This morning I was reading a small portion of The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda and came across this passage:
What is duty after all? It is really the impulsion of the flesh, of our attachment; and when an attachment has become established, we call it duty. For instance, in countries where there is no marriage, there is no duty between husband and wife; when marriage comes, husband and wife live together on account of attachment; and that kind of living together becomes settled after generations; and when it becomes so settled, it becomes a duty. It is, so to say, a sort of chronic disease. When it is acute, we call it disease; when it is chronic, we call it nature. It is a disease. So when attachment becomes chronic, we baptise it with the high sounding name of duty. We strew flowers upon it, trumpets sound for it, sacred texts are said over it, and then the whole world fights, and men earnestly rob each other for this duty’s sake.
There is no duty for you and me. Whatever you have to give to the world, do give by all means, but not as a duty. Do not take any thought of that. Be not compelled. Why should you be compelled? Everything that you do under compulsion goes to build up attachment. Why should you have any duty?
Seek no praise, no reward, for anything you do.
I occasionally receive emails, especially from young men and women in India and China, who feel conflicted about honoring their expected duties to their families and to social customs while also wanting to explore their paths of growths with freedom and flexibility. They’ve usually been taught the importance of duty from a young age with many expectations placed upon their behaviors, especially after marriage. Often these people desire to have experiences that their families would reject.
I can relate to that mindset. There was a time when I put duty to others’ expectations first in my life. My interests and my duty aligned fairly well for many years, so I could satisfy that duty without too much stress. Eventually those paths diverged, and I had to make a choice. I could live my life according to duty (i.e. attachment to others’ expectations), or I could explore the path of freedom by making my own decisions. Each path would have different consequences.
Over the long run, I’ve favored the path of freedom. When duty conflicts with my freedom, I usually shun duty and choose freedom. Most of my friends have a similar mindset.
As Swami Vivekananda pointed out, we can label duty as natural and try to elevate it with flowers, trumpets, and sacred texts, but we can also see duty as a chronic disease rooted in attachment, a disease that yields unnecessary misery and conflict.
There was a time in my life when duty was important to me, and I met and often exceeded others’ expectations of me. When that was aligned with my own path of growth, all was well. At another time in my life, I did my duty while not feeling aligned with it; that was a stressful time when my life looked okay from the outside but didn’t feel right on the inside. I could never shake the call to greater freedom. Finally I began to see duty for duty’s sake in much the same way that Swami Vivekananda described it. I saw that putting duty ahead of freedom was a spiritual disease.
The flavor of life is different when freedom becomes more important than duty. First, you see that working without love is mostly wasted energy. Second, new truths come to light that were hidden from you while you were too busy doing your duty. Third, your relationship to your work will change; you’ll learn to work without attachment or neediness and still meet your needs (more easily too). Fourth, you’ll find that some people will disapprove of your journey into freedom, and you can handle their disapproval. Fifth, you’ll find that some people will want to know more about your journey into freedom because they’re considering similar changes. And sixth, you’ll soon experience new relationships with other freedom-minded people.
My blog exists because I favored the path of freedom. If I’d stuck with the duty path, I wouldn’t have gotten into blogging. I had to shun some prior duties to follow this path.
By following the path of freedom, I’m still able to work productively and cover my expenses, and I enjoy my work more because I don’t work from a sense of duty. I write when I’m inspired to write, not because I have to. When I start feeling that I should do some writing, I usually avoid writing altogether because I don’t want my relationship with writing to go in that direction. When I read articles by people who write because they have to write, the writing feels heartless to me. I want to write without attachment or duty, or not at all.
I was married for more than a decade and can relate to duty’s role in a marriage and family. Being married is like living in a cozy cocoon; you know what’s expected of you. Eventually I shunned that duty and followed the path of freedom once again. It was extremely difficult to make that choice, but I did so deliberately. I shunned my duty to explore a different path, and I’m glad I made that choice.
Staying in a relationship for reasons of duty isn’t enough for me. I value honor and commitment, but I value freedom more highly. I’ll do my duty when it aligns with my path of freedom, but should the two paths diverge, I’ll usually walk the freedom path. This is one reason I try to avoid attachments in my work and relationship life. Freedom requires flexibility.
When you pursue the path of freedom, sometimes you’ll be lauded for your decisions, and sometimes you’ll be condemned for them. Try to remain detached from both forms of feedback. Don’t let your pursuit of this path be overly swayed by praise or criticism.
Which path is more selfish? I think you need to walk both paths for a while to determine that for yourself. Personally I find the duty path to be the more selfish one. On that path you’re protecting your sense of self from the judgment of others. You still want freedom, but you’re too worried about what other people will think of you if you let go of your duty-bound attachments. You won’t leave because you’re scared of the consequences. Submitting to your fears is a selfish thing to do, is it not?
The reason you stick with the duty path is because you don’t trust the universe. You want more freedom, but you don’t trust that the pursuit of freedom will work out for the good of all in the long run. You know deep down that this calling is coming from a more spiritually elevated place than the call to duty, but you don’t trust the freedom path enough to take action. This lack of trust is shrinking your sense of self, causing it to cave inwards. Finding yourself living in a cocoon is the outward manifestation of that.
On the freedom path, you must rise above this limited sense of self and let it crumble. You must trust the universe. You must trust your higher self. The willingness to expose your smaller self to negative social feedback is a more selfless act than self-protection. Trusting the universe is selfless.
I genuinely believe that pursuing the freedom path is the wiser choice in the long run, but I think the duty path must be explored and honored to some extent as well. The contrast between the two paths sheds light on their differences. The duty path is one of cocooning, shrinking, and protecting. You must protect your limited self and other people’s limited selves from a hostile or indifferent universe. But if you trust the universe, no such protection is needed. The fate of the limited selves becomes less important than the alignment with the higher self.
Duty or freedom? Which path calls to you now?