Love Starts With Boundaries

I had an annoying experience last weekend at a festival at which I was volunteering, an encounter with a passive-aggressive person that sort of rustled my jimmies.

Fortunately, I get to use these pages to try to transform such jimmy-rustling experiences into some sort of explorations of wisdom.

It doesn’t really matter what the dispute was about. What’s significant is that my interlocutor — let’s call him Passive-Aggressive Guy — came up to me while I was waiting in line at the kitchen for volunteers (run by the amazing Harpreet Singh’s The Sacred Kitchen) for a much-delayed supper, to tell me how he had “solved” a problem.

He hadn’t, actually, and no one had asked him to; he was not a volunteer or organizer for the event, nor did he understand what was planned and what impact his “solution” would have.

With as much diplomacy as I could muster in my hungry state, I told him thank you for trying, but that really wasn’t appropriate.

What followed was several minutes of being told how I was being closed off, that I needed to listen to him and open up to his healing energies and love, et cetera, et cetera, with me trying shoo him off with body language.

Finally, food was served, which was the last straw for me to end the encounter by walking away to get fed. But as I left, as if that motion shook loose a mental connection, I was finally able to articulate what was nagging me about the interaction: “There are boundary issues here.”

photo via Max Pixel, public domain / CC0
photo via Max Pixel, public domain / CC0

When The Zen Pagan became its own blog rater than an occasional Agora column, the very first post here (and the last post on Agora) was about Terminus, the Roman god of boundaries. (By the way, my complete run on Agora is collected in the book What Does It Mean For The Gods To Exist?)

Stating and enforcing boundaries is an essential part of our mental and spiritual health. When I teach self-defense classes, I start with the definition that self-defense is the process of setting and enforcing boundaries, and that this is the most basic human right. “Boundaries are the most important of things,” Augustus Caesar says in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman story “August”.

On the other hand, it’s true that spiritual practice is supposed to change our boundaries. Buddhism teaches us that there is no separate self, that these boundaries are an illusion. And this is true also. We do want to open to the Universe.

But we have to operate in both the realms of absolute and relative truth. It is true that you and I are fundamentally one; but it’s still identity theft for you to open up a credit card in my name.

There are people like Passive-Aggressive Guy in our spiritual communities — sometimes just clueless seekers, but sometimes deliberate predators — who will smear out your relative-truth boundaries in the name of absolute truth.

So don’t be fooled. Love starts with recognition and respect for boundaries. Because love is a boundary condition, something that exists where two separate phenomena, the lover and the beloved, interact.

And that interaction will change the boundary. But that only makes respect for the boundary more important.

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