Freedom does not start from the outside. Although external conditions have a part to play, that is not where freedom originates. This might sound backward, but authentic freedom arises initially from inner conditions. Its deepest roots are within us. Most often when we speak of freedom, what we actually have in mind are freedom’s outer manifestations. This may be the gravest error we make in our understanding of freedom. If we think we will achieve freedom when we can exercise complete control over our immediate environment, we overlook the single most important determinant of authentic freedom: our own minds.
Our mind has unlimited potential. It is not bound to any one position or viewpoint. What we think or feel — our mental state — is not simply determined by outer circumstances. Because of this, no matter how challenging our external conditions might be, we can experience freedom if we cultivate the inner resources that allow us to feel free. The basis for establishing authentic freedom is within us. If you can access a sense of inner freedom no matter what is going on around you, you are experiencing freedom.
As important as outer liberties are, freedom does not consist solely in enjoying physical or verbal liberty, such as freedom of movement or freedom of speech. We may have the liberty to do and say as we wish and yet still be deeply unfree mentally or emotionally. This is why inner freedom is key. When we have freed our minds and hearts from within, our happiness no longer depends on making the rest of the world serve our self-centered goals. Not only that, we gain freedom to work to change the external conditions that have the potential to limit or obstruct our freedom from outside, and we also have what we need to be able to work for the freedom of others. What are we looking for when we seek freedom? Maybe at the bottom of it all, the freedom we seek is the experience of genuine happiness.
Since this is an inner experience, external things cannot be the measure of our happiness or our freedom. We will come back in a moment to the question of what we mean by happiness and how it enables us to experience freedom, but I think if we examine our own experiences, we can see that whether we call it freedom or not, if we feel free, we feel happy, and if we feel happy, we also feel free. The state of mind and the feeling we seek can be called freedom, or it can be called happiness. But whatever name we give it, if we want to experience happiness or freedom, we must cultivate the inner conditions that give rise to those states.
Source: 17th Karmapa from the book "Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society.