Freedom’s just another word for …

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.

© Robert Gober

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.

“If I panic, it’s over.”

Have you ever felt like you’re drowning? I mean the kind of drowning where you’re sinking under the weight of your aspirations and all that you have to do to realize them.

Perhaps you’ve had a glimpse of what your future could be like, but as tantalizing as that glimpse is, it’s so far out of reach that you can’t imagine you’ll ever get there. Perhaps you can list 100 reasons why you’ll never make it, and 100 mistakes you’ve made, and 100 other people who are better, luckier, and more deserving than you.

Some of the best advice I’ve heard is, fittingly, from a free diver who sinks to depths of over 400 feet with nothing but his own breath, and then has to make it back to the surface.

From the depths

The diver’s name is Guillaume Néry, and he describes what he goes through as he sinks. Forty meters. Fifty meters. Eighty meters. The deeper he goes, the darker it gets and the greater the suffocating compression of his lungs. At 123 meters, the pressure is 13 times greater than on the surface.

Then, after already being underwater for so long, with nitrogen dissolving in his blood causing confusion, with it being twice as hard to ascend than to sink, he must return.

“A flurry of thoughts goes spinning through your head…around 60, 70 meters, you start to feel the need to breathe. And with everything else that's going on, you can very easily lose your ground and start to panic. When that happens, you think, "Where's the surface? I want to go up. I want to breathe now." You should not do that. Never look up to the surface -- not with your eyes, or your mind. You should never picture yourself up there. You have to stay in the present. I look at the rope right in front of me, leading me back to the surface. And I focus on that, on the present moment. Because if I think about the surface, I panic. And if I panic, it's over.”

Free diving

When you want to do something big

Of course he planned and trained, and he emphasized that, though alone for most of the dive,“without all the people around me, the adventure into the deep would be impossible. A journey into the deep is above all a group effort.”

But there often comes a time when the goal seems so big or out of reach, that you naturally become afraid. Those are the moments when your brain, in an effort to protect you, makes you think of giving up rather than fail.

It’s at those times when, like a diver at 60 meters underwater, the thinking doesn’t help you. Instead, to reach your goal you have to calmly focus on the present moment, let go of the fear and the innate need for control, and keep moving. Inch by inch, meter by meter.

“That dive is a journey to the very limits of human possibility, a journey into the unknown. But it's also, and above all, an inner journey, where a number of things happen, physiologically as well as mentally.”

The kid who wouldn’t talk on the phone

It was back in the day when AT&T owned the phone on your wall. When you didn’t have to dial an area code. When phone numbers began with words instead of numbers. Ours was TAlmadge 8-9635. I can still remember my mother holding out that phone every so often, urging me to say hello to some relative. “Go ahead, Johnny! They’re waiting!”

I was petrified.

Hurry up Johnny! They're waiting!

40 years later

Over the ensuing decades, I learned to talk on the phone and in meetings, but speaking in front of a public audience was still terrifying. Yet I knew I had to get better.

So in 2010, at age 46, I decided to apply to present at a conference, the Web 2.0 Expo. As soon as I decided, I was already nervous. I procrastinated for weeks, submitting the application ten minutes before the midnight deadline. Once I learned I was accepted, I was anxious for months before the conference. The day of my talk, sick to my stomach, I walked around the block over and over in an attempt to steady my nerves.

In the following years, I read books like Presentation Zen, Resonate, Confessions of a Public Speaker, and The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. I watched hundreds of TED talks. I would ask people after one of my presentations, “What’s one thing I could have done better?” And I spoke and I spoke and I spoke to different kinds of audiences in different kinds of places.

The small steps I took, practiced over time with feedback and peer support, helped me become a better storyteller.

Now

Recently, someone told me I was a “natural speaker.” That was nice of them, but I know it’s not true. Like any other skill, I was pretty awful at first and I’m just gradually getting better.

Next year, I have a range of new skills I need to develop. For months, for example, people have been telling me that I need to make audio and video recordings. But I’m petrified. It feels like my mother is handing me the phone again: Go ahead, Johnny! They’re waiting!

Now, though, I know that the fear I feel is a natural part of learning something new. I could defuse the fear by avoiding the new thing, by not growing, or I could do something to get better.

This morning, I chose to take a step, and I bought a microphone to make my first recordings.

Hello? It’s me. 

Hello? It's me.

The Independence Day I’m still waiting for

Just a few minutes into the excellent documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” an interviewer asks Nina Simone “What’s free to you?” She’s uncertain at first.

“It’s just a feeling. It’s just a feeling…”

Then she smiles her big, beautiful smile.

“I’ve had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free. And that’s something else. That’s REALLY something else!”

After thinking about it, she looks directly into his eyes, becomes more animated and intense, and loudly proclaims,

“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear! I mean, really, NO FEAR!“

Finally she looks away, puts her head in her hand, and quietly muses, as if to herself,

“If I could have that half of my life. No fear…”

The prisons we build ourselves

Those of us who are fortunate enough not to fear physical violence or illness can still find ways not to be free. We worry about the past and about the future. It’s sounds almost trivial until you realize how your own thoughts can rob you of that feeling of freedom and joy.

Just the other day, someone at work asked to meet me and I was sure I was in trouble of some kind. There was no evidence. It was a simple email. Yet I created a story that made me anxious. A few hours later, it turned out she was simply asking my advice.

The same day I was meeting with two friends who I think highly of. We had agreed to form a group to apply the ideas in my book. Rather than being excited, I was worried my friends - smart and accomplished - would be disappointed in me or my ideas. But there was no judgment. We simply met and talked and helped each other. I enjoyed their company and conversation.

These small fears prevent can prevent you from enjoying each day. The bigger ones can paralyze you.

Be free where you are

The heading "be free where you are" comes from a lecture given by a Buddhist monk inside a prison. It helped me understand that, for the prisons we build ourselves, we all have the keys.

The keys generally include being aware of the cognitive distortions we create. Being compassionate towards ourself and others. Being mindful and enjoying the present moment. For me, reading books like these and putting the ideas into practice is gradually making a difference.

It’s July 4th today and we’re celebrating Independence Day in the US. I'm not free yet, but I’m working toward making every day my own Independence Day.

be free where you are