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What Boundaries Tell Us


Most of the information out there about boundaries tells us how to protect what belongs to us. We are frequently talking about how to set boundaries around our time, our space, our possessions, our ideas, our feelings, etc. The modern language around boundaries is focused on protecting what we possess. But is that the whole story?

The idea of personal ownership is actually a relatively new concept for humans. For most of our evolution, our survival has depended on shared resources and the health of the community, village or tribe. Prioritizing our own needs would have created imbalance in the community and would have made survival for everyone less likely.

The idea of owning land is not only relatively new for humans, but is a brand new concept on this continent of North America. The American Indians could not conceptualize the idea of owning land, and so the idea of drawing boundaries around a piece of land to possess it was equally elusive. This new concept was used as a weapon for major land grabs and to oppress and destroy the culture of the Native American people.

The modern western concept of boundaries around land, time, possessions, etc. is a reflection of our aggrandizing the individual. My needs, my time, my things, my goals are of utmost importance. We are encouraged to protect what is ours to accumulate more "things" that qualify as ours in order to demonstrate our wealth and value.

This mindset has caused incredible suffering all across the globe, for all people and creatures that dwell upon the Earth. What if there is another way to look at boundaries? A way that is more whole and reflective of the health of all things?

Instead of using our boundaries to uphold and protect what is "mine," what if boundaries are actually a method of communication? What if boundaries are a way of describing what something is?

Remember the game we played as children when we would close our eyes and feel the objects inside a paper bag, trying to guess what they were? We felt their weight, their texture, their contours. That information helped us to guess what we were feeling. I would argue that we were studying the boundaries of that object to make a decision about what it was. How can we use our boundaries to help others make decisions about who we are?

In order to use our boundaries as a method of communication, we first must get clear on what we are trying to communicate. Otherwise our boundaries are just another reaction to our environment born out of our conditioned patterns, handed down by generations of ancestors who may not have been clear on what they were trying to communicate to the world.

Just as the marble communicates its nature by the smoothness of the glass, the feel of its spherical shape in our hands, the weight and coolness, we communicate our nature to the world around us in striking detail.

The glass marble just is what it is. The bluebird, too, is just as it is created. There is no need to mine for essence in the created things of this world. They rest in their simple beingness. This is not true of humans. We have free will and are able to choose what and how to express who we are in an infinite combination of possible traits. Deciding who we are, what is important to us, how we want to engage with the world, and creating an identity around those values is how we use our boundaries to communicate our truth.

Etty Hillesum was a young Dutch woman who was captured by the Nazis in Amsterdam. She was killed at the age of 29 in Auschwitz and left behind her journals which were published in 1981 under the title An Interrupted Life. Like Viktor Frankl, Etty Hillesum would not allow her essence to be changed or dictated by the cruelty and deprivation around her. Despite the horrible conditions, she still marveled at the sunrise, took time to meditate and pray, offered help and food to those who suffered, etc. This was her way of communicating who she was in the world. This was her way of upholding her boundaries. Regardless of what was done to her, she held her shape and contours, just like the marble.

There are countless stories like those of Etty and Viktor, people who were so clear on their essence that the world could not shape them. To me, this is the truth about upholding our boundaries. It has much less to do with how we manage our time or protect our resources, and much more to do with how we project who we are with consistency into the world.

I read a story on Facebook earlier this week about a man who was rescuing a snake from the fire. He picked the snake up by the tail and it turned and bit him. He dropped the snake back into the fire due to the intense pain from the bite. He quickly ran to get a metal pipe, which he used to finally rescue the snake from the fire. As it slithered off, wounded but alive, a witness asked him "why would you save that snake after it bit you?" He responded, "It is the snake's nature to bite. It is my nature to help. I cannot allow the nature of the snake to change who I am."

In earlier cultures where the health of the community was seen as a priority to ensure survival, there were many traditions, rituals, rules and boundaries about how to conduct behavior and how to get clear on who you are. Once you know deeply who you are, it is easy to hold that knowing in the world; especially when your whole community knows who you are as well, and can remind you. If you know that you are a healer, then you act as a healer regardless of what is happening. If you know you are a musician, then you make music to process whatever is happening and it helps everyone. If you know that you are a lover of information, then you gather and share information with the world. Knowing your gifts, your passions, the essence of what makes you who you are, is the whole point of having and holding boundaries. This is something worth protecting and guarding. Our essence is what the world needs from us most of all. The whole of existence waits in eager anticipation for each of us to fully bloom as who we are at our core. In this blooming, we become a gift to everyone and everything.

Knowing how to say "no" and manage our time and speak our truth is of no use to us if we don't deeply know why we are erecting these boundaries. We will still suffer. And then we hurt others in the way we hold our boundaries, or by not knowing how to honor another person's boundaries. When we honor our own unique truth we want the same for others.

Boundaries are the way that we communicate who and what we are in the world. They are the structure we build around how to be in integrity with our truth, our passion and our joy. By saying "no" to the things, people, events that don't resonate with who we know ourselves to be, we are saying "yes" to our truth, and communicating that truth to the world. When we say "yes" when we really mean "no" then we are not telling the truth. We are lying about who we are. We may be lying to ourselves, too, which makes it very hard to know what is true.

I will finish with another of my favorite stories about boundaries. A Buddhist monastery had just gotten word that the communist soldiers were coming to raid them. Many of the young monks fled into the hills and chaos erupted everywhere. A few of the elder monks took their seats in the meditation hall amidst all of the panic and fleeing of their peers. The communist soldiers entered the hall and advanced aggressively toward the meditating monks. They sat motionless even as the soldiers came within feet of them. One of the soldiers roughly grabbed the eldest monk shouting "don't you know I have the power to kill you as you sit!" The monk, very calmly, opened his eyes and gazed deeply into the face of the soldier. He responded with strength and dignity "And I have the power to let you."


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