06/30/2014 05:56 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2014

Why You Might Not Be Free

Anticipating a July 4 filled with barbecues and fireworks, I find myself pondering the real meaning of freedom. How some are free and others are not. How there are people even in this free country with no freedom at all. Freedom is not one thing. It is an ideal that manifests in many forms. Like everything else in our world, it has three components: the physical, the mental/emotional, and the spiritual.

The physical aspect of freedom involves, among other things, our surroundings. Where we live matters. For some, freedom features wide open spaces, abundant nature, lots of elbow room -- a farm, perhaps. For others, that version of freedom is a prison of isolation and back-breaking work. For city people, freedom is the ability to press an elevator button and stroll outside into the melee, the diverse culture of theater, restaurants and music. In an ideal world, we would all have the freedom to live where we choose. But what if, through marriage, economics, old age, illness, or even war we find ourselves in circumstances that oppose our fundamental picture of freedom? Can we survive? Can we thrive?

That's where the mental/emotional component kicks in. We've all heard the adage, bloom where you're planted. Not always easy. My personal story is a case in point. When I met my husband, he lived on a horse farm in Virginia; I, in a Chicago townhouse. After years of back and forth, my husband's dream prevailed. We moved to the farm. The reason he prevailed is that I was more flexible and adaptable. Why? Because my idea of freedom was more mental than physical.

Even so, it wasn't easy to go from the rich social culture of Chicago to the silence and isolation of a Virginia farm. It took me two years to grow roots in that soil. I had to get used to the rural culture, which at the time contained biases I didn't share. I had to forgive, banish judgment, and seek the profound goodness that I knew was in there somewhere. In time, I grew to love them and their ethic of hard work. Seven years later when we moved to the Northeast, I was extremely sad to leave. Even now, twenty years later, I still dream of the undulating 35-mile view of pasture, horses, and four-board fencing from our bedroom window. It was an honor to have lived there.

I viewed my return to the Northeast, however, as another opportunity. I adapted more quickly this time because I was near my family, the boys were in school (easier to meet people), and in spite of the population and traffic density, there was an explosion of culture I was apparently starved for. I jumped right in.

Not everyone can adapt that quickly, I know, because I see it all around me. I see it in people who, in spite of the opportunity, never considered leaving the area of their origin. Sometimes staying close to home is a clear choice, but sometimes it's a product of fear. Fear of stepping out of the comfort zone. Even in a philosophically free world, fear can handcuff any of us in a moment. Just ask the ill and the elderly, the physically and mentally impaired, or those who are frustrated by lack of finance or opportunity. Frustration is hard to put aside; it can kill motivation and forward movement. Frustration is just one of many mile-high mental/emotional fences that can keep us from our intended lives.

As a young prisoner, Dr. Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) did a phenomenal job of investigating the ultimate frustration and devastation of physical and mental confinement in WWII concentration camps. The extreme examples of survival (or not), of flexibility and adaptability (or despair) that he describes, provide the key to human motivation. Why did some persist and others desist? Frankl didn't see it as luck so much as an element of personality and world view. For some, life was worth living under any circumstance, and for others, it simply was not. (Read: Man's Search for Meaning, a life-changing book.)

Frankl would probably agree with Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a (mostly) cloistered monk, that the answer to the question of true survival is based on the third type of freedom -- the spiritual (by which I do not mean religious). Merton led a licentious, intellectual and cosmopolitan life prior to his calling. By all accounts, he should have panicked and reversed directions when he arrived at the cloistered cell of the monastery in Kentucky. His new life was an imprisonment of isolation, labor, and enforced silence. In a cell! Instead, he called it "these four walls of my new freedom..." For Merton, incarceration wasn't the cloistered life he'd chosen, but the one he'd led accidentally -- the one bound by destructive habits and personal attachments. In his confinement he was able to free himself and the planet through a constant stream of contemplative prayer and sacrifice. He was free to remove himself from all that was temporal, temporary and false, and replace it with all that was eternal and true.

I read an article in the paper many years ago in which the author decided to try meditation in a 'why not?' mood. After a week he said he couldn't believe he'd waited so long. Within his quiet seeking he was unexpectedly "ambushed by love." (Though I've long forgotten the author's name, I have never forgotten that description.) Meditation and contemplative prayer are the spiritual means for people of any religion or culture to directly experience true freedom from confinement or hardship. It contains no words, no ideas, no concepts or belief systems, no barriers to truth. Through these higher forms of prayer, we are confronted with the infinite bodiless, mindless freedom of our common Source. It has to be experienced to be believed.

In the end, the only true freedom is the spiritual form, because once attained, it can never be taken away without our consent. Physical and mental freedoms are conditional, but spiritual freedom is not. It is the great equalizer, endowed on anyone with the awareness to ask. This July 4, I wish you all the freedoms you seek and the ability to ask for the ones you don't have.