Every year, June 27, the birthday of Helen Keller, is celebrated as a national holiday in the U.S. Keller was able to overcome her tremendous physical limitations, becoming the first blind and deaf person to earn a bachelor’s degree. Her tireless work as an activist has also had a lasting impact on improving awareness of and accommodations for blind and deaf individuals, and others with physical disabilities.
If we reflect more deeply, we will notice that all human beings are actually born with many physical limitations in the grand scheme of life. Did you know that our eyes cannot see everything in the physical universe? Our limited spectrum excludes infrared light, ultraviolet light and much more that other organisms can access.
Physical limitation is just one part of it. We are equally limited in our mental and spiritual capacities. Most religions and philosophical traditions warn us that our commonsense appearances can be very deceptive and do not accurately represent the true nature of reality. Science concurs: when you see a piece of wood, it appears solid, but science has proven that wood, and in fact all matter, is 99.5% empty space.
As a result of our limited cognitive ability in relation to the complex reality we face in our lives, we continue to struggle as a species, engaging in attitudes and behaviors that are damaging to individuals and to society.
Historian of philosophy, Pierre Hadot, explained this in relation to the various schools of Ancient Greek philosophy: “All schools agree that man, before his philosophical conversion, is in a state of unhappy disquiet. Consumed by worries, torn by passions, he does not live a genuine life, nor is he truly himself. All schools also agree that man can be delivered from this state.” This can also apply more broadly to all religions
Until the point where we become spiritual seekers and realize that reality is more than that which can be perceived by our senses, we are likely to remain unhappy or dissatisfied. But if we use our flaws and mistakes as catalysts to better understand ourselves and our relationship to the universe, we will be given the key to lasting peace. All spiritual paths enable this and offer guidance to recognize our limitless selves. Until then, the conundrums and confusions will remain.
The Abrahamic traditions, which name the biblical Fall or original sin of Adam and Eve, direct us to redeem ourselves by returning to our state of original goodness.
The goal of Taoism is to achieve original simplicity, while Confucius believed deeply in the fundamentally good nature of human beings that can be recovered by chipping away at our flaws through education and reform. Buddhism teaches that we all possess the Buddha Nature, achievable by wiping out ignorance.
Hindus believe that we are all potentially divine and we need to see through the veil of MAYA (illusion) to realize our true self. Hindus and Buddhists both seek moksha and nirvana, the respective terms for liberation or enlightenment, which will put an end to the cycle of birth and death (samsara) that continue to bring us back to earth in our flawed material bodies. Until then, however, we are advised to have an honest recognition of our flaws and bring this awareness into our spiritual practices.
All religions thus help us recognize that we have limits but can also touch universal limitlessness through a variety of zetetic practices. In fact, we do not need to step away from our daily lives to experience that; rather, those practices are meant to be incorporated as part of our daily routine.
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
—The New Testament (John 1:8), Christian text
“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
—The New Testament (Matthew 26:41), Christian text
“A righteous man falls down seven times and gets up.”
—The Hebrew Bible (Proverbs, 24:16), Jewish text
“For the human mind there are certain objects of perception which are within the scope of its nature and capacity; on the other hand, there are, amongst things which actually exist, certain objects which the mind can in no way and by no means grasp: the gates of perception are closed against it.”
—Maimonides, Medieval Jewish scholar
“Man was truly created anxious: he is fretful when misfortune touches him, but tight-fisted when good fortune comes his way.”
—Qur’an (70:19-20), Islamic text
“In man there are two natures; his spiritual or higher nature and his material or lower nature. In one he approaches God, in the other he lives for the world alone. Signs of both these natures are to be found in men. In his material aspect he expresses untruth, cruelty and injustice; all these are the outcome of his lower nature. The attributes of his Divine nature are shown forth in love, mercy, kindness, truth and justice, one and all being expressions of his higher nature.”
—‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i leader
“The human desire to transcend the limitations of the physical is a completely natural one. To journey from the boundary-based individual body to the boundless source of creation— this is the very basis of the spiritual process.”
— Sadhguru, Indian author and spiritual teacher
“[T]he One caused himself to fall into two pieces; ‘cause to fall’ is in Sanskrit pat. The one caused himself to fall into two pieces, a husband and a wife, which, in Sanskrit, is pati and patni. A husband and a wife were born. Thus, this part of creation involved, literally, a Fall. Interestingly, there is another world view that speaks of creation as Fall […] The roots of human existence are in a sundering. Even if it is a little tinkering with the ribs, the memory of the sense of hurt and pain are perhaps enduring and all-pervading.”
—Vilas Sarang, writer
“Now this, monks, for the spiritually ennobled, is the painful (dukkha) true reality (ariya-sacca): birth is painful, ageing is painful, illness is painful, death is painful; sorrow, lamentation, (physical) pain, unhappiness and distress are painful; union with what is disliked is painful; separation from what is liked is painful; not to get what one wants is painful; in brief, the five bundles [form, feeling, perception, formations, consciousness] of grasping-fuel are painful.”
—Samyutta Nikaya, Buddhist text
“The Buddha says that he teaches only Dukkha and the cessation of Dukkha, that is, suffering and the end of suffering […] Buddha announces that our lives are burning with old age, sickness and death. Our minds are flaming with greed, hatred and delusion. It is only when we become aware of the peril that we are ready to seek a way to release.”
—Bhikkhu Bodhi, Buddhist monk and author
“Chuang Tzu launches into […] attacks on the way in which the people’s true innate nature has been lost and broken. He pictures a perfect world when all were equal and none had any sense of being greater or lesser. They just followed their innate nature. He then depicts the fall from this age of primal, innate, natural living.”
—The Book of Chuang Tzu, Taoist text
“The Master said, ‘It is these things that cause me concern: failure to cultivate virtue, failure to go more deeply into what I have learned, inability, when I am told what is right, to move to where it is, and inability to reform myself when I have defects.’”
—The Analects (7:3), Confucian text
“The Master said, ‘Not to mend one’s ways when one has erred is to err indeed.’”
—The Analects (15:30), Confucian text
Modern Psychology and Philosophy
“The human being is an open possibility, incomplete and incompletable. Hence he is always more and other than what he has brought to realization in himself.”
—Karl Jaspers, psychiatrist and philosopher