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The Joy of Accepting Our Limits

The Dharma can come from unlikely places. Last night, I was watching a pottery competition on the television—you know the kind, where one person is ejected in tears each week. The judge was speaking to a contestant who was avoiding something she disliked doing, and he said, “I have a saying. Know what you’re good at, but more importantly, know what you’re not good at.”

There are plenty of things that I’m not good at, and I avoid them like the plague. I don’t have the patience to sit through long, boring meetings where not much gets done, and as a self-employed person I very rarely attend them. I don’t have an eye for detail and so I avoid DIY jobs where neatness is important. After years of horrible physical education classes at school, you won’t get me anywhere near a gym or a running club.

Avoiding these activities is straightforward enough. As I get older, however, I am discovering another category of activities—things that I am good at, but that don’t suit me. It is taking me much longer to “know” this about myself, partly because some of these things are activities that I feel I ought to do.  

I recently ran a book group here at the temple on the mode of therapy that I practice, Internal Family Systems (IFS). Most of the participants gained a lot from the group, and I think I did a decent job of facilitating, but I was often left feeling drained by the end of the sessions. It reminded me of a job I had decades ago, when I was a trainer for a big corporation. I knew that I was good at it, but a day of training 20 executives always took a lot out of me.

When I reflect on my experience, I can see that when I’m holding a group there are parts of me that tune in very closely to each group member’s experience. These parts of me developed when I was very young, and they are excellent at vigilance—at spotting when something is wrong. I can remember being in a crowded train carriage once and noticing an older man, many rows back from my seat, who started to look like he was in pain. I spent some time keeping an eye on him, and I also looked at my fellow passengers who were all oblivious. I was the only one who had noticed and tuned in to his suffering. This is the speciality of these vigilant parts of me, and they expend a lot of energy doing their job.

As a result, when I hold a group—especially a group in which people’s vulnerabilities come to the surface or there is the possibility of conflict arising—I am on high alert. These parts of me believe that everyone in the group needs to be happy, comfortable, and engaged at all times. For some reason, this isn’t the case when I work with someone on a one-to-one basis. During a therapy session, if my client is angry with me or with someone else, it feels fine to explore it. If they are feeling deep emotional distress, I can sit with their suffering with equanimity and with tenderness.

When I think back to the words of the judge on the pottery show, I would like to include “running groups” as something at which I’m not good. I can do it, and I mostly do it well, but it costs me in a way that is disproportionate to the actual labour involved. It is a relief to acknowledge this, because it means I can stop putting myself forward to run so many groups. When I do run them, I can take these parts of my character into account—maybe by having a co-facilitator to support me or by allocating time to rest and recover if I need to after the group is finished.

In my studies over the past two years with Rev. Gyomay Kubose, the Japanese-American Buddhist teacher, I have encountered his teaching on “being yourself” over and over again. He says: “Look within and find oneself and be oneself.” He says: “Make good decisions by listening to the inner heart.” He says: “Know your limitations.” He says: “One is an artist of life, whatever one’s occupation is.”

I would summarize this thread of his teachings as “just be Satya.” Of course, sometimes we have to do things that we don’t want to do. Parents don’t have the option of not looking after their sick children if they don’t feel very good at it. Self-employed people can’t refuse to fill in their tax forms because they’re not good at numbers. Sometimes we have to do things that are outside of our comfort zone, and this is a part of the deal of being alive.

What we can do when approaching tasks that we’re not suited to is to be kinder to ourselves. There are two parts to this. The first is that we can ask for help when possible, and swap tasks for those that we prefer. I am delighted that our plumber fixed our toilet and he may be delighted in return that I am happy to do the work of listening to distressed people.

This is what Buddhist sangha is for. Between us, we are able to get the job done. When we have Mindful Maintenance mornings here at the temple, I encourage people to choose a task that suits them, especially if they are new to the group. This helps them to relax, and when they are relaxed they are more likely to enjoy working alongside other people and become friendly with them. Between us, there are usually people who prefer to chop down the big branches, and people who prefer to do the delicate weeding. It’s good to try something different sometimes, and to have a go at an activity that feels uncomfortable, but I tend to think that life is difficult enough without us engineering extra opportunities to feel challenged.

The second part of being kind is that when we do have to take part in activities that don’t suit us, we can manage the situation to make things as easy for ourselves as we can. Another example of something that I find difficult is running retreat days—something we do once a month or so. I can find it tiring to hold the group over the course of a whole day, and so one of the things we have done is to build in lots of breaks so that both me and the group can take some time out. Some people chat with each other over tea in the dining room, and some retreat to the library to read a Dharma book. We also include activities like silent mindful walks on the Malvern Hills, where group interaction is minimized and people can slip more deeply into their own processes.

As a result, I enjoy the retreat days much more. I am running them as Satya needs to run them, rather than some mythical “ideal Buddhist teacher”—someone who would start the group at 5 a.m. with a two-hour sit, then maybe dive into a two-hour intense psychological process group before breakfast. The way we run our events here suits some people, and they stay. It doesn’t suit others, and they go off to find a different Buddhist group. And that is totally okay with me. I can become a different kind of Buddhist teacher in the short term, but it isn’t sustainable. If you want to learn Buddhism from me, I can only do “Satya Buddhism.”

It’s not just me running the temple, and that is the huge benefit of having colleague teachers. My spouse, Kaspa, compliments me in many ways. They are much better at process and procedure than I am, and they can be a sensible steadying presence when I get carried away in my excitement. They bring their own unique and brilliant view of the Dharma. We also have colleagues who use music to share the Dharma, those who specialize in speaking up for under-represented groups, and those who have eco-activism at the center of their lives. Ideally, as a group we create something much more complete than the sum of our parts. We learn from each other, we make up for each other’s weak spots, and we also help each other to feel accepted just as we are.

I am glad to have heard that snippet of the Dharma during my evening of easy-viewing television. It is extra encouragement in the lifelong task of knowing myself, accepting my limitations, and then acting accordingly. Maybe, as Rev. Kubose says, I can become an artist of life, whatever my occupation is. In accepting my limits, I will discover the joy of simply being me.

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