Let others break barriers, what I need are boundaries

After a particularly stressful few days, I realized for about the umpteenth time that I don’t set enough boundaries. I let work intrude on personal time, I let worries intrude on sleep, I say “yes” to too much, I pay too much attention to the barrage of email, and I let my to-do list pull me out of being present.

Yet when I do a search on the word “boundaries”, what concerns most people is pushing past them, breaking through the barriers that hold them back, and living to full potential. To them, boundaries are something to overcome. Am I the only one who feels the need to erect a few more limits around my self?

Boundaries are often physical, but they can also be mental, emotional or spiritual. They provide a sense of order to our lives. Kids try to push boundaries as a way of testing not only their parents, but their own ability to exist outside of them. Often, they are all too glad to retreat back inside the parental limits after one of those test runs. It’s safer there.

A 2011 study showed that people select aesthetic boundaries more often when they feel out of control. At those times, they choose “highly-bounded” objects such as framed pictures and fenced yards as opposed to open spaces or objects. On the other hand, people who have strong spiritual beliefs, and the sense of order that those often provide, don’t seem to need as many physical boundaries as people who do not have that kind of grounding.

Technology has blurred the lines between work, play, home, school, leisure and learning. We mostly perceived it as helpful, allowing us more flexibility about when and where we earn a living, but it can also lead to a feeling of being out of control, especially to those who have more difficulty managing the work/family boundary. A 2016 study showed that integrating our various domains may lessen the impact of moving between home and work; people eventually develop ways to transition more smoothly if the boundaries are more fluid. But I don’t know if that works so well for someone like me with high distractibility and an overly-developed sense of responsibility. I don’t feel like I’m good at either compartmentalizing or integrating. Sometimes I feel like I’m just running back and forth.7-Co. Wicklow-Glendalough (24)

Tom Friedman, in his book, “Thank You For Being Late,” writes about walls, in his case an actual border wall like we hear so much about. Friedman says we need to have a big, strong wall so that we feel secure, but the wall needs to have a really big door in it. The idea isn’t to keep people out as much as it is to know who we are inviting in. This is the way that I feel about my mental and emotional boundaries right now. I need a wall with a big door so that I feel more in control.

My “52 Lists” book has an exercise for week 10 which asks you to list the things you should ignore. Here’s my list:

  • The people who are second-guessing me
  • My phone/email
  • The news (sometimes)
  • My monkey mind
  • The things I can’t control

Last week when I was in a yoga class, I set an intention to hit “pause” more often. Not just by taking a break, but actually pausing more before speaking or reacting. The pause button gives me the opportunity to respond rather than react; it helps me recognize what I’m actually feeling in the moment. It gives me a moment to ask, what is the best use of my time right now? What is the best use of my energy? Can I mindfully deal with the situation at hand, or do I need to shut the big door for a while?

Soren Gordhamer writes that, “Because how we leave one moment is how we enter the next, it helps to expand instead of squeeze during times of transition.” Mindfully expanding during the transition time is like hitting the pause button, doing less in order to do more.




Have you been lucky? Pass it on.

If luck is believing you’re lucky, as Tennessee Williams said, then I have had a lot of luck in my life. I have always felt fortunate, lucky, blessed, satisfied with the hand I’ve been dealt. This past week, with the celebration of both Thanksgiving and my birthday, offered time to reflect on those opportunities.

In Trogir, Croatia, there is an ancient bas relief picturing the Greek god Kairos, or Kaerus, the god of luck, opportunity and favorable moments. He is usually pictured holding scales, or a razor, symbolizing the fleeting nature of opportunity, occasions that can appear and disappear in an instant. It is during Kairos time that opportunities must be seized. In fact, the god is also shown with a tuft of hair sticking out – which you must quickly grasp to take advantage of the lucky moment, or see it be lost forever.

KairosThe Greeks had two words for time: chronos, which meant chronological or sequential time; and Kairos, which was a more indeterminate time, a time lapse, the time in between other times, the time in which everything happened. Sometimes it takes courage to look away from chronos, the circadian routine of our lives, to see an opportunity and grab it. It’s not part of the plan, so we hesitate and sometimes lose it. But paying attention, and welcoming serendipity, prepares us for the lucky moment. And then…carpe diem!

Some “Kairos” moments in my life have been truly fleeting, such as the chance meeting with my husband. Other opportune moments have come in the form of a random job offer that led my career in a new direction, the unlikely friendship that lasted years, and a moment that allowed me to say “I’m sorry” to someone I hurt. I count myself lucky to have the happy marriage, the satisfying work, the close friendship, but at the same time, I have to be careful not to cling too hard to those blessings. I grabbed the tuft of hair, but now that I have it, my grip can loosen. Soren Gordhamer says that “when we are spacious with the good…we have gratitude. We appreciate a given moment without needing to control or hold it indefinitely. We relate…with openness instead of greed.”

Perhaps feeling spacious about the good we have can translate into a lucky moment for someone else. A chance encounter might turn someone’s life around; a kind word might change the course of a person’s day. Instead of considering only the lucky moments that have benefited me, how have I participated in lucky moments for someone else?

Opportunity never grows old, so Kairos is always portrayed as young and beautiful. If Kairos is a time out of chronological time, then it is ageless, and always available to us. Growing older doesn’t mean that all opportunity has passed us by, only that new and different opportunities are waiting on the horizon. Maybe more of them will be about reaching out to others so that they can more easily grab a lucky moment. The times we are giving back, or holding out a hand, can be as favorable to us as to those who receive them.

Hand ReachingThe month of December is full of occasions for giving and receiving, but these events often become bogged down in stress and anxiety. Instead of giving in to those feelings, take a breath, and consider your lucky moments. How can you pass them on?


People who need people

Everyone wants independence – to have the freedom to make choices about values, goals and lifestyles. But as Henry Van Dyke once said, “In the progress of personality, first comes a declaration of independence, then a recognition of interdependence.”

Amir Levine, author of the book Attached., says that independence means having someone reliable to depend on so that you can “walk the path of independence together”. To be truly free and independent we must put faith in the strength of others.IMG_0086 r

Sheryl Sandberg has made a similar point during interviews about her controversial new book, Lean In. She believes that one of the biggest [career] mistakes women make is not making their partners real partners – in other words, not relying on them enough. Success is hard-won, and especially so without a trusted partner in life.

Buddhism teaches the practice of non-attachment, based on the idea that suffering is the result of your ego being too wrapped up in a certain idea, outcome, or possession. The true self becomes obscured when we grasp or cling to something or someone as if our life depended on it. That kind of clinging attachment would be comparable to what Levine calls “anxious” attachment – when we worry excessively about losing the object of our attachment, or worry that the other person won’t love us enough.

Buddhist non-attachment doesn’t mean not caring, however. That could lead to the other end of the spectrum — those who avoid attachment to other people altogether, because they have the belief that attachment means losing independence. In avoiding all attachment, they give up intimacy and all of the richness that can be gained from sharing their innermost feelings with someone they trust.

As in the Goldilocks story, there is a middle ground – what Levine refers to as secure attachment. In a securely attached relationship, the partners don’t spend time worrying about how much one loves the other, or about separation. They trust in themselves and each other enough to know that the relationship is strong enough to allow independence on both sides, without keeping score. Soren Gordhamer thinks of this non-grasping feeling as spaciousness. He writes that “in those moments, we have gratitude. We appreciate a given moment without needing to control or hold it indefinitely. We relate to these moments with trust instead of fear, with openness instead of greed, with letting go instead of holding.”

I like to think of secure attachment as being like Velcro (and not in the negative way some people do). When stuck together, it holds together tightly; but when it’s time to separate, it does so without damaging either side. And it can be put back together again just as snugly whenever we want. It separates and re-joins many times over without effort. I hope that my relationships — with my children, my spouse, my friends, and my mother – have that effortless Velcro quality. Can we allow uncertainty, but know without a doubt that we can rely on each other? Can we walk the path of independence together?

So maybe life is a journey

It’s amusing while driving on a long trip to read people’s vanity license plates and wonder about their messages. A couple of months ago, somewhere in the Carolinas, I saw this on a car:


The message has stayed on my mind ever since. I think it’s because it can be either very straightforward or deeply profound in its meaning. I speculated that it might relate to food or cooking – maybe a chef or a baker drives the car. But it also occurred to me that the driver is saying, “I’m not done” with life, that he has some sort of “bucket list” of things to do, and isn’t finished with it yet. That’s what keeps me pondering it.

When are we finished? When have we done everything we want to do, or think we should do? These kinds of questions can dog our daily life – the never-ending “to-do” list – as well as our overall feelings about achieving goals, making a difference, being satisfied with life. A young person struggling with what to do next told me recently that it surprised her when other people admired her for being so successful in her work. She didn’t feel successful; she felt as if she still had so much to do to get where she wanted to be. In her friends’ eyes, though, she looks like a success right now.

What is success? We equate it with fame and fortune, reaching some sort of end point, accomplishing something big or difficult. In my thesaurus, however, the first synonym for the word success is fulfillment, which to me implies that it is possible to be successful, while still being “not done”, if you feel fulfilled by what you do. The flip side is that someone could have all the money and fame in the world and still not be successful if a sense of fulfillment isn’t there.

Yoga teaches us to practice detachment from results. Detachment doesn’t mean a lack of feeling or emotion, rather a letting go of the outcome of events. As Kate Holcombe explains it, “…detachment means that you strive toward your goal, but if things don’t go the way you want them to, your sense of Self is not shattered…This has the effect of keeping you in the present moment of your action or practice rather than being distracted by thinking about the outcome.” In other words, focus on the satisfaction that your life and work offer right now, while still acknowledging that work remains to be done.

Another instructive lesson comes from Soren Gordhamer in his book, Wisdom 2.0. He relates the story of a martial arts student who goes to a master to learn everything he can. The student wants to work as hard as he can to achieve mastery as quickly as possible; but every time he says he’ll work harder in order to finish his studies sooner, the master says that it will take even longer. When the student asks why, the master tells him, “’With one eye focused on your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the way.’”

I went to a time management workshop once where were advised to write our goals in the present tense, rather than the future. So a goal like “I will become a writer,” became “I am a writer,” and “I will exercise every day” became “I exercise every day.” It was a way of visualizing ourselves where we wanted to be. But it’s also a way of staying present-focused, of realizing that the person I want to be is here inside me right now, and that the steps I’m taking now are what will bring fulfillment.

So we may forever be “not done”, but by keeping both eyes on the path, with an occasional glance at the destination, we may find that the journey is quite successful.

Knowing when to surrender

While doing child’s pose yesterday in yoga, our teacher said that the pose is also called “wisdom pose”. I had never heard this before, but as I thought about it, it made sense. In child’s pose, we need to relax and surrender to gravity, to make ourselves vulnerable like children. And in life, it often requires a lot of wisdom for us to fully surrender and let things be.

Do you ever think about how much energy you use up fighting things? From the mundane fights (traffic, kids’ bedtimes, the cable company) to more important fights (interpersonal conflict, problems at work, health issues), so much of our time is taken up with struggling against things that we sometimes feel like we’re not moving to anything.

Part of what drives us is the need to have and keep control of things in our lives. A feeling of control is important to managing stress; but so is realizing when something is out of our control, or deciding that control just isn’t worth the price it requires. So there might be times when it’s appropriate to “give in”, such as when maintaining a relationship is more important than winning an argument, or when the outcome is clearly more important to the other person than it is to you.

Exercising control is often a response to fear as well. Fear of change, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of facing difficult emotions – all can lead us to fiercely hold onto positions that really aren’t serving us. Bertrand Russell said that “to conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” And sometimes surrendering control, allowing events to happen and feelings to rise, is the beginning of conquering fear.

Sometimes when we are over-efforting, micromanaging every detail, too focused on the outcome, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. If we take a step back to see things as they are, and just stop trying so hard, we might be more successful in reaching our goals. Soren Gordhamer writes that “we can often make more progress and with less stress not by trying harder but by trying softer. By doing so, there is an ease to our effort…”

Top athletes and other types of performers know how to try “softer”, although they may call it by a different name. They train and practice for hours, but when called upon to perform, they have to let go of thinking through every move, step, or note and just let things flow through them. They have the wisdom to surrender, and to trust what is inside of them.

I just read about a study of centenarians showing that the people who live longest are the most optimistic and carefree, relaxed and upbeat, and notably non-neurotic. They are the people who let go of their stress rather than internalizing it. I don’t know if they are practicing child’s pose, but something tells me that they are also people who have learned the value of surrendering.

Words: Handle with care

Wandering around the Library of Congress last week, my eyes gravitated to a quote high on the wall. It said, “Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.”   At the time, I didn’t know who had said it (Ralph Waldo Emerson), but it stuck in my head for days.

As I was growing up, I often heard adults say, “Actions speak louder than words.” Emerson seems to be saying that words and actions are equal, that while our actions speak for us, our words have the capacity to sting or caress as surely as if we were using our hands.

This couldn’t be truer than it is today. In this age of digital communication, people tend to throw words around carelessly. With email and texting, we don’t have to worry about wasting paper or ink; we don’t have to take the time to put a letter in an envelope, stamp it and mail it in order to send someone a message. So we don’t think as carefully about the things we say. Words have become a cheap commodity, often chosen without a lot of thought as to their meaning or effect.

If we stop and think about how much of our stress is coming from interactions with other people, we can see that a lot of it is a result of the blunt force of these mindless communications. Emails and texts deprive us of tone of voice, facial expression and body language, so their messages are often misinterpreted. Sometimes offense is taken when none was intended. Speaking face to face is not always better; often people speak at each other rather than to each other. We wait for our turn to speak, rather than listening so that we can respond with understanding.

Headlines are made when celebrities are forced to close their Twitter accounts or politicians are driven from office due to ill-advised words. For the rest of us, the results of miscommunication can be just as painful and devastating: someone doesn’t speak to you anymore, relationships are strained, or business is lost.

How can we practice communicating more clearly, more carefully and more compassionately?

  • Do take the time to be sure that saying something serves a useful purpose. Soren Gordhamer makes the point that sometimes our comments (on-line or in person) are just a form of one-upmanship: “When we are caught in what we may call the judging mind, we continually look for people and actions to criticize. Instead of a critique that seeks to help, we do so to build up our own sense of superiority.”
  • Do pay attention to what others are saying non-verbally, with eye contact, body language and even silences.
  • Do listen reflectively to other people. Repeat or rephrase what they have said to you to be sure you understand it.
  • Don’t communicate difficult messages (like breaking up with someone) via email or text. Give the other person the respect of a face-to-face meeting.
  • Don’t hit the “send” button so quickly, especially if your message is complicated or unwelcome. Wait 10 minutes and read it again to be sure it conveys what you really want the other person to hear.

How would it feel to be on the receiving end of your words? Should that be our standard for better communication? As the Buddha said, “Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.”