What is freedom? It’s an immense question, and one I’m now beginning to grapple with.
I find it challenging not to idealise certain forms of freedom. Often, for example, I find myself longing to be financially free. But is this freedom in its purest sense? Even if it brought a higher degree of freedom on the material plane, what about the psychological, emotional and spiritual planes?
I’m increasingly aware that I’ve been conditioned to see the world as follows:
- I’m in a cage
- Freedom lies beyond that cage
In this post, I argue that conceptualising freedom in this way is the most unfree thing we can do.
I also explore what freedom truly is, and offer ways to navigate the anxiety it can evoke.
If we’re to grow into who we truly are, and have the courage to create our lives, sooner or later we’ll need to recognise the imaginary cages holding us captive.
Carl Jung called this task “individuation” – the process of becoming an autonomous, self-governing person. This innate drive toward authenticity is depicted in virtually every coming-of-age story: boy leaves home, encounters the real world, and reevaluates his core beliefs.
Old, cage-like perspectives, once tenaciously held, must now be integrated with newer, more authentic ones.
Even if it creates a schism between him and his friends, family, and culture at large, he knows there is no turning back – the hero’s journey is in full swing, and he has ingested the bittersweet medicine called freedom.
Like most adolescents, I first learnt about freedom by imbibing it in small doses. Enter the quintessential teen dilemma – should I hang out with friends on the weekend, or study for those looming exams? It was agonising to realise that neither option was ‘correct’ – I would have to make a choice, and deal with the anxiety either way.
Nevertheless, the fact of being able to choose at all was thrilling.
The essence of freedom
To revisit my main question, what is freedom? If I believe society’s materialistic definition of freedom, then I’m currently 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 only open road ahead. No timetables, no looming exams, no social get-togethers. Nothing to structure my days, other than what I choose to do.
At times, this is exhilarating – but it can also feel immobilising.
How is this? How can I feel paralysed, when I’m free to roam an entire continent? The answer, to me, is now clear: there is no promised land called freedom. As the saying goes, “problems travel”.
Instead, the essence of freedom is internal. It’s a feeling which arises when I make authentic decisions, or when I tune into the wisdom of my bodily intuition, or when I take responsibility for my life. I can do these things anytime, even in the direst, most stifling of circumstances.
When I tune into the flow of my experience, I become free in that instant. As a self-conscious being, I can then ask the profoundest of questions, such as “who do I want to become?”
It’s when I believe I’m trapped – by my job, my relationships, my bank balance – that I lose touch with this powerful energy source called freedom. I get seduced by the idea of a cage preventing me from taking ownership of my life.
The fictitious cage becomes an excuse, shielding me against the harsh yet enlivening winds of freedom, responsibility and choice.
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The internal cage
I find it challenging enough to navigate the illusion that my freedom hinges on having more money, or a bigger house, or a better career. This is the myth of an outer cage. But the myth of an internal cage is even harder to bear.
At times, I long to be free of some internal reality – pain, loss, addiction, obsession, or an identity that I believe holds me prisoner.
Yet wherever the imaginary cage comes from, it’s always easier to play victim. 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 stripping off naked, leaving me 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.
Owning your freedom
To 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.”
I can avoid the decision all I like, but it still remains – be a victim of circumstance (stay in my cage), or rise to the challenge of living 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 I can take responsibility for. But paradoxically, this burden is also a beautiful blessing.
2. Practising self-discipline
“The truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery.”
Navigating 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 and mindful movement.
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 and 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 my core values and my purpose. The more seriously I take my growth in this regard, the greater my 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 myself anew each day. But in another sense, it’s about coming home to myself.
In writing this post, I learned that the word “free” comes from the German word “frei”, meaning “to love.” The word “friend” shares the same origin.
So while freedom can bring me face-to-face with existential pain, it can also radically open me to what is.
It asks me to lead with love, make friends with the present, and accept myself wholeheartedly.