the dharma of our limitations

Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts.
Pull yourself out of bad ways as an elephant raises itself from the mud.
– the Dhammapada

Oh… my limitations. At times, it seems I have so much freedom – of thought, of choice. Other times it seems I am as limited as a creature could possible be!

The other day I called one of my mentors. It was a beautiful, balmy evening as I heard her welcome voice over the phone. “Hello! I said. “How are you?”

“I’m pretty shitty,” she responded promptly – with such artless candor we both couldn’t help laughing. Our conversation soon turned to the week we’d each spent, our troubles and our joys. It was my honor to hear her tell me these things.

I could relate to her honest greeting. I’m not always feeling wonderful. As I saw in a meme the other day: “Not great, Bob!”

In fact, sometimes I suffer a great deal, even over some rather small affair. At times like these, Buddhism departs from the gentle, vague (or incorrigibly bland and contradictory) reputation it enjoys with many non-practitioners – and becomes a flaming, slicing sword! Buddhism suggests that if we really want to feel any better, or to do any better, or to help ourselves and others, that we do something quite extraordinary: that we embrace our discomfort with mindfulness.

No, not that! Anything but that!

There are probably only a handful of people on this planet who can do this with regularity through the day. Many of us will do almost anything to relieve this discomfort: we will eat, drink, smoke, shop. It takes incredible bravery and patience to learn mindfulness. So if we could, say, get through the day with a sore knee while breathing gently through the pain, forgoing analgesics, and being compassionate to our injured bodies – well, the kind of mental and emotional anguishes that bedevil us daily, can sometimes seem like an abrupt, anesthetic amputation!

And it would seem that when I’m feeling my most vulnerable – like a crab having molted! – I am often confronted with an individual who seems to be in a place of quietude and power. To wit: in the last couple months, my partner stopped drinking caffeine – cold turkey. He suffered headaches (although he didn’t complain), but now happily takes no liquids but herbal tea and water! He has also restarted his running program – a little over twenty miles a week. He has been handling work conflict, a busy schedule, and financial limitations and setbacks with ease, generosity and aplomb!

But of course: it is a blessing to watch someone fare well.

And one thing I realized, tonight, while I climbed the stairs to bed, is that I have always profited, every time I admit my limitations. I have always found more freedom, ease, and joy when I acknowledge a limitation and let that limitation be, for the time being. Look into it gently, with mindfulness. Paradoxically, when I fully admit my limitation, it is that moment I begin to see a way deeper into freedom.

This might sound strange, but I’ve lived and observed long enough to know that it is true.

May we all make friends with our limitations. They are ours, for the time being, and should be as precious as any other beloved, much-worn thing.