The Marvelous Prison That is Boxing You In!

Yes, YOU are in prison. You just don’t know it.

I recently interviewed Krista Tippett, the creator of the popular podcast On Being, for this article on

I was particularly struck by an insight she shared from her days in Berlin during the final days of the Cold War. She had good friends on both sides of the Wall and noted that West Berliners were heavily subsidized and had access to all manner of material goods.

East Berliners were severely restricted and could not choose their college major or even what color to paint their apartment.

But the ‘free’ Germans had impoverished inner lives and the constrained Soviet Bloc Germans led lives of dignity and purpose.

And that reminded me of a comment made by one of the participants in my program who had come of age in Communist Hungary. We would consider their lives ‘drab’.

“We all wore the same clothes, all the houses looked the same and our entertainment choices were limited,” he noted.

But, on reflection, he added “I have to say that most persons I know were happier then than they are now.”

I am emphatically not saying that we should go back to Communist rule with entire populations subject to the whims of autocrats.

I am saying that we have notions about ‘freedom’ and ‘happiness’ that are flat out wrong.

I am saying that in pursuing external freedoms so fiercely we have actually lost a much greater freedom. How ‘free’ are we really if we cannot sit quietly by ourselves for a half hour?

This conundrum is why I conceived Creativity and Personal Mastery which became an enormously popular course at many top business schools.

Here is the section from the syllabus on Freedom:


As a country and a society we are obsessed with freedom. We have codified laws that guarantee us freedom of speech and worship and assembly. We wrangle endlessly about other “freedoms” such as the right to bear arms.

But we define “freedom” too narrowly. We equate freedom with the elimination of restrictions on our behavior.

In our relentless pursuit of this goal we are reordering society, smashing traditions and taboos alike. Sexual preoccupation is reaching new highs as is acceptance of its flaunting. Illegal drugs are more powerful and chemically complex. Our popular entertainment constantly stretches and snaps boundaries of taste and propriety. We have become marvelously adept at titillating our jaded senses.

There is another type of “freedom” that we have not achieved and are not even pursuing. We are still prey to the ruthless harpies of desire that constantly spur us into action, ignite avarice and

overweening ambition and goad us into activities that consume all available time and more.

We are driven by our demons, all of us — takeover titan and LBO artist, corporate chieftain and newly minted MBA, serial killer and confidence trickster, presidential candidate and congressional intern. The talons of our addictions shred our minds and wreck repose. Some, like cocaine, we declare illegal and expend vast resources to counteract. Others, like workaholism, we applaud and reward. Still others, like hypochondria and gambling, we barely acknowledge.

Like it or not, we are all in the fierce grip of our restless minds, being blown hither and thither like a tumbleweed in a hurricane, expending our psychic energies in emotional roller-coasters that we are helpless to stop and unable to leave.

This, too, is a prison and in our saner moments we want out.

I never saw a man who looked

With such a wistful eye

Upon that little tent of blue

Which prisoners call the sky,

And at every wandering cloud that trailed

Its raveled fleeces by.

Oscar Wilde

We give to others the power to determine our happiness and tranquility and do not even recognize that we have done so.

He was a respected sage, a teacher of many generations of students. No one could match him in knowledge of philosophy and the sacred texts. He lived simply with his family in the remote countryside.

One of his students, who had achieved great fame and renown in

the court of the king, came to visit him. As he paid his respects he noted the threadbare clothes of his teacher and the sparse larder.

“Revered Sir,” he said, overcome with emotion, “Please come with me to the capital. The king will shower you with wealth because there is no one to match you in wisdom. All you have to do is praise His Majesty and you will no longer have to subsist on lentils.”

Tears rolled down the old preceptor’s face. “My son,” said the sage, “Is this all you have learnt in the years you spent with me? Do you not see that if you would learn to subsist on lentils, you would not have to praise His Majesty?”

It need not be so. There is an alternative to the maelstroms in our mind that we both cultivate and fear.

This alternative permits us to be far more efficient and composed. It greatly increases the probability of “success” in any endeavor and cushions us mightily against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

There is a catch. We have to be willing to live in a different mental world, adopt a different outlook on life. Don Juan — Carlos Castaneda’s mysterious Yaqui warrior — summarizes the

viewpoint of a “man of knowledge”:

A man of knowledge chooses a path with heart and follows it; and then he looks and rejoices and laughs; and then he sees and knows.

He knows that his life will be over altogether too soon; he knows that he, as well as everybody else, is not going anywhere; he knows, because he sees that nothing is more important than anything else.

In other words, a man of knowledge has no honor, no dignity, no family, no name, no country, but only life to be lived, and under these circumstances his only tie to his fellow men is his controlled folly.

Thus a man of knowledge endeavors, and sweats, and puffs, and if one looks at him he is just like any ordinary man, except that the folly of his life is under control.

Nothing being more important than anything else, a man of knowledge chooses any act, and acts it out as if it matters to him.

His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and

makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t; so when he fulfills his acts he retreats in peace, and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, is in no way part of his concern.

It is indeed possible to live a life of great accomplishment and inner harmony.

I will touch on how to do this in future columns.


If you would like to begin your journey to true freedom from the demons that plague you, consider enrolling in CPM Online. A new program is scheduled to begin in April.

For details, email Jacqueline Fox at



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