NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Limitation” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
Most of us associate choice with freedom, and as a freedom-loving nation we have responded by creating more and more choices. We grow up being told we can do “anything.” In our stores and on the Internet we can select from an astonishing variety of products. In the media, an ever-increasing number of channels present themselves for our entertainment. Opportunities to communicate electronically abound. An ever-differentiating variety of jobs proliferates. And at online dating sites we can browse through an almost endless array of potential mates.
But does having all these choices really make us free?
When I was younger, I thought the phrase “a rolling stone gathers no moss” meant “keep moving.” But as I wandered from place to place, from one career to the next, ended one relationship and began another, I eventually came to understand I’d got it wrong, and that it is only through staying with things that we can go deep, plant roots, draw nutrients from the soil. Only in my 50s was I able to start gathering the moss of wisdom and meaningful achievement. Reflecting on the many paths I’ve traveled, I see that I have frequently been tempted by the promise of the perfect choice and have often failed to recognize and cultivate the good enough.
Until we choose a direction, we can’t really get anywhere. Until we limit our choice to one person in a romantic relationship and commit to working things out when they go awry, most of us can’t gain the benefits of a deepening connection. Until we choose a career path to stick to, we often drift from one unsatisfying job to the next, failing to find a sense of purpose. We look for the perfect neighborhood, the perfect house, the perfect school, and to create the perfect child, always missing . . . something.
As a boy I received the dual-edged messages that I could do and be anything I wanted, but that I must also do and be them perfectly. I was never satisfied with who I was or the work I did, believing that there must be something “better” just around the bend. I see this pattern in clients who have gotten similar messages. Vacillating among apparently limitless possibilities, we, in the words of Simon & Garfunkel, “wander in the night without direction.”
I once had a client who jumped so rapidly from one topic to the next that it was impossible to keep track of it all. Growing up, nobody had listened to her anyway, and so she had developed an unconscious, efficient strategy for avoiding the disappointment and feelings of rejection that came from trying to be heard, and failing. One day I handed her my watch and asked her to sit quietly for one minute, and then at the end of that minute speak about what was most important that day. She did, and for the first time I could truly hear her, and she could experience what it was like to be heard. Things began to change for the better both in therapy and in her life. When she finally moved away and we ended our sessions, she was a far more full and revealed version of herself, with friends she trusted and clear goals to pursue.
Another client was paralyzed by her remarkable ability to see deeply into the lives of others, even those she observed briefly. Her ambition, though she knew it to be impossible, was nevertheless to somehow live all the multitude of lives she saw. She could not choose just one. Even when, with great difficulty, she ventured a few steps down a specific path, she soon came running back to the starting point, drawn by all the opportunities she was missing. Because all lives seemed equally possible for her, she was convinced that selecting just one might be a fatal mistake. Even in therapy, we were unable to stick with any particular approach and find a way out of this tightly woven net of desires and expectations. We parted with her problem still unresolved; I hope that by now she has found her way.
My own meanderings were nearly as lengthy as Moses’ 40 years in the desert. For decades, I moved from place to place, career to career, relationship to relationship, mentor to mentor, searching without success for what felt like the “perfect” fit. It took me a long time to fully understand that, as songwriter Kristen Miller puts it, “we don’t choose the ones we love, we love the ones we choose.” And that in all areas we extend not by making the perfect choice but by limiting ourselves to what we have chosen.
Limitations, it turns out, are liberating. Photography, for example, was unsatisfying when I just took shots as they came. Only by committing to particular focal lengths, discrete subject matter, specific photographic techniques did I get a collection of images that felt like a body of work, the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Prior to choosing Buddhism from among the many spiritual traditions, my explorations into that realm were mere dabbling. Now, as I start to go deep, I am beginning to reap the rewards. Although the activities we do in our sangha are simple practices such as sitting meditation, walking meditation, ritualized drinking of tea, and responding to readings, each week I feel something in me filling up that has been empty most of my life.
The method for having a satisfying life seems to me, now, not to look for a perfect teacher, a perfect career, a perfect love, a perfect location, but instead to trust in the intuition that leads us to the choices we make, even in their apparent imperfections, and then to delve deeply into what we have chosen.
The key to making these choices is learning to recognize when there is not a perfect, but a right-enough, fit. As a metaphor for this process, which in my 60s I continue to practice, I sometimes tell my clients the story of finding my way out of the town square of the capital of Luxembourg. I was there visiting my brother and had met a friend of his for dinner. While it was still light, I had parked along a river and walked to the square. At the end of a pleasant evening, I escorted my brother’s friend to her car and then returned to the center. There, I soon realized that in the darkness I no longer recognized which of the dozen entrances I had come through earlier in the evening, and that I had no idea which would lead me back to my car.
The courtyard was nearly empty, I did not speak the language, and for a few minutes, I panicked. But then I realized that the walk from the car to the square had taken no more than 10 minutes. Therefore, I would have to walk no more than 10 minutes down each path to ascertain whether or not my car was on it. In the worst case, the whole process would take no more than 230 minutes.
I found the car on the second try.
Finding our way in life is sometimes like that. We go down a path, hoping it will feel right, and once we have gone some distance, we realize it’s not for us. We back up to our starting point, identify another path, and start down it, with the same intent. As we get more proficient at recognizing when something does or does not work for us, choosing a good enough path becomes more possible. And then the real work, and the fun, begins.
Freedom, I now understand, is not in having choices, but in making them. And moss, it turns out, is nice to have.