Boundaries Make Freedom Possible

Boundaries are an essential part of life. They delineate and maintain needed borders and separations, making differentiation possible at every level. Boundaries both contain and preserve the integrity of what they are safeguarding, be that physical, psychological, emotional, social, or spiritual. Without them there is no relationship and therefore no development, no evolution. But despite this clear truth, we often fall into the trap of believing that boundaries hold us back, preventing us from being free or realizing nondual consciousness — whatever untroubled, idealized state we may aspire to. If we thus equate having boundaries with being limited and if being limitless is a cherished goal for us, we will tend to view boundaries as a problem, an obstruction to freedom, something to overcome.

Real freedom, however, is not about having no limitations; rather it is about finding liberation within—and also through—limitation (as when the apparent constraints of committed monogamous relationship actually enrich and deepen the relationship). Real freedom does not mind limitations and in fact is not limited by them.

Boundaries make freedom possible by clarifying what must be worked with, not just personally and transpersonally, but also interpersonally. Since everything — everything! — exists through relationship, it is crucial that we learn to work well within relationship, both with others and with our own needs, states, and identity. This work is not possible if our boundaries are not clearly delineated and skillfully maintained.

Whether our boundaries are collapsed, blurred, abandoned, trampled, disregarded, nurtured, overpoliced, cemented, or honored, they determine our edges, limits, borders. Boundaries may be overdefined, underdefined, or ambiguously defined. What really matters is what we do with our boundaries: Do we use them to fortify our ego or to illuminate it? Do we lose ourselves in them or hold them in healthy perspective? Do we use them to keep ourselves from love or to deepen our capacity to love? Do we concretize them or do we keep them flexible? Do we allow them to be overly permeable or do we allow them to be as solid as circumstances require? Do we use our boundaries to isolate ourselves or to create and deepen connection?

Without healthy boundaries, we cannot have healthy relationships.

Without healthy boundaries, we stunt our growth.

So what are healthy boundaries? They are steadfast guardians, serving both to contain and preserve the integrity of what they are safeguarding. Boundaries don’t just hold space; they make and honor space by keeping it appropriately compartmentalized. They keep particular aspects of us enclosed until they are sufficiently developed. A premature rupturing of self-encapsulation (as when we are forced into adult responsibilities when we are young children) interferes with our development, leaving us with leaky or otherwise dysfunctional boundaries.

A healthy boundary is a psychophysical presence — a kind of energetic membrane — possessing the necessary firmness to protect us from invasion, intrusion, violation, and other dehumanizing or life-negating forces, as well as the resiliency to soften and open to what is beneficial for us.

Healthy boundaries serve our highest good. They are akin to the loving parental hand that holds our hand as we take our first child-steps along a seaside wall or a playground ramp, gripping us neither too tightly nor too loosely. That touch, so reassuringly solid and steady, gives us the courage to venture farther afoot. As we mature, we will find that some of our boundaries can be expanded or made more permeable; for example, if we have an intimate partner, we can expand our boundaries to include him or her rather than collapsing or ignoring our boundaries in order to be close. Such expansion does not weaken our boundaries any more than expanding our love weakens it.

Healthy boundaries serve our evolution. Each developmental stage is fittingly nested in a cooperative complex of boundaries, holding us so that we can, as optimally as possible, navigate the terrain and learn whatever is needed (this process, of course, is often obstructed by factors like poor parenting or traumatic events). If we are overboundaried, we’ll stay too solidly put, remaining stuck in significant ways, with only part of us moving on (as when we keep developing cognitively but not emotionally or morally). And if we are underboundaried, we won’t stay with a particular stage long enough or go deeply enough to learn what we need to from it, thereby becoming little more than developmental dilettantes, touring rather than really living out particular stages of growth. Without healthy boundaries, we don’t grow; we age but don’t really evolve. Healthy boundaries set us apart without isolating us and bring us together without homogenizing us.

If we are inclined to be overboundaried — overbudgeting for defense — we wall ourselves in, confusing security with freedom. On the other hand, if we tend to be underboundaried — leaving the gates too open — we float on the periphery of embodied life, confusing fusion with intimacy, limitlessness with freedom, and excessive tolerance with compassion. Boundaries make containment possible, but does such containment protect or overprotect us, entrap or serve us, ground or cement us, house or jail us?

Those who are underboundaried tend to mistake collapsed boundaries for expanded ones; a collapsing (or outright dissolution) of boundaries may be seen as letting go or even transcending them. A similar mistake is made in our idealized view of romance, where the overwhelming urge to merge is seen as the ultimate state of love rather than as a temporary fantastical state that inevitably unravels over time. We may rationalize or glamorize this abandonment of boundaries as a kind of liberation, a casting-off of shackles in the service of transcendence and spiritual realization. As much as we might conceive of such radical expansion as a wonderful thing, confusing our flight from boundedness with true openness, we don’t realize we are not really expanding our boundaries, but rather neglecting them. For example, someone we are close to speaks very disrespectfully to us, clearly crossing a line, and instead of asserting ourselves with them, taking a needed stand, we leave their behavior unaddressed and unchallenged, thinking we are being compassionate with them, thereby disrespecting the very boundary of ours that was inappropriately crossed.

Abandoning our boundaries is not indicative of a higher or more noble state—however much we might spiritually rationalize this—but is just escapism and aversion, an avoidance of facing, entering, and moving through our pain. Dissociation in spiritual robes is still dissociation! We may make a virtue out of moving beyond the personal, perhaps thinking that we are transcending it, when in fact we are slipping into the domain of depersonalization (a well-known psychiatric disorder featuring disconnection from one’s sense of self). But depersonalization is not the same as the self-transcending or “no-self” realizations of advanced spiritual practice! It is just another form of dissociation (or unhealthy separation).

What is arguably the opposite of dissociation? Intimacy. And intimacy requires healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries protect but do not overprotect; they stand guard but do not jail. If we keep ourselves overprotected, we don’t thrive but stagnate. And if we keep ourselves underprotected, we also don’t thrive but open ourselves undiscerningly, left in a state in which overabsorption is inevitable. We might protest: shouldn’t we be receptive? Yes, but overabsorption and receptivity are not necessarily the same thing!

Having healthy boundaries doesn’t mean a lack of receptivity; instead, it is a discerning receptivity, an openness that can just as easily say a full-blooded “no” as a “yes”. The undiscriminating openness and too easy “yes” (and possible show of equanimity) of those who are underboundaried is especially difficult to cut through when it’s taken to be a sign of spiritual attainment. When we cannot voice and embody an unequivocal “no,” allowing ourselves to be closed at times, our only way of protecting ourselves is to dissociate, to get away from what’s difficult rather than face and pass through it.

Where being overboundaried appears to promise freedom through security, being underboundaried seems to promise freedom through limitlessness. But both cut us off from living fully. This fact is usually obvious when we overprotect ourselves but not necessarily when we underprotect ourselves, especially when we legitimize our actions spiritually, making an unquestioned virtue out of our undiscriminating openness. For example, we may open our sexual boundaries in the name of universal love, reframing our multi-partnered sexual encounters as tantric practice, thinking we are being more openhearted than those “stuck” in monogamous relationships, since they, unlike us, are limited to just one partner. While our true nature is indeed limitless, the way in which it manifests in this world, in individual form, is necessarily equipped with boundaries. Boundaries may seem to divide up what which is undivided and whole, but it is through such division that a deeper, more integrated whole is created, in much the same way that cells, through their very division and differentiation, make tissue and organs—and an embodied us—possible. We cannot hope to mature and find true integration without first being clearly differentiated, vividly and unmistakably outlined. Good boundaries provide and support this essential differentiation in our lives.

The primary emotional state that functions to uphold our boundaries is anger—which is quite problematic for those who view anger as a merely negative state. This view is especially common in Buddhism, which (with the exception of Rinzai Zen and Tantric Buddhism) generally conceives of anger as no more than an afflictive or unwholesome state, confusing it with aggression. Classic Buddhist texts generally take a very negative view of anger, seeing no value in it per se (other than as something to transform into compassion), and much of contemporary Westernized Buddhism follows suit, not bothering to distinguish anger from aggression, confusing anger with what is actually done with anger, and advocating that practitioners not express anger, all the while failing see that compassion and openly expressed anger can coexist.

Those enmeshed in spiritual bypassing rarely see any value in anger, being too busy avoiding it to recognize its value and function as an energetic guardian of our boundaries. We tend to try not to look or act angry, even when we are raging inside, turning away from the very forcefulness and fieriness that empowers us to properly enforce our boundaries. Without free access to our anger, our “no” lacks the intensity (however quiet it might be) and strength to have the impact it needs, and our “yes” remains anemic, cut off from real vitality. Not having the voice and energy to assert the boundaries we need leaves us at the mercy of forces that may be detrimental to us.

Boundaries allow differences to play their essential role by preserving our autonomy and making healthy interrelatedness possible—a fact clearly illustrated in mature relationships, in which there is deep communion without any dilution of one’s sense of self. In such relationships, we don’t discard our boundaries to make meaningful connections; we expand our boundaries to include the other without short-changing ourselves. Such inclusion has room not only for shared love and joy but also for shared pain.

Imagine a place with no pain, no judgment, no nasty moral dilemmas, a place where whatever happens is just karma, just the perfection of Being unfolding as it must. Imagine not just visiting there or dreaming of being there, but actually dwelling there. Such is the narcotic promise of spiritual bypassing. This is a dream not to fulfill but to awaken from. Of course we yearn for freedom, for real transcendence, but we need to have something from which to take flight. Healthy boundaries provide the ground for stable footing. Spiritual bypassing, however, uproots us before we’ve established such ground, mostly through its devaluing of the personal and interpersonal in favor of “higher” realities, and its accompanying neglect of boundaries. Along the way, relational intimacy is left mostly by the wayside, as if it were little more than some vestigial practice for those misguided souls still trying to have a worldly relationship free from spiritual ambition.

We are not here to shed or abandon our boundaries, but to breathe integrity and strength into them, to fully illuminate them, and to make sure that they take a form that serves not only our highest good but also the highest good of all. We are not here to override or devalue our boundaries but to use them as wisely as possible, valuing the personal and interpersonal as much as the transpersonal, and discovering the freedom in fully engaging our experience. Our boundaries stand as guardians on this path, with an authority that supports our growth and awakening.