I’m not the only one who puts the idea of “freedom” on a pedestal. And as something many of us crave, it crops up in everyday language .
We identify as “free agents” exercising “freedom of speech” in a “free country”. Or maybe we become our own boss, quitting the 9–5 grind in pursuit of “financial freedom”.
Whatever the case, we’re conditioned to see the world as follows:
- Right now, I’m inside a cage
- Freedom lies beyond that cage
In this post, I explain why conceptualising freedom in this way is actually the most unfree thing we can do. I also explore what freedom truly is, and offer ways to navigate the understandable anxiety it can evoke.
The Essence of Freedom
At this moment, I’m more “free” than I’ve ever been. Having travelled around Southeast Asia for 6 months, I’ve grown accustomed to looking at the future and seeing open road ahead. No timetables, no looming exams, no family get-togethers. Nothing to structure my days, other than what I plan.
At times this is exhilarating. But often, it’s paralysing. And on this rollercoaster, I can’t help but reflect on the experiential nature of freedom.
I’ve started to appreciate something: freedom isn’t a pleasant destination. There’s no outer cage to escape from, and there never will be.
Instead, freedom is an internal state of being. And tapping into this state confronts us with a double-edged sword. It can bring us to an existential brink, forcing us to consider what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it.
This element of choice can feel immobilising. But then again, it can crack open an abundant wellspring of creativity. As a self-conscious species, we get to ask, “who do I want to become?”
To me, this is the essence of freedom – coming into contact with an innate form of raw, wild, potential energy.
It’s when we believe we’re trapped – by our jobs, our relationships, our anxieties – that we lose touch with this powerful energy source.
We get seduced by the idea of an outer cage preventing us from taking ownership of our lives. I often fall into this trap. In fact, I often use my imaginary cage as an excuse. I use it to shield myself from the harsh, brutal winds of freedom and personal choice.
However, we each have a responsibility to harness this energy and take responsibility for our lives.
We first understand the true nature of freedom early on, from an infant’s perspective.
There’s an element of choice, for example, in whether to lie quietly or chaotically thrash our limbs around. The message is clear: we are volitional, intentional beings.
Just as swiftly, our conditioning begins. Our freedoms are curtailed for our own good, or else we wouldn’t function in the world. We’re taught how to get our needs met, and how to meet the needs of others.
But to grow into who we truly are, and live a life of our own making, we must undo our this conditioning. This desire to become an autonomous, self-governing individual is what Carl Jung called “individuation”.
It’s the impulse to develop authentic perspectives, emotions, and beliefs, separate from those of friends, family, and culture at large. This is an ongoing, lifelong process. And for it to happen, we must ingest the bittersweet medicine called freedom.
Like many, my first glimpses into this process came as a teenager. I remember reacting with both joy and confusion the first time my parents gave me pocket money. What would I spend it on? Should I save it up for that coveted videogame? Load up on sweets right away? The fact of being able to choose at all was thrilling.
Then, as all teenagers do, I started making larger bids for freedom. Enter the weekend dilemma – spend time with friends, or study for looming exams? Knowing neither decision was ‘right’ nor ‘wrong’, I often felt caught in limbo. Once again, the main question to ask myself was, “Who do I want to become?”
While I often fall prey to the illusion of an external cage, it doesn’t end there. Often, I also to buy into the myth of an internal cage.
At times, I long to be free of some internal reality. Pain, loss, addiction, obsession, or an identity that now holds me prisoner.
Yet wherever the imaginary cage comes from, it’s always easier to play prisoner. Confronting the fear of a blank canvas is no easy task, as any artist will testify.
I initially qualified as a medical doctor. Later, I decided to leave that professional identity behind. Stepping into the unknown felt like taking off my comfortable mask, leaving me naked and exposed to the elements.
How did I know I was touching on genuine freedom, rather than just building another cage? Because I started to see how messy, uncertain, indifferent, and exhilarating the world is. I came into contact with the primal energy of raw freedom.
If this is you, then it’s time to celebrate! You’re finally seeing things as they are, instead of hiding in an artificial cage. And you now have the opportunity to create something entirely new.
Owning Your Freedom
To conclude this post, and cement these ideas, here are three quotes on freedom for you to be with. I hope they’ll support you in taking ownership of this vital energy source in your life.
1. Taking Responsibility
“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
We can avoid the decision all we like, but it still remains. Be a victim of circumstance (stay in your cage), or rise to the challenge and live with authenticity, purpose, and integrity.
Sartre’s quote, to me, encapsulates this dilemma.
As humans, we’re involuntarily self-aware. On one hand, this is a weighty burden, because there’s almost no limit to what we can take responsibility for. But paradoxically, this burden is also a beautiful blessing.
2. Practising Self-Discipline
“The truly free individual is only free to the extent of his self-mastery”
Navigating our inner state of freedom is like sailing on choppy seas. At times an adventure, but often tumultuous. It calls for discipline and focus, which can take many forms.
I’ve found it most essential to keep calibrating my compass. That means grounding myself through meditation.
Meditation helps me recognise when I’m building another artificial cage. Hundreds of ideas bubble up in my mind each day, all specifying conditions I need to have in place for inner peace.
All I need to do is step back and observe how ludicrous most of these are. The thoughts go something like this: “I’ll never be ok as long as…”
Sometimes my false cage takes the shape of yesterday’s ideas. The “me” of last week, last month or last year had plenty ideas about what I should do, who I should be. This is a common way I hide from both the present moment, and my innate freedom.
Second, meditation helps me weather the different flavours of fear associated with freedom. After a time, I can then tune into my wisdom about what needs doing (if anything).
This links to another form of self-discipline. When something does need to doing, it pays to be well-acquainted with our core values and our purposes. This allows us to call forward the best in ourselves, and to build strong, authentic commitments. The more seriously we take our growth in this regard, the greater our capacity to be free.
3. Loving What Is
“Freedom from something is not freedom.”
This final quote reiterates the above points: freedom doesn’t result from escaping something – either internally or externally. Freedom is about deciding who to be, and creating ourselves anew each day. But in another sense, it’s also about coming home to ourselves.
In writing this post, I learned that the word “free” comes from the German word “frei”, meaning “to love.” And that the word “friend” shares the same origin.
So while freedom can bring us face-to-face with existential pain, it can also radically open us to what is. It asks us to lead with love, make friends with the present, and accept ourselves wholeheartedly.
This, to me, is what ultimately freedom asks us to do.