Tag Archives: limits

Accepting Nature’s Limits

The idea that we should be able to triumph over nature, transcend its limits and move beyond it informs how people think about technology and spirituality alike. For me, it’s also become a very personal issue. So I’m going to talk about the personal, and let the implications for everything else just hang in the ether.

I was born with my feet pressed back against my shins and walking did not come easily as a consequence. For as long as I can remember, I have had to fight my body to get it to do things others find easy. In my teens I started encountering bouts of really debilitating fatigue. Unable to persuade my doctor to take me seriously, I defaulted to the thing I knew how to do, and I started fighting. I learned how to push through, how to keep moving when it felt like my bones had been lined with lead, how to use will power to overcome exhaustion. I honed my will, it was the one weapon I had against this endless fight with my body.

In my twenties, the pain and stiffness started. At first I ignored it, and as it grew steadily worse, I fought it.  I got used to cycles of burnout, illness and depression. Last year, in a final, heroic effort, I pushed myself so hard that I ended up crying all the time and unable to do anything much. I have found the limits of will, and by midwinter, I knew I had to make some radical changes.

I stopped pushing. I started to look for signs of impending exhaustion and escalating pain before I hit points of dysfunction. I started rationing out my time and energy, looking hard at my priorities and saying no to things that aren’t viable. I mostly say no to late nights, aside from this week when I chose to say yes, twice, and am suffering the consequences. But that’s ok because I’ve budgeted this weekend to be gentler, with more rest and downtime so that I can get over it. If I make good choices, I have more room to say ‘yes’ than I did before. If I mostly work within my limits, there is more room, and more scope for pushing out now and then when something matters. If I’m always up to the edge, there’s nowhere to go if something really good or important comes along.

If I co-operate with my body and don’t spend all my time pushing through pain and exhaustion, I am less vulnerable to depression and anxiety. Not immune, but more resilient, and the habit of saying ‘no’ allows me to make more room around the things I find hard, so that they take less of a toll. There’s a lot I want to do this year, but I’m only going to manage it if I pace myself. I have to balance the things my body needs. I have to start looking at what my body needs in terms of rest and exercise, sleep, and the right food. I have also come to recognise a profound need for affection and inspiration. Hugs and novels are good.

Things are discernibly easier now that I’ve stopped fighting and am trying to work with what I’ve got. It obliges me to ask why I fought so long and so hard in the first place. I have had to question all the beliefs I carry about what I should be able to do, and the beliefs I have around entitlement, or the absence thereof. For most of my life, one of my mantras has been ‘it’s only pain, it doesn’t matter’ which allows me to do to myself things I would never consider it ok to do to anyone else, for the sake of keeping going, being useful, getting things done.

I think I was waiting for someone to come along and say “it’s ok, you’ve done enough, you’re allowed to ease up now.” It took me until the winter of my thirty seventh year to work out that the only person who could or would do that effectively, was going to be me.

Walking the borderlands

Edges and margins are always productive places. In a field, it’s the hedge and strip to either side of it that hold the most life and diversity. In a woodland, the edges, and the margins of glades are where life thrives. In terms of humans, being out at the edges is often where we have most scope to grow and learn, but edges are also scary places.

We have our boundaries for reasons. Inside them, we feel safe and we know what we’re doing. There’s a lot to be said for being comfortable, and the more time you spend uncomfortable and out of your depth, the more you come to value the calm, safer waters. Or at least, that has been my experience. Growth happens when we push our boundaries, but we don’t always want to grow. Indeed, sometimes we find that we can’t. We are finite creatures, and when we get excited about pushing the limits and growing, we easily forget that.

A casual acquaintance from a few years back told me that no matter what she did, she could not run more than ten miles without making herself really ill. We speculated that her body just wouldn’t store enough glycogen to carry her beyond that point. We are limited beings, and as John Michael Greer points out in his Mystery Teachings book, this is a good thing. Without limits and boundaries, we would be little piles of squidge! It is our physical limitations that allow us to be who and what we are.

There are limits in all things. Earlier this week I hit a brain burn-out. In the space of a couple of weeks I had written four stories, each about 5k, each with different settings and setups. I’d studied changing thinking on airport emissions and Staverton airport, and put together a piece (It’ll be on http://www.ruscombegreen.blogspot.com in a week or so) and I studied Green policies on housing and land use with a view to writing a report. I also read most of Glennie Kindred’s Earth Alchemy book for review, and read and reviewed some of Jay Ramsay’s lovely poetry. All of that whilst trying to juggle family demands over the festive period, put up a daily blog, manage my online teaching work and deal with the rest of life. There is only so much you can do with a brain before it hurts, and I hit it. I could have pushed beyond those edges, I have before. What it gets me is tired, ill, depressed and ever less able to think clearly, process new information or make good judgements. As this is entirely counter-productive, I took a break.

I can run my mind harder and faster than I could ten or twenty years ago. This whole slowing down as you age thing is bollocks. It’s a matter of use and intent. I’ve had exactly the same experience with my awkward body – I am in better shape than I was ten or twenty years ago, even. Regularly pushing the edges with both things has allowed me to keep growing. However, pushing continually beyond my boundaries just makes me ill. There are balances to strike.

For me the hardest area in which to deal with the boundaries has always been around the darker emotions. Pain and shame, guilt, loss, grief, fear, anger… these are not things I like feeling, and when I get beyond what I can cope with, I tend to switch off, plunging into the safe, numb waters of depression until I don’t feel so overwhelmed. It leaves me with a lot of things I have not entirely faced, and edges I have not explored. Push too hard into those and my whole body shuts down defensively, so it’s got to be baby steps, taken when everything else is calm, and when I know I can retreat safely at need.

Boundaries are good things. They hold us together. Edges are places of vitality and possibility. I get very tired of New Age books that invite us to explore boundless, limitless freedom because that way lies the pile of squidge, the formless, incapable amoeba self. There may be people for whom being limitless squidge would feel like joyful liberation. On the whole, I find learning to manage the limits of my body and mind a good deal more interesting than that kind of amorphous freedom.