“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains,
but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
~ Nelson Mandela
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True freedom is an inside job. Regardless of circumstance, we can feel enslaved or liberated. It’s a personal choice.
Freedom is one of those values that means something different to everyone. Rather than staking out my own position on this, I’d rather explore aspects of freedom we can all easily agree with.
For starters, Mandela’s quote emphasizes that freedom is more than a value to enjoy for oneself. It must include others. He should know, having been imprisoned for over twenty years. What’s remarkable about his story is that, among many marvels, he developed a loving friendship with his personal guard. And when he was released, he expressed no bitterness towards those who had imprisoned him. He went on to become President of South Africa on a platform of forgiveness.
He demonstrated that it’s possible to feel free even in jail. Now, that puts our own challenges into perspective!
One online definition of freedom is “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” That’s true but limited. True freedom includes enjoying life as part of the whole. Typically, we humans have excluded ourselves through our concept of exceptionalism, resulting in the epidemic of loneliness that has skyrocketed suicide rates in recent years.
Even with expensive toys to play with and conveniences to make life easier, thousands of people every year end their lives because they simply don’t want to live any more. They may or may not feel free to “act, speak, or think as (they) want without hindrance or restraint” but they are obviously not free within themselves. A friend just told me about an acquaintances daughter who was recently released from a rehab center where she paid $95,000 a month for treatment of her alcoholism. Not only did the treatments fail, she’s become psychotic.
Another friend told me a story about a doctor who was called to the hospital bedside of a patient who had tried suicide unsuccessfully. When he arrived, he found her surrounded by sympathetic family members. He took a different approach.
“What a loser,” he said. “You couldn’t even do this right.” Of course, family members were shocked and offended. But before they could protest, he added: “If you really feel you’re so worthless, then you should end your life. But all of us here love you. We know your value and we wish you did too. Why don’t you start loving yourself as much as we love you and get a real life?”
Apparently, this application of tough love worked. His patient was jolted to her senses and went on to recover and live a long life. Others in her situation are not as fortunate to have someone to help break the spell of disempowerment that propelled them to such a desperate precipice.
This case illustrates a phenomenon that some researchers are exploring, that many people are actually in a trance-like state much of the time. And, that identifying and understanding that state might be a step towards liberating them from their traumatic wounding. As one blog on hypnosis states, “Identifying the deep trance phenomena behind a problem points the way to a solution, as that trance state can be changed or broken. This raises the interesting possibility that hypnosis works by bringing people out of unhelpful trance states – unhypnotizing them, in effect!” 1
It’s illuminating to ponder our own condition of freedom or lack of freedom from this perspective. How free am I, how free are you, moment to moment, from trance-like conditions that limit a full experience of life?
Prejudice certainly comes to mind. We all have them but may not realize their influence on our day to day experience. For instance, presented with an unusual opportunity might provoke an unconscious defense. If it took shape as words we might say, “Sorry, I don’t do that.”
Perhaps this is where the phrase, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” originated. For instance, some people might feel it’s too late to begin meditating. Why? Meditation has been proven effective in reducing stress and increasing enjoyment of the simple things in life. When would it ever be too late to do that? It certainly doesn’t require special skills, it doesn’t take much time, and it’s free!
We all want freedom in our lifestyle and liberation inside our minds. And we can easily achieve both: just treat every moment as an opportunity to express an attitude summed up by the words, “I’m free to be myself in this moment!” and learn mindfulness techniques like meditation to free yourself from the bombardment of negative thoughts, one of which might be “I’m not free.”