The Gift of Constraints

Do you ever find yourself saying, “If only [this] was different, then I could do (or have) what I want”?

Many of us resist or lament the constraints in our lives (even ones we have chosen). But they can actually generate a lot of power. Think about the way water moves. Within narrow banks, water flows with greater force and speed, while wider boundaries let water slow and spread. 

It’s no different in our beings as humans. However, we have a unique ability to build dams and stop our own flow. Often, if we perceive constriction, we say, Well, I can’t move at all, then. I can’t have what I want because of this constraint. We either try to ignore the constraint or tell ourselves to “buck up, get over it.” Usually, neither of these strategies solves the problem.

What most constrains your life right now? Is it a pattern with someone you love? Loneliness? A packed calendar? Limited finances? An illness of the body, mind or spirit?

We often don’t look at our constraints head-on because we feel ashamed. We think we should be able to do or be everything, and if we’re anything less than everything that everyone could possibly expect us to be, then we have failed. 

We don’t really study our constraints because we assume they are immovable, fixed, beyond our power to influence.

But the truth is, everything moves. There’s always another way to approach what we perceive as limitations. 

How would it feel to press right up against that constraint you least like: press up against it belly to belly, and look it in the eyes? It has come to be with you for a time. Claim it as your own. This thing is in my life right now. It’s part of what defines me, whether I like it or not. 

And then, start to dance. Watch this constraint and get to know all its moves. Ask it, “Why are you here? What can I learn from you?” 

If you want this constraint to change, or even disappear, the counterintuitive step is to dance with it so closely that you come to know its inner workings: why it has chosen you and you, it.

Like water in a river, as you flow right up alongside those constraints, the banks can start to move. Even the rocks. You may assume, for example this state of fear you live in is with you forever, but as you begin to dance with it and come to know when and why it appears, you can respond to it in new ways. And it may recede into the background. Same with pain. Same with conflict in a relationship.

If you feel stuck, ask, Well, where CAN I move? HOW can I move? And then take that tiny step. Sometimes, a minuscule motion can set off a landslide.

In the meantime, while this constraint is with you, you may find that it gives definition to your journey. You may find it guides you in how to move. You may find it asks you to be creative in new ways. And there can be peace and a sense of stability in that. Can you embrace the constraint, use it to gain traction, and then let it fall away when you no longer need it? There’s an interesting balance between accepting the constraint for what it is and being ready to let go of it when it starts to move and fall away.

It’s easy to form a relationship with these “impossible” things in life by saying “I can’t. I can’t.” But if you start watching for where you can, even in the tiniest way, you may be surprised by the possibilities that appear.

Oh people, I know this takes tremendous courage. But it’s also incredibly freeing and exhilarating to find movement in the face of what once seemed to offer only stagnation. Ask questions. Let yourself breathe and move, cry and laugh with the mystery of your own life.

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