with it until we die.
  7. Loving your worst fear: As we’re able and willing to practice unconditional love toward our worst fears, we very quickly start to dissolve the fantasy of any division inside of ourselves. We can love all of us, rather than just the parts that feel “good.”

The first stage could be understood as awareness or recognition.

The Buddhist View: There Is No “Problem”

The second view is the Buddhist view, which says that how we relate to whatever we’re experiencing is even more important than the experience itself.
(…)
from the Buddhist, or fruitional, view, our work is not primarily to improve our experience; instead, it’s to invite a shift in perspective so that we are willing and able to fully relate to any experience we might have, regardless of what it may be.

Once you reach a higher level of enlightenment, you can have immediate non-pleasurable experiences, within a higher context of contentment:

It is possible to have a good state of mind while we simultaneously feel very disturbed. It’s possible to feel grief or rage or anxiety and to have these difficult experiences arise within a type of well-being that is not dependent on positive thoughts or emotions.

Some key features of Buddhism:

  1. Being (vs becoming) living in the moment, to not even think that we “need” to change ourselves
  2. We’re all connected: Buddhism asserts the view that we are not separate selves, and our work is to investigate this appearance, see through it, and experience the freedom that comes from having open awareness and compassion as our basic ground.
  3. The mistake of thinking we’re unconnected is frustrating: independent existence for the Buddhist view equals alienation. And our sense of being an independently existing self is the central source of unnecessary suffering and confusion.
  4. We’re only living in the present moment, our experiencing is only found in each present moment. Our current reality has a more powerful impact on our state of mind than what we are experiencing, important as that may be
  5. Focus on the present moment helps us transcend the feeling of isolation: as we become able to consciously participate in increasingly deep, moment-by-moment experiencing, we may find less and less evidence of a continuing significant “self”
  6. No self-improvement needed. We’re always trying to have more experiences that we like and to get rid of experiences that we don’t like. This Western approach is only going to give rise to an improved display of our experiencing. In classic Buddhist philosophy trying to improve is not bad per se, but can be a cause of unnecessary suffering if we reject and hate our current condition. So rather than trying to create an improved experience or an improved sense of self, the fruitional approach encourages us to relax into our human experience as it already is, taking everything as it is and “being cool with it”
  7. There is no good or bad: “reframing” as per Western tradition is smart as most of us prefer positive feelings and experiences to negative ones. But Buddhism says that freedom arises from a profound disidentification with any content—good or bad
  8. We’re already free: we only need to peel the layers and find it within us

Let’s use a movie analogy to understand the difference between the two different approaches:

freedom may not actually come from improving the story that’s playing on the screen. In fact, it might come from placing whatever that story is, in all of its complexity, in a larger environment of awareness. Perhaps we don’t have to improve the story we tell about ourselves, about life, in order to experience freedom.

Example of accepting the problem: giving yourself permission to feel bad

Anna, the author’s patient, feels dead.

Instead of looking at her past to find out “why”, and instead of looking for solutions, he gives her permission to feel dead:

Specifically, I ask her about her objections to feeling dead.
(…)
What exactly is her objection to participating in the truth of her experience? Like it or not, the reality is that she feels dead. So I invite her to try a variation of the worst fear technique that I mentioned in the last chapter. I suggest she try saying out loud, “I give myself permission to feel dead, off and on, for the rest of my life,” and then see what feelings arise.

And, suggests the author, once you accept it, you may find out that it’s not such a big problem after all:

We’re just investigating what, in fact, is most true in the present moment.
Is it true that there is a problem with feeling dead?
Or is it more true that the feeling of deadness is a disturbance that does not, upon investigation, prove to be problematic?

And the positive, immediate result for Anna:

she says it feels like a relief to acknowledge what she’s already experiencing. Her feeling of deadness was already true, and she had been fighting it. In fact, she hadn’t realized until she stepped into an acceptance practice how much energy she’d spent trying to have something true be not true. In a way, it can appear paradoxical. The effect of this fruitional approach—of Ana’s accepting her feelings of deadness without trying to change them—is that she feels lighter and more alive already!

How To Become Enlightened

The author says there are no steps to follow:

My personal opinion is that waking up is not caused by anything. Not meditation, not prayer, not devotion. How can we cause something that’s already present? But it does seem accurate that we can invite this experience, make it more likely that what’s already true may arise into our awareness.

But you can increase the chances of getting there with meditation:

As American Zen teacher Baker Roshi once said: “Enlightenment is an accident—but meditation makes us accident-prone.”

However, I find that plenty of the examples and explanations can help people get there:

Start By Accepting Things As They Are, Without Judgment

You could say this first step is about “detaching from our emotions by being in the moment with an unjudgemental attitude”.

The author calls it “immediacy” VS “preference”:

Consider the possibility that our emotions are sort of like the weather. The weather happens.
You might say, “Oh, it’s a beautiful day!” But that doesn’t mean that the day has an inherent quality of beauty.

Emotions are the same:

In the same way, our emotions are something we have to deal with, because they affect us, but perhaps they are not about us, either. Yet we’re always projecting our preferences onto our experience and assuming our interpretations are a reliable measure of what’s really going on.

And the more we start accepting things as simply being, without good or bad, the more we can transcend our selves as well:

As we start to practice embodiment and kindness toward everything that arises—as we practice immediacy—we find less and less and less evidence that any of our experience is about us.

That acceptance is empowering and dissolves suffering

That begins to help us with practicing an attitude of nonbias. We are willing to feel happy. We are willing to feel sad. We are willing to be healthy. We are willing to be dying, if that’s what’s happening.

And, says the author, that’s the first step towards the experience of freedom.

Enjoying, Without Preserving: Don’t Save, Don’t Take Pictures

Just as we gradually learn to appreciate the rainbow without trying to possess it or protect it from fading away, we might learn to appreciate this experience of self without needing to protect and improve it.

I personally find that the concept of enjoying things and experiences without having to record them is the first step.

Then you can start expanding that attitude to life in general, and to transcend suffering:

The more we allow experience to be just as it is, the more we find that all experience tends to arise (from no one knows where—it’s really sort of mysterious), remain for a period of time, and then dissolve.
This cycle is always happening, and there is no need to control or manage it.

It’s our refusal to experience difficult feelings that make them “bad” and gives them the appearance of threat and unworkability.
But when we accept for what they are, and liable to soon go just as they came, we can transcend our pain.

Do The “Unconditional Practices”

Which are:

  • Unconditional immediacy going deeper and deeper, more and more precisely into an investigation of what is most true in this moment, the more immediate we can be, the fewer problems we find, the fewer references to a self we find. We don’t find evidence of anything missing. We don’t find evidence of our worth, either positive or negative, as a person. We find no evidence of anything being permanent. What we do find is an endless stream of fresh, unique moments, which we find to be inherently interesting and workable
  • Unconditional embodiment: the more we can bring our attention to immediate, sensation-level experience, the more difficult it is to be captured by our interpretations. When we stay in our immediate embodied experience—noticing our sensations but not tying them to any past experiences—it’s very difficult to link any stories together
  • Unconditional kindness, feeling a sense of sweet love toward everything, including things we don’t like

How to Tell If We’re Progressing

how can we tell if movement is happening or progress is being made? An early indication will be a lessening of complaint, struggle, self-doubt, defensiveness, and emotional reactivity. We are captured by our usual dramas less often, don’t take them quite so seriously, and recover from them faster.

And:

A generalized sense of confidence may be noticed, with more frequent moments of clarity, embodied presence, and kindness to whatever may arise.

Plus, of course, a general sense of well-being and contentment becomes more and more frequent.

Both Approaches Are Great, & Best If Combined

The author says that neither approach can offer any guarantee, but they both do their part really well.

And they can be even more useful in conjunction.
As a matter of fact, Tift even says that they both need each other:

they don’t work without each other. If, on the one hand, we’re always “becoming,” without learning how to be, then we’re always postponing our commitment to experiencing the present.
(…)
So while at any moment there is being, over time, there is always becoming. You can’t have one without the other. If we focus only on acceptance and immediacy, we may ignore historically conditioned patterns that are causing harm to ourselves and others.

On their own, when taken to an extreme, both also become unhealthy.
For example, the neurotic aspect of the Western individualistic approach leads to insensitivity, disconnection from others, potentially aggression, and isolation.
And the neurotic expression of interconnection may lead to lack of boundaries, conflict avoidance, unassertiveness, and a tendency to compromise integrity in exchange for approval, love, or security.

The Overlap Between Both

Both views have a common intention to relieve unnecessary suffering, and both agree that the experience of split or division is at the heart of that suffering. So there is an overlap between them.

The developmental view is especially useful in articulating and working with patterns that exist over time, in recognizing how powerfully our conditioned history shapes the ways in which we relate to our immediate experience.
The fruitional view is very helpful in training ourselves to participate consciously in each immediate moment, which is the only moment in which we will ever find ourselves, and to discover if what used to be true is what’s true now.

How To Combine The Two Approaches

When I work with clients, I often invite them to consider a two-step sequence. The first step is that of acceptance—becoming willing to accept the way things are. This represents the fruitional approach; we stay present with reality as it is. From that ground of acceptance, we can then ask how we might improve our situation or experience, which is the second step.

Accepting first also helps us “take the pressure off” our efforts to change, and also be cool in case of failure:

But if we try to improve ourselves without first accepting our circumstances, the effort may feel very serious. It may feel like our lives—or, like Marcie, our emotional well-being—hang in the balance. If, on the other hand, we’ve already accepted things as they are, then any efforts at improvement can be understood as being about practical issues or perhaps even be experienced as play.

Also, with a combination of the two, we don’t need to “solve” any problems to live well and free.
We can enjoy our lives, while also working on it.

Another way to combine the two is to first have a positive image of oneself with Western psychotherapy, and to then accept our full selves via Buddhism:

this sense of being divided against oneself is probably an unavoidable developmental stage to be experienced and worked through (…)
And as long as we try to make ourselves into an object to be either accepted or rejected, better to accept it. Better to have a positive self-as-object than a negative self-as-object. This is the arena of most of the work we do in psychotherapy.

Combining Individualism & Interconnectedness For Good Leadership

The author says that interconnection tends to be more of a “feminine energy” while individualism is more of a “male energy”.

And we need both not only for a good mental and social life, but also for good leadership:

To experience the sane expression of either the masculine or the feminine, we must learn how to lead with one energy, without losing experiential contact with the other.

This is sane masculine energy:

Sane masculine energy arises when we can assert our separateness, have conflict, set boundaries, and know that we are alone in some fundamental way—all the while still keeping our heart open. We can feel connection and empathy with others, knowing that any conflict between us is most likely there because they’re so important to us.
(…)
Healthy masculine energy can experience conflict without apology—working with the truth of interpersonal differences—precisely because we can feel our care for the other.

Masculine energy is also crucial to navigating long-term relationships:

We know that, paradoxically, the purpose of this conflict is to help us keep our hearts open. A lack of healthy masculine energy is one way in which many couples get into difficulty. They’re having conflict, while unconsciously trying to reassure themselves of their connection. The refusal to keep it simple and just have “clean conflict” actually arises from a lack of confidence in our connection and contributes to the “sticky conflict” characteristic of codependent dynamics.

And this is sane feminine energy:

Sane feminine energy leads with connection, communication, support, and empathy—all the while maintaining boundaries and personal responsibility.
We understand that no relationship will work well if we lose touch with our fundamental aloneness and compromise our integrity.

Also read:

How to Be A Leader: 13 Laws From Social-Psychology

MORE WISDOM

Masculine Energy & Independence For Personal Power

Says the author of his personal power and relationship:

It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I started to feel safe enough to realize how incredibly dependent I am as a person.
One of the first clues had to do with my relationship with my wife. It dawned on me one day that if I were truly independent, she wouldn’t bug me so much.
I wouldn’t be so disturbed by her tone of voice, her behavior, or how she related to me. I wouldn’t feel so warm and relaxed when she was kind to me.
She had an incredible impact on my feelings; apparently, I was so dependent that my state of mind was profoundly affected by her mood and behavior.

What he’s describing here with his wife is all about emotional power dynamics, and his wife being “the judge” in the relationship, with the power to make him feel good or bad.
A process that in dating power dynamics some people also refer to as “betaization“, or as the man losing power ot the woman.

The author says that it happened because he was too interconnected with her, and not separate enough.

Becoming “Effectively Selfish”

the author seems to touch upon a recurrent theme we have here in TPM:

To take the good out of what many may consider selfish or antisocial, and to leverage for a better win-win that serves the self, and others.
For example, we have here:

Tift here refers to “how to be selfish”.
When you’re not “selfish enough” you’re too dependent on others and become co-dependent.
When you’re too selfish instead you cannot even create win-win relationships.
He says that the solution lies in taking good care of ourselves so that we can then enter win-win relationships that we want, rather than need:

We’d be taking such good care of ourselves that we wouldn’t need our partners to be any different than they already are.
We no longer need to wait for our partners to become who we want them to be in order for us to have a satisfying life. This is the foundation of effective selfishness.

already free book cover

QUOTES

On the transient nature of everything:

we find there is, in fact, no resolution necessary (or even possible). Experiencing our worst fears doesn’t kill us, and experiencing our greatest hope doesn’t save us. Both are only transient energies. Each arises, dwells, and falls away.

CONS

  • Reduces the “Western” approach to mental health to psychotherapy

I think there is much more than psychotherapy to mental health in the West.
Probably most psychotherapists today employ a mix of tools that also include more hands-on approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

  • Some clearer “how to” or simplifying some complex concepts may have helped

I know, I know, there’s no easy “how to” sometimes and some complex and abstract topics are just that: complex.
However, I think that it’s still the authors’ responsibility to make these complex and abstract concepts as easy and applicable as possible.

PROS

  • Credibly shows that science does not stand against spirituality
  • Bridges between the science and spiritual enlightenment, between the more science-based Western approach and the more spiritual Eastern one

REVIEW

Already Free is a fantastic book for both mental health from a more clinical perspective, and for general mental self-development.

Its unique combination of psychotherapy and Eastern traditions of spiritual enlightenment helps bridge an imaginary “gap” that, in truth, may not exist since the two approaches are complimentary and not contradictory.
Already Free helps readers get the best from both worlds.

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