“Can you deviate from the path that your fellow men have lined up for you? And if you remain with them, your thoughts and your actions are fixed forever in their terms. That is slavery. The warrior, on the other hand, is free from all that. Freedom is expensive, but the price is not impossible to pay. So, fear your captors, your masters. Don’t waste your time and your power fearing Freedom.” – Carlos Castaneda
Over dinner my son mentioned the upcoming Valentine’s Day, and that he had received a rose from a girl at school. As my husband served us pasta and zucchini, my son asked me if he could send flowers to her. I nodded. I was curious to know if the boys in the class sent flowers to each other. When I asked him, he responded:
“Is that something I can do?”, my son asked eyes-wide open.
“Do you want to do it”? I asked.
My husband intervened: “No way, that is not common. Flowers are usually for women.”
I got the familiar crunch in my belly that I still get when gender related issues are being brought up. I said that men have the same rights to express their feelings and to share them instead of packing them up under a bicep curl or drinking them out on a six-pack of beer while screaming at the Superbowl. The sentence rolled out of my tongue quick and sharp, as if it had been rehearsed in my head for years. I was about to continue on the unfairness of gender differences but I stood put. I caught myself overreacting. I had momentarily stopped being an adult and a young part of me was raging. I was back in my childhood.
I grew up in a household with five men. Throughout the years, I witnessed them stuffing up the ‘nice feelings’ that made them real, such as vulnerability, kindness or caring. Instead, they were allowed to express only one of them: anger. In particular, one of my brothers was verbally and physically abusive. His target? Women. Since I was 3 or 4 years-old , I would listen to his complaints and sarcastic comments: “Women cannot drive, women cannot run a company, women only clean and cook, that is the only thing they are good for, etc.” He seemed to enjoy my defensive outbursts when I was expressing a different view, but it only fueled his ranting. As I grew older, the ranting got physical. He would pull my hair, plug my nose, push me and threaten to punch me. It was hard to make him stop or find places to escape from him and hide. At the beginning, crying would make him eventually stop but as the years went by, to be effective I needed to become more dramatic, pulling my own hair out and hitting my face, for him to stop. During those moments he would tell me: “There you go, I always knew you were crazy.”
Like most of us, much of my identity was built around these early childhood experiences. I got sick when I was nine and realized that illness could also be a wall, a protector, to keep my captor away from me. I remember laying down on my parents’ bed with high fever and experiencing the boundaries of the bed as safe fences. It was a cozy shelter, where I could play in my imagination and travel far. To keep myself safe, I didn’t eat much, so I would heal slower. It took me thirty years of reflection and inner work to realize how much of my personality had been built around the miss-interpretation that I can only be safe if I am sick, or if I somehow hurt myself by denying food and pleasure.
Carlos Castaneda’s teachings were the turning point that set me on the journey to freedom. When I first met him I was in a self-created prison of amnesia, about who I was, consumed by my poor self-defense mechanisms and a lack of self-esteem. He asked me: “What have they done to you, Chola?”
I was almost offended by his question. “No one did anything to me. I am fine,” I defiantly answered. I remembered clearly his sweet smile back to me, filled with compassion. I didn’t trust him, he was a man, like my captor. However, I felt he was talking to the real me under the layers, the part of me seeking to be free.
I became one of his several direct students, and even though it was a clear student-teacher relationship, inside I experienced him as my grandfather. My grandfathers on both sides of my family died when I was young and I never had a relationship with them. Castaneda urged me and supported me to study; no one in my family had done that before. He would call me and check in with me and help me with my homework, sometimes dictating my papers over the phone. He also urged me to observe how I held steadfastly to my self-image, to my low self-esteem and to my conditioning because of fear. I feared being labeled as the betrayer, one who abandoned her family. I trembled at the possibility of letting go of my identity of a doormat; it was all I had. But the pain of holding onto it was greater than the fear of change.
“Freedom is always, at your fingertips”, Castaneda told me, “do you dare to jump?”
His training under his tutelage was rigorous. We daily, for hours, practiced exercises similar to martial arts. I started eating full meals four times a day, no sugars, no salt, no caffeine or stimulants. I needed to cook my meals at home, except when we went out to eat with him. I changed my name and started speaking a new language, and for the first time in my life, I felt strong and confident and gained weight! I became an A student, something I thought impossible to achieve before, and today, I hold two Master degrees. I fell in love with knowledge. And most importantly, I hooked onto what seers’ called the bird of freedom.
Today, I continue holding the same discipline of healthy eating, exercising and engaging my brain in deep thinking and I intend to do so until my last breath. I keep putting down my fences by questioning and dissolving limiting beliefs. I accepted that my value as a being has nothing to do with my gender, physical strength, money or weight, that not all men are like my brother, and that no one is out there trying to hurt me anymore. I have been taking responsibility for the fact that the only person that can really hurt me is myself. I faced the scary path of commitment to long term relationships and to a deep love for two men: my husband and my son.
Freedom today for me is the acceptance of who I am including my shortcomings, my raspy and sometimes loud voice. Freedom is no longer about breaking through boundaries outside of me. It is about breaking through the split inside of me, between my conditioning and my heart. Freedom is bridging and integrating the inner split and fighting to be authentic, a journey that continues to become.