by Diane Linsley
In this article, I'm going to explain boundaries from three different
perspectives - conventional, post-conventional, and enlightened.
Most people think of boundaries as rules that you make in order
to protect yourself from other people. For example, you have rules
about how other people are allowed to touch you or talk to you.
If someone breaks these rules, you inform them that they have
stepped over your boundaries and that you will not tolerate being
treated that way. Assertiveness is the action side of boundaries.
For post-conventional thinkers, rules are less important. Post-
conventional thinkers can imagine multiple scenarios in which
predetermined rules are not the best way to cope with a situation.
After enlightenment, things become even more complex. There are
not only many exceptions to every rule, but any situation can
change in a split second because the enlightened person lives in the Now. He also takes the past and future into account, along with many other factors. This complexity is mind-boggling. But we'll get to that later.
"The key to boundaries isn't convincing other people that we have limits - it's convincing ourselves." ~Melody Beattie, Codependent No More
Whatever you tolerate in a relationship, that's what you'll get.
I learned a lot about setting boundaries by raising children. Children need to know what the rules are, and raising them without rules is a form of abuse. Children need to have clearly delineated boundaries with clearly defined consequences. This provides them with a sense of security that is essential to their psychological development.
Children have a strong need for fairness. They need adults who not only set rules for them, but who also follow their own rules. Children are deeply disturbed by the hypocrisy of adults.
Child abuse of any sort is a boundary violation. Abused children grow up to have boundary problems. This can manifest as either having rigid boundaries, which interferes with intimacy, or as having weak boundaries, which leads to being victimized by others.
Practices for Setting Boundaries
Define your own boundaries, and practice being assertive by saying "No" to anyone who crosses them. If you have trouble with this, I recommend reading Who's Pulling Your Strings? by Harriet Braiker. This is one of my all-time favorite books. How do you know you if are being abused? If you are in an abusive relationship, you will experience a lot of CRAP. CRAP stands for criticism, rejection, abandonment and punishment.
You can identify boundary violations by the way you feel. Boundary violations result in feelings of fear, anger, sadness or shame.
Anger is a common indicator of boundary violation, but some people have trouble feeling angry because it wasn't allowed in their family of origin. It took me a long time to figure out that my feelings of sadness and shame were actually disowned anger from many years of abuse. Abusers may undermine a victim's ability to defend himself by forbidding him from getting angry.
"Like all emotions, there's a logic and purpose to anger. We typically get angry when we see injustice, believe we've been treated unfairly, or encounter an obstacle to achieving our goals. If we can learn to use anger constructively, it can inspire us to make positive changes on our own behalf - to try harder, to fight for what's fair, and to communicate more passionately." ~John M. Gottman, 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage In Complex PTSD, Pete Walker says that some people need to practice getting angry. But he also says that crying is helpful for dealing with PTSD attacks. So I cry. Then I set boundaries. Narcissists often shame their victims with cynicism and contempt. Excessive shaming in childhood leads to the development of a toxic Inner Critic, which then attacks a person from the inside and makes it hard to create healthy boundaries. Dealing with the Inner Critic is essential to recovering from abuse.
Post-conventional thinkers have gone beyond black-and-white thinking. Because they are less rule-oriented, other people may perceive them as not having good boundaries. Post-conventional thinkers live in a state of paradox because they can see many points of view, and their perspective is always shifting. This can make them feel like they have no firm place to stand. But at the same time, this new way of thinking is very liberating. They see the paradoxes, but they can't solve them. But that's not really a problem for someone who is just trying to live in the Now.
They are willing to take more risks because they are less likely to criticize themselves if they "make a mistake." In fact, they may start to realize that there are no mistakes - only learning experiences.
As they get closer to enlightenment, they see that people are trying to defend something that isn't real - the ego. Their greatest desire is to be free of the ego because the ego is the source of all suffering.
The best advice I can give for this stage of development is to set boundaries around your precious time. It takes time to meditate and do all the spiritual work that is required to progress through higher stages of cognitive development. Say "No" to things that waste your time. Reduce busywork, minimize possessions, and prioritize your values. When you know what you value - what's most important in your life - you can talk with others about your values. This is a good way to set boundaries. When people respect your values, you are more likely to have good relationships with them.
When I told my life coach that I was writing an article about boundaries, she said, "Think of boundaries as parameters." Healthy boundaries are not walls. Boundaries are the parameters we set in order to function in our relationships.
Going Through Enlightenment
The first stage of enlightenment (the Third Rank of Tozan) is a prolonged experience of having no ego boundaries. For me, this stage lasted for one year. It was bliss!
In the Fourth Rank of Tozan, the ego boundaries snap back into place. This is a very painful experience after the peace and bliss of the Third Rank. For me, the Fourth Rank of Tozan lasted for several years. The task at this stage is to develop compassion by experiencing all the dysfunction of the ego with the extremely acute awareness that comes with enlightenment.
The Fifth Rank of Tozan is about integrating the ego and the Transcendent. It's about solving the paradoxes of life - not by choosing one side over the other, but by integrating both sides.
A Zen Experience
A few years ago, I sat in a three-hour session with a Zen teacher in Boulder, Colorado. He led me through the Mondo Zen process, which helped to dissolve my ego boundaries until I experienced a kensho, which is a short-lived but profound experience of the Transcendent.
Even though I'd gone through enlightenment (and come back) a few years before, it was difficult to have a kensho in the presence of a stranger whom I'd just met. I had to let down my boundaries and trust him. But that's not something you can do with sheer willpower, as any Zen student will tell you.
He was a gifted teacher, and he worked through my ego boundaries. After two and a half hours of arduous work, the boundaries finally dropped. My ego was exhausted.
When the kensho came to an end, I watched with fascination as my ego gradually reconstructed itself in slow motion. I started crying, and the teacher asked me what I was thinking.
I told him that I was seeing my ego as a visual metaphor. It looked like a huge building. I could see many things about the building that I wanted to change, but I didn't know how, and I felt ashamed. At the same time, I was experiencing a profound feeling of self-compassion.
He replied that this is the purpose of spiritual work. We don't go into the Transcendent in order to escape from the suffering of the ego. We do it in order to come out again and see the ego more clearly. It's a humbling experience because we see what we need to change.
Each time we go through this cycle, the ego matures a little more. Enlightenment is the beginning, not the end, of serious spiritual work.
Unitive Level Boundaries
Genpo Roshi says that enlightened people often appear crazy to others. It's confusing for conventional people to be around someone whose ego boundaries are extremely flexible. I was actually told by an ex-boyfriend to "go into therapy and find yourself." This is the same person who, at the beginning of our relationship, complimented me by saying that I had a "low need for ego gratification." He couldn't comprehend my perspective, and the large gap between our levels of development was an insurmountable problem. He said that I was the most complex person he'd ever met. Conventional thinkers are often freaked out by the complex, paradoxical thinking of Unitives.
My boyfriend had walls instead of boundaries, along with a long list of rules. The flexibility of my boundaries scared him because he was trying to avoid intimacy. Real intimacy can only be achieved when you have healthy, flexible boundaries.
Flexible boundaries are like the skill of a martial arts master who cannot be overpowered by bigger, stronger opponents because the master is able to deflect every attack with a non-resistant defense. Eventually, the opponent wears himself out trying to fight against the master.
"Properly boundaried people exert quiet but considerable force." ~Pia Mellody, The Intimacy Factor
I have lots of patience because I understand people. But I do have boundaries. If these boundaries are violated, the relationship is over. I don't act hastily because I trust in the natural unfolding of the universe. But when I do act, it is decisive and definitive.
The Unitive acts when everything comes together in a moment of clarity. He acts spontaneously at the right moment. He is aligned with his own soul, and he is operating on the soul's timetable.
The Unitive has great patience and tolerance for his own ambiguity. He can stay in a place of indecision indefinitely until the right moment has arrived for acting. Up until that point, all options are open because the Unitive is open to the infinite possibilities of the universe.
Strength, Flexibility and Balance
I recently attended a performance of the Peking Acrobats. This is a good metaphor for the boundaries of an enlightened person. The performers are able to do amazing feats because they have great strength (Yang energy), flexibility (Yin energy), and balance (making adjustments as needed in the Now).
According to the enlightened sages, Reality is a constantly shifting, multidimensional thing/event. You can't cope with Reality with a list of rules. You need inner strength, flexibility and balance. Work on balancing your yin and yang energies.
This is a balancing act that never ends, so you might as well enjoy it! If you lose balance and drop the ball, forgive yourself immediately, and pick it up again. It's okay if other people don't understand you. Be your own best friend, and practice self-compassion.
Boundaries in Intimate Relationships
In a healthy relationship with an aware partner, there is little need to defend your boundaries, so there is a potential for deep intimacy. If both partners are spiritually mature, boundaries can drop away as they experience each other in a state of spiritual Oneness. You'd be surprised at how much courage it takes to sit across from a Zen teacher and allow him to lead you into a kensho. It also takes great courage to face your shadow material or to do deep emotional healing work. A person who can do these things has the courage to go into the depths of a truly intimate relationship. Other people just have sex and call it intimacy.
Sex is just a momentary dropping of physical boundaries. It's a pale imitation of enlightenment. But it can give you the tiniest idea of what enlightenment feels like.
Boundaries and Compassion
Mismatched levels of cognitive development can create serious problems in relationships. Bill Harris isn't kidding when he says, "You can't talk another person out of their level of development."
I only try to influence people who have given me permission to be their life coach or teacher. Just as I gave the Zen teacher permission to lead me into a kensho, I ask for permission before I give advice.
People have walls that prevent them from seeing other people's perspectives. It's a waste of breath to give unwanted advice. You can only help someone who is willing to drop their walls long enough to see things from a different angle.
Being able to see many different perspectives is a prerequisite for compassion, which is the ultimate outcome of spiritual work. A person with great compassion understands why people do what they do because they are able to take the perspective of others.
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