True freedom versus “toxic individualism”

I’m writing about freedom from my home in T’bilisi, Republic of Georgia, where the 2-month-long state of emergency is just now coming to an end. The sweeping restrictions on freedom were received without protest; borders were closed, freedom of movement in and out of cities came to a halt, masks were donned, small stores closed (and many went bankrupt,) and compliance with the curfew mostly adhered.

The Georgians, renowned for their hospitality and community, did what needed to be done; new coronavirus cases are now down to a trickle. Last night I gathered with my local and expat friends to celebrate the end of curfew, and life in a safe bubble that integrates “we” with “me” (the resulting economic tragedies not withstanding.)

“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

The US news feed offers a stark contrast. 100,000 dead in the name of freedom from “government over-reach” with no real end in sight. A feud by store owners and customers over the “right” to not wear masks. A deadly, narcissistic definition of freedom and liberty that is poisoning the concept of Autonomy, a fundamental human need that cannot be properly understood without the context of Belonging.

freedom/ˈfriːdəm/

  1. the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants. “we do have some freedom of choice.” Similar: entitlement privilege prerogative
  2. the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved. “The shark thrashed its way to freedom”

Ouch… no wonder we’ve gone astray; this is not exactly a healthy definition of freedom. “As one wants” is a dangerously slippery slope, focusing solely on the outer world: physical barriers to break or actions we want to take. But freedom in the outer world is only made possible by freedom in our inner worlds; inner and outer worlds are mirrors of each other. Interconnected, both/and, simultaneously.

Balancing we with me

Insead published a thoughtful article on this topic last year that highlights two types of groups identified by 19th century sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. In Gemeinschaft (community), the welfare of the group takes precedence over that of the individual. By contrast, Gesellschaft (society)is more impersonal; it came to represent urban environments with a more individualistic outlook.

The author notes that the focus on what’s best for the community has morphed into what’s best for me. Self-promotion and individuality rule the day. He calls for a balance of the two types within societies and organizations, neutralising the “faulty premises of the self-esteem movement” and developing the skills of empathy and compassion.

I’d like to build on his core premise and try to go beyond the duality of me versus we. The author’s implication is that the “I” needs to be reigned in, and through one lens, he makes a valid point. But in another sense, perhaps an insufficient “I” is the root cause of this dysfunction we see in the world.

What do I mean by that?

What we see and create in our outer worlds are mirror reflections of our inner worlds.

What we see and create in our outer worlds are mirror reflections of our inner worlds. People denying the freedom of others aren’t free in their own minds. People fighting against government overreach (“don’t take my liberty!”) aren’t feeling free in their own minds.

So if we want to see more freedom in our outer world, we have to go deep inside ourselves… which is where the root of the problem lies. We paradoxically need to focus more on our own healthy sense of “I” — developing the strength of confidence, character, freedom — in order for a healthy “we” to emerge.

I’m not going to say I have all the answers; I’m still sorting through this topic. But what is emerging for me thus far are paradoxes. Here are three of them:

The way of freedom knows that we’re already free

A frequent theme in my coaching calls is the A > B > C path. “I need to keep this job in order to feel safe.” “I need to be a digital nomad in order to feel free.” “I need to find someone to date in order to feel loved.” We want C — the feeling — and then try to find a B to make that happen. But what if we recognize that A > C is a simpler, easier and faster path to the same outcome?

Instead of seeking freedom from or freedom to, we simply recognize that each of us is freedom itself. It’s possible to experience that authentic state of being that is both boundless and bound in love; it requires dropping from our overactive minds into our hearts, and getting deeply connected with the truth of who we are.

The more I contemplate this topic and feel into my own lived experience, I understand that freedom emerges from a feeling of safety… the kind not dependent on the outer world like jobs, relationships and routines (which all can vanish at any moment), but rather on a deep inner-world core: a healthy, flexible skeleton of self-assurance. This allows us to discard our psychological “exoskeleton,” or protective armor, designed to protect but instead imprisons.

With this idea in mind, I am not surprised about the protesters fighting for freedom from masks, or freedom for guns; these are people whose inherent feelings of safety are threatened. They’re grasping for outer-world freedoms instead of tapping into the inner wellspring of safety-empowered freedom that is within all of us.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

victor frankl

I believe that when enough individuals make this shift from outer-world to inner-world — freedom from fear, freedom to be lovingly true to ourselves, freedom to choose joy in any circumstance, like a holy prayer — we’ll hit a tipping point and trigger a phase change in our environments. Like water transforming to ice or steam, we each have the opportunity to create a freer society by first freeing ourselves within.

Until that happens, I’m not sure much will be done about the structural outer-world barriers that inhibit basic freedoms and rights for millions of fellow humans.

True freedom means we are not free to be anything we want.

Only human beings try to be something that we’re not. A mountain lion is not free to become a dolphin; a sand-hill crane is not free to be gorilla. Freedom is found in being true to who we really are, owning and celebrating constraints instead of seeking some imaginary idea of perfection or contorting ourselves into what we think society, organizations or families want us to be. When we limit ourselves to our zone of authenticity, only then can we be truly free.

In other words, true freedom requires limits, but not solely in the way that the Insead article writes. This is about acknowledging the realistic constraints on who we are as individuals; these limits are like the banks of a river. When the banks are absent, water spreads and stagnates. Establishing solid banks will channel and focus the power of the water, leading to the state of flow. Living in our truth, what I call the ground of power, means everything gets easier.

There is no I

One of my favorite images from my meditation practice is that of waves on the ocean. Each wave is simultaneously individual and inseparable. Both/and. In this context, no one is free until we are all free. We free ourselves precisely by freeing others.

“And verily he will find the roots of the good and the bad, the fruitful and the fruitless, all entwined together in the silent heart of the earth.”

KHALIL GIBRAN, THE PROPHET

Are you ready to create more freedom in your life? Join my free Facebook group, the Freedom Forge, where we discuss these ideas and I host live weekly coaching calls.

Book a 1:1 coaching call with me! No obligation; I free myself by helping to free others.


How to attract the life you want

I was on the phone last night with a dear friend of mine who has always had this feeling she would move from the US to the city of romance: Paris. She’s even had dreams about it.

So she tells me last night (again), “I feel like I’m going to be in Paris. But I just don’t know when or how. If it’s meant to be, it will happen.” This passive phrase coming out of the mouth of a strong woman already in mid-life surprised me. If not now, then when?

I responded, “May I gently challenge that assumption?”

“Yes of course.”

“‘If it’s meant to be’ isn’t enough; it will happen when you make a choice.”

“Ha! Ok… but I don’t have a big stash of money.”

“I didn’t either when I made the leap overseas.”

Really? I assumed you did. Well, what would I do with my cat?”

“Bring the cat. Really, is that the only thing stopping you?”

(long pause)

She looks at me with both fear and delight visible on her face.

“I could really do this, couldn’t I?”

Yes, my dear friend. YES!

What’s stopping you?

What stopped me for decades was an assumption that these magical, fabulous lives that people led were… not for me. I didn’t even question whether or not I could actually move overseas. The desire was more like a wish that had made a comfy nest in a small corner of my mind, accepting that it would be her destiny to stay there.

What’s worse: I’d convinced myself that I didn’t even know what I really wanted because the best options (roaming the planet, photography, writing, coaching) were for someone else. Those options were already taken, and it was “too late for me.” What lay within my personal realm of possibility in this tiny box that I called reality? Nothing fulfilling, as it turned out.

Inshallah… if God wills. If magic happened and someone handed me an opportunity and a pile of cash on a silver platter, then I’d know it was really for me. I’d go along for the ride. “If it’s meant to happen, it will be.” All of my perceived barriers would miraculously be removed. Fingers crossed!

It’s all within our reach

So how do we get out of our boxes? How do we even know the right thing to choose? I’ve written before on the practical how-to’s of finding yourself, which is the prerequisite to knowing your path… but today I want to talk about something else.

I want to talk about faith and enchantment.

I bet that surprised you. I bet when you read “if it’s meant to be isn’t enough,” you assumed that I’d be taking an uber-rational approach to making things happen… right? And while I have a reputation for doing exactly that, here’s what I know to be true… and I’m confident that my friend (who lives a more enchanted life than I ever will) knows it as well:

There’s a big difference between passive wishing and active faith.

  • A passive wisher stays in her comfort zone; an active faither says YES to opportunities not knowing what will happen, but having faith that something magical will come of it. (Is faither evan a word? well it is now…)
  • A passive wisher has limited her vision to what she can see; an active faither navigates life like a bat… feeling into the next step, guided by intuition and the pull of her soul.
  • A passive wisher is boxed in by the practical; an active faither lives an enchanted life, expecting — and therefore receiving — the hard-to-explain coincidences, clues and gifts that she needs to fulfill her path.
  • A passive wisher feels like she has to push boulders up hill to make things happen. An active faither enters the flow; she knows that the right things come easily, and she simply needs to put herself out there to find them.
  • A passive wisher wants to believe in destiny and says things like “if it’s meant to be, it will happen.” An active faither believes in destiny and chooses it to happen.

Faith without action is a wish… and wishes have no power. A meaningful life overflowing with joy is within reach. The only thing stopping any of us is the choice to see the world differently — from our hearts instead of our heads — then taking the next step based on that limited yet accurate sight. And the next, and the next…

And what happens when we do that is… magical. People, answers, opportunities, even parking spots! appear as if conjured out of thin air. We live an enchanted life on faith. But it can only happen if we are active participants in the process. My logical left brain tries to explain it away, but my soul knows better. My soul knows when I’m in the flow.

May 2020 be the year you decide to reawaken the sense of possibility that perhaps you had as a child. To start unshackling yourself from burdens that are not yours to carry, and begin saying YES to what life has to offer.