Accepting Our Limitations

Swami Bhaktipoornananda Saraswati

“Pain, pain, go away: come again another day.” This could have been my mantra for the last three months. There's nothing quite like pain and incapacity to make you realize your likes and dislikes. Nobody wants pain – we'd all like to be free of pain, with an easeful body, a sharp, focused mind and a feeling of joy behind each and every action. After all, this is the essence of karma yoga – joyful action.


So when I was recently crippled with back pain from a slipped disc I was glad to find that, initially at least, it was only a physical problem. I quickly adapted to life in the slow lane, gave up all my plans and schemes and just got on with this new, very limited situation. For the first week I had to concentrate on straightening out from the forward curve I was stuck in due to muscle spasm. For the second week I was mostly resting flat on my back or walking around very warily. Initially every move seemed fraught with danger. Will it hurt? Will I do more damage? And so on.

So for two weeks I had plenty of time for thinking, and for three months of intermittent pain, time to work on those thoughts. Here are a few of those thoughts to share with you.


Limitations can either be accepted or resisted. The two words “I can't” indicated an inability. “I am not able; it is beyond my capability.” Easy words to find when you're flat on your back, but as you start to improve it's always tempting to try to do more than you can.

So I dug back into my memory for times of being unable and remembered being a teenager trying to do homework, realizing that I couldn't do it because I didn't understand it. The constant thought “I can't do it” combined with an inability to ask for help led to a drop in self-worth. Everything at school is competitive: you are judged on your ability. My reports indicated that I tried hard, but this didn't help my self-esteem and I was suicidal. I've also realized that I've had backache ever since. Resistance to dis-ease leads to pain. Resistance to pain leads to more pain! When you're unable you think you're no good, of no value, missing out on everything worthwhile, not belonging, unloved, and so the list goes on. And you don't have to be a teenager to go through this stuff.

Meanwhile, of course, on the other side of the coin is acceptance. The admission 'I can't' can itself be quite painful; most of us find it really hard to ask for help. I decided to put a sign on my door: “HELP WANTED: laundry, airing mattress on the roof, back massage... and so on”. People really responded to it. They love to help. Some took on regular tasks, it was wonderful to feel so supported. But being so dependent on others I began to wonder what I could give in return. So I started doing prana mudra and 'beaming out' love and positivity into my surroundings. I chanted Mahamrityunjaya mantra for others as well as myself. And I started to write out jokes and stick them on my door for all to enjoy. It was great listening to giggles at the door.


On my inner journeys I asked my body and myself many questions. How and why did I get into this 'mess'? How can I prevent a recurrence? What are the contributing factors – physical, mental, etc? I realized that my stooped posture and round shoulders relates to more than just the awkwardness of being six feet tall at fourteen years of age. I recognized a shrinking, closed, constricted sensation in the front of my chest, and realized it began at high school when I felt bullied and filled with fears and anxieties. No wonder I contracted! So now I'm working more on opening, trusting, shining, singing, enjoying, being able to say no without contracting.

When you are unable it's important to acknowledge what you can give, to yourself and others. When you've accepted your limitations then you begin to see the uses of adversity. You find you have time for self-nurturing, for introspection, for aloneness. Qualities like patience, endurance and joy actually come to life. There is ample opportunity for just being still, turning in and tuning in to God, Guru, Self. Finding out what you can truly gain from this situation. Time to kindle the light within, to be and simply to shine, and be content to do so.


All this is easy when you're highly motivated. For about a month I seemed to cruise along, but then I fell into a hole of depression that I found hard to climb back out of. The catalyst was the realization that I would not be fit to travel to Rikhia to see Paramahamsaji. Suddenly I was resisting again. I felt deeply sad, missing out, uninspired, wanting to escape. Not being able to do what I wanted to do in the way that I wanted to do it. My ego was panicking like a spoilt child! And so my back broke out in fresh twinges and my fears and tears re-emerged.


An invalid is what I felt like physically and mentally. Invalid is an interesting word – in-valid – not valid. I escaped into a few good books but returned to reality and I didn't like it, (the good old kleshas again!). Well, I thought, if you don't like it, if you cannot accept it, change something! So I went and asked for help, and started working in my favourite place – chidakasha!


Many years ago I learnt practices of creative visualization to help with healing, amongst others things. And here they were again being presented to me by Swami Yogaratna. So we worked together for a while, discovering blocks to be cleared out with the help of visualization. Various images presented themselves to assist in the process of clearing, cleansing, releasing and letting go. This reflected in daily life through the body releasing toxins, and emotions being expressed that I'd sat on for years.


But an important link was still missing. I'd lost my inspiration. My goal was to be free of pain – not very realistic in the short or long-term! Pain is like a warning light – something is wrong. I needed to be able to welcome pain as an old friend, not deny it and put it away.

So it was time to get things back in perspective, and to get my imagination involved. Time to get motivated and excited about something. Time again for joy to be expressed. Maybe you'd like to give this a try too – go and grab paper and pen. Now, imagine for a moment that you can do anything you want to do. You have all the resources you need – money, connections, time, health, energy, and so on. What would you do with the rest of your life? No limits! What is important? Or think about what people will say about you when you're dead and gone. Write it down. Everything and anything.

Look at your work, your health, your duties to self, family, friends, community, country, planet, God. What are your ambitions, needs, attitudes, relationships? How can you contribute to your world? Keep this list and add to it now and then. Discover what is important, what you are attached to. For example, my list showed how attached I am to teaching. Now I'm looking at that and seeking other forms of expression so that if I cannot teach I can still feel fulfilled, I still have things I can do. When your list is complete write a list for the next five years. Then go for it! Let it inspire you. Without inspiration we struggle. For me my practice became automatic and lacked awareness; life became boring. Now I'm on track, wobbling a bit now and then, but cheerful, optimistic and more ready to accept life's aches and pains.

As I sail across the ocean of samsara, guru's grace is the wind. I'm learning to sail. I hoist my sails with faith and trust and surrender to the sea. I try to sail happily through storms and calm, not knowing where I'm going, in pain, hungry – knowing 'This too shall pass'.

And I love sailing!