How would you finish that sentence? Perhaps, like the late Janis Joplin, you’d say it's “just another word for nothin' left to lose.” Or if you were me, about a year ago, you’d quote Nina Simone and say freedom is “No fear!” But now I think freedom is something else entirely.
What freedom isn’t
The source of much of my personal development lately is Pema Chödrön. This time, it’s from Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change.
“The cause of our suffering is…our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for this is freedom.”
In short, freedom isn’t denying that we have fears and desires and hopes. That would be denying our very humanity. Freedom is allowing yourself to feel all those things and then let them go.
The only way out is through
I spent a long time trying to shut out fear or distracting myself from it. After 51 years of that not working, I’m ready for a new strategy.
Pema Chödrön provides one. She cites the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor when she says that the emotion itself isn’t the problem. It’s our reaction to it; the story line in our heads.
“An emotion like anger [or fear] that’s an automatic response lasts just ninety seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all. When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it.”
Instead of fighting it, work with it. “The only way out is through,” she said, and she suggests this simple exercise:
“Acknowledge the feeling, give it your full, compassionate, even welcoming attention, and even if it’s only for a few seconds, drop the story line about the feeling. This allows you to have direct experience of it, free of interpretation. Don’t fuel it with concepts or opinions about whether it’s good or bad. Just be present with the situation. Where is it located in your body? Does it remain the same for very long? Does it shift and change?”
By the time you’ve worked with the emotion in this way, the ninety seconds have passed and you feel and think differently. No drama or rekindling. You acknowledge what is and move on. No big deal.
A personal example
She advises starting with something not too terrifying, so I started with an email.
I’ve been working on something important to me and was waiting on feedback. When I woke up, I was already anticipating a message related to the project and could feel a low-level anxiety. When I saw the email, I quickly scanned it, fixated on some less-than-glowing comments, and experienced a mild panic.
Instead of denial or distraction - telling myself “it doesn’t matter” or distracting myself with another task - I remembered the exercise.
I acknowledged the fear I was feeling. I noticed my heart pounding and the knot in my stomach. I let myself feel it without thinking. I took a few deep, slow breaths. After a minute or two, I calmed down, reread the note, and got to work.
No big deal.
What’s on the other side
That may seem like a trivial example, but I found it striking that my body and brain couldn’t tell the difference between an email and being attacked by a bear. The immediate reaction is the same heart-pounding desire to flee.
In the book, she quotes a poem that describes what you’ll discover when you can stop struggling against uncertainty.
This world - absolutely pure.
As is. Behind the fear,
Vulnerability. Behind that,
Sadness, then compassion
And behind that the vast sky.
What does freedom mean to you? If you don’t feel free already, try the 90-second exercise. Freedom might be closer than you think.