Thoughts from Annie
Boundaries without Separation
During this time of year, we may find that we get triggered by our families and friends or the expectations of the holiday season. If you’ve picked up a self-help book or read a holiday blog, you know that the supposed answer to all of this is to learn how to set boundaries. In addition to a lifelong self-help book addict, I am also a student of the Buddha, who says that in the ultimate dimension there is no separation between me and you, between me and this computer, or between me and the rain coming down at this moment. If there’s no separation, how can there be a boundary? This is a question I have pondered while watching the rain fall.
Let’s work through this question together. Interbeing is a term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh, to refer to the idea that nothing can exist by itself alone. Without the sun, plants can’t live. Without plants, people can’t live. Without the farmer planting and harvesting the plants, I wouldn’t have any food to eat. Without my ancestors, I wouldn’t even be alive in order to eat the plants. And so on.
Boundaries, as defined by Wiki are meant to: “define an individual by outlining likes and dislikes, and setting the distances one allows others to approach.”
I like the idea of boundaries as a way to outline us. Boundaries can provide a map of our inner terrain with the places where we have been hurt circled in red pen. It takes practice and self-awareness to know where these places are in us. A previous therapist of mine called these places our sore toes. Sore toes may have been created when we were young or passed to us from previous generations. There is no one to blame for our sore toes, but it’s important to know where they are.
My husband likes to tell me which way to go when I am driving and he is in the passenger seat. Though I have been driving successfully for the last forty years (34 of those years with him), he believes that I am incapable of doing this task optimally without his input. If I ask him not to speak, he will silently point to parking spots, exit ramps, or green lights. Yep, this is one of my sore toes.
I think of boundaries as the practice of taking care of my sore toes. The entire practice of mindfulness meditation could be framed as the lifelong practice of knowing and healing every one of our sore toes. Healing sore toe practice leads to less suffering in everyday life. The Buddha’s first Noble Truth might be restated as: “In life, your sore toes are gonna get stepped on.” My sore toes are 100% mine to feel, mine to protect from getting stepped on, and mine to heal.
“YOU DON’T GET TO WALK A PATH OF LIBERATION AND NOT BE ACCOUNTABLE. FIRST AND FOREMOST, LIBERATION IS ABOUT CHOOSING TO BE 100 PERCENT ACCOUNTABLE FOR WHO AND HOW YOU ARE.” — REV. ANGEL KYODO WILLIAMS, LIONS ROAR
So, I told my husband about my sore toe around being told how to drive. And then I shared the boundary that I would need to protect my toe from further injury: If he corrects my driving more than once per ride, I will simply let him out of the car then and there.
If I don’t take care of my sore toe, the pain of it being stepped on yet again will cause me to explode and say something. Probably something a little bit mean. Exploding doesn’t support happiness or healing for anyone. I wish I didn’t have this sore toe, but I just do. I usually end up with a headache after I yell, a bunch of unnecessary guilt, and feel further separated from my partner — because my sore toe is inflamed and further from healing. This is not a pleasant or sustainable way to travel.
Everyone’s sore toes are different. You may not mind driving with my husband (hard to imagine, but theoretically possible.) I choose to set boundaries to protect my sore toes long enough to heal them. There are reactions that I haven’t been able to transform yet and may not be able to transform in my one short lifetime. I can’t stop other people from ever stepping on my sore toes, but I can at least let people know where they are. I share my sore toes and set boundaries whenever I suspect that I won’t have the ability to stay present, calm, and serene. I want to be a balm for the world, but without taking good care my sore toes I’m more likely to become another source of pain.
Rather that proving separation, boundaries actually reflect the truth of interbeing — my happiness depends on your happiness and your happiness depends on my happiness. No one of us can be happy, healthy or liberated on our own. The more we can avoid stepping on each other’s sore toes and the more work we do to identify and care for our own sore toes, the less likely we will be to explode when someone comes close. This knowledge and practice lead us to see how every one of us is limping around with multiple wounds and everyone is constantly stepping on everyone else’s sore toes — consciously and unconsciously. Setting boundaries is less about division or separation and more about vulnerability and loving kindness that leads to true liberation.