Let’s Talk about Boundaries

This week we'll be talking about boundaries in my BodyLOVE group. It's almost laughable to think about covering such a huge topic in just a few hours, but at the very least we can begin the conversation. 

What is a boundary?

In a literal sense, a boundary delineates one thing from another thing. In a very basic way, there is a boundary where one thing or person ends and another begins. A boundary is also a container of sorts, like the bank of a river or a railing on the side of a steep cliff.

Boundaries divide countries, counties, cities and towns. They demarcate one person's physical space from another. There are legal boundaries, and there are also physical boundaries, psychological and spiritual boundaries, most of which are influenced by culture, gender, age and other qualities. Boundaries are also shaped by our own personal stories, how we were raised, with whom we grew up, and various other life experiences.  Different kinds of people have different kinds of boundaries. 

Whew…this is hard to describe without lapsing into psychobabble or new age jargon. Maybe a few quotes from others would be helpful:

You must decide for yourself to whom and when you give access to your interior life. For years you have permitted others to walk in and out of your life according to THEIR needs and desires. Thus you were no longer master in your own house and you felt increasingly used. So, too, you quickly became tired, irritated, angry, and resentful.

Think of a medieval castle surrounded by a moat. The drawbridge is the only access to the interior of the castle. The lord of the castle must have the power to decide when to draw the bridge and when to let it down. Without such power, one can become the victim of enemies, strangers, and wanderers. We will never feel at peace in [our] own castle.

–excerpt from The Inner Voice of Love, by spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen (with some modification from me)

In the psychological world, attachment theory and self psychology provide extremely useful frameworks for understanding the complexity of human boundaries. In utero, we are essentially boundary-less, as we are living inside the body of our biological mother. Our first experience of our physical boundaries (separateness) is birth; the earliest months and years of life are critical to our developing a healthy sense of self, of separateness and connection–in essence, I am talking about how we develop healthy boundaries.

I am also frequently in search of compelling theological definitions and narratives about boundaries. For example, there is a distinct moment in Jewish history in which people transitioned from a gathering of individuals to a collective peoplehood, a tribe, a shared identity of We-ness. This sense of collective identity is particularly apparent in Jewish liturgy, but can also be found in other writings. 

There are quite a few powerful teachings about the sacredness of boundaries.  One of my favorite Biblical selections is the description of the mishkan, or sanctuary, in the book of Exodus. There is very specific detail about every jewel, every clasp, every wall and curtain that comprises the mishkan, leading into the Holy of Holies. The mishkan was the portable sanctuary that traveled with the community on its journey, and boundaries were an extremely important element in the sanctuary. 

Repeatedly the text emphasizes the Divine presence in and among
the people, and how the different items and locations within
the mishkan, such as the cloth which covers the ark and the curtain that separates the Holy (Kadosh) from the Holy of Holies (Kadosh ha'Kadoshim). Each of these boundary-making items is described as a
distinct element in its own right, serving the important function of
holding the sacred space ((boundary) between the different sections of the temple, in which the Divine resides.

In fact, the Hebrew word kadosh, or kedusha, which is usually translated as sacred or holy, actually means set apart or separate from.  

If the drawbridge is always down we can feel trampled on or invaded, but it can get very lonely in the castle if the drawbridge is always up. 

Safe and sacred connection rests in our ability to create necessary and healthy boundaries. We need separateness as well as connectedness. We need to reflect on our own boundaries, to think about when, where, with whom and how we feel safe, and we have to talk about this with others so that our boundaries are honored and respected. We need to breathe together and breathe separately. 

So, when the shoe fits

The foot is forgotten,

When the belt fits

The belly is forgotten,

When the heart is right

"For" and "against" are forgotten.

–Chuang Tzu, from "When the Shoe Fits"