How Free Are We Really?

We have all heard the word “freedom”. One might define it as the ability to move around freely, to be able to say and do things one wants (assuming no rules or laws are being broken by such things). If asked if they are free, most of us would probably say that we indeed are.

However, apart from the physical manifestations of freedom, I think the mental aspects of it are equally as important, if not more. To be truly free, I think one must have freedom from fear, experience, conditioning, self, and knowledge.

Let’s talk about each of them and see why they are important, and how we can deal with them.


Freedom from Fear

Fear can be of many things – places, people, situations, physical objects, etc. One major fear is the fear of losing someone or something – people, name, money, power. No matter what we are fearful of, our fears stop us from reaching our full potential. Someone may be a very good singer, but their fear of people or performing publicly may never let them become who they deserve to be. And how many of us haven’t thought of changing careers, but never done so, only because we fear the loss of security that our current job and life has?

By “freedom from fear”, I’m not saying that we should never fear anything. Evolutionarily, we probably wouldn’t be here if we feared nothing. And even today, fear can stop us from making rash decisions. So, I think fear definitely has a “useful” place in our lives.

But we need to be wary of irrational fear – when we fear something without any valid or concrete reason behind it. For example: if I think I’m a good singer, then I shouldn’t fear what people will think of my singing. I could be wrong about my own talent, but the only way to know that will be to sing in front of others. Not doing that because of fear of what they’ll say is the kind of situation that we need to avoid.

Fear can prohibit us from doing a lot of the things that we want to do, and some that we even should do. It grows stronger over time, slowly eroding away our self-confidence and will. To be truly free, we need to master our fears, instead of letting them master us into submission.


Freedom from Experience

Our past experiences play a huge role in how we deal with everyday situations. Consider this: Suppose you toss a coin 10 times, and each time, you get a “heads”. Which has a higher chance of occurring on the next toss – “heads” or “tails”? Intuitively, many of us might think that since we’ve been getting “heads” so far, we’ll probably get another “heads”. Many others might think that since we’ve been getting “heads” so far, it is time for a “tails” to occur now. And many still might be wise to realise that the tosses are all “independent events” – what happened before doesn’t affect what happens next.

Let’s shake up the example a bit: Suppose you lent money to 3 people, and none of them ever returned it, even after having been asked many times. Would you lend money to the next person who asks you for it? Probably not, right? And I think even some of the “wise” ones who guessed correctly in the “coin toss” experiment would be unwilling to lend money again. Why do you think that is? Is this any different from the coin tosses?

Our actions are not always driven by sound logic and facts. We see the world through the eyes of our past. Again, like fear, it’s also useful and has its own place. We should definitely learn from experience to avoid repeating mistakes. But we need to be vigilant about when and how we do that. Otherwise, we’ll continue living in our past, and may not enjoy the freedom to make full use of many opportunities and wonderful human connections.


Freedom from Conditioning

By “conditioning”, I mean the ideas that are shoved down our throats from our environment – be it our family, friends, the education system, media, society at large, whatever. While these are the sources of conditioning, I think the primary symptom of a “conditioned” mind includes an affinity for things like superstition, prejudice, peer pressure, political propaganda, social media narcissism, etc.

Conditioning can be a “silent” operator. We don’t immediately realise when our psyche is being conditioned into believing certain things. Let’s say person X is a very well read, intelligent, wise person, with a rebellious spirit, who doesn’t believe in superstition, has no prejudices, believes in equality, etc. X might think her mind can’t be easily conditioned. But maybe her best friend likes a certain movie a lot and can’t stop talking about it, and asks X to watch it as well. And maybe X ends up liking the movie too. But did she like the movie only because of the movie itself? Or, did the fact that her best friend loves it also played a part in her liking it? If it did, X may not actually realise it, and keep believing it was because of the movie only.

A point to note: I’m considering “freedom from conditioning” different from “freedom from experiences” as the latter relates to the actual experiences of a person himself, while the former has to do with the so-called “facts” declared by some body of power, that are expected to simply be taken as the “truth” and to be followed by the rest of the people; a person need not have experienced the said “truth” himself; he just needs to accept it as given.

This is not to say that everyone who tells us something has some hidden agenda for their own personal benefit. Many times, if not most, people just want to share their knowledge with us, so that we don’t make mistakes, before learning from them and coming to the same conclusion.

However, I feel we shouldn’t blindly follow whatever we are told. We need to understand the context behind the information. Families can pass down superstitions and prejudices to their children. And, maybe at some point, something may have happened that could justify that superstition or prejudice in some way. However, it’s a different time now, a different life. We need to question the basis of the information that we are expected to believe in. Is it still valid? Does it make sense in today’s context?

The world is a very complex place, and there’s so much room for misunderstanding and miscommunication. Facts can get easily twisted, even unintentionally. Or, they may present only one side of the story. In such a scenario, it is imperative that we think for ourselves. Consider the available information by all means, but believe it only after due analysis. If we don’t, we are living someone else’s life, by someone else’s thoughts, and not our own. I don’t believe that can be considered as being free.

For example: As an adult individual, you are expected to act in a certain way. You are expected to get an advanced education, a high paying job, find yourself a beautiful and successful life partner, have children, and so on. That’s just what some families condition their children into believing from a very young age. When such a child grows up and realises that it’s not what she wants in life, but still continues on that same path because that’s the only life she knows how to live, then she’s not really free. 


Freedom from Self

“Freedom from self” includes freedom from ego, pride, vanity, anger, greed, lust, sloth, etc. As long as these tendencies have a hold on us, we are not free to live our lives the way we know we should.

Example: Suppose, I have a huge argument with my best friend over some issue. Later, I realise that it was my mistake that led to the fight, and I shouldn’t have said some of the things that I said in the heat of the moment. Now, I know that I should be the one to apologize, but because of my ego, I may not be able to do that. As a result, I throw away a great friendship.

And we have all heard of some story or another about how the lust for money and power has made people act in horrendous ways. Nobody is born a criminal; hardly anybody wants to be one by choice. It is these impulses that result in much of such problems.

Clearly, such tendencies can have a huge impact – they degrade the quality of our lives, and have a forceful effect that makes us act in ways we don’t want to or shouldn’t, sometimes against our own will. Again, this is not freedom.


Freedom from Knowledge

Yes, you read that right. Freedom from knowledge. It might seem like an odd thing to say – after all, isn’t knowledge something we should all strive for? Yes, we should. But if knowledge becomes a shackle for you, then that’s not really true knowledge. And we need to be aware of and free from such knowledge.

Here’s an example: Say I’m a very religious person and believe that following the rituals and scriptures of my religion will lead to a better life. And that may well be true. But this “knowledge” about my religion would actually be a restraint for me if I believe it’s the only way to a better life. There could be alternate ways, both via other religions as well as entirely non-religion based ones.

Another example: You might hear a partial conversation between two people. Now, what you heard, was indeed said. So, in that sense, your knowledge is correct. But if you reach some conclusions about what’s going on between those two people based on just that knowledge, and adamantly stick to your own conclusions, even when someone else offers a different, more plausible, conclusion, then you are being controlled by your knowledge.

There’s so much to know in the world. No matter how much information we have, there’s always more. So, we should remember that we may not always have complete information about everything, and sometimes, even what little information we do have, could be wrong. If we are not careful, our knowledge can hold us captive in our own little worlds.

Don’t let what you know about the world prevent you from seeing what you don’t know about the world.


That’s all the freedoms that I wanted to talk about. For now. 🙂 Just a couple more thoughts before closing:

These are not, by any means, an exhaustive list of “mental” freedoms – they are just a few points that I’ve noticed in my own life and that I’m trying to work on.

I think different individuals, with different life histories, may experience different kinds of such “chains” that hold them back. Someone may be a prisoner of their ego, while another may be a slave to their fears, while still another may be free from all of the above, but be bound by something else altogether.

Also, it’s not a totally “black and white” situation – it’s not like if one is free from fear, then one fears nothing. One may fear something to a much lesser extent (and hence have a higher degree of freedom) than something else (less freedom). Similarly, it might be easier for me to fall prey to anger than to vanity.

It is for oneself to realise what is holding one captive and what one can do to break free of those chains. A few things can help in general: self-introspection, courage, discipline, an innate desire to learn and improve, etc.

My own method for dealing with this is to first identify the areas that need working on (as listed above), and then for each area, to try and be watchful to identify when that particular shackle is manifesting itself in my life. When it does, I try to act in ways that would break that shackle. Hopefully, over time, it will turn into an automatic habit and things would get easier. 🙂

Example: When I think I know something about something, and somebody else contradicts what I know, I tend to get over-confident in my own knowledge. I may forget that I do not have complete knowledge of the topic, and it is entirely possible I may be wrong. But once I realize that I’m going down this path, I try to verify the facts – of both what I know, and of what that other person is saying. The result is that we both learn something – if she’s right, I learn that I was wrong, and what the right facts were about that topic; if I was right, she learns something new. And irrespective of who is right, it’s a reminder to both of us that anyone can be wrong, even when they think they couldn’t be. We also get to learn and practice the art of graciously accepting defeat, and in this way, practice freedom from both knowledge and ego. And with this experience, if I face a similar situation again in the future, hopefully, it should be easier to spot when I’m being “controlled” by my own knowledge and ego, and how to react better to the same.

Lastly, to be clear, for all this talk of freedom, I don’t claim to be completely free myself. However, in realising the issues above, I think I’m one step closer to being more free. What is required is to keep learning and improving. There will be missteps along the way, but we need to get back on track as soon as we realise our mistakes. I guess trying to be free from these shackles is a life-long goal, and in that sense, we are all “freedom fighters” in a way.

If you’ve read thus far, I thank you very much, and congratulate you for your tenacity! 🙂 I know it’s been quite a long post, much longer than I was expecting it to be. But I wanted to make sure I was giving due attention and real-world examples. I hope you enjoyed reading it, and that it will help you in your journey, as it continues to do in mine. Comments and feedback are most welcome.


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