It’s very easy to become neurotic. It’s even easier to disappoint others. We want to be a good person and our heart is bursting with compassion wanting to help in every way we can, but we are still incredibly limited in what we can actually do. Our attachment, pride, guilt, and misplaced sense of responsibility prevent us from patiently accepting our current limitations. The result is anxiety, burnout, and depression for ourselves and dependency, disappointment, and resentment for others. If we can learn how to accept our limits and communicate them to others, we can avoid all of these problems and transform our good heart into a qualified bodhichitta.
All of us want to be a good person. We want to help. We see those we love suffer and we want to rescue them. Our meditations on the faults of selfishness, the benefits of selflessness, and compassion drive us to want to commit our lives to serving others. We may even fashion ourselves as a bodhisattva dedicated to freeing all living beings from the ocean of samsara and leading them all to the everlasting joy of the Buddha lands. We read time and again that virtuous intentions such as these are supposed to lead to inner peace and happiness, but if we are honest we are miserable on the inside, useless on the outside and we seem inexorably headed towards some sort of dramatic crash. Perhaps that reckoning has already come. I would say much of this comes from an inability to accept and to communicate our current limitations.
Why do we struggle to accept our limitations?
First, we fail to make the distinction between attachment to others not suffering and compassion wishing others are free from their suffering. Attachment to others not suffering mistakenly thinks our happiness depends upon others not suffering, so when they go down, we go down with them. Our own well-being then depends on them doing well, and so we then feel others need to change or their problems need to stop for us to be happy. We then push ourselves to solve their problems out of personal necessity. Because we feel our happiness depends upon theirs, to accept we can’t solve their problems is to condemn ourselves to misery.
Second, our pride convinces us we are better than we actually are. We think we are this amazing high bodhisattva who can save everyone and we don’t want to admit – even to ourselves – that we are still just a beginner and are still quite limited in what we can do. This is especially a problem for teachers and parents and caregivers. Others are looking up to us and relying upon us, we don’t want to let them down (or have them realize we are a fraud), so we pretend we are more capable than we really are. Perhaps we have a unique opportunity to help others and make a difference, and so we keep taking on more and more responsibility, not considering whether we have the capacity to handle it all. Perhaps our own sense of self-worth is very much tied up with being the stable one who is there for others, and we feel if we admitted our limitations we would come crashing down.
Third, our guilt pushes us unhealthily beyond our limits. We know we are not supposed to be selfish, and we think we should be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others. They are suffering, they are struggling, and we can make a difference. To not do so is to be selfish, and so we beat ourselves up to push beyond what is sustainable. How can we just let them suffer when there is one more thing we can do? We generate this long list of things we “should be doing” if we were perfect, and then we judge ourselves against this, viewing ourselves as a failure if we don’t do it all.
Fourth, we have a misplaced sense of responsibility that it is up to us to solve others problems for them. Doesn’t superior intention tell us that we need to assume personal responsibility for the welfare of all? Doesn’t emptiness explain that ultimately we are responsible for everything that happens in our karmically created dream? Surely, it is up to us. If we don’t do it, who will? Because we think we are responsible for relieving others from their suffering, they then start to think the same thing about us, so they look to us to solve their problems for them, and then get mad at us when we don’t. They then make us feel guilty for not being there for them, setting in motion vicious spirals within our mind.
What is the result of all of this non-acceptance of our limitations?
In the beginning it leads to great stress and anxiety. There is so much we need to do, and we don’t have time or the capacity to do it all, so we become stressed. We fear the consequences of what will happen if we don’t do it all, and so we become anxious. Others place enormous demands on us that we feel it is our responsibility to fulfill, and so we become pulled in ten directions at once but find ourselves falling short on every front. We then push harder and harder to try meet all of these demands. The sustained stress on our system eventually leads to some form of burnout. Our system simply can’t take anymore and we crash. The slightest thing seems like an insurmountable challenge to our fried system. As our capacity to do things declines, the list of our perceived failures grows as we are no longer able to do things that before we could. Our pride tells us we “should” be able to do these things and can’t admit that we are burned out. Our guilt beats us up for being so incapable and supposedly letting down everyone around us. Eventually, we start to fall into a depression about our reduced capacity, which lowers our capacity further in a vicious spiral. We then think we need to push ourselves to get out of our depression, but our burned out system can’t handle that, feeding our sense of hopelessness, failure, and guilt.
And what happens to others when we fail to accept our limitations? In the beginning, it creates a dependency of others on us. Because we have constructed ourselves as responsible for solving their problems, they think it is up to us to solve their problems for them. We don’t want to let them down and we want (need!) them to be happy, so we make all sorts of promises that we will do things for them. They then think their happiness depends on us doing these things for us. We have in effect disempowered them to assume responsibility for their own experience. Their dependency on us creates a terrible dilemma for us. If we solve their problems for them or do their work for them, then we feed their dependency. If we don’t do these things for them, then they will sink or fail, which is something we can’t tolerate or accept. But inevitably, we commit to more than we can actually do, leaving others feeling disappointed by us. We didn’t live up to our promises to them, and now they are suffering the consequences. Their disappointment then feeds our guilt, and perhaps they even manipulate us through our guilt to get us to do more for them. Since they think their happiness and well-being depends upon us doing things for them, when we fail to do so, they feel like their suffering is our fault, so they become resentful that we didn’t do what they think we should have. This resentment then poisons our relationship with the person we so dearly love. They think we are not doing enough, and we alternate between feeling guilty or resentful ourselves at their lack of gratitude for all that we did do for them.
Genuine acceptance of our limitations is the answer
What does it mean to accept our limitations? To accept something in a Dharma context does not mean to simply acknowledge something as a fact. We could acknowledge our limitations, and still be miserable about them. Likewise, it does not mean we don’t try do anything about them, thinking it is somehow a fault to grow beyond them. To accept something means to be at peace with it. We can humbly acknowledge the fact of our current limitations without falling into the extremes of either guilt or complacency. Our mind, quite simply, is not disturbed, but is rather energized. What enables us to accept anything is our ability to transform it into the spiritual path. A difficult situation, for example, gives us an opportunity to train in patience. A needy person give us an opportunity to train in giving, and so forth. Helping other’s through their suffering gives us an opportunity to train in skillful means. Accepting our limitations gives us an opportunity to train in bodhichitta.
Like with so many things, Yoda said it best when he told Luke, “Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” Seeing our limitations is our greatest teacher because it shows us what we must work on to take the next step on the spiritual path. We would want to do more, but we accept that we currently can’t. We don’t expect ourselves to already be able to be perfect and do everything perfectly. We don’t beat ourselves up for not already being better than we are or for having limitations. Rather, we use this awareness to encourage us to improve our wisdom, skills, and capacity so that we can eventually not be constrained in these ways. Superior intention is beyond compassion because it takes personal responsibility for freeing all beings from their suffering, but it is only humbly accepting our limitations that transforms our superior intention into a qualified bodhichitta. A failure to do so causes Dharma teachings to make us neurotic in all the ways explained above; but doing so is the last major step to becoming a bodhisattva. Then there is no contradiction whatsoever between complete humility and soaring spiritual aspiration. Accepting our limitations is the difference between developing a Jesus complex and becoming a qualified bodhisattva. It is the difference between the miserable path of self-flagellation and the Joyful Path of good fortune.
We can accept we can’t save others now because we know their present suffering is fuel for our eventual becoming of a Buddha for their sake. One day, we will lead them to freedom. We don’t need to pretend to be better than we are because that blocks spiritual growth and prevents us from being the best possible teacher for them. Long before Yoda said “we are what they grow beyond,” Kadam Morten said the best teacher is not the one who shows the example of being perfect, but rather the one who shows the example of happily improving. The best parent is the one who helps their kids learn from the parents’ failures. We don’t need to feel guilty about our limitations because they are normal. Dharma doesn’t tell us how we should already be, but rather explains the methods for how we can do better. While ultimately, our mind is the creator of all, the same is true for everybody else and the laws of karma are definite, so no matter how much we might wish others not suffer, fundamentally it is up to them to assume responsibility for their own future. We can’t do it for them. A genuine acceptance of our limitations is the answer to attachment to them not suffering, pride, guilt, and misplaced responsibility. In short, accepting our limitations helps protect us from pushing too far beyond them.
Learning to communicate effectively our current limitations to others likewise avoids dependency, disappointment, and resentment for others. If we are at peace with our own limitations, then we will be able to communicate them to others in a way where they are at peace with them too. And even if they are not at peace with them, we will be at peace with that, and so our mind will remain undisturbed. We can tell people, “I would want to help, but currently I can’t because of this limitation. But once this constraint is lifted, I can help.” Or we can say, “it doesn’t help you for me to solve your problems for you or to protect you from the consequences of your bad choices.” They may protest, but because we see it is best for them for us to not help, we will have the inner strength to compassionately say no. Being honest with others about our limitations also helps break down their attachment, pride, guilt, and misplaced responsibility, thus setting a helpful example. Because we are not over-promising, they are not left disappointed. Because we are empowering them to solve their own problems, there is no basis for resentment. And again, even if there is, it is a short-term problem until eventually they accept our role and their own responsibilities. And even if they don’t, we recognize that is not our responsibility, and all we can do is find within ourself how we are making the same mistake and stop doing so.
It is not easy to dedicate one’s life to helping others. Sometimes we may miss the old days when we could be selfish without guilt. But such nostalgia is a dead end. As Shantideva says, “the childish are concerned only for themselves, and the Buddhas work for others. Just look at the difference between them.” Once we see this difference, the final hurdle for transforming our compassion into a qualified bodhichitta is learning to accept our own limitations. I pray that all those who read this may one day be able to do so.