Know Thyself: From Limits to Limitless
At this time in our culture and in my psychotherapy practice, I’m witnessing more and more people speak up about boundary violations in relationships, desires for individual identity to be honored and respected, desperate declarations around human rights and needs, and groups reacting to being forgotten, dismissed and not seen. There is so much pain, anger, separateness and hurt. The common theme through all of these is a desire for healthy boundaries.
There are so many facets to boundaries and I have been on my own journey to understand and live from good boundaries for most of my adult life. So, please know, there is much to explore here. I will do my best by mapping out a start for this journey with you.
Boundaries are conscious and unconscious limits involving most of the aspects of being a human.
They define the edges of closeness and distance for varying wants and needs in our relationships. For example, physical needs with others could include safe touch, hugs, a comfortable level of distance or closeness, cuddling, just sitting with someone, and so on. These needs can change from person to person, what is going on in the moment, and in the context of the environment. For example, I welcome a hug and cuddle from my daughter most of the time. I may struggle with hugs and cuddles when I’m exhausted or just “need a moment.” I’m not as comfortable with hugs from people I don’t know well or strangers. I’m particularly cautious in work situations or when there is a significant power differential. It is my responsibility to tune into my internal messages about what feels comfortable or uncomfortable and to communicate directly what I want and need in the relationship. Often times, this is easier said than done.
Boundaries also define the edges and limits around individual identity. It is an understanding of one’s unique beliefs, responsibilities, desires, interests, perspectives, and much more. Individual identity is meant to develop and change over time. For example, my sense of “who I am” was different at age 16, 25, 30 and 40. In the context of relationships, we are born to our parents with no sense of a separate self. As we grow, our brain develops and we are able to have the concept of a separate independent self. This capacity to see how we are similar to others, different from others, and to see from different perspectives continues to increase as our brain develops over time. For example, my beliefs and values have changed as I have aged. Often times, we are given beliefs from our parents, life circumstances, and culture. The path towards developing a sense of independent self is examining from the inside what you really believe today.
On my journey of becoming an independent self, I would sometimes get stuck in compliance. I would do what others wanted or agreed with them because I was afraid of speaking up, I wanted approval, and it seemed easier. Sometimes, I would live from opposition. I would take a strong stance against the person and fight like hell. This would usually look reactive, aggressive, and defensive. Both stances of compliance and opposition were problematic.
Through yoga and other contemplative practices, I have been able to cultivate a space to become more mindful in how I express myself in the world and how to honor others’ needs for expression as well. In yoga, we talk about the two versions of self: the unlimited Universal Self and the limited ego self. The Universal Self is representative of our connectedness to all beings and the Divine. It is boundary-less. It is connected to limitless possibility and seen as the pathway towards transcendence. When we are experiencing ourselves from this place, we know that ultimately we are perfect, whole, and complete exactly as we are. The ego self or little self is connected to our identity, stories, needs, desires, responsibilities, and experiences. I have found that holding the truth of both of these aspects of self has helped me develop a fuller sense of my individual self while navigating boundaries in relationship with others.
The term yoga means union, or “to yoke.” In this case, it would indicate that wholeness and liberation comes through balance with the limits of the little self and the limitless Universal Self. To have a realization of the truth of our limitless nature, we need to make peace with the limits of our little self.
All I plead with you is this: make love of yourself perfect.
—Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
As you embark on this introspective journey, I encourage you to bring these qualities with you: kindness, patience, compassion, curiosity, and non-judgment. These qualities are also quite useful when setting limits with others. For example, I sometimes must ask my eager daughter to wait for a moment until I come to a stopping point in my current conversation. Once we’re at the stopping point, she can tell me what she needs. My daughter and I get to do this over and over again. At some point, we’ll get there more quickly. This interaction works best when I have patience and kindness. It’s also useful to remember what it’s like to be an excited kid and how hard it can be to wait.
In boundary-setting situations that are more complex, I try to remember the limitless Universal Self in all beings. The typical greeting used in India and often used at the end of a yoga class, Namaste, helps me remember this. Nama means bow, as means I, and te mean you. Our hands are set at the heart as a reminder of the Universal Self within. The intention is to greet and work with each other from our highest selves. I try to remember that everyone has a unique individual self that is just trying to figure everything out. Each individual self comes with their own history, story, desires, purpose, gifts and challenges. Hopefully we can create a safe space to figure out our needs, wants, limits and responsibilities together.
Lokah Samastah Sukinoh Bhavantu
May all beings everywhere be happy and free
And may my actions in some ways contribute to that freedom
The Center for Non Violent Communication has done a wonderful job developing online resources that promote a path towards all being getting their needs met and methods for peaceful conflict resolution. For more information, please check out the link below:
“Boundaries are good. The Buddha would like boundaries.”
—- Pema Chodron
Of course, there are situations when walking away or leaving would be the best or safest limit to set. Sometimes, conversations and negotiations are not a safe option.
Another way to explore limits is in asana practice. You could turn your awareness towards your internal experience. The Sanskrit term drishti refers to where you keep your gaze or focus when you are in your asana. Sometimes we lose sight of our own path by focusing on someone else or another time. If you notice that your mind wanders to what someone else is doing or what you have done in the past, invite your awareness back to the moment and to what you are experiencing in the asana right now.
If there are choices of how the yoga posture can be expressed, you could experiment with what feels useful to you in that moment. Sometimes it’s nice to try out both options. Much like boundaries in relationships, we can learn a lot by “trying things on” and seeing what fits and what doesn’t.
You could also experiment with the edges and limits in a yoga pose. For example, hanumanasana (monkey pose or split) can be a great way to explore choices from an internal noticing experience. What amount of leg extension feels useful? Where do I not feel much from the leg extension? What feels like too much or too little for me today? Perhaps explore what it’s like to be a curious, kind, compassionate and non-judgmental caregiver for your body. It might be interesting to see what unfolds.
I am so grateful for all of the opportunities that I have had to explore limits in relationship with others, my yoga practice, and myself. I believe that it has helped me identify ways that I needed to grow, wounds that needed healing, and relational patterns that restricted me and others from living more fully. When I honor and set my limits in relationships, I find that I am more at peace, loving, and giving in ways that are useful to all beings involved. It is through acknowledging and setting limits that I have found more freedom and connection with the Limitless.
Written by Rachele Thompson
Tara Brach – RAIN for compassion – what is this part of me that is experiencing this pain? What can I learn from this? What do I need? What am I missing here?
Pema Chodron on Setting Boundaries
PEMA CHODRON ON SETTING BOUNDARIES
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu – Boundaries can be a path towards freedom, for you, for others, for all beings
How has this been true for you?
Tara Brach – blog on the “space suit self”, exploring being in relationship with both aspects of the self
Purnam Adah Purnam Idam Purnat Purnam Udachyate Purnasya Purnam Adaya Purnam Evavashisyate
Om Purnam Adah Mantra Meaning – Om Purnamadah Purnamidam Mantra
Research indicates that interoceptive yoga increases activity in the insular region in the brain. This area is often called “The Self” in the brain, “the caretaker” of the brain. They have found that this region is also linked to compassion and being able to see from other’s perspectives. These are all great things for boundaries.
NY times article about the Insula https://mobile.nytimes.com/2007/02/06/health/psychology/06brain.html
Create an interoceptive (felt sense) experience within the yoga practice. Curious, kind, no right or wrong or “best way”, exploration of physical experience. This stimulates the insula part of the brain. Questions for students: How would I choose to move or explore this form in this moment? This is moving from information coming for the inside…not the demands of the external world. This is tuning into the self and choosing from there. What does this pose feel like as a pause here or as I move?
What are the situations in relationships that cause us to forget our inherent “wholeness?” that make us feel incomplete, unworthy, not good enough? Room for boundaries here?
Physical practice of creating a limit to expand from – use of the wall or blocks in a pose.
This could fit well with creating limits or barriers around situations that imprison us (cause us to forget our wholeness). For example, addressing a pattern of where someone “drops the bait” for the inevitable argument that causes you to do the reaction that makes you and everyone feel uncomfortable: a limit could be walking away, limiting time with this friend, addressing the situation directly with a request for change.
Happy, Healthy, Safe and Free (Meditation on Maitri from The Limitless Ones / 4 Immeasurables) Are there some needs for limits in life to support the path towards these aspects? Limits in relationship with self / with others?
Questions to ask to know thyself: In order to express limits in relationship with others, I need to do an honest and curious inventory of my wants, needs, and responsibilities. Who am I? Am I living life from my truest self? Am I doing the job that I believe is my personal purpose at this time? Am I speaking from my truth and what I believe from my heart? Am I living from reactivity, opposition or compliance? Am I taking on more responsibility than is useful? Am I not bearing enough responsibility?
“The meaning of our self is not to be found in its separateness from God and others, but in the ceaseless realization of yoga, of union.”
~ Rabindranath Tagore