Lately I’ve been focusing on limits. And transcending them. The clinical psychologist and university lecturer, Jordan Peterson, often talks about human potential, and he insists that we human beings are capable of so much more than we think we are. We do not know our own limits nor the limits human consciousness. Among his many videos and lectures, his Tedx Talk about potential and his lecture called “The Necessity of Virtue” have got me thinking about my own limits. What are they? Where did they come from? Do I want to transcend them? If so, how? And why? And why now?
I am consistently coming up against my own physical and mental limits in my yoga practice. You can only fix what you pay attention to, so I have begun to listen to the stories I have been habitually tell myself while practicing— most of them reinforcing limits that I know I am completely capable of transcending.
The usual story goes like this:
I am not young anymore. I am an older woman who is reasonably fit but not super flexible; I am good enough for my age and stage in life. I lack incredible endurance and strength and lung capacity; I am consistent about my practice and overall fairly healthy; I am someone who tries hard (a relative term that I define and redefine as it suits the day or circumstances– in other words, I can make excuses for why-not anytime I please, and I do). Compared to other people, I am doing pretty well.
There are both negatives and positives within that story, but that’s not the most important point. The crucial point is that I have been believing this story; I have accepted it as true, and so have been living it out, most of the time unconsciously. As a result, I never push harder to challenge my own thoughts or my body’s capabilities. I don’t think in terms of my potential—- what I might actually do if I believed in my own untapped power and went beyond what my mind was telling me. Instead, the theme of my story is that what I am doing in my practice is just “good enough.” I have settled for “pretty good” because it’s easy to maintain. It’s comfortable. As a result, I have plateaued— mentally and physically.
My thought processes both in my yoga practice and in my life have lulled me into a dangerous place of security. I feel in control and safe. I can predict the future for the most part, and I am settled. My parents would be proud of me for obtaining said security. For some people, settled might sound pretty darn perfect, but I have finally figured out that it’s exactly what’s making me, not discontented exactly, but itching to change. Optimal performance and meaning are lacking when I remain floating, treading water, fearfully hiding? in this kind of static, safe state.
An implicit assumption within the story I mentioned above about limiting myself in my yoga practice and elsewhere is due to my faulty perception that reaching one’s potential or focusing on one’s potential is something only young people do. I have been erroneously convincing myself that tapping into one’s potential is something limited to the young– people who are just starting out their lives (as if life begins at some specific age that is culturally or socially appropriate?). Young people are busy planning, choosing careers and partners to marry, having a family and so forth. Young people are ones who “have their whole lives ahead of them” and they are more apt to continually grow, move forward, and be busily realizing themselves and making something out of themselves. Their bodies are strong, capable.
I am not certain when I stopped believing in my own unrealized potential. Maybe because I work with young people and have been raising children for so long, I have come to think of myself as an old person— closer to retirement and therefore done with most of my “life-planning” or “life-making.” As the elder, perhaps I have been spending more time looking back at my life rather than forward, and so consumed with other people’s learning and potential that I have neglected my own.
At any rate, this implicit belief, a conclusion really, that I am no longer a person who has to reach her potential has made me act as if I have arrived— you know, the place where you can brag that you “made it.” But the more I think about this, I wonder, is this place a vista or a plateau? Well, the answer to that question is that I get to decide. I get to decide which words to use, which story to tell, which sort of life to live.
Here’s the plateau story:
I have a family, a career, success, financial stability. I have worked hard to reach my potential, so why work so harder or strive to be more or something different? If it ain’t broke, why fix it? I can hang out with loads of people at this very plateau and party my ass off, drink my wine after work, travel and lie on a beach somewhere amazing, and post pictures online of all the fun I am having until I die. I can spend money on “stuff” and have a great time immersed in the pleasures of consumerism, having worked hard my “whole life,” and I can “just relax” because I’ve earned it! I could sit back and enjoy watching my kids make their lives instead of continuing to make my own.
But why should I settle for the story that I’m doing pretty well at middle age? Why should I blindly accept that maintaining the status quo is entirely acceptable, respectable, appropriate? Why should I settle because that’s what everyone else appears to be doing? Why should I accept that there’s probably not much more I need to do or to be? Why should I cease making my own life alongside all the young people who are making theirs? Perhaps the story our culture tells us at midlife needs revision.
I’d rather tell a vista story, a story about looking ahead, exploring my future prospects, about seeing what’s just up ahead on the road, tapping into my limitless potential, even if the path is mysterious or unclear and less than secure.
I have accomplished a lot that I am proud of when I look back on my life; It is meaningful because I worked toward meaning; meaningfulness and purpose in my life resulted from hard work and dedication and passion. It came from having an aim, and then another and another; it came from the challenges, and the burden-bearing, and the blood, sweat, and tears. It came from working to my potential, not just at a specific age, but again, and again, and again.
So, after thinking about limits and potential, I have decided I need to climb the next mountain, to throw myself back into the young-man’s game of goal-setting and potential unleashing because I am capable of so much more than I think.
But here is the truth about this decision. When I first looked at my own limiting beliefs and decided to change them and reached this epiphany about the need for more climbing, I instantly felt tired, overwhelmed, and intimidated. I resisted the notion, even though I knew it was the right and best and truest thing for me I could do. I thought, do I really want to work hard to ascend the next peak? And, what is that “next peak” anyway— it doesn’t seem clear to me at all. I questioned: Do I have the stamina, mentally and physically? Shouldn’t I be more realistic? Is this how I want to expend my time and energy? Change is hard!
Typical fear-based thinking.
And so, I continue in my yoga practice to watch myself, to observe my thoughts, without latching onto them as truth; to acknowledge them and then move past them. And I trust that my will, the deep core of me that is strong and good and honest, shall combat the lies and limits that my habitual thinking tempts me with.
Learning about limits and potential has helped me come to the conclusion that I am not at all unhappy with my life, what I have done, or who I am. In fact, I couldn’t be happier and more grateful. But I don’t think I want to just sail along through life—coasting, or maintaining this sort of unconscious auto-pilot state. I don’t want to stay at this plateau, and maybe you don’t either.
Maybe you have been wondering what’s wrong lately and haven’t been able to articulate your intuitions exactly. Maybe, because like me, you have been in the same place, surrounded by the same people, with the same or similar lifestyles for so long that you accept that this is the only or best path— the upside being that it’s familiar and safe. It’s a nice way of living; There’s nothing particularly “wrong” with it. But it’s complacent, a static state of being, and perhaps that’s why it lacks deeper meaning. (Too often when people feel something missing or not quite satisfying in their lives, they make radical decisions to “spice things up” and so cheat on a spouse or do some other crazy things that define the mid-life crisis. Looking outside of yourself isn’t the answer. Dig deep and explore what’s going on inside and address the problem there.)
Taking a year away from my job and the day to day life I have known for many years now is the first step in tapping into my potential. I don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s the beauty of it. It’s a step toward facing my limits– my limited thinking, choices, attitudes, and behavior and pushing beyond them. So far, I am learning that I am actually way more than what I had been thinking I was; I am realizing that, as the famous American traveling poet Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
I am living beyond my comfort zone and my own safe, self-created status quo; I am facing the unfamiliar– crossing into unknown territory to see what I can learn about landscapes without limits.
Vista: a view or prospect, especially one seen through a long, narrow avenue or passage, as between rows of trees or houses. (2) a far-reaching mental view.
Plateau: a period or state of little or no growth or decline; (2) remain at a stable level of achievement; level off. (3) Psychology. a period of little or no apparent progress in an individual’s learning, marked by an inability to increase speed, reduce number of errors, etc., and indicated by a horizontal stretch in a learning curve or graph.