Boundaries

the Rio Grande: the United States in the foreground, Mexico on the other side

Boundaries are a type of limit, but as I discussed in the last post, in practice they function very differently from other limits. While hard and soft limits are part of Natural reality and self-imposed limits appear to be so until we examine them, boundaries are entirely arbitrary human constructions. They draw lines between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.

Boundaries can be constructed by governments: national borders, speed limits, prohibitions against murder and rape, and every other law designed to restrict or mandate human behavior. Notice I said “designed to” – respecting boundaries is ultimately voluntary… though violating them can bring unpleasant consequences. Meanwhile, no one has to enforce the Law of Gravity.

Boundaries can be constructed by families, tribes and communities: expectations for attendance at religious services, dietary restrictions, dress codes, whether a closed door means “do not disturb,” “knock and wait for a response,” “knock then enter,” or “what door?”

Boundaries can be constructed by individuals: moral codes, personal space, devotional practices, protection of self and loved ones.

Boundaries are everywhere – they are so prevalent we frequently don’t recognize them. We construct boundaries because we are discrete beings living in a continuous universe and our brains evolved to classify things into a few categories so we can deal with them quickly and easily. Boundaries make things predictable and manageable.

Like any other human construction, boundaries can be abused. Laws can help create an orderly society and they can be used to exploit and oppress the powerless. Social customs can pass along the wisdom of past generations and help build group cohesion, and they can stifle individual creativity and foster distrust and hatred of other groups. Personal boundaries can help us focus our attention on what is most important (i.e. – dealing with soft limits) and they can shut us off from new experiences and growth.

As with everything else in life, setting and navigating boundaries requires mindfulness.

Now that we understand what boundaries are, let’s look at how we can best use them in our lives and in our spiritual practices.

Moral and Ethical Boundaries. I’ll skip the philosophical differences between morals and ethics and simply say this is how we draw lines that say “beyond this is wrong and I won’t do it.” Or in a different context, “beyond this is wrong and I won’t fail to do it.” We Pagans tend to not like rules – particularly when someone else makes them. But the purpose of moral and ethical boundaries is to make decision-making easier and more consistent. You can make a specific moral decision on the fly, when you’re feeling pressured by time and by others. Or you can think about these things ahead of time, get as many inputs as you can find, weigh conflicting principles, consider the likely outcomes of various responses and how you’d feel about them.

Modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers says that rather than worrying about following rules, we should attempt to model virtues. I think he has a good point (I haven’t read his book on this topic, though I’ve read much of his blogging and other shorter work), though to me virtues are simply one more input that goes into drawing good boundaries.

Setting your own moral and ethical boundaries is more work than either making decisions on the fly or following the rules someone else gave you. But most of us want to do the right thing, and we can be much more confident we’ll do that if we’ve thought it through ahead of time.

Boundaries of Personal Practice. Nothing we do has as much impact on our spiritual growth and development as regular spiritual practice. As such, it is very helpful to draw boundaries around our practices. Can you mark off 15 minutes every day for meditation? Or 5 minutes? Can you commit to daily prayers? To exercise three or four or six days a week? To read (from a book, not from a random website) a certain number of hours a week?

If you’re just starting out, set your targets low – nothing will kill a new practice faster than feeling like something is so hard you’ll never be able to do it. Then raise them as you progress – success breeds success.

Magical Boundaries. We aren’t all Wiccans, but I imagine most of us are familiar with casting circles. I wrote a rather detailed exposition on circles last year – since then I’ve learned that the practice of casting circles really is older than medieval sorcerers. It actually began with the ancient Greeks. In his book Homo Necans, classical scholar Walter Burkert said “after arriving at the sacred place, the participants mark off a circle” as one of the first steps in performing a sacrifice. Burkert didn’t elaborate on why they drew this circle, but marking boundaries is a reasonable assumption.

If you’re drawing magical boundaries, make sure you understand what you’re doing and why – don’t just cast a circle because “it’s what we always do.” Circles make a clear distinction between who’s inside and who’s outside – if you’re conducting a large public ritual you probably don’t want to do that. There are other ways to mark sacred space or keep out unwanted energies – use the right method for the right situation.

Crossing Boundaries. As I mentioned in regards to proscriptive laws, respecting boundaries is ultimately voluntary. You can walk through someone’s ritual circle. You can choose to watch TV during your meditation time. You can take recreational drugs or drive at illegal speeds. You can steal cars, rob banks, or pour toxic waste on the ground.

You can do these things, but there will be consequences. I won’t attempt to detail all the things that will happen or may happen if you cross a boundary – you know this as well as I do. And remember that not all boundaries are good and helpful – sometimes we must cross them because they are unjust. In any case, we should cross boundaries mindfully, and be prepared.

We draw boundaries to help our discrete brains deal with our continuous universe. But the Natural world has some areas that are not quite continuous and not quite discrete – the boundaries between land and sea, between day and night, between Summer and Winter. These places that are “neither within nor without” – liminal zones – are places of great magic, and that will be the subject of the next post.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Kilmrnock

    Bondries is a more reasonable concept for alot of what i do . As i mentioned from the previous post I am a Celtic Recon and a Warrior . Being such i live by a fairly strict Honor/Conduct code this in itself sets more a boundry than a limit . I set moral and personal conduct boundries i will not cross. These boundries are self imposed , but to me these constructs make my life easier and is also how my ancestors lived . Things such as the Triads , The Brehon Laws and a code derived from them is how the Celts lived . To someone like me a code quite simular to the Norse NNV and my personal Honor are quite important and such values are worth fighting for or defend .

  • http://heathennaturalist.wordpress.com/ Amanda

    I’m actually doing a lot of work on my personal boundaries right now, which I don’t think you addressed that much, though it could fall as a sub-category under Moral and Ethical Boundaries. A lot of psychological distress is caused when a person doesn’t have appropriate boundaries, for example when you have a controlling person who will just plow through another person’s boundaries, when you have a compliant person who lets others take advantage of their weak boundaries, or when you have a person with boundaries that are too strong so they don’t let anyone in and become isolated.

    This applies to everyone, but I think some pagans do have a problem with personal boundaries. I’ve been to festivals where I or one of my friends have been groped, rubbed up against, or harassed in a sexual manner. There are some people who think that if an event is clothing optional, that means there are no personal or sexual boundaries between people and they can grab any woman they want. I’ve also run into problems where I’ve tried to defend my boundaries (for example, I’m in a monogamous relationship, and wish to keep it that way, thank you very much), and a couple of times the reaction has been that I’m prude, uptight, brainwashed with Christian values, or “just try it and you’ll like it.”

    Again, this is just a small minority in the pagan community (and it seems to be getting much better than it was when I first started out), but in a festival setting, it’s probably even MORE important that people respect other people’s boundaries; one person who violates that can throw a wrench into the whole thing. Basically, always ask permission before touching someone, no matter their level of undress, and be able to take “no” for an answer! I really appreciate it when people can do that.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Amanda, you’re right, I didn’t explicitly touch on that, but it’s an important point. As for festivals, my limited experience is that a lot of people go to them as an excuse to party, with little or no interest in spirituality.

  • Barbaryan

    Boundaries are set for human species that don’t have them inside. Some species understand fear only – therefore Gods of those human species say to them – you cross the boundary and I will kill you. That works very well for the loose human species. If one grabs my woman on barbaryan event he will get to know my fists or worse – and it would effectively set the boundary for the rest without boudary. It is better to sacrifice one for the order than have other humans born into low casts earn themselves bad karma due to the lack of boundaries.

    Pagan is ancestry based
    society, pagan african is different from pagan european because different species descend from ( or created by )different gods. Abrahamic religions destroyed that linkage with parent gods that was passed from generation to generation persvading humans that they all have the same heritage from adam and eve which is not true. Despite that carnage species of any heritage with uncontaminated genetics have genetic linkage with parent spirits, in a way ancestrial gods of that bloodline live inside them. Those species are more noble and their genetic worth is greater for their bloodline, noble in a way. People with mixed genetics will have direction sent to them from different and often confilicting Gods from Hosts that are in a state of war with each other.

    Noble human species are born with inner measure of good and evil that they genetically inherit from their parent gods, they set boundaries for themselves accordingly. They also set boundaries for their own people around them, in a fatherly manner for the same species but standing on lower evolutionary level. It works the same as parents setting boundaries for their children. Remember that pagan was a cast based society. Casts are about survival really, everybody does what he can do best for the benefit of all. Cast of Priests connect to ancestrial Gods and set the strategy and boundaries, cast of warriors protects their people and enforces the strategy that priests set, cast of workers create material values for all, cast of outcasts does what nobody else wants to do.

    Boundaries are different for every casts because souls of different level incarnate within different cast, and different level souls need a different straight jacket to keep their path straight.
    And without properly set boundaries incarnated souls will get a degeneration instead of evolution in its development which nobody wants really.

    This practice survives to the modern day – at a specific age every child is taken to a priest to read his sacred name off his matrix ( soul ). Name reveals the purpose of this incarnation, soul evolutionary level, name also defines the boundaries for that person. Name is the same regardless of priest who reads it, if priest can’t read the name or misreads it he is unqualified and is a lier and to them law says:
    Кто присвоил волхвов себе шкуру с тех когтями ее сдерите вырвите с корнем язык…

    Matrix name also reveals if alien soul is incarnated into your bloodline due to the women’s promiscuity and many other things…

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Different groups of humans have different cultures and different gods, but we are one species, descended from one set of common ancestors. The sooner we understand this the better off we’ll be.

      Caste systems promote order at the expense of freedom. They are not helpful to our growth.

      Your final paragraph is misogynistic and possibly racist. Consider this a warning…

      • Barbaryan

        There is no such thing as common ancestry for different human species. This was a Christian lie first and now taken over by post Christian pagans without ancestry ties. We all have different gods because our ancestry is different and the main difference is set by the race, species within a race are related and their gods are related. Offspring of whitest Blonds and blackest Blacks will be sterile within 8 generation, sterile offspring happens with different but close animal species the same way. This planet is called Midgard for the reason, it is in the mid of the intersection and different human species come from different Hosts of different gods to learn from each other in their lesson called life. Ancient bloodline laws of RITA stand today as they stood when precession was on the other galactic side and different Gods ruled this place.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

          Unless you have some strong evidence to refute the last century or so of archeology, genetics and linguistics, I will simply state that your argument is factually incorrect.

          Pagans of all people should not repeat the mistakes of Christian fundamentalists and attempt to read their myths literally. It is neither necessary nor helpful.

  • http://www.herlanderwalking.wordpress.com Syrbal/Labrys

    The concept of crossing boundaries is particularly of interest to me. I have been a very intensely disciplined person most of my life, creating boundaries as a daily norm and living securely within the “lines”. Of course, culture has always imposed certain boundaries based on everything from gender to pay grade, and after six decades of building boundary ‘fences’ AND breaking down more than a few not of my own making? One finds it easier to examine whether all those boundaries are worthwhile.

    Boundaries do aid, as you say, in keeping the universe decipherable; however, one can fall prey to over-specialization. So occasionally, sitting on the “fence” reveals new views invisible from either side. And then, since my personal path is shamanistically inclined it of necessity involves crossing lines and knocking on locked doors….and entering without answer at times. I begin to think now, as I enter age with unexpected enthusiasm, that there comes a time to start deconstructing boundaries to discover what lies beyond.

  • Pingback: Know Your Theological Boundaries

  • http://www.endlesserring.wordpress.com Treeshrew

    Wow, looks like you’ve got some crazy racists up in here. Shame.


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