Escaping Cages

Photo: Squirrel Trapped in a Cage

The cage rattled and the creature inside gnawed and pulled at the metal bars. It was a Grey Squirrel, one of several that had chewed a nest into the side of my parents house. My dad was catching and releasing them several miles away with the hope that they would find another place to nest. The trap was designed to cage, not harm, so thankfully the creature inside wasn’t hurt.

Due to the design of the trap, tipping the cage over would cause the doors to unlock and open. The squirrel was definitely big enough to tip the cage over, but instead he paced back and forth and occasionally stopped to gnaw and pull on the metal enclosure.

That’s when I found myself wondering what a human would do if placed in the same situation. Despite there being no indication that tipping the cage over would open the doors, a human would surely try that anyway.

I realized that’s what makes us unique: When the outcome seems hopeless, we test the impossible.

As soon as it becomes blindingly obvious that our current path isn’t getting us anywhere, we do something unheard of in nature. We control and put aside the one thing that all other creatures cannot: Fear.

When all seems hopeless, we don't give up. We shake our confining boxes. We break free of patterns. We revoke our commitment to the status quo. We evolve.

This ability to overcome fear and spontaneously evolve is part of what makes us human. It allows us to recognize when something is detrimental to our well-being and then take steps to circumvent it.

The metaphorical cages exist everywhere, but two places they can usually be found are in our patterns and commitments. Habits can make patterns not only hard to break but also hard to detect. Commitments can become so much apart of our identity that we forget we have the option of changing them.

If a pattern or commitment is preventing us from growing, if it's holding us back from experiencing our full potential, or if it's detrimental to our overall well-being or sense of inner peace, that pattern or commitment is a cage.

Can you think of any patterns or commitments in your life that represent metaphorical cages? What about thought patterns, ways of thinking, or attitudes? (Remember, attitude is everything).

I often catch myself running around, stuck in a pattern that is neither getting me anywhere nor contributing to my overall well-being.

I might be clicking through Twitter looking for something interesting to read, rereading emails to make sure I didn’t miss anything, or planning a healthier daily routine instead of actually changing my daily habits.

I've recently found myself researching budget travel destinations instead of accepting that my heart has already made the decision to go back to India.

Sometimes I even find myself planning what to plan or thinking about what to stop thinking about (those patterns can be really dangerous black holes for time and focus).

There comes a time when we need to stop thinking and start doing. We need to stop planning and start taking action. We need to stop succumbing to the resistance that fear pushes onto us and accept that right now, this very moment, is as good as any.

There comes a time when we need to take a stand and start an inner revolution.

There’s a time for thinking and planning and there’s a time for action. When we sense the current cycle of activity isn’t doing anything, that's a signal it’s time for action.

That’s why doing gets things done. It fosters change and gives us the strength to shape the future. The only change that running in circles fosters is that of creating a deeper rut.

Instead of assigning fear the role of gatekeeper with the authority to hold us back, we need to put that fear to work. We need to use it as motivation to escape the cages of doubt that are constraining our full potential.

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  1. Raam, Really enjoyed this post, it is so easy to slip into
    cyclical patterns that, well, lead us round and round in circles.
    Thanks for the reminder to check ourselves make sure we aren’t
    allowing yet another tyrannical “urgent” matter to sidetrack us
    from our true focus or magnify our fears of change and growth. This
    also ties in with Monday’s blog post, so we’ll be mentioning this
    to our readers. Mahalo for the challenge to start an inner

    • Thank you, Gena!

      It’s so easy to be sidetracked, sidetracked by routines and habitual feel-good patterns that get us nowhere. I certainly don’t think all patterns and routines are bad, but balance, as always, is key.

  2. Apt, at all times.

    I want to share a dream I once had, my all time favourite actually.

    I found myself going from stairwell to stairwell, each level reached through a door from the previous. The stairwell was filled with all types of threatening, clashing machinery – it was a hard job to make myself up to the door in one piece.

    And when I did get to the door, voila, the same all over again.

    Until, after a number of tries, I put my hand on the doorknob and was about to open it, when I remembered some good advice, that I can alter outcomes and my life by being positive and high thinking. Something like that.

    With that thought I opened the door, and found myself flying through a beautiful wooded park, towards a stately building where I alighted on the grass and walked up to my spiritual teacher who sat on a bench as if waiting for me.

    Now, if only I can replicate this in my life. It’s about fucking time, seeing as I’m still going through the middle of some kind of industrial machine and I had this dream five or seven years ago.

    • Thank you for sharing your dream, Ali. It’s amazing that we can have dreams that stick with us indefinitely, as if they were tangible events that occurred in the real world.

      I’ve had several dreams throughout my life that have stuck around and I’ve come to believe that they are guide posts, helping to ground us and remind us of lessons that we need to learn.

  3. The “cage” of commitment has certainly been a big theme in my past. A sense of obligation or responsibility for the interests of others that’s often been a more powerful factor in my decision making then my own aspirations. Sometimes it feels very difficult to let go of. Ultimately though it’s very destructive to set the direction of your life based on what other people want or need. It helps to remember that everyone is capable of making choices for themselves as well. Your job is to follow the path you choose for yourself; not the path that would be convenient for someone else.

    • Hi Lach,

      I think you’ve touched on something really important: We need to find a balance between setting the direction of our life based on our core values and beliefs while also contributing part of ourselves back to the global community (i.e., self-less service). We need to find our own path, but we also should not simply ignore everybody else.

      I think that blogging really contributes to finding that balance. We can direct our lives, improve ourselves, and create experiences that help us grow, and using the Internet we can simultaneously share that knowledge, insight, and the overall journey with everyone else.

      While it’s not a good idea to set the direction of our lives solely based on what other people need or want, we do need to remember that our life is linked to theirs whether we like it or not. In some small way, their pain is our pain; their suffering is our suffering. We should craft our journey based on our unique potential while keeping in mind how that potential can contribute to the global community.

      • Perhaps we’re talking at cross purposes, but I don’t really think it’s necessary to find a “balance” between those things because I don’t believe that they need to be in tension. Yes, at the deepest level we are all one and we are all in it together. Yet at the same time each of us is responsible for his own life. Taking the responsibility for other people’s lives serves neither one of you. For example: should you stay in a job or a relationship that you have outgrown because it would be more convenient for the others? Leaving might cause them some pain; but if you make it your job to protect others from the responsibility of their own feelings, then you can no longer guide your own life.

        • Agreed. They don’t need to be in tension, but in today’s world they are very much in tension (and terribly out of balance).

          I didn’t say that we should be taking responsibility for the lives (or happiness) of others. I said we should craft our journey responsibly.

          We’re all living on this planet together, sharing resources and space with everybody else. We do have a certain level of responsibility towards the global community and to all other life that exists on the planet (that’s why we shouldn’t pollute the environment or smoke cigarettes that are negatively affecting those around us). Our time is also a limited resource and I believe that we need to use it responsibly as well (by thinking forward, beyond ourselves and our short lifespan and taking that into consideration with each step).

  4. Hi Raam,
    Years ago the research on ‘Learned Helplessness’ by Martin Seligram indicated that as humans we sometimes end up locked in cages even if the way out should be clear and many of us are indeed trapped in our belief systems.

    The good news is that Seligram has updated research on what he calls ‘Learned Happiness’ showing that we can move away from fear and learned helplessness and burn into our minds happiness patterns. As you may know ‘learned happiness’ is the foundation of the new and inspiring Positive Psychology.

    For me it is always worth nothing the FEAR acronym (False Evidence Appearing Real ) when I am looking at making a response to a situation. Do I really have something to fear or am I just making it up? Is a question I need to always ask myself.

    All the best,

    • Hi David,

      I hadn’t heard of that FEAR acronym, but I love it!

      Fear itself is what gets us to believe that false, or unverified, evidence is real and therefore the risks are too great.

      When we switch to a mode of testing our assumptions and verifying for ourselves what is true and what is false (i.e., we’re willing to make mistakes), then we find that the limits to our potential and the boundaries for the impossible are actually much further out than we expected.

  5. A very timely post, indeed. I often suffer from this, and one of my resolutions is to break free from negative cyclical patterns.

    I haven’t really thought of it like a cage, but it’s a fitting description. I saw it more as being tied to the messed up social system that surrounds us. There are plenty of messages calling out to you to surrender to negative impulses. Many of the people I see in public display it proudly. They have no idea their lives are caged. They think they are living free.

    I often think that those who can truly see that culture is what we make it, have a responsibility to help create a better one. Perhaps that is me being selfish, wanting this new world to come tomorrow. But why wait?

    • That’s just it, Lynn! We must not wait! I wholeheartedly agree with you that those who see that culture — and the entire world, really — is what we make it, have a responsibility to work towards creating a better one.

      When I read blog posts or hear discussions talking about all the technical details of how things evolve and change, I can’t help but feel like it’s all talk and no work. We need to be the generation that not only discusses how to make the world a better place, but the generation that starts taking steps towards implementing such a future.

      What are the common threads in all our visions for a better future? What things can we all agree on? Now, how can each of us start working towards that shared vision? What can we spend the next 60, 70, and 80 years of our lives doing to enable that future?

      • Based on my experience, we often see and feel so much heartache and uncover so many opportunitie for change, that we often succumb to a kind of paralysis of action.

        Then again, you could take on too many activities of action and never move the needle in any significant ways.

        A strategy that I have been forcing myself to follow more and more is to focus on ONE SINGLE THING at a time. Pick that issue that makes your heart race/ache the most and start there. Do it for 3 months, 6 months, 1 year… whatever. When you have made a difference you will know it. At that point, move on. There will (unfortunately) be something new for you to work on.

  6. what a powerful thought. thank you for sharing this Raam. i have a bad habit of paralysis by analysis and when i break out of it and actually move forward with action, it’s such a liberating, incredible feeling that is hard to describe.

    recently i had this incredible feeling from action and then this past week, i think i stifled myself again with overwhelm and planning.

    your post has reminded me of what it feels like to keep moving, right now!

    • Hi Marianney!

      I know that exhilarating feeling of freedom and liberation all too well! I also know how incredibly difficult it can be to get out of a rut and see the full spectrum of potential that awaits us. What I find really interesting is that despite the joy and happiness we experience when we break free, the self-doubt and self-limiting beliefs always return and challenge us.

  7. Great post !

    Do not hesitate and live as much as you can while it’s possible.

    When some of your family members suffer from Alzheimer (my case), or, one of your kids has a handicap (such as autism, one of my friends), all these nice dreams and projects are left way far behind and your life takes a very weird turn.

    You’re freedom is gone and you don’t know what to wish so that you could claim your own life back. And you don’t know WHEN that will happen.

    I tipped the cage many times before and I’m so glad I did, because you can’t tell in advance when the said cage will be tied down to the ground and for how long !

    • Thank you, MarieBo, for the excellent advice! It’s far too easy to get complacent and forget how grateful we should be for everything that we have, including time!

  8. Hi Raam, this is an interesting take on something I’ve been thinking about. I can tell that 2011 is going to be a big year of transition for me. This is at once exciting and scary because I don’t know how a lot of things will turn out. However, I recently realized that a lot of my “cages” were purely in my mind. I am extremely lucky as there are few things I must do, and I have a financial cushion which will allow me to try new things out for a while. I’ve made a few decisions, but a lot of my plans are still up in the air, and I’ve decided to be okay with that. 🙂

    • Hi Jennifer,

      I find that the cages in our mind are the most difficult to escape, but consequently are the most liberating when freedom is achieved.

      I look forward to following your journey in 2011! I’m happy you’re at peace with your plans being up in the air. My plans are almost always up in the air and that’s such an exhilarating way to live — you really never know what crazy, life-changing adventure might be right around the corner (my spontaneous visit to the schools in Nepal last year immediately comes to mind!) 🙂

  9. Hi Raam!

    “There comes a time when we need to stop thinking and start doing.” (A reality and an inspiring phrase to begin my week! :))

    One thing that I know, it’s that all that we need is to move forward with our actions – which will define if we’re starting doing the right things, or if we’re returning to the past with the same actions that we don’t need at present.
    It’s difficult, when we just walk in the same direction and as a result what we have? A meaningless life, just for have taken the same negative action.
    I always try to live with the reality in my life and I can’t hide of it, because I would feel lost. As human being, I have my own cages, but it’s my decision to change my final result, for good or for bad. My reality is that I have two directions and one of them is the right one. I decide to live in or to live out of those cages.

    Thank you Raam!

    • Hi Viviana!

      I like what you propose: That no matter what choice we make, good or bad, it’s still our choice. Even if there are external circumstances that seem to tie us down, we still have an entire universe within us… we still decide how to approach those situations and what decisions to make. 🙂

  10. I was in the same place a month ago, but with plans to head to India when my heart wanted to stay in South America.

    It’s amazing the sense of relief you have when you listen to your heart.

    • I was wanting to go to South America during the first half of year but my heart wants to go back to India. 😀

      It really is an incredible relief when we stop doubting and questioning what our heart is telling us. Every time my heart has tugged me in a specific direction and I’ve followed it, I always end up in a better place… you’d think by now I would’ve stopped questioning it.

  11. Raam, I liked the cage analogy. Animals get put into cages, we as human beings put ourselves into cages(most of the time we don’t realize it). Why are so many people, once they get their dream house and furnish it just the way they want it, still miserable. Why is it when after we buy all the “toys” that we think will make us happy, we keep searching for more and more…thinking that next thing will make me happy. The truth is (and I know that you already know this), we’ll never find that dream house or that toy that will bring fulfillment and true happiness to our lives(we’re in our self-designed cage). The reason why I know that you knew that is that you saw that, and broke free from your cage(and so did I). you sold your houses and stuff and walked away from that deception. It’s freedom, but it’s not that stuff and houses that are evil, but seemingly in most cases we become possessed by our possessions. But there’s hope…how did that squirrel get out of that cage? He was let out by someone who was a friend to him. We need others to help us out of our cages, we can’t get ourselves out no matter how hard we try. I had many friends help me and I’m sure you had a few help you as well. I’m grateful for our friendship Raam, I need friends in my life.

    • You’re right, John, friends are important. It’s also important to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals, friends who encourage us on our journey and who provide us support. Far too often those support groups simply don’t exist within our vicinity. Everyone around us doesn’t “get” it and trying to convince them otherwise is often a waste of energy (you can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn).

      That’s one thing that the Internet really changes. We can find others who encourage and support us while sitting in front our computer, whether we’re alone in our room or in a crowded cafe.

      I also believe that it’s vital for us to think for ourselves and make our own decisions and mistakes. If we are handed all the answers — if an entire path is lit up for us — our self-exploration and inner discovery remains stagnant. I say we need to test and retest. Question the status quo, even when the status quo is far from normal, even when it feels right, we should still be testing and retesting. Always exploring.

  12. Hi Raam,

    I agree that habitual patterns run very deep, into every crevice of our perception. Undoing them is one of the most transformative steps we can take. Its’ the work of a lifetime!

    • Hi Sandra,

      One of the best habits I feel that I’ve created is that of locating my habits/routines/quirks/patterns and trying to break them. I look for little things that I do repeatedly — the way I move my head when asked a question, the facial expression on my face when I’m talking, the way I fidget in my chair when I get uncomfortable — and then I try to do something different.

      I find that having such awareness allows me to quickly identify bigger habits, especially those that are detrimental to my well-being.

      Habits are incredibly powerful and allowing ourselves to form habits and then forget about them can have disastrous long-term effects. As you said, undoing and avoiding those negative habits is a life-long process! 🙂

  13. I love that FEAR acronym, too. Thanks to David for mentioning it.
    Your post is an excellent reminder to examine our patterns and habits since it’s easy and natural for us to slip back into them. I occasionally make an effort to think about what I can eliminate from my life and then do it. Getting rid of the unnecessary or negative leaves space for more positive things (or even just for space, which is a treasure! There’s not always the need to fill it!).
    As the birth of my son approaches next week, I am busy going through things, throwing stuff out, and filling the back of my car with donations. Feels so good to downsize, but can I continue the intention by not replacing it all with more junk?!?

    • Hi Jenna!

      I think the trick is to think about how much better you feel without the stuff — how much extra room is in your “life” without it. That’s all extra space you’ll have for your son (congratulations, by the way!) and those values will be so good for him to learn early on (the understanding that “stuff” doesn’t equal value).

      My parents raised me with no furniture (or TV!) in the house. It wasn’t that we couldn’t have it. They just chose to do without it. And I think that helped instill in me this feeling that stuff doesn’t equal value. That our lives and what we do with our time is more valuable that a physical object that we can call “ours”. It also made me appreciate the small things that I did get — that new science kit, the new model rocket, the new computer game.

  14. One thing that has worked for me when breaking habits or creating action is spending a couple weeks visualizing the change in my mind until I am ready for the shift. The change I want just seems to flow into my life. Some things I have wanted to change have taken longer to fully realize, but mental rehearsing and having a replacement picture of the new reality for myself has been quite effective.

    Excellent read.

    • Thanks, James!

      I totally agree on using visualization to help induce change. I truly believe that if we cannot (or do not) envision something, it will be impossible to bring it about.

      I used visualization a lot when I was getting in shape. I constantly pictured what I would look like after I had lost all my excess weight. It helped… a lot!

      I used visualization last year too, when I imagined what my life would be like after I transitioned away from the 9-to-5 and into a nomadic lifestyle. And now here I am, almost exactly the way I pictured it. 🙂

      • I love hearing stories of people visualizing their future and bringing into reality.
        It helps me to know that it works for others and people are living their personal desires.

        Thank you for sharing,

        • That’s what makes the blogosphere so wonderful: We can find others who are dealing with the same challenges as we are and we can hear their thoughts and connect with them no matter where they are. 🙂

          I’ll be checking out your blog. Thank you for connecting, James!

          • It has been pretty amazing seeing what everyone is doing. I have been “out of the loop.” 🙂

            There will be some sweeping changes to my blog, so please feel free to check out!

            Happy travels,

  15. I doubt any squirrel could pick a lock with a credit card. Unless it was a racoon, those robbers get pretty creative.

    I found that, as a blogger, a lot of the time we comment on people’s pages to get “traffic” over to our sites. That method is pretty terrible. Yet, it becomes routine and here we are day in and day out trying to comment on as much blogs as possible in hopes to find someone interested in us.

    I’m not saying that that’s what I’m doing here, I’m writing a comment because I like what you said and I want to put my two cents on what you just said. I’m saying it’s routine and habit to do these things, and it’s hard to stop. I know I should be building a deeper relationship with bloggers, but because I’m so use to mindlessly kissing everyone’s blog even if they don’t deserve it that sooner or later, if I continue to do this, I won’t be successful in getting anything done.

    • Hi Jonathan,

      I hear you on needing to break habits like needless commenting. I also had a bad habit of doing that for a short time. I found that when I forced myself to only leave comments that added value — comments that said more than “great post, i loved this!” — then I was forced to really think about what I needed to write. If I couldn’t think of anything insightful or valuable to add to the conversation, I didn’t leave a comment. 🙂

      Now I find myself being very particular with where I leave comments, mainly because I’m trying to focus more of my energy on replying to comments here on my own blog. But if I read a blog post that relates to me or where I feel I can add a bit of my own experience to the post, then I will take the time to comment.


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