I’m probably not the only one who puts the idea of “freedom” on a pedestal.
As something many of us crave, it crops up throughout everyday language – perhaps 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”. The list goes on.
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 manner is actually the most unfree thing we can do. I also describe what freedom truly is, and offer ways to navigate the justifiable anxiety it can bring out in us.
The Essence of Freedom
At this moment, I’m objectively 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 imposed timetables, looming exams, or even family dinners; in essence, nothing to structure my days other than what I plan.
At times, this can be extremely exciting. At other times, it can feel paralysing.
And on this rollercoaster, I’ve found myself reflecting on the experiential nature of freedom.
Admittedly, before embarking on this trip I had pictured the cliché: innumerable days sitting on the beach, trusty e-reader in hand, soaking in the warm sun – in a word, carefree.
(It’s interesting to consider that word, “carefree”. Care-free. Freedom from caring. Was that a reasonable expectation? Was it even an experience I wanted to have continuously?)
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 also crack open an abundant wellspring of creativity inside us. 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’ve fallen into this trap many times. In fact, I often use my perceived cage as an excuse, shielding myself from the harsh, brutal winds of freedom and personal choice.
However, I believe 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 already an element of choice, for example, in whether to lie quietly versus thrash our limbs around chaotically. The message is clear: we are volitional, intentional beings.
And just as swiftly, so our conditioning begins; our freedoms must be limited for our own good, or else we won’t know how to function in the world. We’re taught how to get our needs met, and how to meet the needs of others.
But if we’re to grow into who we truly are, and live a life of our own making, this conditioning must be somewhat undone.
The desire to become an autonomous, self-governing individual is wired into us. Carl Jung called this process “individuation”, which is the impulse to develop authentic perspectives, emotions, and beliefs, separate from those of friends, family, and culture at large.
Some argue this is an ongoing, lifelong process.
Jung described individuation as “divesting the self of false wrappings”. And in order for this 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 perennial weekend dilemma – to spend time with friends, or to study for upcoming exams? Knowing neither decision was ‘right’ nor ‘wrong’, I often felt caught in a state of limbo. Once again, the main question to ask myself was, “Who do I want to become?”
While we often fall prey to the illusion of an external cage, it doesn’t end there. It’s also tempting to buy into the myth of an internal cage.
We might privately pine for freedom from an unwanted internal reality – pain, loss, addiction, or perhaps a learned identity which now seems to hold us prisoner.
Yet, wherever our imaginary cage comes from, it’s always easier to play prisoner than it is to confront the paralysing fear of a blank canvas, as any artist will probably testify.
Since I initially qualified as a doctor, then left that professional identity behind, this fear is familiar to me. Stepping into the unknown felt like taking off my comfortable mask, rendering me naked and exposed to the elements.
How did I know I was touching upon true freedom, rather than just constructing a larger cage around me?
Because I started to become aware of how messy, uncertain, indifferent, chaotic, and exhilarating the world is.
If this is you right now, I believe you’re also in contact with the primal energy of raw freedom. You’re finally seeing things as they are, instead of hiding inside your artificial cage. It’s time to celebrate, because 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’ve accompanied each quote with a few thoughts, and 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 – we can be a victim of circumstance (our cages), or we can rise to the challenge of living with authenticity, purpose, and integrity.
Sartre’s quote, to me, perfectly encapsulates this dilemma.
We humans are 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 somehow 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 the most essential form is to regularly calibrate my compass; that is, I stay grounded through meditation, which is invaluable for two reasons.
First, it helps me recognise when I’m building another artificial cage. Hundreds of ideas bubble up in my mind each day, all specifying conditions to be met before I can feel at peace. All I need to do is step back and observe how ludicrous they are. The thoughts all go something like this: “I’ll never be ok as long as…”
In many cases, my false cage takes the shape of yesterday’s ideas. The “me” of last week, last month or even last year has plenty ideas about what I should do, and who I should be. This is a common way for me to hide from both the present moment and the freedom at the crux of my being.
Second, meditation helps me weather the different flavours of fear associated with freedom. After a time, I then find I can tune into my innate wisdom about what needs to be done (if anything).
This links onto another form of self-discipline. When something does need to be done, it pays to be well-acquainted with our core values and our purposes. This also allows us to call forward the best in ourselves, and 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 is not a result of getting away from something, either internally or externally.
Freedom is about coming home to ourselves – by both remembering who we are, and creating ourselves anew.
In writing this post, I learned that the word “free” comes from the German “frei”, meaning “to love.” The word friend shares the same origin.
So while freedom can bring us face to face with much pain, you can also think of it as the condition in which you have a choice – befriend the present moment, and lead from a place of love.
This, to me, is what freedom asks us to do.