What does it mean to be free? Free to choose what happens in our lives? Free to control our moods and our outlook? The ability to make decisions? Having control over our impulses and addictions?
Perhaps it is best to start by looking at what it means to not be free. How can we be enslaved? We are enslaved when we don’t get to decide for ourselves what actions we take. When our external circumstances or our internal drives leave us no choice about our behavior. Someone who is addicted to methamphetamine has very little choice in the quest to get the next dose of drugs. They are enslaved. The interesting thing about that is that they feel completely free when they are on drugs. It is interesting to think about how often the perception of freedom is confused with the feeling of limitless potential. When the dopamine hits and there is endless amounts of motivation anything seems possible.
When I was in college, I had an amazing girlfriend. She had very few faults and as the immature asshole that I was, I seemed to need to find something to be critical about. She enjoyed her daily Starbucks coffee. I used to criticize her about it. I felt that she was a slave to her caffeine addiction and that it was crazy that she “had” to go to the coffee shop to get her jolt every morning before she could properly function. At the time, I was coming out of a household where addiction was rampant, and I was determined that I would never fall victim to addiction of any kind (obviously that was not understanding how grey “addiction” really is). The two main points of criticizing her were that: 1. She had to give a major corporation her money every day, and 2. She was not free to enjoy her life and have energy without her caffeine buzz. Looking back on it now, it is not that I was completely wrong. It is just that I didn’t really understand how all of us have addictions and that we all need to chase rewards and the accompanying dopamine release.
Certain sources of reward do appear to be healthier or less enslaving than others, and it is something that we should be mindful of, especially as it is related to freedom.
Andrew Huberman frames addiction in a way that I really like. He talks about it as the progressive narrowing of things that make you happy. Perhaps freedom is partially found in the opposite. The progressive expansion of things that make you happy. It would seem that if given the choice between having fewer and fewer things making you happy versus an increasing number making you happy that would be an easy choice.
It also seems that freedom is a recurring theme in religion, spirituality, or explaining what the meaning of life is all about. The Stoics talked about freedom as something that is found in the mind, and accessible even for people physically in chains. The idea that we can control our psyche and therefore our perspective and attitude is where freedom is found. For others, being free from our dying human bodies, being free from the suffering on earth, being free from time.
It would seem that part of the quest to be free would be to have behavior patterns that help your mind have a maximum amount of natural motivation and energy. The maximum amount of focus and attention on the present moment or the thing captivating one’s attention. Then one would be able to be aware of the options, present for the decision, and have the motivation to make difficult decisions or the intention to delay gratification.
The pattern of behavior that I find myself falling into is that I make my plans and my goals when motivation is high. As I lay my plans, I assume that I will have the energy to reach them. What I am learning is that energy is not a limitless tank. That the tank appears to be getting smaller as I get older. The energy I once had is no longer there. I need to keep healthier and healthier systems to be able to reach the potential energy that is available for consumption. I am a slave to my systems. If I want the energy, then I need to be able to stick to a healthy system. There is no compromise on that. When I am tired or out of energy, I fall into patterns of behavior where I experience regret or would have done otherwise in my fresh, next morning, state.
Perhaps there is no way to live free. We are enslaved to aging, time, energy availability, and systems. Perhaps rather than seeking freedom, we should choose another goal. Acceptance.