What if believing in Freedom is what stops you being free?

A lot of my friends insist that nothing must stand between them and their Freedom. They believe in Freedom absolutely and treat it as a universal and sacred principle. In a sense, Freedom has become their religion. But partly because they don’t think of it as a religion, they act like this particular religion is better than all the others… the same way many religious people act like their particular religion is better than all the others too.

I’ve asked myself these questions:

  • Do people stop being religious if they don’t believe their religion is a religion?
  • Do people stop being fundamentalists if a lot of people in their community agree with them?

I don’t claim to know. But when I see my friends insisting that Freedom trumps everything else, it seems much the same as when I see people insisting their holy laws trump everything else. They all seem like religious fundamentalists to me.

You could get picky about the strict definition of religion. But I submit that people are worshipping an idea, insisting it’s only by following this idea that we can avoid the world falling apart, and then attacking people who don’t follow the idea the same way they do.

The mainstream narrative is that the world is awash with inevitable conflict because different people hold different beliefs. I suspect actually we are creating lots of unnecessary conflict because we aren’t clear about the extent and nature of our own beliefs. A fundamentalist belief in Freedom is one example.

Most of us tend to think other people’s beliefs are “just beliefs”. But our own beliefs are often so close to us, they can seem like universal truths – not beliefs at all. For many people, Freedom is something everyone must have. It’s unquestionable. It’s dogma.

Most of us also struggle to apply our beliefs to our beliefs. Pluralists generally want everyone to have a seat at the table, except for people who choose to oppose pluralism by force, for example. Because of the nature of concepts, they all collapse into themselves at some point. We each find a limit within each concept; we just draw the lines in different places.

I tested this out in the House of Commons bar recently. “Fuck freedom and fuck anyone who believes in freedom”, I said – and a Conservative staffer immediately shoved me aggressively. So what happened to my freedom of speech then? I thought he was willing to die defending my right to say things he disagreed with, but it turned out not.

Many people don’t even believe what they believe in – and maybe that’s why the world is so confusing.

“Sorry man”, he said. “My brother died fighting for our Freedom and you just pressed my buttons.”

So I felt like a bit of a git and then we hugged and it was nice. But how many more people will die?

It’s easy to forget that “Freedom” is an idea. And once we’ve forgotten that, the reality that other people may have other ideas that are more relevant to them (and therefore more important) can seem bewildering. “These people don’t believe in Freedom? Why? What’s wrong with them?”

We’ve been trained to resolve this bewilderment by assuming those people are less educated, less sophisticated and less advanced than us. Then we try to “liberate” them (mostly by bribing or bombing them). “We have to”, the narrative goes, “or they’ll take our Freedom!”

Anyone who believes some variation of “only Muslims react by killing people who disagree with them” would do well to remember that George Bush led America into an illegal war in Iraq on the whisperings of a Christian god, under the banner of Freedom. Freedom has been deadly for many non-believers, same as Christianity.

Do you think the Nazis marched into Poland thinking “we’re the bad guys”?

Ouch.


What’s true in the macrocosm is true in the microcosm too. If we’re honest, we know that huge numbers of people around us are living lives of quiet desperation. Depression, addiction and suicide are endemic. Shame means many people put on a happy face in public and suffer alone, but we all know people who are struggling. Maybe we’re struggling too. So isn’t it possible, just possible, that rather than saying all these individuals are failing to live up to society’s norms, actually we could say our perception of society’s norms is skewed and many if not most of us are trying to play an impossible game?

When I first began coaching, people would ask me for simple things. Usually they’d want more confidence, more motivation or more peace in their life. Often they’d want to be better at their job or have better family relationships. And this work was easy. I’d cast a few magic spells and within an hour they’d be looking at life through a different lens. Fields like NLP, hypnotic repatterning and cognitive behavioural therapy make it simple to rearrange your own and other people’s mental architecture; you can create whatever specific and generalised experiences you want. New behaviour will inevitably flow.

Unfortunately I noticed that people didn’t end up happy. They were happy for a while, but sooner or later they found new problems. There wasn’t enough depth to the change. And that’s why I shifted my approach towards foundational work – exploring with people how they create their experience of life; how they themselves create the problems they feel powerless to solve.

These days I get more unusual clients. “I want you to kill me”, said one lady recently, smiling mischievously. “Burn me away and leave only truth”.

That might sound crazy to you, or you might have a sense of what she meant. In essence, we aren’t who we think we are. It’s only by setting aside our conceptual ideas about ourselves that we can be who we truly are. In that sense, awakening is not about learning anything new but unlearning everything old.

I don’t know of a magic spell that can achieve that. In my experience it’s more about breaking the spells that have previously been cast. It’s about helping people see through the web of stories they’ve been believing and living inside; guiding their attention outside of their usual thinking space (what they call their mind), to live beyond all stories.

It’s a funny job.

Sometimes it helps to tell people about Edward Bernays, an advisor to US president Calvin Coolidge and the founding father of public relations. Bernays worked as a propagandist during WW1 and his PR clients were some of the world’s biggest companies at the time – Cartier, General Electric and “America’s most watched network” CBS.

Bernays was also Sigmund Freud’s nephew. He was well-placed and very talented at influencing how people think about themselves and their place in society. Using the principles of psychology, he told stories that inspired millions of women to take up smoking (previously taboo) and persuaded millions of men to buy new cars when they had perfectly good cars already (a new idea at the time).

Most people never experience reality; only their thoughts about reality. And those thoughts are shaped, indeed programmed, by what they believe reality is. By telling stories that tap into people’s unconscious drives and desires, you can reshape the landscape of their mind and therefore influence every thought that occurs within it. New behaviour will inevitably flow.

Knowing about Bernays helps people to see how the stories they believe about themselves and their place in society were originally created.

Sigmund Freud’s great grandson Matthew Freud continues to work in PR today. He’s friends with prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne; until last year he was married to Rupert Murdoch’s daughter; and his PR firm’s clients include a huge list of blockbuster media brands such as Google, Sky, 20th Century Fox, TimeWarner, Universal Pictures, Sony, BAFTA, the BBC… (or in the food sector: Mars, Pepsi, Asda, KFC, Galaxy, Doritos, M&Ms… the list goes on and on).

Now it would be easy to make this about powerful individuals controlling the (m)asses, but that’s not my game. It seems to me that Freud Jr. is playing the hand he was dealt and unlike most people he knows what game he’s playing. From my perspective, that makes him more moral than most people and certainly not less.

I say “look what he’s doing!” not to criticise but to show what’s possible.

Politicians also shape society by telling stories. I used to run Peter Mandelson’s website when he was stewarding New Labour and he talked a lot about how people think in stories and how you can only change society by changing the stories people tell about society. (He’s friends with Matthew Freud too!)

So, who made up the stories you are living inside?

And why do you stay inside those stories when you can see the outcome is huge inequality, endless wars and huge numbers of people feeling lonely and desperate?

Rebellion is as important as procreation to the survival of the species. And waking up is the ultimate rebellion – sacred rebellion.


When you experience life beyond your thought-based story about life, you can laugh at thought-based ideas like Freedom. Believing in Freedom is what created the prison you lived inside for so long. It’s so absurd you might laugh for days!

Priests, politicians and psychologists all conspire to quell this kind of rebellion. Whatever these Three Ps may disagree about, they work together to keep as many people as possible inside the system they call “normal”, “safe” and “good”. But “normal”, “safe” and “good” are also manipulative stories. The priests, politicians and psychologists all want you to live inside the status quo system – but why? For whose benefit? Do they even know?

Think about it: when does being “normal”, “safe” and “good” feel most important to you? Are you drawn towards these concepts most powerfully when you’re feeling strong or when you’re feeling weak? When you’re with people who love you or when you’re feeling lonely? When you’re full of life or when you’re afraid of dying?

For a weak man, freedom is simply “freedom from…”

For an average man, freedom is both “freedom from…” and “freedom to…”

For a strong man, freedom is irrelevant and unnecessary

Who would you be if you saw beyond all thought-based concepts?

Who will you become if you don’t?

Which future do you want?