The only real limitation is self-limitation

Recognition Sutra #12

We are all familiar with the idea that “the only real limitation is self-limitation” as it has played out in American culture, which for 200 years has fostered the idea that an individual can as it were lift himself up by his own bootstraps, and become as successful as he likes, if he can just overcome his self-sabotaging thoughts and harness the innate power of his mind—as described in the 1937 classic Think and Grow Rich and many subsequent books about the so-called ‘Law of Attraction’. Now, of course, all reflective people are aware that this is a fallacy for a number of reasons, not least of which is the systemic racism and sexism and concomitant economic oppression that ensures that not everyone has equal opportunity, and some would have to work ten or one hundred times harder to overcome these obstacles and achieve the same success as others. (You may have noticed that those who subscribe to and promulgate Law of Attraction type teachings are almost exclusively middle- and upper-class whites.) 

In Chapter Twelve of The Recognition Sutrasthe Tantrik master Kṣhemarāja teaches that the only real limitation is self-limitation, but he has a different paradigm in mind than the nave American one I’ve just described. Nondual Tantrik philosophy is focused not what can be achieved in the material world, but what radical shifts are possible in one’s inner experience, shifts which then reshape one’s experience of the ‘outer’ world. This philosophy argues that bondage and liberation are states of mind, and that therefore one can experience radical freedom and unconditioned joy as one’s default state while in prison, or one can experience a sense of being thoroughly trapped in one’s life situation while walking around ‘free’. Outer circumstances facilitate inner experiences, but they do not determine them.

Therefore, though you might actually be limited in how much you can materially achieve by forces beyond your control (such as your ethnicity or gender), such limitation is not the ‘real’ or important limitation because it does not determine the degree of freedom and joy you can experience in this life. The only limitation on the latter is the degree of your confusion about your true nature. Kshemarāja presents an intriguing thesis for us to consider: that the state of bondage is nothing but the state of being deluded by and about the powers and potencies of your own awareness. 

Sūtra Twelve follows directly on from Ten and Eleven, in which we learned that each of us is God in the sense that we all perform the same divine Acts of awareness that constitute the very definition of the Divine (creation, stasis, dissolution, concealment, and revelation):

॥ तदपरिज्ञाने स्वशक्तिव्यामोहितता संसारित्वम् ॥१२॥ 

When one lacks realization of this truth, one exists in the state of a saṃsārin: that of being deluded by one's own powers.

He immediately explains his own sūtra in these words:

When one lacks realization of the fact that one is constantly performing the Five Acts, i.e., when that fact is not apparent to you because the unfolding of your inner strength has not yet occurred, then you exist in the state of being deluded by [and about] your own powers.  

When we hear and sense the truth of this, we immediately want to know how to bring about about the ‘unfolding of inner strength’ (svabala-unmīlana) which will remove this state of delusion, which will in turn make room for the direct realization of one’s innate freedom. Spiritual awakening, developed by spiritual practice grounded in ‘right View’ (understandings aligned with the nature of Reality) brings about the unfolding of one's inner strength, also known as one’s ‘soul power’ (ātma-śakti). With this inner strength, which is also an inner maturity, you become willing and able to see how you create your moment-to-moment experience, including all your suffering and all your boredom and all your joy. You have matured beyond the tendency to externalize and project, to blame others and thus assume the stance of a victim. When you see that in the final analysis you alone are the author of your own inner experience, that in turn strengthens your ‘soul power’ further, in a positive feedback loop that grants you radical autonomy, empowerment, and self-determination.

If you then use that power to reinforce your ego (whether intentionally or not), you become what we call the oral tradition calls a ‘sorcerer’, a path that has considerable karmic consequences, not least of which is alienation and the inability to access the natural joy that comes from loving connection to all other beings. However, if you use that power to surrender your ego forever into the Fire of Consciousness, then a kind of unconditioned quiet joy suffuses your being and you can never be deluded about what you are again. Yes—it’s really possible to reach a point of no return on this journey, to pass through the ‘gateless gate’ beyond which the ego does not have the ability to resurrect itself. Then you fall in love with the whole of reality, experiencing everything as a perfect manifestation of your very own blessed Self. 

In our time, very few humans have gone through the whole process just described. Most are deluded about the source of their suffering and the possibility of their liberation, almost constantly playing the game of blame and shame, without realizing that the difference between bondage and liberation lies in understanding (or rather 'grokking') the innate potencies of their very own awareness.

But let's get down to brass tacks: what is the nature of this state of delusion which is the fundamental cause of most forms of suffering? Kṣhema tells us:

This state of delusion is one of being impaled on [and thus paralyzed by] the ‘spikes’ of various anxieties, doubts, and inhibitions (śaṅkā), both worldly and religious. It is this that constitutes the state of being a saṃsārin.

It is perhaps initially surprising that Kṣhemarāja initially defines the state of delusion in terms of inhibition. Yet, if we examine our situation closely, we can see that inhibition is the opposite of freedom, and that inhibitions are nearly always the product of self-images (‘ego’), and those self-images can only persist in the context of lack of full awareness of one's essence-nature.

Clearly, without the compulsive need to maintain a constructed self-image, we would not inhibit ourselves from authentic self-expression out of concern for what others might think. And freedom to be natural, to express without self-doubt or second-guessing ourselves, is a huge component of freedom in general. But there are also deeper, subtler, and more pervasive forms of self-limitation and self-inhibition that are rooted in self-image and that operate even if we are all alone. 

Those who don’t yet sense their innate freedom and power to determine their own inner state tend to view themselves as a victim of karma, fate, circumstance, other people, or ‘the system’. (Note that the fact of whether someone actually is subject to systemic oppression does not necessitate the debilitating self-image of ‘victim’.) This self-image goes hand-in-hand with the false belief that the world of their experience is determined from without, not from within. As a result, such people (the vast majority, of course) are fraught with mostly subconscious anxiety about how to behave and how not to behave, seeing these ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ as the rules of the game they must abide by or else suffer. This leads to a state of mostly-unconscious anxious inhibition concerning what ought to be done and ought not to be done.

 In the medieval Indian cultural context, this situation was much more severe than modern Westerners can imagine. There was an endless litany of things that you were supposed to do (injunctions) and not supposed to do (prohibitions) based on (a) your caste: (b) your stage in life (e.g., student, married householder, renunciate); (c) the time of day, month, or year; and (d) the place (village, home, temple, ritual arena, wilderness, etc.). Based on these four factors, there were rules about what is permissible to eat and what is not, what is permissible to look at and what is not, what is permissible to touch and what is not, and so on. Those members of mainstream society who contemplated entering the Tantrik path of freedom and awakening from one’s cultural conditioning were beset by four main inhibitions: fear of losing their habitual sense of self (ātma-śaṅkā), anxiety about practicing with non-Vedic mantras (mantra-śaṅkā), inhibition concerning mingling with people from other castes or classes of society (jāti-śaṅkā), and fear or doubt in exposing themselves to a radically different vision of reality (tattva-śaṅkā). No wonder Kṣhemarāja characterizes the average person in his society as 'impaled' by the ‘spikes’ of inhibition, doubt, and fear (śaṅkā). 

However, is our situation really so very different? We assume that we’re better off for having far less rules—when in fact this creates more anxiety, more doubt about what should be done. I’m not saying we should have more social rules, just noting without a set of agreed-upon guidelines for social interaction, we aren’t sure how to behave in many situations and are beset by anxiety concerning what others will think of us in our awkwardness (or our false bravado). Today the default state for most seems to be ‘chronic low-level anxiety’. Most of us try to compensate and generate a sense of security by attaching to a self-image that loosely defines a code of behavior. When inhibition gets tied to self-image, it extends into all the domains that Kṣhemarāja alludes to. The examples are endless: I’m a vegan, I can’t eat that _______ (animal); I’m a red-blooded American, I don’t eat (‘rabbit food’); I’m spiritual, I don’t look at (TV); I’m a down-to-earth person, I don’t listen to that (‘hippy-dippy spiritual stuff’); and so on. In this way, a deep undercurrent of fear and inhibition is translated into a prideful self-image, which serves to conceal (even to ourselves) how very frightened we are about how to navigate the currents of an overwhelming world. Sometimes a self-image is more subtle, sometimes less—but in any case, its self-righteousness always conceals anxiety. How amazing!

Do you see how self-images connect to inhibitions, and how they thus impede the free-flowing expression of embodied consciousness?

Furthermore, there are both culturally and religiously programmed forms of anxiety and inhibition, as Kṣhemarāja points out. We have just seen examples of the former; examples of the latter might be: I’m a yogi, so I can’t eat (meat or onions or garlic); I’m a Christian Scientist, so I can’t take medicine; I’m psychically sensitive, so I can’t be near (fluorescent lights or electromagnetic fields); I’m spiritual, so I wouldn’t go to (a Super Bowl party); I’m Jewish, I couldn’t marry a Gentile; I’m a Christian, I can’t do yoga; and on and on. When we consider both cultural and religious forms of inhibition in our society, you begin to see that our situation isn’t so very different from that of India 1000 years ago, except that we don’t have the security of always knowing what’s expected of us and what others will be comfortable with, and therefore we frequently find ourselves defending our identity or feeling ashamed of it. What madness, when all such identities are mental constructs! We can acquire so many inhibitions that we paint ourselves into a corner and might become increasingly averse to leaving the house at all, or straying outside of very familiar territory (physically or emotionally, it’s the same). In another example, I have known people who forbid themselves to ever eat anything that might be unhealthy or that comes from a morally dubious source, and they end up anxious and inhibited, not able to share a meal with friends or family, and eating within an increasingly restricted range until they begin to waste away, surviving it seems only on their sense of self-righteousness as they down their spirulina or blue-green algae, pale and wan.

            This is not the Kaula Tantrik way. On this path, we seek to strengthen the energy body through yoga so that we have the power to digest any experience (or, for that matter, any food). Though we may wisely choose not to eat processed foods or seek out the company of those who frequently speak negatively, we want to be able to digest the experience when we are in those contexts, without judging others or setting ourselves apart. Since we know that it is habitual, not occasional, action that shapes our emotional and physical health, once that robust health is established we need not rigidly cling to always and never. While we default to choosing healthful and sustainable modes of eating and behaving, we don’t want to be anxious or obsessed; we want to be able to move through the world freely, without needing to close down or cringe away from whatever presents itself.

            Kaula Tantriks like Kṣhemarāja taught that those who ‘starve’ the goddesses of the senses by needlessly restricting their intake (on the basis of self-image or conditioning) become enslaved by those very goddesses, by those powers of awareness. Instead we are invited to learn to see a wider and wider range of our experiences as an expression of divine beauty, and to lovingly feed that beauty to the sense-goddesses, that they may bestow their highest blessing: an ever-increasing capacity to experience the beautiful. 

IN SUMMARY: lacking realization of your true nature, you exist in the state of psychic bondage, caught in the cycle of suffering (this is called being a saṃsārin in the sūtra). This state of bondage is more precisely defined as the state of being deluded by and about the powers of your own consciousness. This delusion primarily manifests as a raft of inhibitions, which are directly connected to self-images. These self-images fall away (slowly) once you have recognized your essence-nature.

For the online course to accompany the book, go to The Sutra Project

This post is a brief excerpt from Chapter Twelve of my forthcoming book, The Recognition Sutras: illuminating a 1000-year-old spiritual masterpiece (Mattamayura Press, 2017). In the rest of the chapter, Kṣhemarāja explains exactly what are the powers of your own consciousness and how they delude you and conceal your true nature when not properly understood. He does this according to three different but intertwined lineages: the Kaula Trika, the Krama, and the Pratyabhijñā.

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