What Is Freedom?

by Terry Marks-Tarlow

As often happens via social media, a stimulating quote by Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod found its way into my email box:

“What is freedom? It is the moment-by-moment experience of not being run by one’s own reactive mechanisms.”

This idea immediately caught my fancy. As I churned over its meaning, I was reminded of another quote, widely attributed to Viktor Frankl:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

I first read McLeod’s quote, I associated freedom with expanded choice much as Frankl defined it. Meanwhile, I played with multiple associations to “no longer being run by one’s own reactive mechanisms”. As an author with a specialty in interpersonal neurobiology, I associate non-reactivity with an expanded window of affect tolerance, allowing the possibility for fielding ever more intense emotion and higher arousal levels without any loss of cognitive wherewithal. As a clinician with a specialty in creativity, and as a ballet and jazz dancer, I associate non-reactivity with the capacity to take in multiple channels of sensory and perceptual information while simultaneously attending to interoceptive and proprioceptive cues about my own body’s states, actions and spatial placement. As a longtime yogini and yoga teacher, I associate non-reactivity with the equanimity of a warrior pose, where intense sensation is held with ease and grace, without pinpoint attention highlighting the ache in my quad or the thought in my head. When I am most non-reactive during yoga, my attention fans out in all directions, well beyond the confines of my body or mind, embracing equally internal and external realms, which feels like the ultimate freedom in mind/body/spirit.

After these musings about non-reactivity and freedom from my own subjective point of view, I felt impelled to look more closely at McLeod’s essay in which the quote was embedded (It originally appeared in 2012, in the Huffington Post). To my surprise, McLeod’s understanding of freedom did not include expanded choice at all— quite the opposite! This Zen practitioner described freedom as emerging directly from the tight discipline of restricted choice, which he experienced directly in his three years of monastic life. While studying Tibetan Buddhism, McLeod’s schedule was rigidly fixed, with his choices whittled down to a bare minimum, e.g., which of three pieces of clothes to wear. It was under these highly restricted conditions that McLeod experienced full freedom for self-discovery.

McLeod addresses the problem of too much choice within contemporary society. We are often flooded with an overabundance of choices—which shampoo to buy? What restaurant to go to next? As he describes it, much time and energy is siphoned away in making such choices. From an academic perspective, social psychological research by Barry Schwartz indicates that too many choices increase anxiety and restrict enjoyment of choices made, which is proven especially true for wine selections and other food products. For McLeod, only when stripped of all choices did he experience full freedom to face his innermost core without distraction.

After moving beyond the initial quote and reading McLeod’s , I was left a bit stunned by the contrast between what he meant, and what I’d assumed that he meant. At the same time, I pride myself on resilience and flexibility, both mentally and physically. What is more, as a lover of paradox, I quite easily made the pivot. I then began to look more deeply at my own perspective as a clinical psychologist. My focus landed on clinical intuition, the subject of two of my recent Norton books on interpersonal neurobiology. In the heat of a charged moment, when feelings or arousal are high, things can move really fast. When I thought about it, what happens during this fast-paced dance of psychotherapy does seem less about choice and more about courage—the courage to say what needs to be said, or sometimes the courage to remain silent when words have no place.

Next, I recalled my own interventions with patients struggling to make a decision. Rather than succumb to advice-giving, my impulse is often to declare the person un-ready to choose, and in need of more time and/or information. I’m not a big fan of check lists of pros and cons; these tend to encourage left-brain analysis rather than right-brain intuition. Lists like this, alongside other left-brain activities, can’t accommodate the complexity of full context. Not only do they sidestep intuition; they also bypass wisdom. As an alternative, I’m an advocate of more time and internal space to allow choices to simmer in the unconscious. I trust that the “right” (meaning best fit) answer will emerge ready-made, in its own time, when the time is right. I believe we don’t make decisions, but rather decisions make us.

I next remembered the work of Benjamin Libet, a neurobiological researcher who writes about “brain time.” Through a very clever research paradigm, Libet discovered areas of the brain buried deep in the unconscious that light up even before we register a conscious decision to execute an action. He provocatively concluded that humans don’t possess “free will” at all, only “free won’t.” Libet declares “free will” a trick of the mind constructed after the fact. Libet’s understanding of “free won’t” involves inhibition, or the freedom not to act on an impulse in motion.

On a roll, I next considered Cziksenmihalyi’s concept of flow, as it applies both to the creative process and to psychotherapy. When immersed in flow within any domain, we surrender ourselves to a course of action already in process. There is an emergent feel to what is happening.  We don’t seem to be doing any deciding or choosing, although here too, we can exercise “free won’t” by stopping the process. But when we are carried away by the currents of flow, the inherent freedom seems less about choice and more about clarity of understanding plus a sense of purpose, which automatically and spontaneously dictate a clear path between perception and response.

Whether within the constricted choices of a meditation regime, the emergent choices of difficult decisions, or the absence of choices within our surrender to flow, perhaps freedom is experienced more as a feeling of fate and necessity than as an open playing field. In the spiritual realm, this kind of non-reactivity conforms to the Buddhist notion of perfection, as illustrated later in McLeod’s essay. A young man asks McLeod, his meditation teacher, the following question:

 “When he reaches the perfection of wisdom, can a bodhisattva choose to do whatever he wants?”

“The illusion of choice is an indication of a lack of freedom,” I replied.

He looked at me, stunned, then turned around and gently banged his head against the wall as he said, “Now my head really hurts.”

Here perfection has more to do with the Eastern notion of perfect fit, which means that everything is interconnected and interdependent perfectly. This stands in contrast to the Western notion of perfection implicit in perfectionism, where we suffer from the illusion that things need to be different than how they are in any given moment.

I conclude this blog entry by announcing an about face in where I stand relative to where I started. I have reached the conclusion that the freedom of non-reactivity is less about expanded choice, and more about expanded openness to meet and greet the fullness of what already exists, without judgment or recoil. When we open our hearts, minds, and bodies in this way, we can allow ourselves to be moved where we need to go, both literally and figuratively, as we surrender to the response that emerges unbidden from the depth of the implicit realm within.


Terry Marks-Tarlow, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Monica, California. She teaches affective neuroscience at Reiss Davis Child Study Center and is author and illustrator of several books, including Psyche’s Veil, Clinical Intuition in Psychotherapy, and Awakening Clinical Intuition, which received the 2015 Gradiva Nomination for Best Book. Dr. Marks-Tarlow sits on the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association, where she co-founded and curates the annual art exhibition, “Mirrors of the Mind: The Psychotherapist as Artist.” She dances, draws, does yoga, and strives generally to embody her values surrounding a balanced and creative life. For psychotherapy, study groups, supervision or workshops, she can be reached through her website: www.markstarlow.com




Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Marks-Tarlow, T. (2012). Clinical intuition in psychotherapy. New York: Norton.

Marks-Tarlow, T. (2014). Awakening clinical intuition: An experiential workbook for psychotherapists. New York: Norton.

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

McLeod, K. (2012). Freedom and Choice. Blog, Huffington Post. THE BLOG 02/20/2012 09:46 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2012

Libet, B & Kosslyn, S. (2004). Mind time: Temporal perspectives in consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schwartz, B. (2005). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Harper Perennial.

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