Those Limits We Set, And Those We Don’t

In Buddhism the name of the devil is Mara, whose name means “the one who sets limits. ” What is hell, after all, then a series of strict limits set on what one can and can’t do?

In Jungian psychology, there is an archetype called the puer aeternus, the eternal child or eternal boy (this archetype is specifically male; the female counterpart is called a puella). In pop-psych terms, this is roughly equivalent to Peter Pan syndrome, the man who can’t grow up. One of the components of the puer personality is to chafe at limits set upon oneself and a feeling of restriction and of being trapped in decisions. A puer lives tentatively, provisionally, waiting for an outside force to make everything right, for things to “happen” to him rather than to bring about a life worth living. Any decision seems to be final, a finality like a trap, set and waiting to spring.

These are two looks at the idea of limits, and there are others of course; two that we all face are that we live in a finite environment and that we all have limited life spans. It wouldn’t be Mara specifically that sets these limits, they are simply ones that exist in reality. They are, however, a component of dukkha, the suffering that the Buddha speaks of in the dharma. That is, the fact that we all live for a finite time and can not count on knowing eternal pleasure, or eternal anything for that matter.

I’ve really struggled with the idea and concept of limits. I feel on one hand, that freedom (an overused term) is worth striving for, and yet there are always those things that set limits on what we can and can’t do. In simple terms a question that should be asked is whether the limits are physical or metaphysical. Physical limits are things we all need to deal with and recognize. Such intangibles as imagination and creativity, however, should not be limited. The puer/puella personality fights those limits that we all do need to come to terms with – such as making decisions about what to do with one’s  finite life. Mara/the devil/evil knows this already and revels in the fact that we struggle and suffer with our mortality. But Mara goes further and wishes to place limits on who we can be, how we can think. Particularly in conservative parts of the world, strict limits are placed individual freedom and expression.  Gender roles in particular are clearly delineated; women are limited in rights and freedom of expression as are men, just in different ways. The struggle for civil rights for anyone and in any realm is a testament to this.

To rail against limits is not freedom, however; to live as if one has no limits is foolishness, not wisdom. Freedom involves realizing and living with limits, both those set by circumstance and those set by nature.

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