Essential Ideas:

  • Setbacks and limitations are an inescapable feature of being human.
  • There are more (and less) skillful ways of responding to limitations.
  • These responses can be categorized as contracting or expanding.
  • Generally speaking, expanding responses are more skillful and lead to greater satisfaction and continued growth.

Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

- Rainer Maria Rilke, from "The Man Watching"

Infinite Longing in Finite Circumstances

Who among us doesn't wrestle with feelings of wanting to be more, do more, become more than they feel they are able to?

In describing the self, Roberto Unger uses the phrase "an infinite imprisoned within the finite." This is an evocative line. Do you ever feel this? Like there is this infinite longing in you that has to grapple with its limits.

We get tired. We lose focus. We become small in our selfishness. We can be bitter. We can be petty. We are not enough. We make mistakes. We forget the same lessons over and over. We lose our balance.

If only it were otherwise!

As we acquire more knowledge and skill, we become more aware of subtle shortcomings or we develop new desires. This all but ensures that if we are paying attention, we will go through our entire lifespan feeling less capable than what we sense to be possible.

Many of us spend our lives unaware of this fundamental tension, leading to a kind of perpetual discontent.

There is another way. We can learn to reinterpret the tension of feeling our limits as inherent to life, rather than as an affliction we must remedy. As a teacher of mine has said, "Just enjoy the tension, it means you're alive."

When we do this it becomes possible to experience our limits and feel joy, wonder, gratitude, confidence, and ambition. If not these, we can at least find equanimity.

Like most things, this is easy to say but more challenging to do.

So, how do we do this?

Expanding and Contracting

In moments when we feel the tension of our lacking (we want to feel closer to a loved one but keep getting into arguments; we want to play a song but keep losing the rhythm), rather than contracting, we want to be able to expand.

Common forms of contracting can be seen through the lens of fight, flight, freeze.

  • Fight: We attack, get angry.
  • Flight: We withdraw, turn away in fear.
  • Freeze: We shutdown, go numb, freeze in shame or sadness.

We resist what is, or we resign ourselves to it, giving up a sense of agency in the process. These are reactive, defensive bio-strategies that are present in most animals.

The size of a problem is relative to the perspective from which we view it.

When we identify with and react to our sense of lack our awareness contracts around it, and the more we contract, the larger our problems appear. Conversely, as we expand our awareness to include more of ourselves and of life, our problems become less threatening and more workable.

How to Deal with Limits Skillfully

How do you expand instead of contract?

1) Notice
Become aware of your breathing. Slow it down and increase the depth. Bring your awareness to the immediacy of your experience. Acknowledge whatever contracting response is present (e.g. frustration, confusion, worry, withdrawal). Breathe into this contraction. For awhile, the best you may be able to do is slow the contraction. It may not be possible to expand. This is okay, it's another limitation to breathe into. Have patience.

2) Shift
If it is available to you, you can try an 'expanding' move instead of a contracting one. Throughout remember: go slow and continue to notice your breathing.

  • Bring your gaze to the edges of the space you are in (if in a room bring your awareness to the walls and upper corners of the ceiling). Imagine your awareness filling the space.
  • Become aware of your body position. Imagine a string at the crown of your head pulling you upright. Grow with this. Find an upright, and neutral body position. Chest neither thrusting out nor collapsed. Feet firmly on the ground. Upright and open.
  • Remind yourself of a more expansive message of some kind. "This setback is part of the process. If I didn't experience setbacks, I wouldn't be growing. This challenge is actually a gift to me." Or a phrase like: "Slow and steady," "Progress over perfection," "Rome wasn't built in a day," or "Whatever you meet is the path."

When we feel limited there is a tendency to narrow and tighten our awareness (and our muscles). We get tunnel vision. Pausing to deliberately expand our awareness helps interrupt the automaticity of flight, flight, freeze.

Why is this important to get right?

If we live our lives on the edge of our unfolding, we will near-daily bump up against our own shortcomings and limitations. If we don't practice reinterpreting these limitations by expanding our view, we will shy away from growth. We will back down or get stuck, instead of stepping up.

Further, learning to adopt a more realistic attitude towards the existence of limits frees us from an immense amount of unnecessary sufferingand frees up our energy to be put to better use.

Like plants reaching for the sun, there is something in us that wants to expand. To expand our knowledge, our capabilities, our relationships, our contribution.

Yet this expansion is only possible if we're willing to continually engage in challenges that are larger than us. The more we learn to relax in the face of struggle, the more we can keep pushing the boulder up the hill with steadiness, grace, and ease.

You are not going anywhere, you are just going, and the nature of the "going" is what makes a difference in the quality of your life and that of others.

- Jim Kochalka