The flower-question

How to train your freedom muscle

Do you thrive for personal freedom? Most people do. But what actually is personal freedom? And how do you achieve it?

Being able to work on projects you are passionate about, spending your day as you please, travelling to the places you want to explore, feeling fit and healthy – who wouldn’t want that kind of life? But is that what constitutes personal freedom?

All of the above is cool, don’t get me wrong. Personally I wouldn’t want to miss having all those privileges and I am fortunate enough to enjoy them all. However, that’s not what makes me a free person. Desiring objective qualities like the above follow the notion that freedom is something you can obtain by reaching a particular end state. That freedom depends on the outside conditions of your life. That freedom is something you can work for and that you then receive as a reward for your efforts.

But that’s not what freedom really is about.

Why do you collect flowers?

My wife Emma runs a small grass roots charity in Uganda called Wagobera. Our goal is to support children financially through their course of education until they get their first job. The last time we travelled to Kaliro, a remote village that is home to most of Wagobera’s beneficiaries, we were invited to spend some time in Peter’s home.

Peter is one of the older children who, thanks to Emma’s work, has now secured his first job. He lives outside the village in the deepest of deep African bush. All his neighbours share clay huts but he is fortunate enough to have inherited a tiny brick and mortar house.

Peter invited us, i.e. four friends travelling with us and ourselves, to stay the night. So a few hours later we found ourselves in the midst of what must have been one of the clearest night skies I have ever seen, sitting around the fire place and learning about each other’s culture.

We asked Peter what he thought of Europe from what he read in newspapers or the occasional opportunity to watch TV.

And what followed was an eye-opening succession of insights into our culture’s oddities. I particularly remember when Peter asked us: »Why do you collect flowers and put them in your house?«

We all looked at each other and laughed because none of us could fathom a reasonable answer that didn’t make the entire Western world sound like complete nutters. It took me a while to realise that Peter’s question opens the door to a way to think about freedom that never occurred to me before. Today, I believe that there are two vital lessons to learn about personal freedom.

Lesson #1: Freedom is an attitude, not a state

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. You wouldn’t expect someone like him to feel very free. Yet, his letters from prison reveal that he was certainly more content than most people outside prison.

Not only that, he also realised that objective freedom, i.e. leaving prison, doesn’t equate to freedom of the mind.

»As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.« Nelson Mandela

Oscar Wild puts it similarly:

»After all, even in prison, a man can be quite free. His soul can be free. His personality can be untroubled. He can be at peace.«

Conversely, some of the richest and objectively freest people in the world often report about an uncomfortably captive life. Every time I travelled to countries that were very poor economically the people seemed to be freer than your average John Smith from London, UK. The closer you look at personal freedom the more you come to realise that it comes from inside, not from outside.

I understand that I am speaking from a somewhat biased perspective. I feel exceptionally free both objectively (from the outside) and subjectively (from the inside). This might challenge some critics to argue that I am not only unable to make statements about true freedom as I have never experienced true objective captivity but also that I am presumptuous in implicitly neglecting the agony many people on this planet endure.

I can’t object to either allegation. However, I have experienced feelings of incredible captivity that brought me great personal suffering although I was living an objectively free life. So not only from personal experience but also from listening to, reading and studying the works of great leaders, ancient philosophers and spiritual gurus I keep coming back to the conclusion that true freedom is a quality that comes deep from inside. I like to compare freedom to a muscle that needs frequent exercise which brings me to lesson number two.

Lesson #2: We all have a freedom muscle that requires frequent exercise

If freedom comes from inside, captivity must too. So what is captivity and how do you avoid it?

When we are born we are free of any thought, free of any prejudice and free of any suffering. But also we are free of abilities to deal with the world. Dealing with the world needs some sort of programming. In order to survive we need to be taught skills, habits, reactions, words, names, distinctions. All of these lessons turn into programs within our body and mind. To avoid constant relearning our minds store these programs and forget about them consciously. They have now become subconscious scripts that dictate the way we deal with the world.

As we grow up we gather more and more of these programs and become “set in our ways”, hence the common saying. Many of these programs are useful. Without them we couldn’t have conversations, boil a kettle, ride a bike, have sex, write emails. However, some programs have the potential to act as a source of perceived captivity. The programs that we use to tell ourselves the story about who we are, what we should and shouldn’t do, what others should or shouldn’t do etc.

These stories hold us captive in our imaginative world of true and false, good and bad, right and wrong. They restrain us from thinking outside the famous box, starting a new hobby, listening to new arguments, opening up to new people.

»Freedom is the ability not to identify with our inner scripts.«

To be free we need to be able to recognise our inner programs for what they are, a self-inflicted conditioning. And just like any other ability this meta-ability, the ability of all abilities so to speak, needs to be practiced. We need to train our freedom muscle by exposing ourselves to situations that are incompatible with the stories we hold for true. We need to expose ourselves to flower-questions. A flower-question is my symbol for what Peter did that evening in the Ugandan bush. He asked us a question that brought a subconscious script back into our consciousness where it is ready to be inquired.

Admittedly, his question didn’t exactly reveal the dark secrets of my mind. But others have the potential to do so. It is those questions and situations that I try to expose myself to.

How to train your freedom muscle

There are many ways to train your freedom muscle. Here’s some that I have tried and that I recommend to you:

  • Obvious to most: Travel to places that share little of our culture. I have always been drawn to less developed countries. I have travelled to Mongolia, Namibia, India, Myanmar, Eastern Cambodia among 35 other countries. But it doesn’t always have be the exotic destination. I remember how a visit to a village in the south of France, staying in a private room with a french family that didn’t speak English opened my mind more than some encounters in Asia.
  • Meet people that don’t share your values and try to understand them. I don’t do this nearly as much as I would like to but I remember some painful and subsequently eye-opening encounters with people I wouldn’t normally choose to hang out with.
  • Choose a different route on your way to the local supermarket or station.
  • Read books by authors who’s ideas scare you.
  • Travel at slow speed by public transport and listen to your mind.
  • Eat food you’d never normally touch.

Anything that challenges your identification with your inner scripts will train your freedom muscle and make you feel less captive to your own self. What’s your strategies for setting yourself free? Share them below and inspire others.