Boundaries February 20, 2013

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.

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