Freedom is a word more pertinent now than perhaps ever in our lifetimes. With the lockdown that Covid-19 has brought to the world, most of us have either limited or no freedom to enjoy being outside. We notice the absence of things we all too often take for granted, as well as appreciating some things that we don’t normally have time to notice.
We all have different ideas of what freedom means…
I am often asked why I participate in long cycle rides or other adventures. Many people assume I am an exercise addict or adrenaline junkie. The real truth is that I love the freedom and feelings that cycling brings: the movement, my blood pumping, to feel healthy, the wind in my hair, the simplicity, the sensations of nature and connection to something far bigger than myself. When I am out exploring with just my bike, a tent and a few friends, there is total freedom to flow with the rhythm of nature, to rise and rest with its beats, and to roll with the uncertainty about where and when the next meal or rest will come.
We often appreciate things more when we have experienced loss. Following the accident that left me paralysed from the chest down, I spent three months in a hospital bed in traction. I had a metal halo drilled into my skull and weights hanging from it to keep my spine aligned. My only view was of black metal bars that framed my field of vision and dull ceiling tiles above. Whilst I obviously didn’t feel free physically at that time, my journey with paralysis has enabled me to realise that feeling free does not necessarily require the physical ability to go to all of the places that we think we need to. Freedom is very much an internal state.
As part of the Life Cycleseries with BBC Radio Scotland, Lee Craigie interviewed inmates at a women’s prison in Stirling, Scotland. Most of us would think that prison removes freedom. However, many of the women Lee interviewed expressed the opposite. Being removed from their daily lives and the responsibilities and pressures that went with those, they were experiencing liberation. They had time to themselves, to get fit, to learn new skills and were experiencing a new found freedom.
The opposite of freedom might be seen as limitation…
In the autumn of 2017, my Quest 79 ride ‘Express Way’ ride (www.karendarke.com/quest79) took me from Canada to Mexico, down the Pacific Coastal Trail. Cycling through America involved long days on the road for week after week and I found myself contemplating freedom. In the early stages of the journey, it became clear that one of my companions had an alcohol addiction. He drank cider and spirits from breakfast until sleep. Somehow he still managed to ride and balance a bike with heavy panniers, and bring us wake-up porridge and hot drinks early every morning. Even when he got so drunk that he disappeared, he always re-appeared intact and ready to ride. Whilst not free of his addiction, he was in his element on this journey. He had purpose, daily motivation, companions and an adventure. It seems like the journey gave him for a while some freedom from his inner struggles.
Located at the end of the Pacific Coastal Trail is Friendship Park, a patch of dirt between double fences that extend out into the Pacific Ocean. It was the end of our long cycle. Military guards patrol the fences that separate Mexico from America, the ‘land of the free’. Immersed in the shadows of the fences, head bowed, a young Mexican stood silent, a loved one on the other side of the dense trellis. Perhaps poverty and the search for a better life had led them to be separated and I wondered about the trade-off that had created. What would greater freedom mean to them?
At the other extreme from poverty, millionaires and educated professionals turn to minimalism. They describe leaving a life of material luxury for simplicity. They have realised that the weight of belongings and the focus on working for material gain has robbed them of their freedom, and often their health and happiness.
It begs the question, what is freedom?!
Perhaps true freedom is breaking away from the routine, habits, addictions or beliefs that have the ability to hold us captive.
I was intrigued to discover a study into participation in extreme sports* which revealed that motivations are not at all about risk taking and adrenaline. It showed that participation in extreme sports is about exploration of freedom to satisfy fundamental human values: freedom from constraints, from the need for control, from feeling separation, for the transformation of fear, for positive health benefits, and freedom as choice and responsibility.
It is not surprising that studies archived by the World Database of Happiness https://worlddatabaseofhappiness.eur.nlshow a link between freedom and happiness. So if freedom is a route to happiness, and happiness is a route to being our best selves, it seems worthwhile considering how we personally find freedom. Doing this will help and encourage those that we love or lead to find more freedom for themselves too. Here are some ways that I have found useful.
Appreciate what is present, what is now…
When I’m on an adventure my mind is often thinking ahead to where we might sleep or where to find more water. Or my thoughts may wander to the previous day and something that I said or did. Then I’ll suddenly arrive where I am and am able to see the incredible mountain before me, or the beauty of the forest and wildflowers I am passing by. Thinking forward or backward takes us away from the present moment. It takes awareness and work to stay present, but there is often so much beauty in the ‘now’ that its worth working at being there. Notice and catch where your thoughts lie, and always try to bring them back to where you are and who you are with. The book by Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, has become famous for these very reasons and as a path to personal and spiritual growth.
Engage in activities that take you into a ‘zone’: that is any activity that you become so immersed in that nothing else seems to matter. You are so involved in the task that time is distorted or transformed and you are unaware of how little or long may have passed. Flow activities tend to be either physical or creative – for example I have found flow doing things like climbing, dancing, cycling, writing, meditating or a work task that I get totally immersed in.
Break a habit or addiction…
Most of us have experienced some kind of unhealthy habit or addiction. It could be habits of language that are the product of underlying beliefs, for example “I just can’t do that” or it may be a difficulty with ever saying “no”. It might by any form of food, drink or drug that you struggle to stay away from even though you know its bad. Or perhaps you are addicted to something that on the surface may seem healthy or justifiable like work or exercise or a person. A great way to experience more freedom is to find the motivation and willpower to overcome ourselves, and break a habit that has been controlling us in an unhelpful way. When we can master the habits or additions of our body or our thoughts, we are claiming back some freedom from the chains of lower, negative emotions like guilt, shame and frustration, and allowing space for higher, more empowering feelings.
Value your freedom
As we have all learned in 2020, we never know when the freedom we are accustomed to will be no more. Spare moments each day to feel grateful for the freedoms that you enjoy, and radiate that appreciation out into the world. Let go of any fear about the future and focus on what you have and appreciate that now. And know that if any of the ways that you find freedom today should become unavailable in the future, that you will discover something new. The trails through the forest of inner freedom are endless.
*Brymer, E. & Schweitzer, R.D. (2013). The Search for Freedom in Extreme Sports: A Phenomenological Exploration. Psychology of Sport and Exercise 14(6):865-873