Last week as I was driving to Ottawa I was listened to a great recording by Pema Chodron called “Getting Unstuck”. It is a rich talk, filled with many wonderful teachings. The one I want to talk about today is boundaries as a practice of compassion.
During a Q&A session someone was explaining that they want to be compassionate, yet they find it hard to do with a family member that was (and still is) abusive to them. The speaker said that she felt there was a disconnect between her having compassion for the family member, and setting boundaries so that family member could not be abusive.
I resonated strongly with the question and the disconnect.. Who hasn’t felt like a jerk for being the tough one and setting boundaries? I know I have…
Pema Chodron quickly replies saying that there is no disconnect between setting healthy boundaries and being compassionate – that they are in fact the very same practice.
Pema then went on to explain that allowing others to engage in harmful behaviours isn’t good for the person engaging in the behaviour, nor is it good for the person who receives the harm. By setting clear, kind and appropriate boundaries, we are helping everyone to stay safe and to stay in the realm of dharmic behaviour (appropriate and in alignment with Buddhist teachings) – even if someone doesn’t like it at first.
Since hearing her words I have thought a lot about this. I too have at times struggled with setting boundaries and feeling compassionate for the people I’m setting boundaries around/with/for. My therapist insists that this is an important practice in order to be able to love others for who they are, as they are, while keeping ourselves safe.
This lead me to contemplate the times I behaved poorly, yet at the time I did not know better. Sometimes we hurt others and we don’t even know it! An off-handed comment, an offensive joke, plain simple ignorance. Here when others set boundaries, even if I don’t understand it at the time, it supports me in learning and understanding how to treat others with more kindness and less harm. I may struggle with the boundary at first… I am aware that when I realize I’ve hurt someone, I can get defensive (I didn’t mean it that way!! I’m not a bad person), which can look and feel like resistance (which it is, I’m resisting the truth of the effect of my action). Once I’m through that part of the gauntlet, then I can see how what I did caused harm, and then I appreciate the boundary and the learning it brought my way. Hopefully this allows me to choose a less harmful path moving forward.
I often think about karma, the concept that the thoughts-actions-energies we put into the world come back to us. Here’s where I think boundaries become a hugely compassionate practice. If every time I cause someone else to suffer, I suffer as well (law of karma – what we put out comes back to us) – that’s a lot of suffering. If every time I set a kind and appropriate boundary my suffering reduces (good start), and in turn the suffering of the other person reduces (less blow back)… well, now we’re onto something!
I imagine that the intention with which we set the boundary matters. If I’m doing it in a righteous way versus a compassionate and thoughtful way the karmas on all ends will be different.
There’s a lot to think about from this 5 minute segment (yep, I’ve written almost 700 words from less than 5 minutes of audio), and yet I believe ultimately Pema (and my therapist) are correct – kind and appropriate boundaries are not only important, they are a practice of compassion to ourselves and others.
I’d love to hear any thoughts or experiences you have around setting kind and appropriate boundaries. I would also love to know how thinking of this as a practice of compassion changes how you feel about boundaries. Do leave me a comment below.
Have fun setting boundaries as a way of loving others!