The Reality of Limits

On Saturday I wrote about how my decision not to attend Pantheacon was a question of limits. Today I’d like to explore the nature of limits in more detail, with particular attention to the relationship between limits and magic.

In his book Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, John Michael Greer devotes a whole chapter to The Law of Limits, which he describes as follows:

The Law of Limits: Everything that exists is subject to limits arising from its own nature, the nature of the whole system of which it is a part, and the nature of existence itself. Those limits are as necessary as they are inescapable, and they provide the foundation for all the beauty and power each existing thing is capable of manifesting.

That definition is a little obscure when taken out of the context of the book. A more explicit quote explains that the Law of Limits arises from our nature as finite beings living in a finite world.

Our human bodies and minds, then, are finite, and so are the bodies and minds of all the other beings in the universe, from the smallest to the greatest. According to the teaching of the mysteries, this fact reflects a central spiritual truth. Nothing can enter into manifestation except by becoming finite and, thus, embracing limits. Limitation is the nature of manifestation.

I find it helpful to divide limits into three categories: hard, soft, and self-imposed.

Hard limits represent reality as described by the laws of science. If you jump off a cliff unaided by aerodynamic or propulsion devices you will fall. If you attempt to walk through a solid brick wall you will smash your nose. When we pump all the oil out of the ground there will be no more. When a species goes extinct it’s gone forever.

Sometimes we can ignore hard limits. The oil is flowing today – it’s easy to assume it will keep flowing forever. Most of us have never seen a Mexican Long-Nosed bat – it’s easy to forget it’s endangered and may disappear. But as with walking toward a solid brick wall, when we go from “near the limit” to “at the limit” there is an abrupt reminder that we can only ignore hard limits until we reach them.

Soft limits represent the reality that some things which are possible individually are impossible together. I’ve never been to Pantheacon, but I’ve been to other conventions where there were two or three seminars I wanted to attend and they were all in the same time slot. Going to any one of them was easy – going to all of them was impossible. John Michael Greer gives the example of someone who wants to be rich but who also wants to spend every cent he makes. The two goals – accumulating wealth and spending mindlessly – are mutually exclusive.

Soft limits can get complicated, as anyone who’s ever tried to balance a household budget or study for three final exams on the same day can attest. Coming to an optimum decision gets even harder when more than one person is involved, as when Partner One screams at Partner Two “what do you mean I can’t buy new clothes – you just bought a new TV?!” Or worse, when Partner One looks at Partner Two and asks “do we pay the doctor bill or the electric bill?”

Self-imposed limits are limitations we put on ourselves due to fear and insecurity. Sometimes this is a phobia. Sometimes it’s fear of failure. Sometimes it’s fear of success and the changes success will bring.

In my last post I talked about my own fear of crowds. There are places I won’t go because the crowds will be thick and the lines will be long. I’ve learned coping techniques: setting realistic expectations, planning for contingencies, allowing plenty of time, and focusing on the payoff instead of the discomfort in getting there. I have to be mindful and make sure my response to a self-imposed limit is not “I can’t” but either “I can and I will” or “I choose not to.”

There is a fourth category of limits: boundaries. Boundaries are arbitrary, human-drawn lines between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Boundaries can be helpful or harmful, supportive of an orderly life and society or the tools of oppression. But while boundaries are theoretically just another type of limit, in practice they function very differently and I’d prefer to address them in a post of their own.

Limits aren’t bad things. As Greer’s Law of Limits says, they “are as necessary as they are inescapable.” Even the greatest limit of them all, death, has its gifts. In the words of Connie Barlow, “without death, time would not be precious.”

Still, there are times when we are legitimately frustrated by a limit and want to overcome it. And if you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you’ll try magic to accomplish your goals. This is why it’s important to understand what type of limit you’re working with.

Magic is an excellent tool for overcoming self-imposed limits. One of the classic definitions of magic is “changing consciousness in accordance with Will.” Change your consciousness and your self-imposed limits may disappear. Or more likely, magic will help you work past them, like my coping techniques help me work past my fear of crowds. Or magic may help you realize a limit is there for a very good reason and you don’t really want to go past it. Not “I can’t” but either “I can and I will” or “I choose not to.”

Magic is a very good tool for dealing with soft limits. It can help you arrange your priorities according to your preferences instead of society’s preferences. It can help you harmonize conflicting goals. It can open your mind to new possibilities and new ways of dealing with limits. It can’t add hours to the day, but it can help you use your hours more effectively. It can’t do the impossible, but it can make the possible more probable.

Magic is useless against hard limits. No spell will bring light to a cave. No ritual will make crops grow in a desert. No visualization will cause you to fly unassisted. No sacrifice will allow you to breathe at the bottom of the ocean.

If you find yourself up against hard limits, reframe the problem statement. Magic can’t help you walk through a wall, but it can help you find a door. Magic can’t put more oil in the ground, but it can help you reorder your life so you need less of it – or none at all. Magic can’t prevent death, but – along with the deep spiritual practices that support good magic – it can remove the fear of whatever comes after death.

Limits are real and necessary and good. Magic can help you overcome some limits but not others – make sure you know what kind of limit you’re dealing with and construct your workings accordingly.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • chrysalys

    Exquisitely written! Everyone should take this to heart.

  • http://anowlandtheatre.blogspot.com/ Conor W.

    Very much looking forward to the next post on boundaries. This one was great, and you provided good working definitions that adequately explain the concepts and explains them in a way that is easy to grasp.
    Have you ever considered writing Pagan books for children? I think you’d be good at it (not to say that this post is Children’s Book material, it is far, far beyond that. You just are good at boiling things down, and I imagine you are capable of even boiling this down to something simple enough for an 8-year old to understand. )

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Thanks, Conor. No, I’ve never considered writing books for children. I appreciate the thought, but while I think older kids might find my work helpful, I imagine younger kids would find it incredibly boring.

      • http://anowlandtheatre.blogspot.com/ Conor W.

        Well, I think it would be beneficial to all if you wrote (some form of a) book one of these days regardless. You certainly have the skill and insight. Even if it was a little pamphlet. Maybe, I dunno. Just my opinion

  • eran rathan

    As a surveyor and pagan, I’m very interested to read what you have to say about boundaries. A good part of my professional and religious practices center on finding and acknowledging boundaries, limits, and what I like to call ‘edge-spaces’ – those places and times where the edges blend from one to another. Good article.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I took a surveying course in college, back in the days of mechanical transits and steel tapes. It was a little math and lot of time outdoors – a very good way to pick up an engineering elective.

      “Edge spaces” are important – that may be yet another separate post. Thanks for the idea.

  • Lisa Dunn

    I have a problem with soft limits. I tend to have a wide scope of interest, and I see all kinds of things I want to do and learn about. I’m always overwhelming myself with more things to do than I can realistically fit into my available time. I’m slowly but surely learning the wisdom of honoring those soft limits.
    I’m looking forward to reading your post about boundaries.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Soft limits have been a problem all my life, since long before I became Pagan. There is value in sampling from a wide variety of options, and I don’t regret some of the “false starts” I had with interests that turned out to be ultimately unsatisfying. But I’m glad I’ve found the path I’m meant to be on.

  • Kilmrnock

    Very good article with many valid points . These concepts are something i have had to learn to deal with in my Warrior path and studies . Part of the warrior ways is knowing and understanding your own limits , the real limits and overcoming the soft ones if desirable and ones real capabilities in relationship to the limits , real [Hard] and self imposed [soft].Knowing of your own strenth and capabilities allow a person to understand thier own physical limits , the same can be understood of your own spiritual capabilities /limits . Literaly what you can and cannot or wish not to do .Living be a Code of Honor / Conduct also in itself sets limits on what i will and won’t do on a morality /conducy basis .All this fits on top of my Pagan life and are at this point part of my very being , along with my Recon pagan sesibilities .

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Thanks, Kilmrnock. “Know Thyself” is as valid today as it was when they chiseled it above the door at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.


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