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Drawing the Line

Today I'd like to talk about where we draw the line. Now, I know that as good Zen students we're all supposed to say that there are no boundaries - being just this moment, there is no separation between us and and the world. And at various times in our life and our practice that truth will manifest itself and that's how we'll function. But real practice must be psychologically honest, so we also have to look at the fact that most of the time we don't live that way, but instead draw all sorts boundaries in terms of what we are willing to face or endure, what we think we need and what we're willing or not willing to do to get our needs met. One way to look at our boundaries is to imagine two circles, an inner and an outer circle. The outer circle is our boundary with the outside world, and is a measure of how far we try or are willing to extend ourself. How much of what's around do we take responsibility for? How much control do we try to have over what's around us? If we try to extend that boundary too far, beyond our actual capacity, we may become frustrated and angry. That's what happens in what's called "road rage," when people driving on a crowded highway expect to have an impossible degree of control over what's going on around them, and then everyone else is forever going too fast or too slow or are in their way. On the other hand, to not extend that outer boundary far enough, is to be lazy or irresponsible: "That's not my job," or "what difference can I possibly make?" In that case, we're underestimating our capacities, and grow cynical or listless.

The inner circle encompasses what we think of as our needs. And again, especially for Zen students or people in the so-called helping professions, there can be a tendency to think that our needs should contract to zero, and that we're just here to respond to the needs of others. Or sometimes, out of fear or dependency, we think we need to hold on to something or someone whatever the cost - and we're willing to sacrifice one need after another in order to just hold on and never to have to face that underlying fear or dependency. In these cases, we psychologically start to wither, like a plant that's not getting enough sunlight or water. We get depressed or burnt out. That depression is a sign that for one  reason or another we're unrealistically contracting that inner circle too tightly. There's also the case that we can make that inner circle too big: that's where we feel we have a need to feel or be treated in just a certain or special way. In general the discipline and rigors of the zendo and especially of sesshin confront that one head on. We just can't manage to be as comfortable as we think we should when we're in sesshin!

The longer we practice, the better we get to know our own strategies for where we want to draw our boundaries. And true practice takes place at those boundaries, by our careful attention to them and our increasing willingness to experience the anxiety, fear or anger that accompanies the times when life forces us across one of our careful drawn lines.