The Freedom Fighter

mandela-33-ssThe year I was born South Africa was in the midst of the horrors of apartheid. Nelson Mandela was in his 20th year in prison and protests were on the increase. I was born into an atmosphere of freedom-fighting, where power tensions were climaxing and it seemed that South Africa could be on the brink of war. But 10 years later, instead of war, I witnessed an atmosphere of incredible hope and transformation. The freedom for which black (and many white) South Africans had been striving was finally realised as Mandela became president and apartheid, in its most gross form, was ended. Though on a conscious level I was blissfully ignorant of all that was going on politically around me during those first 10 years of my life, I can’t help but wonder whether my birth in this country, where freedom was bristling with fierce determination, could not perhaps be attributed to my own soul’s deep longing. Though I was fortunate enough not to have been part of that 45 year struggle (and I believe the struggle continues in other forms till today), and I did not fight alongside my South African brothers and sisters during that time, I have come to consider myself a freedom-fighter – of another kind.

I once did a talk where I asked the audience to think about what they wanted to be when they grew up. Within seconds the faces lit up as each one reflected on their innocent days and what quirky ideas pulled their imaginations as a child. My reason for asking was of course not just mere curiosity, but rather the belief that those early childhood imaginings are helpful in revealing to us what it is we long for most…what values we hold dearest to our hearts. I personally went from wanting to be a ballerina (till about aged 12) to wanting to be a psychologist. I don’t know how I got that idea into my head, but it stayed there until I finished school by which time I had decided that being a traveller, or in modern terms, a ‘backpacker’ was the only worthwhile way to be!

So what does a ballerina, a psychologist and a backpacker have in common? Correct. A passionate love of freedom.

The ballet dancer finds freedom through mastery of the body; the ability to deny the forces of gravity and express feelings through the beauty of movement. The psychologist attempts to find freedom from the subconscious forces of past painful experiences, false beliefs and self-limiting thoughts and emotions. The traveller pursues freedom by rejecting the restrictions of societal norms, fixed roles and responsibilities; by indulging the desire for unlimited new experiences, and exercising the choice to come and go on a whim.

However, anyone who has ever been a ballet dancer, a psychologist or a traveller knows that, regrettably, these pursuits do not guarantee real freedom. In fact, when taken to the extreme, the search for freedom through these inevitably limited means only leads to an obsessive ballet dancer, an over-analytical psychologist with a sore head, and a traveller who has found the world but lost himself (herself)!

For me, this realisation hit hard one day when, towards the end of university, I found myself completely trapped by my own weakness. After several years of recklessly breaking all boundaries – mentally, emotionally and physically – in a desperate attempt to feel free, I discovered that all the very things I thought would make me free were now a cage. My boundary-less existence had left me without any sense of self at all, and in that state I was powerless…to use the cliché – a bird with broken wings. After much destructive behaviour and all the pain that goes along with that, finally I knew it was time to go within, and find my inner freedom.

Since that moment, I have continued to discover many interesting things about freedom. Like, for instance, how freedom is intricately connected with power…having the power to choose how I think, feel and respond to life…having the power to do what I deeply want inside, even when that goes against my automatic habits and patterns. Freedom is having the power to stand alone, independent of all my ego supports, and know that I am deeply okay. I have also come to understand that the grand quest for freedom, is in some ways more a quest for freedom from

What do I mean?

Well, that we are all already free….that freedom is not something to acquire, but rather to uncover. We all know that we come into this world with nothing and we leave this world with nothing. Freedom is a state in which there is nothing to lose and nothing to gain. However we ‘lose’ our freedom (excuse the pun) as soon as we become dependent on something. It is not the enjoyment of this physical world that traps us, but all the specific dependencies we develop on it. So the quest for freedom is in fact our struggle to become free from those dependencies. All forms of dependency result in a loss of power and thus our innate freedom is suppressed (or oppressed). I would say that the struggle for freedom in South Africa during apartheid was a severe physical and collective manifestation of this phenomenon that originates internally. It seems that in the end, Mandela understood this too.

This struggle as we probably all know does not end overnight, even on the personal level. I may start off with feisty determination to rid myself of ‘the big stuff’ – the things which drain my power and end up causing me sorrow time and time again. With understanding and a regular meditative practice I can carefully peel off the sticky dependency that has been clasping tightly, covering over the beauty of the soul. And the new-found freedom is like a breath of fresh air that makes me feel lighter, calmer and more authentic. But after some time I start to feel the next sticky layer of dependency, like a parasite, suffocating the soul’s natural breath. And each layer gets more subtle. The sorrow experienced as a result of that dependency also get subtler, making it trickier to recognise. There may even come a time when the dependency is so intertwined with my acquired identity, that I feel unable to let it go…as though my whole sense of self will be so deeply disrupted that I may find myself facing an emptiness too painful to bear. And so the temptation to slip back into the old patterns of dependency is great. This has been my experience.

However another thing that can sometimes happen on the ‘freedom from’ quest, is a kind of converse effect where I end up negatively detaching myself from people and life, as an attempt to protect myself from the risk of dependency. I go from ‘wrong’ relationship to ‘no’ relationship and end up feeling disconnected, empty and no freer than when I was trapped in the dependency. There are some simple lyrics in a song by Dido – ‘no love without freedom’, but then she qualifies this by saying ‘no freedom without love’. I think the second part is as important, if not more, than the first. The key of course is to be able to have the ‘right’ kind of relationship with the world – one in which we connect deeply with everything and everyone without disconnecting from ourselves in the process. Simple – yes. Easy? No. Not for me anyway.

I have been fortunate enough to have a lot of support and guidance on my journey so far, but still there are times when I feel frustrated and disheartened, wondering if it’s worth all the effort. Then I remember my freedom-fighting brothers and sisters, and I know, like Mandela knew, that each time I take a step closer to freedom, we all come one step closer. This is not an ego-statement. This is an understanding of the collective nature of consciousness. When one of us gets free, we all get freer. I have great faith in and love for this thought. This, together with my own desire for freedom which continues to burn inside, is what helps me to carry on with my quest. I’d like to consider myself an undercover freedom-fighter, of the quietest kind. In an incognito way I have given my life to this cause. This has not really been a choice, but more of a longing and a hopefulness I cannot ignore. Because surely only in freedom can we live in this world with open hearts… Only in freedom can we experience the magic and joy of genuine giving connections… Only in freedom can there be dignity and meaning in life.

About the Author


is both a student support worker and a coordinator of the Oxford Inner Space meditation centre. She began her spiritual journey in South Africa and has a special interest to help other young people to integrate spiritual perspectives into their lives. Gaby values creativity and open-mindedness and has a capacity to understand and convey the complexity of the human spirit.

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