How much freedom do we have to direct our lives? Our understanding of freedom can give us insight into what motivates us so we can direct and move our lives toward what we desire. There are three types of freedom. The first kind of freedom is “freedom from,” a freedom from the constraints of society. Second, is “freedom to,” a freedom to do what we want to do. Thirdly, there is “freedom to be,” a freedom, not just to do what we want, but a freedom to be who we were meant to be.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth century French philosopher, observed that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” These chains are oppressive societal rules that restrict what we can physically do. But they are also mental chains, chains that restrict what we believe we can do. These are the chains of social conditioning, the values society projects onto us. We feel we have no power to move ourselves in the direction we want to go in our lives. Rather, we feel we’re moved by society, moved by whatever society deems valuable. 

We may want to climb, but if society tells us “it’s crazy and dangerous,” we don’t. We’re moved away from climbing by reacting to a conditioned societal value. If we remain unconscious we’ll only gain freedom if society removes the rules, or if someone removes our social conditioning. That never happens. The removal comes from an internal shift within us. We achieve “freedom from” when we wake up and realize we are more valuable than society’s values or our conditioning.

The second freedom, “freedom to,” emerges after we’ve achieved “freedom from” society’s values and begin creating our own. If we value climbing, then we go climbing regardless of society’s crazy and dangerous labels. We’re moved, not by society, but by our values. This is a big step forward, but it tends to manifest itself through our ego. We are moved toward what we experience as easy, comfortable and pleasurable, and moved away from what we experience as hard, stressful and painful. In other words, we’re motivated toward pleasure and away from pain. This manifests itself unconsciously as striving for end results, which are realized after the stressful climbing experience.

The third freedom, “freedom to be,” emerges when we develop more consciousness. We need to move beyond an egoistic approach to life, and how we’re motivated. We need to be the mover of our own life, moved by the universe. Being moved by the universe is surrendering to our own unique purpose for being here. If we can tap into that, then we live an authentic life, moved by a force greater than ourselves.

A big part of accomplishing this level of freedom has to do with accepting and allowing. We accept our current state and allow whatever is happening, whether pain or pleasure, stress or comfort, hard or easy. Accepting and allowing don’t focus on end results; rather they are processes. Therefore, a shift to this third freedom requires a shift from end results to processes. 

Krishnamurti, the philosopher from India, once expressed his ultimate insight as: “I don’t mind what happens.” If a pleasurable, comfortable, easy experience comes into our lives, we accept and allow it. If a painful, stressful, hard experience comes into our lives, we accept and allow it. There is no resistance to what is. Resistance distracts our attention from the situation, with an emphasis of seeking comfort. This process of accepting and allowing provides many situations for developing awareness and self knowledge. We relax into the stress so we can be attentive and learn from it. We begin to find the truth of our being, who we are, and our purpose. This truth can then set us free. 

“Freedom to be” is a freedom where the chains of society are cast off, the veil of the ego is removed, and our authentic being can reveal itself. Once we reach this kind of freedom, our motivation becomes truly intrinsic. Energy can then flow unimpeded from the universe, through us and into our experience. Intrinsic motivation is powerful because it engages us in pleasure and pain equally. We do stressful climbing because there’s nowhere else we’d rather be. If we love climbing, then we know that to live the life we want, to have the freedom to be who we authentically are, we must climb. Reaching this level of freedom is no small feat, especially living in a society with plenty of rules and conditioned values. When we reach this level of freedom we live in society, but we’re not moved unconsciously by it. We’re part of the world, but not of it. 

Practice Tip: Accepting and Allowing

In order to solve problems you need to be present for them. Accepting a problem as it is, without wanting it to be different, focuses your attention immediately on the problem. Your attention isn’t distracted by being frustrated that you have a problem or wishing the problem would go away. Next, allowing yourself to be with the problem focuses attention on the components of the problem, from which possible solutions can be discovered.

Write “Accept and Allow” on pieces of paper and put them in obvious places so you’ll see them throughout your day. Use these notes as reminders to refocus your attention on accepting the problem as it is. Next, when a problem arises, allow yourself to be with it, to be in the stress of not knowing the solution. You’re now in the fertile ground of a learning experience.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Annette Campbell

    Interesting. Thought provoking. This takes patience. Time to notice and reflect. I work with children in a residential center. One 10 year old asked why I always answered his questions with “hmmm…”. I told him that his question was interesting and I needed to think on it. He was impatient, wanting an immediate answer. I responded with I can give you my answer now, which would be “no” OR I can think on it and maybe the answer will be yes or some version of yes. But thinking will take some time and patience. What would you have me do? (He opted for waiting…and ultimately got a yes.) I think life seems simpler when the answers are immediate or dictated by a rule of some sort. Thinking, though, requires effort, time, patience. The result is more nuance, more personal, greater validity.

    1. Arno

      Wow, profound Annette. I like the way you do the work and not just give the quick answer. This aligns with the climbing metaphor ww uses to understand these intersecting concepts. We have a long-term goal. In the case of children it is to have them self actualize their unique potential. Helping them do that requires allowing them to struggle with their own issues of choice, within boundaries obviously, so they become autonomous adults. That takes more work than giving the easy answer based on rules.
      I recently read a very saddening but revealing book about all this: Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn. Have you read it? It’s a must read for parents and teachers, and anyone else who’s really interested in moving beyond the constrictions of the way society habituates us. Arno

  2. Brian Hall

    Excellent post Arno, thank you! This reminds me of the times I have done Vipassna meditation courses where you learn to move beyond craving and aversion and allow what is. It seems simple enough, but when put into practice, it changes your life dramatically.

    1. Arno

      Hi Brian, Yes, the clinging/grasping for comfort and aversion to stress shifts our attention out of the present moment where life doesn’t exist. Nice application to meditation. Arno

  3. Laurentiu A.

    This lesson reminds me of a quote from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale: “There is more than one kind of freedom.. . Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” Freedom cannot be “given to you”, can it?

    1. Arno

      Hi Laurentiu, How is all? Yes, somewhat similar. Freedom isn’t given, as you say. We earn it. Most effective way to earn it is to pay attention. We pay with our attention to notice our values and how we’re driven. That frees us to act more authentically from our internal orientation.

  4. Robby

    Freedom from, freedom to, and freedom to be…I think I’ve been taught and raised that I have a freedom to, but I like that there is freedom from and freedom to be. I believe it’s been a long road to “freedom to be.” For me, for numerous reasons, I have never felt I “was enough.” And for me, “Freedom to be” helps me understand “I am enough,” I’m free from the constraints that others, even family, think I should act and behave. Nice thought in these difficult times…RW

  5. Michael V

    Thank you for this post. I’ve always thought that Krishnamurti’s teachings are highly relevant to your work. He spent his life trying to explain the illusory nature of the self, and the misguided pursuit of fulfilling a self image, of “becoming.” This pursuit to fulfill an image formed by our conditioning robs us of what you nicely call the “freedom to be.” One of the most important concepts that Krishnamurti struggled to explain is “the observer is the observed.” You wrote that we need to be the mover of our own lives, but if we try to move our own lives it can shut us off to being moved by the universe. I suggest that there is no separate mover and moved, but rather the mover IS the moved. With this truth, then there is no judgement, no naming, and no division, and THAT is Freedom.

    1. Arno

      Nice Michael. I agree. Allow ourselves to be moved by the universe. I think language is always limited in explaining reality. But we need to do best we can. I see a both/and relationship here: both allowing ourselves to be moved by the universe and expressing that movement in our lives. It seems the former comes from the immaterial world and the latter is how we manifest it in the material world. Thanks for sharing. Arno

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