Book – Wyrd Allies: Boundaries

The wyrd is the interweaving of everything, everyone, everywhere, everywhen. Twisting, turning, arriving everywhere in its own weird way, it links, connects, weaves without cease – until it comes across a barrier: which is us. Or, more precisely, the boundaries that we try to place around ourselves, to define and describe our sense of ‘I’.

We need those boundaries. Without them, anything goes: everything and nothing is real, everything and nothing happens at the same time, in the same place, or through everyone all at once. A good recipe for instant insanity… which is why we choose to invent something we call ‘reality’, which in reality doesn’t necessarily exist anywhere but in our own heads. Even in science, we don’t so much ‘discover’ scientific fact as invent it – a point long known to philosophers and historians of science, such as Thomas Kuhn, who coined the term ‘paradigm shift’ to describe the way in which a whole view of science can change at once, or James Burke, who documented what he called ‘the days the universe changed’, or the wry anarchist Paul Feyerabend, who argued that the only valid scientific principle is “anything goes”. With very few exceptions – such as the inevitability of Murphy’s Law – every perspective on reality is a choice: and often an arbitrary one at that.

But it works. As long as we have some way to prop up our illusion – or, less politely, delusion – that our chosen definition of what is real or not is ‘reality’, then life is literally ‘reasonable’: predictable, safe, sane, if sometimes a little boring. The wyrd being what it is, though, we’ll still keep coming across people who make different choices to ours, with a different definition of reality – and that’s when the fun starts…

Coming to terms with the natural chaos of the wyrd can be hard enough at the personal level; but it can be even more difficult at the interpersonal level, precisely because the chaos occurs at the boundaries we each choose to place between ‘I’ and ‘We’ and ‘I’. Wherever our boundaries differ, we each show each other that our ‘reality’ is only an illusion: and that’s frightening. Yet to be without any boundaries is usually even more frightening: few people can manage more than a few moments of ‘being at one’ with Pan – at one with the interweaving of everywhere – without giving way to panic… And that’s why we need to understand what those boundaries are for – and to understand our own responsibilities with and for them.

Boundary, barrier and wall

The wyrd is the interweaving of everywhere: it has no boundaries, and in many ways it allows no boundaries, since everywhere is already included within everywhere else. This isn’t easy to understand… especially since almost everything in our society puts up boundaries to prevent us from understanding it…

Let’s start again, and look at it from a different direction. The term ‘boundary’ is another of these concepts that’s been lifted from a specific context in transpersonal psychology, and then thoroughly mangled and misused in much New-Age-style pop-psychology: in some New-Age-inspired feminist theory, for example, the concept of a ‘boundary’ has become little more than a childish tool for blame – “how dare you overstep my boundaries!” But in its original context, the term applied to personal choice, personal power and, especially, personal responsibility: “to establish boundaries is to know and respect what I want, and to take responsibility for same” – very clearly an Adult perspective, rather than the self-centredness of the Child.

In effect, a ‘boundary’ is a metaphor for what we might otherwise call a ‘reasonable’ limit on the way we choose to interact with others and the world at large. I like to keep my house reasonably tidy, and I don’t like others making an unreasonable mess: that’s a boundary. If someone agrees to meet with me at a particular time, I want them to let me know if they’re going to be delayed more than a reasonable amount of time: that’s a boundary. If I agree to do something for you, I expect it to take no more than a reasonable amount of time and effort: that’s a boundary too. Right now a colleague has been phoning me every few days for months, pestering me to help him with a project in which I don’t want to be involved: but it’s up to me to be explicit about my boundary, and tell him so – rather than blame him for ‘overstepping my boundaries’ in that respect. I don’t like it, but it is my responsibility… And what seems ‘reasonable’ to me isn’t necessarily going to be the same as what seems ‘reasonable’ to you, or to that persistently pestering colleague of mine – which is where all those boundary-problems arise in the first place!

“To establish boundaries is to know and respect what I want, and to take responsibility for same”: how well do you know what you want? How much do you respect those choices? How much do you take responsibility for those choices?

Notice how much easier it is to ‘pass the buck’ to others – “how dare you overstep my boundaries!” – rather than take responsibility ourselves for being clear about where our boundaries lie…

During one of our regular arguments on this topic, my friend Catherine expands the boundary metaphor into three distinct layers: ‘boundary’, ‘barrier’ and ‘wall’. A boundary, she says, is a choice which is changing all the time, depending on who, what, when or where we are or are with – much as we saw in those experiments in the café. It’s volatile, based on feeling and sense; it’s moveable, negotiable, often conscious; it’s created by me for me, and it’s usually quite easy for me to accept my responsibility for its creation and maintenance.

To illustrate this, cast your mind back to the café, to when you were exploring the boundary between ‘safety’ and ‘unsafety’ that you could feel as different people passed by. When that transition happens, it certainly does feel as if someone’s ‘overstepped our boundaries’: it does feel unsafe. Yet by becoming conscious of this, we can also become aware that it’s also a choice: we can move the boundary, or change its form – as you did in that experiment, by ‘disconnecting’ from each person the moment that sense of ‘unsafety’ occurred.

So repeat the experiment, but this time with the awareness – or belief – that the shape and form of this boundary are your choice and your responsibility. What difference does this make? Becoming aware of this, what difference do you feel in your sense of personal power?

A barrier is also based in feelings – particularly unspoken fears – but takes the form of a more intellectualised choice, an injunction, a moral restriction rather than a felt one. It’s a definite decision about what is right and what is not: hence it often has an air of self-righteousness about it, with much use of ‘magic’ words like ‘ought’ and ‘should’ and ‘must’ – or, more likely, ‘oughtn’t’, ‘shouldn’t’ or ‘mustn’t’. It often states what we think others should or should not do in relation to us – rather than something we’d also equally apply to ourselves. So “thou shalt not commit adultery”, for example, is a typical barrier – one which most people will at least say they believe in, if not necessarily always apply in practice! A barrier is often less than honest in that way, because it’s not so much something I create for me, as against you, against ‘not-I’. And the feeling when a barrier is breached is subtly different: rather than a sense of unsafety, as for a boundary, it’s closer to righteous indignation – “how dare they do that!” – a mask of intellectualised anger covering up a more genuine layer of fear.

More memories: another would-be partner. Sam’s pleasant enough, I suppose, but after what happened between us the previous time, I just don’t want to know. But here’s yet another invitation to go out for a drink together, and I just feel a sense of revulsion, a sense of ‘yuck’… Odd… weird… I just wish Sam would finally get it that I do not want any kind of ‘We’ made up of Sam and me… at all!

What do you feel when someone barges through a personal barrier, to do something which you’ve decided is wrong – wrong for you, wrong for others in relation to you, or wrong in general?

What happens when you accidentally – or even intentionally – barge through someone else’s barriers, someone else’s definition of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? What do you feel as you do this? What do you feel in response to their response to you for having done this?

Although we create many individual barriers of our own, we also gain many of our barriers from the society in which we live: they’re the ‘rules’, sometimes formalised into laws, which attempt to govern interpersonal behaviour – drive on the left (or is it on the right?), give way to the right (or is it to the left?), don’t eat with your fingers, don’t pick your nose, don’t ever take your clothes off in public…

To illustrate social barriers, what do you feel when someone drives past you at well over the local speed limit? What do you feel when you see someone displaying more flesh than you’d consider ‘decent’ – a girl mincing down the road in a barely-dress that leaves little to the imagination, perhaps, or a construction worker whose backside is all but falling out of his mis-named ‘coveralls’?

Although they’re far less volatile than our boundaries, our own barriers, and those we inherit from our society, do change slowly over time, according to our ‘mind-set’ and the local customs – the latter being the literal origin of the word ‘morals’. If everyone around me is taking their clothes off in public, I’ll probably do so too, despite what I may feel at first… And I’ll change my mind on almost anything if someone can show me a reasonable argument as to why I should do so… perhaps… if it feels right… maybe…

That’s one of the key points about a barrier: even though it’s based in emotions, it’s essentially rational (on the surface, at least) and can usually be induced to change by rational means – laws and customs change when the change ‘makes sense’, or when the old law no longer makes sense in a changed society. But that’s also the key difference between a barrier and a wall: a wall is not rational, but is driven by a kind of existential fear. A barrier becomes an absolute wall as a result of continual attempts to breach the barrier, or to force change in barrier – for example, by pestering, or demanding that the barrier ‘is’ a negotiable boundary, insisting that I ‘should’ accede to others’ wishes, no matter much I may feel it to be wrong.

Like a barrier, a wall is created by me against you, against ‘not-I’; but unlike a barrier, which delimits a kind of conceptualised definition of ‘I’ – what I ought or ought not to be – a wall is part of my emotional definition of ‘I’. An apparent threat to breach one of my walls is not merely a threat to my ideas, my beliefs, but a direct threat to me, to what I feel is my very existence. So a wall is not something that can be argued about, but is rigidly defended, often with a huge emotional loading – and cannot be changed by any rational means.

Perhaps one reason I don’t want Sam to get too close is my own underlying fear of unwanted sex – nothing’s ever happened to suggest that the risk is real, but I feel a kind of sexual pushiness every time Sam’s anywhere near me. To say that I don’t like it is an understatement… so there’s nothing that Sam could say, or do, that would make me change my mind…

What are some of your own walls? What do you feel if there’s any threat to breach one of your walls?

What happens when you accidentally bump into one of someone else’s walls? You’re likely to have all too clear an idea of what they feel… but what do you feel when that happens? Does it seem like you’re being unfairly blamed for doing something which you haven’t actually done?

Like barriers, our walls do shift slowly, through time: but they’re so fiercely defended that we usually have to find some way to trick ourselves into letting them change. They may seem to collapse temporarily in specific contexts – under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, for example, or under extreme social pressure – but they’re often reconstructed afterwards, and defended even more fiercely (or desperately) than before. The only way in which long-term changes are made to our walls is through what’s called ‘personal growth’ – or, more accurately, ‘self-transformation’, because our sense of self is certainly transformed as our walls begin to change.

But why change at all? If we need those boundaries and barriers and walls in order to stay sane, in order to cope in a complex society, why can’t we leave them as they are? The simple answer is that they get in our way: the primary blocks we come up against, in our search to express who we are and what we want to do, turn out to be our own boundaries. Those rigidly-defended walls may seem like our fortress against an unfair, unsafe world: but without full awareness of what they are and why they’re there, they’re just as likely to be our prison instead. There’s always a choice, says the wyrd, but there’s also always a twist…

My fortress, my prison

The wyrd has no boundaries: but we do – or at least we need them, even though they cannot actually exist… Our choices for ‘I’ – our boundaries, our barriers, our walls – form the bars of what Hugh Mackay calls ‘the cage’: it keeps us safe, sane, stable, and seems to keep away what we fear, but it also restricts our ability to dance with the weavings of the wyrd – and with each other.

No matter how much they get in our way at times, it’s important to understand just how much we do need those boundaries – we won’t be able to stay sane without some kind of boundary to draw a line between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’. In the absence of a clear, firm boundary, ‘I’ becomes lost, and in some cases quite literally wanders from personality to personality in the same physical person – as in multiple-personality syndrome – or even between different physical people. The latter may sound more than just weird – crazy, even – but it’s well-recorded in one type of schizophrenia. I’ve even seen it first-hand when I visited a friend in psychiatric hospital: we were talking quietly in her ward, when a young schizophrenic woman wandered past and said, out of the blue, to no-one in particular, “If I was adopted, I’d want to know who my real mother was” – and wandered on again. My friend was shocked: she’d never spoken about it, but that was exactly the reason for the emotional collapse which had landed her in hospital… The same ‘unbounded telepathy’ is also quite common in people who’ve over-used certain drugs such as LSD and marijuana: an occultist friend suggests that those drugs ‘tear holes in the aura’ – in other words they fragment the boundary between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’, sometimes beyond repair. And that’s what ‘telepathy’ usually is: a muddled mixture of vague memories and blurred images without any distinction as to whom they belong – so perhaps the many people I’ve met who’ve said “I’d love to be telepathic” wouldn’t be quite so keen once they understood what real telepathy is like…

Which leads us to an interesting philosophical question: are our minds ever really our own? How much do we share them with others? How much do we want to share them with others? These questions aren’t as trivial as they sound – though the answers may indeed be weird…

It isn’t easy to do, because the process of watching itself tends to get in the way: but experiment with watching what seem to be ‘your’ thoughts, feelings and memories as you go through a day. How often do you spot a thought or memory that seems at first to be one of your own, but doesn’t connect with anything else – that is not part of your present or past as you know it? (A hint: don’t ‘try’ – just allow them to present themselves to your awareness.) So where do these ‘foreigners’ come from? Where do they go? By what paths do they weave their way through you? Weird indeed…

At the other extreme, a combination of unacknowledged fears and a loss of faith in the natural weavings of the wyrd leads to the creation of barriers and walls that really do form a prison of the mind – and it’s every bit as destructive as the ‘unbounded’ state. Fundamentalist religions of all flavours are particularly prone to this problem: the word ‘religion’ literally means ‘to re-bind’, but can easily become ‘to entrap’ instead. So whenever we meet someone who says that they have ‘the truth’ – or particularly that they alone know ‘the truth’ – then it’s time to be very cautious: as we saw with the Red Queen a while back, they’re probably incapable of seeing – let alone admitting to – their own self-contradictions, hence we’re likely to end up as the ones who suffer the chaos of their cage…

Do you know anyone who has rigid, dogmatic beliefs about how other people ‘should’ relate? If so, how easily do you relate with them? Do you do so only according to the precepts of that person’s belief – or do you still have choices of your own in how you relate with them? Do they always relate with – or to – others in line with those claimed beliefs? If not, what difficulties does this cause? More to the point, who has to face those difficulties?

So a fair few of our walls are constructed not so much against others as against our own contradictions – or, less politely, our own hypocrisy. Wherever we’ve done something that’s outside of ‘the rules’, as defined by our own barriers, or society’s – which, courtesy of the wyrd if nothing else, everyone has and does at some stage – we’re likely to build a wall of denial against the feelings of guilt or embarrassment, or our fear of responsibility and retribution. We don’t want others to know that we’ve ‘done wrong’; perhaps more to the point, we don’t even want ourselves to know. So it gets quietly ‘forgotten’, until someone accidentally brings it up again – in which case we’re likely to blame them, ‘projecting’ onto them whatever behaviour we’ve concealed, in order to deny what is actually our own self-hypocrisy or self-dishonesty.

I’m not angry!”, I say loudly, aggressively, to Mary, in one of our all-too-regular rows at work. “Why are you angry?” Yet it’s obvious to anyone standing by that she wasn’t, and isn’t; but she soon will be if I carry on projecting like this much longer… This time she’s aware enough of her own boundaries to not respond in kind: she stops, head tilted to one side in wry amusement, and waits until I can accept what Reality Department is showing me about who’s playing the ‘angry’ game and who isn’t. That’s when the embarrassment hits… it’s no fun at all to have to face my own hypocrisy, even though it’s what I most need to see…

It won’t be much fun for you either, but it’s worthwhile taking a careful look at some of your own ‘trigger issues’ about which you explode when others accidentally come too close. What are you concealing from yourself in each case?

Fear is weird, and fear is part of the wyrd – so it knows no boundaries. Fear of ourselves – fear of having to face our own responsibility – causes problems; so does fear of others. That fear can easily become so large that it dominates all thought, creating what we might think of as a fortress, but is actually a prison in which we’ve entrapped ourselves – and for which we’ll almost invariably blame others. Back in my student days, the house in which I rented a room was burgled; I apparently disturbed the burglar when I came home unexpectedly early, because whoever it was ran out the back door as I came in the front, and very little was taken. Yet the landlord reacted dramatically: every outside door was fitted with a new double-deadlock and bars, every inside door fitted with locks and latches, every window in his ground-floor apartment fitted with steel shutters and massive iron grilles – reducing the previous brightness to a dull gloom – and so on. Within days, the place looked – and felt – more like a penitentiary than a personal home. Defence – or self-chosen imprisonment? Defending possessions – or ‘possessed’ by fear of losing them? Good question…

What do you fear? How much do your fears restrict your apparent choices? And how much do you blame others for your choice to restrict your choices?

For example, many women say they’re afraid to go out at night, for fear of assault. Yet police and hospital statistics show that, despite the public image of women as victims, they’re actually at far less risk than men are: even in the home, men are more than twice as likely as women to be assaulted, by an intruder, a ‘friend’ or relative, or even their own partner. That’s fact: yet fact doesn’t necessarily count for much where walls of fear are concerned…

There’s always a risk, always a chance that it – whatever ‘it’ is – will happen, not to someone else, but to me. Increasing the barriers, making the walls ever more rigid, may seem to reduce the risk – yet the risk never goes away, and every tightening of the boundaries curtails our freedom even more. So how do you balance the limits you place on your risk and your freedom?

And it’s also worthwhile exploring how much the fears behind your own barriers and walls are self-confirming: for example, if you tend to assume “all men are bastards”, or “all women are bitches”, how much do you notice only those incidents which confirm these bars of your ‘cage’, and ignore those that don’t?

Our cage is constructed from far more than just our fears, and it’s also as much formed from the outside as well as from within. Language, for example, can be quite literally a barrier – a fortress, but also a prison. Different languages allow us to express some concepts or experiences easily, but other concepts or experiences only with great difficulty – the fictional language Pravic, in Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, was designed to make the expression of complex thought simple, whilst Newspeak, in George Orwell’s 1984, was designed intentionally to make it almost impossible. The various computer languages with which I battle at work each make some tasks easy, and others nightmarish! And every group of people – nation, clique, profession, family, friends – develops their own chosen way of expressing themselves, their thoughts, their fears, their feelings: a way which includes and excludes, at the same time. Crossing those boundaries can be surprisingly difficult…

In what ways do your national language, your regional dialect, your accent, help include you as part of an ‘in-group’, and exclude others? In what circumstances have you found yourself shut out – even physically so – because of your language, your dialect, your accent? In what ways do you feel different from others because of the way you speak? In what ways do you find it safer to be with others who speak the same way as you do? In what ways do you use language to include or exclude others? Through jargon or ‘shop-talk’, perhaps, or by intentionally speaking in an ambiguous way?

In what medium of ‘language’ do you find it easiest to express yourself? In writing? On the phone? One-on-one conversation? Or through dance, drama, drawing; or photography or film? In what medium do you find it hardest? Explore the many boundaries and barriers and walls of language for a while…

To expand or contract our boundaries, to raise or lower our barriers, to build or dismantle our walls, to tighten or loosen the bars of our cage – they’re all choices. For each of us, to establish boundaries is to know and respect what I want, and to take responsibility for same; whenever we’re with others, to establish boundaries is to know and respect what each ‘I’ and our ‘We’ wants, and to take responsibility for our share in those choices. And that means that there’s almost always a requirement to negotiate boundaries, with others, and even with ourselves.

Negotiating the boundaries

“To establish boundaries is to know and respect what ‘I’ and ‘We’ and ‘I’ want, and to take responsibility for same”: in a way, most of what follows is about negotiating boundaries, and accepting responsibility for our part in those choices, but we may as well make a start here!

An alternate name for ‘boundary’ is ‘choice’ – a boundary is a choice, or an expression of a choice: for example, I feel safe with you if you’re standing at that distance, and no closer. What’s interesting is that it’s far easier to define boundaries in negative terms – ‘No!’ – and it’s often the only aspect of boundaries that’s mentioned in most descriptions. But the habit of saying only ‘No’ soon degenerates into the ‘blame-game’, and it easily becomes sarcastic and destructive: “What part of the word ‘No’ don’t you understand?” Yet like ‘No’, ‘Yes’ is just as much a statement of a boundary: a boundary of inclusion rather than exclusion. And it’s also a statement of commitment, and acceptance of responsibility – which is perhaps why those who make so much noise about ‘No means No!’ seem afraid even to allow the word ‘Yes’ into their vocabulary…

To what do you say ‘Yes’? To what will you commit yourself? Go back through some of the boundaries and barriers and walls that you’ve identified already: most of those will be defined in negative terms, in terms of ‘No!’ Turn them round, so that the boundary still remains exactly the same, but you’re now saying ‘Yes’ – a commitment to what you do choose to allow, rather than a shying-away from what you won’t. In what ways does your perception of the boundary – and of your relationship with ‘not-I’ (whatever it may be) – change as you do this? What fears come up in you as you shift the description from ‘No’ to ‘Yes’?

In a sense we have to say ‘Yes’ to something, whether we like it or not: without some kind of ‘Yes’, there is no ‘We’ – and often not much ‘I’ either. And people who can only say ‘No’ are intensely frustrating to be around: for example, I remember how an extremely irritated student described one young woman who’d been to a personal-development course which had placed great emphasis on boundaries – with the result that she now said ‘No’, at random, to almost any move by anyone. “She’d ask me to look at her work”, he said; “and as soon as I sat down next to her she said I was ‘intruding in her space’, and hence I had to move to a seat on the far side of the room, and talk with her from there. She would sit in the middle of the floor, talking for hours on the phone, and no-one was allowed past – that was ‘intruding on her space’ too. So was being anywhere near her in our very small kitchen, or simply walking past in the passageway: she was real good at putting up her hands and saying ‘No! Stop!’ and then you always felt somehow you were to blame for something you hadn’t even done – certainly hadn’t intended doing then, though sometimes I feel like doing it to her now…” That wasn’t so much the woman’s genuine boundaries as the ‘blame-game’, the self-centredness of the Child: what’s missing is negotiation, an acceptance that others have just as much right to their boundaries – or simply to co-exist in the same physical space.

Privacy is always difficult in a crowded culture, and the bounds of privacy are always different in every group. Some families are very ‘touchy-feely’, to the extent that some members end up feeling engulfed, constantly intruded on – perhaps like that young woman – and desperately needing ‘personal space’; other families are very touchy about not being touched, which can, however, often lead to a genuine psychiatric disorder known as ‘touch deprivation’, and an inability to ‘get in touch with themselves’ in almost any sense.

We need touch; we also need privacy; those two needs are mutually contradictory, and hence create lots of problems when people start projecting the blame for those contradictions onto everyone else… In relation to others – whether in families, groups, partnerships or whatever – the movement in our boundaries, and movement between the layers of boundary and barrier and wall, is driven by an oscillation between the desire for union – for ‘We’ – and the desire for separation, for ‘I’ alone, or literally ‘all-one’. (We could equally say it’s driven by an oscillation between fear of isolation and fear of engulfment, but it’d be nice to say it in a positive way for once!) But if there is no genuine touch – as opposed to an assumed sexuality, perhaps, or the push-and-shove of cities – and a constant sense of ‘unsafety’ – simply because people are packed so closely together – there are always going to be difficulties: and something, or someone, has to give way. And the result of any ‘negotiation’ needs to be seen to be fair – which, given the rampant childishness which typifies our society, it usually isn’t… so there’s a real need to consciously involve the Inner Adult in the negotiations!

How do you manage to feel ‘reasonably’ safe in a crowded society? One common answer is that if there isn’t enough space for privacy, we can usually make do with time instead: ‘time out’ from work, from habitual patterns, from people with whom we have difficulty, and even – with some difficulty – ‘time out’ from ourselves… So how do you negotiate a ‘time out’ with others? How do you negotiate a ‘time out’ with yourself – such as keeping to an agreement with yourself to take a much-needed break?

A ‘time out’ is, in effect, a boundary that creates ‘personal space’ through time. What do you feel if that boundary is breached – that you ask for ‘time out’ in an argument, for example, and the other person just keeps arguing? What are you trying to achieve if the other person asks for a ‘time out’, and you keep arguing? And what do you feel when you break one of your own ‘time out’ agreements with yourself?

Negotiation isn’t easy. It always involves listening as well as talking (or demanding…): and genuine listening is a real risk to our boundaries, our cage – because there’s always a real risk that we’ll have to accept changes in our choices, changes to the comforting bars of our cage. That’s never comfortable, and never ‘safe’ in the way the Child, or even the Parent, wants – which is why the Inner Adult, with its more adult grasp of the tortuous twists of Reality Department, is so important in this.

But there’s one thing more that, whether we like it or not, is always involved in every negotiation of boundaries: namely the wyrd. There is such a thing as ‘fate’: some issues are always going to be ours, and ours alone. Ignoring this is not a good idea… and trying to fight against it simply doesn’t work: it was from much practical experience that the Greeks assigned the name Atropos – ‘she who cannot be turned’ – to one of the Sisters of Fate… Perhaps we can never truly ‘bargain with the fates’: but with awareness, we can negotiate a more constructive relationship with the wyrd – and to do that, we need next to understand and accept what is our ‘fate’, and what is not.

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