FREEDOM. I have been searching for it my entire life. I think the reason I’ve never found it is because it’s not something that can be found, in the sense that once you have it, it’s yours. It doesn’t work that way. It’s not a destination, rather, it’s a conscious choice; it’s a process. A process that happens in each and every moment.
My quest for freedom began at an early age, however, the most poignant memories around feeling an intense need for freedom come from my tumultuous teenage years. During this time, I felt trapped. Trapped in my body, trapped in my mind, trapped in my life. I wanted out. I wanted to escape. I wanted to be free. At that time in my life I thought that ending it all might perhaps be the only way I could ever find what I was looking for. But I’m glad I stuck it out, because I proved myself wrong (although it took years).
So while I didn’t end up taking my own life in my search for freedom (captain obvious speaking here), I still at that time did not have healthy tools to deal with my tortured thinking, so I turned toward an external source of relief: getting drunk (or high). As often as possible. And ya know what? It worked for a while.
I felt freedom because numbing myself with intoxicating substances provided temporary relief from my tortured thinking. However, it was a false sense of freedom, because ultimately, I became a slave to the bottle. What created temporary freedom led to a life of imprisonment. A life that relied on outside sources to free me from my suffering, which in the end only amplified my suffering.
When we rely on outside sources, we never find that which we seek. Because freedom, peace, contentment—all of these can only be found on the INSIDE.
Now, you might be thinking, what exactly is freedom? What exactly are you talking about?!? One definition is that freedom is the power to determine action without restraint. Another is that freedom is the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved. I like both of these definitions, and ultimately I believe that we are all seeking freedom from one thing: our thoughts. The thoughts that imprison, enslave, and restrain us—this is the cause of our suffering.
I’m not discounting the fact that some people have it HARD. Really hard. Living in circumstances that would seemingly cause anyone to suffer. But yet, time and time again people have proven that they can live in the worst of conditions and still feel free. Nelson Mandela and his time spent in prison comes to mind. Mandela is an example of a man who found freedom within himself despite his external circumstances. He found freedom from the thoughts that caused him to suffer.
What is interesting is that we can be in intense pain, and still choose not to suffer. Because freedom lies in our acceptance. And in trust. Trusting that life is in continual motion and what is at this moment, will not always be.
Suffering ultimately falls into three main categories:
1. When we resist or argue with the past, present or future
2. When we judge and/or compare the past, present or future
3. When we attach or cling to the past, present or future
Lately, freedom has been on my mind, as I have created suffering for myself, mainly because I have been sitting in fear and uncertainty about what the future holds. Now I could sit here and berate myself with thoughts such as why the heck are you suffering?! Shelby, you have it soooooo good. But then, there I go, judging myself—which only leads to more suffering. A negative feedback loop.
For many of us we believe that these are tumultuous times politically, economically, and socially. It can be hard (okay extremely hard) to not resist, judge or attach to our thoughts about how we think things should be. But it’s possible. And, in fact, it is the only way we can experience freedom. Now this doesn’t mean that in doing this practice we stop moving towards that which we want or moving towards creating positive change in our lives and in the lives of others.
Life is full of paradox, an example being that all change starts with acceptance. Once we accept reality as it is in this moment, it is then that real change becomes possible. Carl Rogers, a humanistic psychologist says, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” I believe this holds true for all things. When we accept things just as they are, when we accept reality just as it is, it is then that we can tap into our power to affect change.
Through this acceptance we come to know where we can enact change, and where we can’t. The truth is that we always have the power to question our internal experience and thoughts around our circumstances.
I’m reminded of the Serenity Prayer:
God Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
I’ve come to learn that freedom is just like sobriety—a habit we cultivate one day at a time. Sometimes even one moment at a time. I used to think, if only I could quit drinking, then I would be free. Well, to some extent that is true in that I am free from drinking. But I still get caught up in resisting, arguing, clinging, judging and comparing, and it is then that I feel far from free. It’s often the “I’ll be happy when…” thoughts that create the most suffering.
Thoughts such as:
I’ll be happy when I have more money…
I’ll be happy when I have more time…
I’ll be happy when I have less stress…
I’ll be happy when I lose ten pounds…
I wish I didn’t have to…
I wish my kids/husband/partner would…
I shouldn’t have done…
I should have done…
All of these thoughts cause us to suffer and they steal our freedom, and we get stuck in these habitual thought patterns. We become enslaved by them, often not even realizing that this is happening.
Our inner roommate, as Michael Singer likes to call it, is a sneaky little thing. It’s that person who lives in your head who judges, criticizes, and compares alllll day long. In order to be free, we’ve got to put the inner roommate in check. And this takes effort. It’s not going to happen overnight, so you’ve got to stick with it. You’ve got to be willing to do the work.
It takes attention and focus as Gabor Maté says In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, “It’s a subtle thing, freedom. It takes effort; it takes attention and focus to not act something like an automaton.”
Like sobriety, freedom is often found one moment at a time. It is found through catching, questioning, and releasing one thought at a time.
We’ve got to cultivate persistence and patience and we need to celebrate the small wins. Life is all about the small wins, because those small wins add up to BIG wins. A few moments of freedom end up turning into hours of freedom.
I used to think about drinking All. The. Time. When I first quit, I would beat myself up about it. When the HECK will I be free of this thing? I realize this thought was keeping me just as trapped as drinking was. So what I did was I started to celebrate the time spent in between these thoughts.
“Oh, the thought popped up again—how cool is it that I didn’t think about it for the past five seconds. AWESOME!”
I know it sounds trivial, but the time spent not thinking about it began to grow. And I continued to celebrate those wins. This, my friend, is freedom. It’s ongoing, and often it’s about finding a small shift in perspective. Finding acceptance with what IS.
Byron Katie says, “Freedom is possible in every moment.” In fact, I think that is the only time freedom is possible. In this very moment. Right here, right now. For you. For me. For everyone. Regardless of our circumstances.
So if you are suffering, I invite you to write. Write out all of your thoughts. Then, step back and look at each one. Notice where you are resisting, arguing, judging, comparing, clinging or attaching to the past, present, or future. Notice who is noticing these thoughts—that is your center, the witness.
I find it helpful to drop into meditation. My mind often goes crazy in meditation—and THAT’S OKAY. The point is to just sit there and watch your thoughts, watch them as they move from one thought to the next. Don’t judge them or label them good or bad. They are neither good or bad, rather, the just ARE. Again, this is your witness, your center.
Next, do the work (thework.com/en) on the stickiest thoughts. Question them, turn them around, find other thoughts that perhaps might be more true. The benefit of this is that it sloooows us down. It stops us from being automatons who habitually attach to these sticky thoughts that cause us to suffer.
If you’re willing to do the work, you can be free. I ain’t saying it will be easy. But it will be worth it, because YOU ARE WORTH IT. Here’s to freedom, my friends. Our healing, our peace, our freedom is the world’s healing, peace, and freedom.