Freedom and discipline


Late this afternoon we drove past a long queue of traffic heading (or at least trying to head) in the opposite direction. We've been out of Victoria for 3½ months, the period during which Melbournians have endured very strict COVID-19 restrictions. I felt like we were being lured into a trap, something like the way a lobster trap works ... easy to get in ... hard to get out.

It coincided with having driven 1400 odd kilometres over the last couple of days. There is something about travel that infuses me with feelings of freedom, so the sense of entrapment was perhaps exaggerated by the simultaneous road tripping. It was palpable. I felt my mood shift. 

... and I started thinking again about freedom. People a lot smarter and more articulate than me have already pondered publicly about such matters in the context of COVID-19 so I don't claim to be opening up a new conversation, but it's my turn to muse.

I really like what Nick Jaffe wrote recently about physical freedom and inner freedom, and in particular his comment about the relationship to discipline. Reading Nick's piece got me wondering: what does freedom mean for me? To be clear, this is not about opining about a general definition of freedom, it's a look inside to discern what the experience of freedom means for me. It's a bit cumbersome, but I reckon it is something like this: 

Freedom is the ability to respond to whatever life dishes up with the emotional response (and therefore the thinking and behaviour) that is me as I aspire to be. 

Absolute freedom is therefore complete integrity between what I want to be like as a human being and who I actually am and what I can actually do. This freedom is very hard won. It is personal mastery and it comes from discipline over a long period of time. The material is circumstances. The craft is living.

The flexible, strong gymnast with complete control of their body wins the right to be free with their movements via years of effort. The perfect 10 performance is a snapshot, but imagine being able to pull off perfect 10s at will. Imagine the discipline when no one is watching to facilitate that. What about the the pianist who is able to make a keyboard sing and dance for whatever mood or rhythm the occasion calls for? She can do so only on the back of relentless daily hours doing scales and apparently boring practice. It is said of Kelly Slater who won 11 world surfing championships, that it seemed as if he could coax the ocean to deliver him the waves he needed when he needed them, such was the mastery of his craft when at his peak. That for me is freedom - that extraordinary capacity to be in control of one's living (action, thinking, emotions) whatever the circumstances.

Most seem content to live with themselves as they are. "It's just the way I am." I get it. It's super hard work setting out to become a better person because so much of who we are is hard wired in ... we've all got shit to deal with from our pasts and as much as we're all beautiful, we're all also deeply f@$^*d. Where do we even start? What are the tools of the trade? What are the basics that we need to practice in order to have foundational skill? How much effort do we need to put in to have a sense of freedom (in this sense)?

Because inner work is so hard, we do outer work stuff. We buy a new leotard, get a better piano, or a different surf board. In other words, we curate the external stuff, thinking that it'll make us better. I certainly do. But freedom for me is not about being able to (for example) afford the holiday, because as Alain De Botton reminds me, I end up taking myself, my real un-sanitised self, with me. Bugger. Freedom is being able to be who I aspire to be irrespective of the circumstances.

External stuff does matter though. I confess to loving well designed things made from quality materials. Beautiful natural environments are not meaningless, on the contrary, they feed us. Experiencing new cultures can be life-expanding. But here's my cynical view: the ability to appreciate beauty, the inclination to contentment, the experience of deep satisfaction does not come from the external stuff. I reckon I'm pretty content with my lot in life ... but even when Maria and I had no money and very little of the external trappings that we enjoy now ... I still thought I was the luckiest bloke in the world. An artist is an artist not because they paint. They paint because they are an artist. Satisfied people will always find a way to satisfaction. Hopeful people will find hope in whatever the circumstances. etc etc. The outer world, the external environment is simply the material I've got to work with.

So freedom for me is about picking up the 'material of life' and being able to be who I want to be with grace and competence. A work in progress.

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