During my years as a psychologist/counselor, I helped many people who were in distress both set boundaries and maintain them once they were set. As a Zen teacher I help people move toward healthy boundarylessness, which means increased intimacy, a feel of connection with the world around them. But this really can only happen when we establish and maintain good boundaries.
I began a serious meditation practice at a time when meditation was considered weird within mainstream society and by my family. I had to continually set and reinforce my boundary with my father in particular, in order to stay on the path. Over and over, I reminded myself how important it was to honor my deep desire to devote my life to tasting a timeless stillness and helping others do the same regardless of how my parents viewed me.
During the last 25 years, I have been teaching both the two traditional types of middle ways from the Buddhist tradition (which I will not touch on here) and a middle way which emphasizes authentic engagement. I help practitioners develop a sense of agency, including setting and reinforcing boundaries which are neither too loose nor too tight, strong but permeable.
Unfortunately, most of us come from families in which boundaries were either overly rigid or poor and even non-existent. If we grew up in families with rigid boundaries, often relationships with parental figures were cold and distant or authoritarian with little affectionate exchange. On the other hand, in families with poor boundaries, we never knew when we were going to get “slurped up” by our parent’s needs, desires, or expectations. And in some cases, we may have experienced swings between these two extremes.
If you had an experience as a child of being enmeshed with one or more parents, as an adult you may have felt a need to severely cut ties to work on establishing boundaries. And once those are firmly in place, we have an opportunity to practice being permeable. With permeable boundaries we feel free to be ourselves and feel a natural empathy with others. As I often say, the more we learn to just be who we are, the more we feel undivided from each other and all life.
If we want to be truer to ourselves, we need to notice how we inhibit allowing ourselves to live with a simple naturalness. There are three main ways we do this.
First, we get fixated on the image we present to others, hiding behind a protective mask or false persona.
Second, we may feel too paralyzed to assertively express ourselves because we are afraid of being rejected.
Third is staying in relationships when there is a lack of shared core values just because we think we “should.”
Here are some things we might do to move toward being more authentic:
Notice why you are holding back from just being who you are. Generally, there’s an underlying feeling of inadequacy which can take many different forms. During my first year in college, I felt I wasn’t smart enough. So, I concealed my insecurity by blowing off my classes, and I almost flunked out. Maybe you are feeling unsafe and think you will get hurt if you show yourself just as you are. Maybe you simply feel inadequate, but don’t want to show that to others.
Learning to be authentic includes learning to discover and live out our deepest values and aspirations and to trust our deepest voice. We know we are doing this when instead of getting caught by some superficial role or identity, we feel generally at ease with ourselves and undivided from others.
Learning to be authentic also includes repeatedly letting go of things that the mind is telling us we want. Our psyche is no longer organized around craving and grasping, because our energy is focused on living from our deepest sense of being. You may be surprised to fall into a feeling of spaciousness and freedom that is far more satisfying than any object you have sacrificed of let go of.
Finally, being authentic means recognize your feelings as you’re having them. If you can’t recognize your feelings, how can you possibly be who you really are?
Of course, admitting that you don’t know how you feel is also authentic. To paraphrase Tara Brach, all we need to do is radically accept any and all emotions, images, as well as both positive and negative self-talk that arises. It’s impossible for us to be authentic if we don’t have compassion for our confusion!
Here are a few tips to increase your authenticity:
1.Make a list of what causes you to act or feel inauthentic. It almost always involves either feeling that we need to conform to others’ needs or expectations and/or needing to hide our true feelings about someone or something. Make the list again ten days later, comparing, it to the first list. And do this every ten days for as long as is helpful.
2. Practice moving beyond any limiting belief, even the belief that you are not authentic. This practice derives from what has been called, the second middle way or the “empty middle” in Buddhism which grew out of the teaching of the 2nd century sage Nagarjuna. Our conventional thinking can only embrace one side of an issue. To activate this second middle way we first move beyond whatever belief or feeling we have to its opposite. Then we embrace both. And finally, we let go of both.
Here are some simple practice instructions for exploring this within yourself:
Many people are anxious about what’s happening in our country now. How about opening up to your own feeling of anxiety as you take two or three breaths? Then release. Next, take two or three more breaths and open up to the truth that since you are able to absorb yourself in reading this blog, you are also not anxious.
Open up to this freedom from anxiety as you take two or three breaths.
Now open to both your feeling of anxiety and your freedom anxiety as you take two or three breaths. Once you have held both of these in balance, release again. Now you are ready for the fourth component of tetralemma practice, letting go of both anxiety and no anxiety and just being present in your body, allowing all of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations to just be just they are.
According to this core Mahayana Buddhist teaching every difficulty we have involves tension between pairs of opposites. And if we practice with all 4 sides, discord melts into concord, battles become dances, and old enemies may even become lovers. We have a pretty simple choice: do we want to make friends with all life, or just one half of it?
3. Practicing bare awareness of how you are with whatever issue come up. All you do, in this case is say "Yes" to whatever negative thought or emotion is arising and if you can’t identify the thought or emotion, say yes to your confusion about this. When the issue is sufficiently explored, the negative energies tend to resolve themselves. Once this acceptance is total, a natural humility is bound to grow out of it.
The more we practice any of the above techniques, the more we enjoy permeable boundaries and naturally live and act from our deepest heart. In my second and last blog on boundaries, I will talk about them from a meditative point of view.
When we sit without moving in meditation, we are forming a very tight, boundaried space. During meditation retreats we may spend hour after hour just sitting looking at a wall. This practice can be both difficult and positive as long as we are not replicating a childhood experience in which an authority put us in a contained space to punish us. If we practice in a self-punishing manner, our negative energy may propel us (literally or metaphorically) into the unhealthy sense of boundarylessness I was talking about in my last blog. This is a space in which we have totally suppressed both our own needs and aspirations.
In Nothing Holy About It I talked about Buddha’s student, Patacara, who experienced a great trauma and fell into unhealthy boundarylessness. Due to Buddha’s guidance, she was able to move from total despair and powerlessness She was able to develop good boundaries and immerse herself in a steady meditation practice. At some point she moved to a higher form of boundarylessness in which her small, chattering self cracked open to a joyful spaciousness. We call this enlightenment.
But we need to release any fixation on or infatuation with this type of experience, however. As we continue to mature spiritually, we experience boundaries and boundarylessness as two sides of the same coin. Many years ago, my first teacher pointed to the mis-arranged shoes I had placed at the door to his room and calmly said, “You have attained so-called “enlightenment. Now please take care of those.” He was illustrating the well-known Zen statement, “First mountains are mountains and rivers. Then mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. And at some point, mountains are again mountains and rivers are again rivers.”
A Zen master, if there is such a being, is simply someone who has strong and yet totally permeable boundaries and naturally lives and acts from her deepest heart or heart/mind.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher