Boundaries again

Two days ago I went to a small house party with some new age performance acquaintances I have. These were people I’ve met a few times before at parties and done fun things with but didn’t know well.  Hadn’t seen them in close to a year; I’d been to India and had all sorts of different experiences in that time. It was one of those events where there was an unspoken attitude of “let go of fear, just drop all boundaries and surrender to love” with an emphasis on no boundaries and no resistance.

Immediately upon entering, one guy led an exercise where we wrote a couple words about the beginning of a relationship and again about the ending of a relationship. Everyone then paired with one or two people and used those words to speak about both of those experiences, one time “from the mind” with one time “from the heart”, with the not so subtle connotation that being from the heart was better. I was paired with a guy I didn’t know and the exercise leader.

As I spoke, I realised I was both feeling angry and defensive as well as internally “splitting” from myself, Why? In retrospect, this is forced intimacy. There was a sizeable amount of peer pressure to behave as if you have built trust, even if you haven’t.  Instead of taking time to develop a space where it’s truly OK to show vulnerability,  the atmosphere starts with “you must open up”.

I’ve seen this in other exercises before, such as where you stare into another person’s eyes for a long time. In the abstract it can sound like a break in the isolation of the modern age, but if I’m aware of myself, I notice that forcing myself to do this feels bad. And that’s the key word – force.  I hate being forced; it feels violent.  I’m more in the “sensitive” category, so what works for me is taking care on who I open up to. This means discernment about who I am revealing to in words, who I show vulnerability to in my eyes, and who I let inside my personal space and allow more familiar touch to. To me, this is self-care and is an expression of self worth. A parent wouldn’t hand their child to just anyone – why would I hand my soul (or body, or uncertain parts of me) to others?  So this is a fundamental disagreement I have with some personal development workshops and styles.

Coming from the Heart?

I then spoke up about this publicly, and the exercise leader tried to use me of an example of resistance to “coming from the heart” by inaccurately rephrasing what I said.  To be honest, it strongly reminded me of the Patrick Swayze character in Donnie Darko – “choose love, not fear!”. Love that movie.  A nice way of trying to keep control.  I left feeling incredibly triggered.

As I am wont to do, it made me think more about boundaries. I wrote about this before, but I’ve lived more, and when I get this body reaction, including minor shakes and convulsions, I think more about what they are and how I didn’t respect myself. So I’ll now list different types of boundaries.


Boundary Types

Physical boundaries are the easiest to identify, because a camera can catch them clearly. It’s the acknowledgement and respect of each other’s space.

There’s no precisestop-1560699-639x852 measure of personal space, yet everyone understands it. Experiments of time-lapse photography of people arriving on a beach in a sunny day shows how a plot of sand chosen follows a general algorithm of desiring space and respecting that of others. The area called “personal space” decreased as the area got more crowded, but became even more important.

When personal space is respected, there’s a tiny negotiation when that invisible line is crossed. This can be via eye contact, a little physical hesitation, or asking if it’s OK. After trust has been developed there is an assumption that it is OK, but part of that trust is the understanding that at any time, the asking of physical space will be respected.

Intellectual boundaries are essentially about the space to have different thoughts. More than that, a good intellectual atmosphere is when different thoughts are appreciated. There’s an interest in what you really think.

Our education system, based on memorisation, is often subtly (or not so subtly) about imitating the teacher’s mindset. You know how essay grading can be – if you rephrase the teacher’s arguments in class, you’re at least going to get a decent mark. If you go out on your own path, especially if you’re thoughts are still developing, nothing is certain.

High powered workshops or big sales events can at times be a great observation about lack of intellectual boundaries. Brainwashing techniques are essentially meant to break through these, bringing a fleeting high of closeness from everyone seemingly being on the same page. It’s called group-think. But because it’s forced, there’s a counter reaction and it never lasts. People either leave the group in disillusionment or want more, trying to that next “hit” of a time when everyone seems together in union. Workshop junkies, anyone?

Emotional boundaries are harder to define, but just as important. This is the space to have your own distinct feelings and identity. Being able to respect this space in others takes maturity and listening skills. Most people simply aren’t aware of the full range of different emotions another can have, and so jump to “oh, I understand, you’re feeling ____ (projection) and here’s my advice”.

Reactivity is essentially an expression of not allowing another space. For instance, in my childhood my mother got incredibly upset whenever I would show anger. Love that British culture! To her the world was ending, and her body would tense and she would do whatever it took to “work it out”, which meant that I had to stop feeling it. There was no space for me to have my own feelings, and I ended up feeling worthless the moment I felt anger. It’s been a lifelong lesson for me to learn that this energy has value and is essentially self-protection and self care.

Internal boundaries are also essential. Can you let yourself have an emotion or thought and give it space? Can you let it be there without immediately trying to change it? That is in essence, the basis of meditation. It’s also a great way to practice listening to yourself so you can listen to others better.

Psychologically, one word used for good boundaries is differentiation. I’ve written on that topic before as well. In a Freudian sense, it’s when you fully and deeply know just how different other woman are from your mother, and how different other men are from your father. But mostly it’s about good internal and external boundaries.

Respect of boundaries is so essential because it essentially says “hey, I know you’re a person with the same rights as me”.  To me, there cannot be any real love between people without good boundaries, because you can only love someone for who they actually and truly are. The moment there’s any sort of pressure to conform or not be, think or feel something, then in that moment, there’s non-acceptance. Most boundary crossing is essentially a desire to love by making another (or one’s self) into something easier, in this moment, to love. You find someone else’s “negativity” hard to love, so you try to get in there to affect them in some way that’s easier for you to appreciate and trust, that triggers less reactions.  This inevitably turns into conflict and confusion, because it’s all about control, and the human psyche inevitably wants to be in a free state.

Do you know when you cross boundaries?  Most people don’t seem to.  We get into arguments easily when there’s a lack of respect for intellectual boundaries, such as dismissals.  Relationships end up with fused personas, leaving people wondering where it all went wrong.  And in the dating scene the physical boundaries can be an issue, commonly talked about regarding men not respecting women, but it also occurs from women to men too.  It happened that night to me!

Too often we want to jump steps because we want to feel good. It’s amazing how much “just choose LOVE!” philosophy is about non-acceptance. Jumping into “love”, meaning something other than who we are, can never be loving, because it’s not respectful to the present moment. That’s where appreciation comes from – just being fine with what’s going on now.

That wasn’t the end of the evening, but it’s all I want to write about.  It’s taken me a couple days to get centered again, and I’m not totally there yet. I’m still learning that my internal reactions that say “no!” in a strong way are really and truly valuable, no matter what the reactions of other people are. It’s all part of the journey of being true.



I’ve currently been in a meditation setting for the last month.  This ashram, or center is that of Ramana Maharshi, known as the silent sage.  For over 50 years, he simply sat in mostly silence around a holy hill.  He didn’t try to attract followers, nor did he preach.  He simply answered questions, with the answers being remarkably without judgement.

Those interested in his teachings can read and download Self Enquiry by Ramana Maharshi.



In this center, there’s little schedule except meal times and noon break.  No one forces you to sit.  No one keeps track or what you did or gives you suspicious looks if they haven’t seen you meditating.  No one keeps track of your posture.  Most people slouch or lean comfortable against a wall.  The library has a large collection spiritual books from all major religions and teachers, but also has plenty of novels, including detective stories and science fiction.  All that the managers of the ashram do is try to restrict those who come here to those who are serious and non-disruptive.  After that, they leave it to you.  After all, only you know your own Self.

Quite a difference from the 10 day meditational “prison” retreat of Goenka!  Some day I’ll write about that one.

So for a month, I meditated only when I wanted to.  In that month, there of course was letting go.  Letting go of why I should meditate.  Letting go of how to meditate.  Letting go of trying too hard.  Of even thinking I know what meditation is.

It’s easy to say things like “let go” or “forgive”, but to be honest, if we knew how to do it, we would.  In fact, the idea of “how” is based in the conscious, rational left brain.  And that is not what meditation is.

The following is more a reminder for myself, in hopes that I will remember in my body and spirit this experience when I’m back in the chaotic western world which can get my adrenaline up so easily.


Meditation is not forced sitting – in fact that is the antithesis of meditation.  If you are forcing yourself to do anything, there is the part of you that is pushing, and a part of you that is resisting or being pushed; an inherent conflict and violence.  True meditation is without violence.  It is just sitting.  There is nothing but sitting, and everything contained in it.  The body sensations, the breathing, the thoughts, the emotions.  But in deep meditation there is nothing “other”.  There is just that.

Because meditation is non-violent at all levels, it is fundamentally new.  Meditation is acting with each breath in a new, different manner, disconnected from habit.

Normally, we don’t act, we react.  We re-act.  We repeat acts of the past.  We act habitually, in the same way we have done before.

Thoughts are by their very nature chained to the past.  On a biological level, they are formed by association with other thoughts or through the “likes” and “dislikes” of the emotional brain’s (or limbic system) past.  They are built from all the labels built up over a lifetime.  But they are not direct experiences, nor are they the “flash” of insight that comes from moments of true relaxation or seeing clearly.

This is why it’s almost impossible to make great progress from a book.  The teacher may be wonderful, but words by themselves are just thoughts.  They may remind us of great inner truths, but they remind us through thoughts, through our past.  What is needed is a gentle shock, a break from the past.  A slight hop out of any ruts in the pathways of brain connections, where in this moment there is something new.  “Truth is a pathless land”, said JK Krishnamurti.  When you follow something – a person, an idea, an identity – you are not in truth.  You cannot be honest with yourself, because to be truly honest you need to put that at the highest priority, which takes a firm knowledge (not a belief) in your own perceptions, your own seeing.

Meditation instructions are great, but should be experienced and forgotten, or else they chain you to thoughts.  I know if I’m thinking of how to meditate, I’m not meditating.  Sometimes when  I’m sitting meditating, there’s all these wonderful wise thoughts about the nature of reality, Self, and meditation, but while I’m chasing those and feeling good about myself, I’m not meditating.

Meditation has no goal.  The irony is that when you meditate for healing or enlightenment, you aren’t meditating.  You’re trying to invest for the future, which of course isn’t now.

The more I learn (or unlearn) about meditation, the more I experience that it’s not in contrast with extreme states like pain, angst, rage, or terror.  It is simply inviting a state of newness to all of them, a spaciousness that gives more possibilities than the normal reactions.  Meditation isn’t constrained to sitting; it just means acting, not reacting.  In wholeness.  Without violence of any kind.



November 22nd, 2012|love|3 Comments

Living in a prison of demands

Today I was reading Non Violent Communication again by Marshall Rosenberg. At the same time, I tried some swimming in a small pool to cool down in the heat and to try my muscles a little bit. The pool was quite cold, so I decided to get some real exercise and see what would happen. Although I hoped it wouldn’t happen, not long afterwards I started to get “spacy”, which is one of the symptoms I’ve had from chronic fatigue. My brain felt foggy, like I’m on heavy painkillers. I felt weak and unmotivated, and it got much harder to speak and put words together. Mostly at that point I try to withdraw from anything social, because each interaction takes progressively more effort to try an act normal.

I’ve been trying to understand my symptoms for years now, and while more understanding has come, putting the understanding into practice is often two steps forward, one step back. But the re-reading of Non Violent Communication did offer new insight.

I was reading the section on making requests true requests, not demands. In it, he describes how resistance is naturally formed when a demand is made, even if the wording sounds like a request. If there’s punishment or drama when a request is denied, then the request is actually a demand. If there’s no listening or empathy to the response to a request, it’s an authoritarian command, and there’s nothing more human than to resist this. I think that our souls need freedom and autonomy as much as we need good food to eat.

How does this relate? It relates because thinking of my body as something to command is a wrong understanding. Yes, my body is “me”, but it is also “not me”. It is a network of individual cells and organs, each with its own needs and requests. My body is “me” in that I’m housed by my body and my consciousness is intertwined with it, but it is “not me” in that there are actually many identities out of my conscious control, each needing space and to be listened to when there is feedback. And because of that, they all have their own responses to demands.

If I think of my body as something I own and can do what I want with, a possession like a car that exists solely to follow orders, then I turn into a dictator of my body. I’m making demands, not requests. On the other hand, if I’m too identified with my body, then I can get lost in it and not benefit from a wider consciousness of knowing what is beneficial for my entire being in the long run. What is “me” is not just my stomach or my muscles. If I’m too identified and not aware of the whole, I can easily get reactive. I’d stop any exercise when there’s any soreness and perhaps not want to eat any food if there’s any sour taste. So it’s good to be aware that my body is both “me” and “not me” in this sense. I both have the ability to know what’s best for my body from a place of knowledge and past experience, but also need to balance it with listening deeply to it. Which is another way of saying there needs to be empathy within.

So again, it relates to NVC in that because my body is in this sense “not me”, it also resists demands. Even on a subtle level, if I tell my muscles “do this” in a controlling, non-listening way, like a dictator’s command, I’ve eventually there is a build up an energy that makes me not want to demand anything of it anymore. In other’s lives, perhaps that’s with soreness and pain. Severe back pain is unfortunately commonplace in our society; I’ve experienced that too. But because I’ve used that forceful, dictatorial energy as much with how I approach intellectual work and learning, I think the brain fog is actually a perfect response my body has created. It’s saying “No, this is too much“. My body knows more than me.

Perhaps I’m unusual in this response, but I think it’s a matter only of degree. Certainly these symptoms are not commonplace, and I’m happy others don’t experience them. But I think in western society the idea of control is almost ubiquitous. Parents often raise their children with the idea that “parents know best” and disobedience should be punished. Education is most commonly built upon the idea that there is one “right” answer, even for creative pursuits like commentaries on literature. Our schedules are getting more and more tight and inflexible, so that we know there’s just not room to listen to our bodies if they are asking us to take it easy, to move slower and be more conscious. There are just things we have to do, which implies we have to just ignore our bodies and “just do it”. A response of “get over it” feels natural and familiar when we encounter inner problems – at least until the problems get too large until we know we cannot get over it by issuing more demands of ourselves. There’s more awareness that many of these methods are unhealthy, but I think they are still the norm.

I think also that the pervasiveness of psychological awareness and self-help thought has made demands even more pervasive and unhealthy for many. This can demonstrate itself in the cult of positivity. In my life, I tried to force myself for years to think “positive” and think “healing thoughts” at all times. Self-help books offered quick solutions, so it was pretty natural for me to try to force myself into the “healthy” mold the book extolled. This again was a form of demand, but this time directed at my cognitive brain and emotional system. (Note: I know this tendency is more exacerbated in me than others given my counselor mother’s rather destructive attempts to “heal me” of things she didn’t think were good through forcefully counseling me.)

There has been significant evidence that the “positivity” movement doesn’t help in the long term, and even can contribute to disease. Gabor Mate, in his book “When the Body Says No” (which has been very influential for me) offers evidence that emotional denial through positivity has a significant correlation with various diseases, with a major one being cancer.  Forcing thoughts and emotions on oneself, even if they are considered “positive” by society in general and even inspirational, is still a form of denial and inner demand. And make no mistake – it is a form of violence. Any form of violence will have counter reactions, from simple stress to serious conditions such as chronic fatigue or cancer.

I suppose I’m writing this because I long to live my life without this violence. It’s this violence which is one of the root causes of my symptoms. I know it’s there in me now, in how I relate to my mind and body, even in the smallest movement of lifting up my hand to grasp a glass of water. When I swam in the pool, telling my muscles to push, it wasn’t in a state of togetherness with my body, a collaboration that creates benefit and the pleasure of pure movement for the union of me and my body. No, it was a push, a demand. I’ve known professional athletes who related to their body this way, just pushing and pushing and ignoring pain and any signals that came from their body – and then years later had their own personal breakdowns.

What I long for is more harmony inside. In my body, I imagine learning a movement like I’ve seen in dancers – where there’s a symbiotic joy in movement itself. The body likes to move when it’s given freedom, and the mind likes the freedom of not controlling it too much. It’s a sensation akin to flying. Sometimes when I’ve danced I’ve gone there, albeit irregularly. I know it’s possible. Just as I know it’s possible to relate with others like that, with such empathy and synchronicity it’s again like flying. But getting there is like a ground up bootstrap to another program. To live without violence to myself.

Because how can I treat others kindly when at the most basic level, relating to my own body and brain on a cellular, I cannot treat myself with kindness? Despite my best intentions, I’ve noticed that when stress and anxiety appears and I’ve been relating to myself in language of demands, I start communicating with others through demands. My voice gets colder and without realizing it, I give orders. Often these demands might seem reasonable such as communicating with me using the principles of Non Violent Communication, but in reality they are still demands. Even then, it’s easy to then make demands of myself, ordering myself to communicate and respond like I’m an expert in NVC – but inevitably inner tension builds and it all falls apart. I’m rightfully accused of not following NVC. But in reality it’s impossible for me to make constant demands (often in the form of “shoulds”) of myself without making them for others. They go together. It’s impossible to treat others kindly without, at the most primal level, treating every aspect of this organism I inhabit with kindness and empathetic listening. So I think my body and brain, in their symptoms, are actually helping me develop compassion for others by making sure I learn to listen with kindness to myself.

Lately I did another 10 day silent meditation retreat (not with Goenka – ugh!). Getting up at 4am every day and focusing on very little other than being aware of doing the simplest things, such as breathing and walking. I quite enjoyed walking meditation, especially when I let go of following instructions too strictly. It was a movement without purpose other than awareness and connection with my body, my senses and everything touching them. There was a particular contentment in me after a week had passed. It was a good start. I think every moment of experiencing “another way” plants seeds to live all of life like this. But that’s another blog post.

August 5th, 2012|love|0 Comments

The death of my mother


This post is of a very personal nature I’m still processing, so please forgive me if it rambles a little…

A short while ago, I was at the wake for my mother, Diana Mary Carsten. She died early in the year. On a Tuesday night, I drank wine at the local Odd-fellows hall in Corvallis, Oregon while listening to her husband and many activists in say how lucky they were to have her in their life. My brother was there and said something banal about how she believed in mind over matter. I didn’t speak. In an environment where you’re supposed to say positive things, I didn’t want to say anything when my feelings were so mixed.

She was a fighter. I heard this over and over again from representatives from all her causes. She was a great advocate and board member for social movements: the League of Woman Voters, the Odd-fellows, the Oregon Green Party, a court advocate, the local symphony, her Christian Science church, and the Peace Vigil. She loved hiking in nature and would travel around the world. When she felt something was wrong, she would fight and not back down, stubborn as hell. You were glad to have her on your side. One young mother might have ended up on the street if not for her.


March 29th, 2012|love|2 Comments

Writing again

Here I am again, writing after a year or so. I could have let the domain name expire, but felt at some time I would feel like writing again. And now I’m back.

I stopped writing because I felt that how I wrote (not what I wrote, but how) wasn’t helping me or others. Sure, people said lots of great things – when my blog was on myspace (remember when people actually used it?) at one time each post got around 100 comments. It gave quite a buzz; I don’t think I got one really negative comment. I had thought carefully about what I created and some of the thoughts were unconventional. Hell, I even got a few dates from some local women that perhaps thought I must be a great guy. But it became more and more effort and less rewarding. The praises felt empty, and it wasn’t self-fulfilling.

One really big reason is that I wasn’t being that real. I of course didn’t want to show how f***ed up I am, who I dislike, my own neuroses – and perhaps that I was trying to escape from my own problems by playing healer to others.

That last one is IMO probably the most common motivation for everyone in the healing, counseling or personal growth field. It’s so common it is generally overlooked. So much ‘help’, in whatever form it comes in, does little more than convince the ‘helpee’ that they are being helped and then prop up the egos of both sides. The Bowen family systems theory called this the “overfunctioning-underfunctioning” dynamic. It’s a form of connection that seems to feel good to both sides at the time, but reinforces the escape from deeper issues. From my experience, I think the writer gets to feel admired and like a ‘healer’. The reader gets to think they’re improving and doing good work – but all at the cost of ignoring some deeper voices.

I read a lot of Alice Miller a couple years ago, and this quote stuck with me:

“In the last few years I have learned more than ever about the situation of the child in our society and about the blockages in the thinking and feeling of psychoanalytically trained persons.  These blockages often result in patients being subjected to lengthy treatments that cement the blame that had been leveled at them as children, a process that can scarcely lead to anything but depressions.  The most successful means of escaping such chronic depressions is to enter the profession of psychoanalysis oneself; this permits a continuation of the cementing process by using theories that protect one from the truth – but now, of course, at the expense of others.”

– Alice Miller, Banished Knowledge

If you’re a regular reader of personal growth writing, ask yourself if any of it really helped with the inner shame and blame that you might have. I’ve been to a number of counselors, coaches and other forms of healing in my search for inner peace and harmony, and I had to admit (after months of reflection) that they were generally counterproductive. I went there because subconsciously I thought something was wrong with me – there was something that needed to be solved in me. Fixed. Gotten rid of. Perhaps it was pain, or maybe that a normally quiet voice inside me suddenly screamed “NO!!!” at certain times when I was supposed to act ‘normally’ or when I needed to follow through with something. And so I wanted the quick fix; within a few session I wanted to be able to relax, not get in my own way, feel better, and succeed. Even if I knew it didn’t exist, I wanted The Quick Fix. But part of this inevitably meant that I thought a part of me – the part of me that resisted or said no – was bad. And so I increased my shame. I reinforced patterns of suppression and avoidance, not listening to the part of me in pain, which lead over the years to physical symptoms.

Now, in all honesty, I hate any sort of ‘healing environment’ which advocates pushing through barriers through some sort of peer pressure, firm rules and groupthink. It may get things to move in the short term, but that sort of forcefulness always has violence of a form in it, and violence is never the road to peace and harmony.

I stopped writing because I felt that I didn’t want to pretend any more. I didn’t want to play healer or imply I could help others. I didn’t want to hide my own traumas and symptoms out of fear of judgment or that it meant I was worth less or that I shouldn’t be listened to. You don’t always know the reason you do things at the time – it just doesn’t feel right or true. Writing from the same place didn’t feel true. I edited my thoughts way too much before they came out. It was the same editing I did as I child, walking on eggshells to make sure I didn’t say the wrong thing and a blow up would happen.

Now I just want to let go of all that. I don’t want to review my postings, combing words for ways I could be judged. It turned my mind into fog and exhaustion from the effort. Literally.

So here I am, and I think I’ll keep writing, but from a different place. I don’t think I’ll review it too much, so it might not be as smooth. But perhaps you’ll be able to relate to me a little more.  Even if I get judgments or suggestions of people trying to heal me (which now I realize are the same thing) I think I’ll be in a better place.