I shared this talk on Boundaries and Interdependence on September 7, 2021 at East Bay Meditation Center’s Alphabet Sangha — a little teaser for the 4-part class series on Finding Liberation in Relationship that ran that fall.
My notes for Dharma Talk on Boundaries and Interdependence
For this month-long class, we’re asking questions about how embodied practices of mindfulness can support us to be in relationship? To find liberation in relationship? And we’re drawing on lessons from transformative justice to build some relational skills.
A big place of questions for people is in boundaries — how do we hold and communicate them skillfully?
Boundaries are a psychology term, and can feel at odds with some Buddhist teachings on interdependence. Like in the practice we just did, it’s hard to find any clear lines that separate us from the rest of the world.
I appreciate this definition from Prentis Hemphill, “boundaries are the distance at which I could love me and you simultaneously.”
For me, boundaries require being in touch with my own needs, and a lot of my childhood conditioning has encouraged me to be out of touch with my experience of needs. Or to just not have needs at all — I should ignore my hunger so I can stay thin. I should ignore my tiredness so I can keep plowing through on my to do list at work. I should ignore my anger and disappointment to keep things appearing peaceful in my family. We can use mindfulness practices to get back in touch with what needs feel like in our body.
Just taking a couple of breaths here to scan your body. As we talk about needs, is there a physical sensation that you are noticing? A dry tongue that could use a sip of water? A restless heart that has you thinking about a conflict that could use more attention? Taking a moment to notice the connection between sensation and need. If it’s something you can meet in this moment — getting that sip of water, even just making a small note to take a next step on whatever has your heart feeling restless — I invite you to do a small thing to meet your need. If you are like me, and are someone who is so conditioned to put your needs aside, there’s something really important about this simple practice of scanning your needs and taking a small step or small intention toward meeting them. I’ve really appreciated the transformation that can happen for everyone by this practice offered in disability community, of inviting people to share their access needs. This invitation to scan for needs, and consider how we can individually or collectively do a better job of meeting them is part of the work of shifting how we can even start to work with boundaries.
For me, boundaries is the work to do in a relationship when I have a need that feels different than the other person or the group.
I had to set some hard boundaries a few years ago when my parent’s marriage ended a month after their 40th anniversary.
My relationship with my mom unexpectedly broke in this divorce too. My mom had 40+ years of rage and grief at my dad, and I realized I could not be my mom’s divorce “therapist.” For awhile, that was all she could talk about. That meant if I wanted to hold my boundary, I had to say we couldn’t talk at all. It was heartbreaking. It is still heartbreaking. Yet loving myself meant I could not replicate my ancestral wounds, and just show up in ways that caused harm to myself in supposed care for others.
Setting that boundary wasn’t easy or skillful. As someone conditioned to be afraid of anger, especially my own, I often wait until the last possible moment to be angry at others. So when I finally do tell them, I’ve been upset for awhile. I have been known to burn people with the fire of my dragon. [RAWR].
Needing a different path, my therapist invited me to build a Mandala of Protection around me. As you hear about mine, maybe you want to dream up one of your own.
Imagine yourself in the middle — what in this world would protect you from intentional or unintentional harm?
For me, my first image was sunflowers. I was like — what? But then I saw how tight a majestic circle of sunflowers could be planted. A person would have to muscle their way through. And if they listen to boundaries, they can frolic in miles of wildflower fields surrounding this initial boundary of beauty.
If someone shoulders their way past these sunflowers — and let’s be honest, we’ve all done this to someone when we feel urgent about our own needs or anxieties. Waiting past these sunflowers is a row of prickly purple thistle. “Ouch!” Still pretty, but OUCH!
If someone pushes through thistle, they find a wide and deep river. Will they choose to swim? A deck of tarot cards swirls over the river, sharing guidance about how this person is showing up, and the medicine I could administer in care.
If they dare wade in the water, a line of stone gargoyles comes alive with red eyes and towering shoulders. The closest says in a deep voice, “It is time to turn around now.”
Whoever keeps coming past this point — whether intentional or through confusion, they’ve made some choices. And then — instead of feeling ashamed about the dragon roar, it feels like a clear form of love and care for myself to say [RAWR]
[I kind of need to do that again. Maybe you need to do that with me? Let’s get a little roar out — 1, 2, 3 RAWR]
These boundaries aren’t impenetrable walls. There’s space to picnic in the field next to the sunflowers and enjoy my company. If there’s consent to come closer, the mandalas can part ways. But these layers are here to help me have more of a voice to say yes and no about how we’re in relationship with each other.
What supports do I have in my life to be in touch with feeling and meeting my needs?
What would be possible in my life if I were embodying the boundaries I need?