This happened to me last night according to the arrival of a single phrase:
“I can only work within my own limitations.”
The word limit comes from Latin līmitāre, which means boundary or threshold. It also carries the connotation determine. This is because the idea of boundary has an implicit meaning of recognition; when we limit, or establish a boundary, we recognize the point beyond which we are unable to go.
Well, it is implicit and explicit that there are places we are unable to go. However, in my imagination, I am constantly expanding what is possible for me well beyond my own limitations. Every one of us, I think, secretly believes that we have power and control over one thing or another, no matter how humbly we bow our heads when life meets us. This is one of the deficits that the evil commanding ego exploits over and over again.
My own limitations.
Well, life sets limitations: and the place we are in the universe makes it quite clear that we are, as Margaret Flinsch once said to a group of us, “tiny little creatures.” We are really, as individuals, no more significant than bacteria — and perhaps even less so, seeing that bacteria outnumber us so decisively on this planet, and play a so much larger role than we do on populations, faith, and destinies. It is a sobering thought if one chooses to absorb it.
Yet we are interested in these ideas not from the cosmological point of view, fascinating though it may be, but from the point of view of our inner nature. And the phrase that came to me spoke to me of my own limitations — not the ones set for me by God or the cosmos.
This led me, of an instant, to ponder the nature of my own limitations. And it immediately came to me that my own limitations lie within the range of my desire.
My desires are egoistic. They ought to be things of the stars, derived from cosmic influences and the level above me; but they are not. And my desires draw rigid boundaries around me, because I never go outside of them to consider the desires of others, of the community, or to in any real and organic way consider the desire of God. This despite the fact that the desire of God is often active in me in such a way that I can see not only its sacred nature, but the difference between God’s desire and my own, and my resistance to it. This is a contradiction one must learn to live with on a daily basis if one wishes to establish anything real in oneself.
This boundary in me, which is not merely conceptual but actually, physically, emotionally, and intellectually in existence, is defined by my own desire and my earthly wishes. Many of the components that these boundaries are formed by are all-too-familiar to any of us who think about it. Money, power, sex, food: almost everything revolves around these forces. Last night, I jokingly pointed out to a male friend of mine that for males, the two great questions that need to be answered in life represent the contradiction between the sacred and profane that we embody (our higher and lower nature.) Those two great questions are, How much should I pray? And, how many women should I have sex with? I will leave it to the (male) reader to illustrate for themselves, within themselves, exactly where the dividing line between these priorities lies; but I think the dilemma is obvious. The irony is equally self-evident; and if we believe that we do not live between these contradictions, we are imagining things.
I draw these boundaries within myself through the action of my desire. They limit everything that is possible for me in exactly the same way that my postures, thoughts, and emotions are limited by the repertoire I developed when young (I refer readers back once again to the stop exercise material.) My desires determine how I can work, when I can work, and everything I can achieve and work; they draw a circle around me that limits how far I can go. Egoism is the force and the power that holds that boundary in place, because it is in concert and partnership with desire.
Perhaps this helps readers gain a new insight on Gurdjieff’s contention that a man must learn to allow his non-desires to prevail over his desires. My non-desires, you see, live beyond the scope of my own limitations, which are defined by my desire.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.