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Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

How discipline can help you find freedom

Many of us are searching for some kind of freedom in our lives. It might be freedom from our jobs. Or from a relationship. Sometimes it’s freedom from a bad habit we’ve developed. It might be the freedom to create art or make music or be an actress. Whatever it is, we often find that freedom either drives us or fills our dreams.

Part of the problem with our search for freedom is that we don’t always understand what we mean by ‘being free’. I wanted to be a writer for the longest time but always felt like I didn’t have the freedom to do so. There was always some limitation. My time consumed by work, studying and socialising. After that, I didn’t have the energy to try and write. I told myself that when it all settled down that would be the time to start writing.

That day arrived in 2015. I moved to Amsterdam with my girlfriend and didn’t have a job. I had some money saved up and did one or two freelance gigs to keep myself afloat. For 8 months I had almost zero day to day obligations. I could fill my time with whatever I wanted. What I didn’t do, was write. I’d been given a gift, the freedom of time and energy, and I didn’t know what to do with it.

We come up with ideas in our head about the things that need to happen for us to find freedom. We imagine that if we could only have six months free from work then we’d definitely write that novel. But freedom rarely works like this. I learnt this the hard way. I didn’t actually start writing until I was about to become a father for the first time and had a demanding job. Now there were more demands and constraints on me than ever before. And this is when I finally found the time to write.

What’s become clear to me over the last year is that my problem was never a lack of freedom. My problem was that I lacked the discipline to create that freedom.

The intriguing paradox of polar opposites

Freedom and discipline might seem like two opposing ends of a spectrum. But when we look at how freedom works, we find that it is tied to discipline and that you can’t truly have one without the other.

This funny thing happens often in Zen thinking, where two ideas that we consider opposites become interlinked. For example, we might use clay to mould a pot, but it’s actually the emptiness inside the pot that makes it useful. The pot does not exist without the clay, but the clay is just a container for an empty space which is what we really want. Something and nothing might seem like polar opposites. But as the example of our pot shows, they rely on each other to have any meaning.

John Cage took this idea and applied it to composing – we make sounds but it’s the silence between the notes that makes the music. In his ‘Lecture On Nothing’, Cage put large rhythmic spaces between statements. This emphasised the fact that without sound, silence does not exist and vice versa.

The printed version of this lecture visualises this is a way that makes it clear:

“What we require                is silence           ;            but what silence requires                    is              that I go on talking      .”

What Cage is showing us with this lecture is that polar opposites define each other and create one another. If you want to create music, you need to work with silence. If you want to find freedom then you must restrict yourself.

A Definition of freedom

My dictionary defines the word freedom as the following:

‘The absence of necessity or constraint in choice or action.’

This is what many of us think of when we think about freedom. But it’s more of a concept. In reality, when are we ever completely free of constraints? Life is interesting precisely because we have constraints. So the dictionary only goes half way towards a practical concept of what freedom is.

How do we make this definition useful then? This dictionary suggests the element of constraint is what we are escaping. But instead of removing it, how about we make it the primary source of freedom in the sentence. That definition might look like this:

‘The ability to choose your own constraints in line with your values.’

This builds on the idea introduced above: you can’t have freedom without also having limitations. Which is to say, you have to choose which freedoms you want in life.

When you choose the freedom of time, you might be sacrificing the freedom of money. But if you want the freedom of having lots of money, you’ll have to give up a lot of your time. Freedom to me is not about being able to walk out the door and be ‘free’ of necessities. This kind of freedom doesn’t really exist. True freedom is, in fact, quite the opposite.

Instead, what discipline asks us to do is choose what part of our life we want freedom in. When we do that the limits we must adhere to become clear.

Small Acts Of Liberty

The only way I’ve been able to find true freedom is by training myself to perform small actions every day.

Early in 2017, I committed to 15 minutes of writing each day. I kept at it until I didn’t miss a day. Until it becomes a habit as essential as waking up or brushing my teeth. Some days were hard and other days were easy. But eventually someone called me a writer and I looked in the mirror to see a writer looking back at me.

This minor act of discipline – making writing the first thing I do each morning – accumulated into something bigger. Like being able to write an article every week. Or pursue that book idea I’ve been thinking about. If you start with the minimum viable action you can build toward something much bigger.

This kind of freedom is slow and sustainable rather than wild and short. But in the end, it’s the only kind of freedom worth working for.