It was a painful sight. In fact, it was almost inhuman to see the baby calf tied to the stake with a small rope in the ashram’s cowshed. The rope was so short that the calf couldn’t really move around. Although this issue was resolved within hours by erecting a small enclosure for Swaroopa or Swoopy as she’s lovingly called, it had an important lesson worth pondering over.
It turned out that what appeared inhuman to us was important for the calf’s survival because if they are given a long rope, they can get their legs or neck entangled in it, sometimes fracturing their limbs or strangling themselves. Let alone the calves, even adult cows and bulls can meet the same fate when the leash is too long. In fact, dairy farmers say that the cattle often get agitated and stressed when they are tied to a long rope as it offers neither complete freedom nor total bondage.
This post, however, is not meant to be a lesson in dairy farming about which I am not qualified or experienced to comment on anyway. Instead, it is about the utility, necessity, and power of constraints in our lives.
We hate constraints like we hate, say, subscriptions. Nobody wants them. We want to eliminate anything that stops us from doing what our heart desires just as we avoid people who disagree with us. But you and I both know that if you want real flowers, you have to be okay with the pollen, you’ve got to accept the reality of the bees and butterflies, maybe thorns too. Real flowers bloom on plants that grow in mud, in soil, against resistance.
When we imagine an ideal life, we almost always envision a place, person or a phase where there are no challenges or constraints, where there will be no conflict because everyone around will simply agree with you. There will be no friction because your preferences will reign supreme. Let me tell you that a life like that may or may not lead to liberation but it will certainly lead to depression. Severe depression. All growth stops in the absence of resistance. The brain turns dull when there are no constraints. Throughout our evolution, any time we made a breakthrough in any field was because we had been bugged by some constraint.
I remember this one time I was traveling to Rudranath (alt: ~12000 ft) from the Anasuya temple in Mandal village (alt: ~7000 ft). The path was a windy, relatively unknown 23-km trek through the dense forests and glorious Himalayan valleys. At times treacherous but mostly beautiful. Vinod and Babloo, the sons of the temple priests, were accompanying me on this journey. On the way, I halted for a brief moment to behold one of the most beautiful sights ever. There they were, right some twenty meters away, a large herd of deer. There must have been at least 500 of them if not more.
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “I’ve never seen so many deer roaming freely in the wild like this. How amazing!”
“With all the lions already killed by the poachers,” Vinod said to me, “there’s no one to eat them, Maharaj. They are multiplying like rabbits and becoming a nuisance with each passing day.”
With the constraint of the predators gone, they were multiplying at an alarming pace and disturbing the ecology. As time progresses, these deer will become overweight, they will lose agility and sharpness of the senses, the shrinking forests and their growing population will deprive them of the meadows, herbs and shrubs they need for survival. The smaller plants, saplings and all will be eaten away further damaging the ecosystem and diversity in unimaginable ways.
It’s not too different for us. We want complete freedom. Of expression, action and thought. But, does freedom have any meaning in the absence of its opposite? I doubt it. Imagine eating a pizza, where resting on a bed of savory sauce, between fresh tomatoes, jalapeños, olives, and crunchy bell peppers, you also have the occasionally tangy and juicy bits of pineapple held together by the melting mozzarella. For a moment, let’s assume you love pineapple. But what if all the other toppings were removed and you were served a pizza with just diced pineapple? It won’t be the same at all. In fact, you may even find it repulsive.
The various constraints in our lives, most of the things we want to do without are the various toppings on our pizza. They add the much needed contrast, variety and taste. The day you stop looking upon our restrictions and restraints as the undesirable obstacles and instead embrace them as opportunities of gaining wisdom and transformation, you will evolve (spiritually and emotionally) at a much rapid pace.
So the next time you meet someone who disagrees with you, or you find yourself in a conflicting situation, or there’s someone who you feel is trying to clip your wings, just remember, they are there for a reason. Can you ever recall a phase in your life when you had no constraints? Probably not. We only move from one set to another. So when we have to toil, face resistance, or go through the undesirable, and you find yourself frustrated, just pause, breathe and take a step back. Take a moment to calibrate your consciousness and reprioritize your life to respond in a manner that helps you move past the obstacle. As you move forward, at some point, you will be held back by another constraint, some other limitation, some unforeseen obstacle. Simply repeat the steps.
Mulla Nasrudin couldn’t wipe this smile off his face and his friend asked him the reason for his happiness.
“I just had a wonderful dream last night,” Mulla said.
“What was your dream about?” the friend said.
“Well, I dreamt that I died and went to heaven. When I got there, I saw a huge room filled with shoes of all shapes and sizes. I asked the angel, ‘What is this room for?’ The angel replied, ‘These are all the shoes of people who complain too much in their lives. They are now in heaven, but they cannot be happy because their feet are slightly bigger now and the shoes don’t fit them anymore.’ Then the angel showed me another room filled with shoes. These were the shoes of people who had learned to be content with what they had in life. They were happy and at peace.”
“So, which room did you end up in?” Mulla’s friend asked.
Nasrudin smiled ear to ear and said, “I was barefoot!”
One size doesn’t fit all. One size doesn’t even fit one person for long for that matter. But do you know when one size actually fits a person forever? When they stop growing. The presence of constraints indicates your propensity and potential to grow. Because when the growth stops, the size of your shoe will stop being a constraint.
Granted that sometimes eliminating your constraints may set you free in different ways. Most of the time though, overcoming them is more empowering than eliminating them.
A short rope can be a very good thing, sometimes.
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