Working With Boundaries

Last November I visited the Awakened Heart Sangha’s Hermitage again, the home of my Buddhist teacher Lama Shenpen, in North Wales. I went with a few of my local meditation group who are also Awakened Heart Sangha members. It was my first time away from home following my colon surgery four months ago, which felt like a big step, but there was no better and supportive environment to do this!

The Hermitage was hosting an Awakening Dialogue course that weekend, which was the main purpose of the visit. The course is part of the Sangha’s ongoing mentor training that teaches important techniques for working with others, including developing skills for listening and communicating Dharma.

It was such a pleasure to be back at The Hermitage near Criccieth. It always feels special to be there and we spent some of the weekend talking about the powerful connection we feel to the place as a sacred space due to all the Buddhist practice that happens there, and its connection to the amazing lineage of teachers. It was lovely to have the opportunity to take part in the meditation sessions in the Shrine room as a group again, with Lama Shenpen and other Sangha members.

When it came to the actual Awakening Dialogue course, the weekend didn’t quite go as planned!

We’d arrived on Thursday afternoon and on Friday I helped with food preparation, mucked in with some vacuuming and went for a long walk. Combined with not sleeping much of the previous night, the early morning meditation and being on the go all day, not to mention being only four months into recovery from some pretty major surgery, by the time Saturday morning came round and the start of the actual course, I wasn’t feeling great, to put it mildly.

The course started with the large group gathered together in a circle. We had an introductory game where we had to introduce the person on our left. I get very nervous in group speaking situations. It’s been a bit of a phobia of mine since school. Recently I’d made a bit of progress with it thanks to the Living the Awakened Heart Training, whereas before I wouldn’t have even gone anywhere near an event that had any group speaking. So at least I’ll not shy away completely now and try and work with my anxieties part of my practice, which is a big improvement!

This time though, as the nervousness started to kick in, I noticed it wasn’t just my usual shakiness. This was bigger and stronger and rising as full-on panic. I knew this was going one of three ways: I was going to have a full blown panic attack or I was going to run out of the room – both options that would be ridiculously dramatic, cause a fuss and result in more unwanted attention and embarrassment – or I was going to have to somehow get through the next few minutes.

So I followed the meditation and mindful awareness instructions from our Formless Meditation practise. I breathed and I tried to connect with my body in the chair. I felt the shakiness and the rising panic and I did my best to ‘turn towards it’ with self-compassion and not try to fight it or get rid of it. The rising panic began to subside slowly as I applied the meditation instructions to Wake into the present moment, connect to my heartbe present and notice the out breath and open into spaciousness. It worked and somehow managed to introduce the person to my left without sounding too nervous, so thankfully no one could’ve guessed what I had wrestled with just moments ago!

While I was pleased with getting through that, the surge of adrenaline that was released afterwards left me very shaky, drained and strangely emotional. I just couldn’t concentrate on what was being said and just wanted to rest. When we broke for lunch I felt like a wreck and the penny finally dropped that I’d bitten off way more than I could chew!

So that’s all I did of the actual course, the first morning introductory session! The weekend took on a whole new meaning and direction of practise: working with boundaries, being with things as they are and remembering self compassion.

I’d forgotten to be compassionate to myself in the first instance. I should’ve gone easy on myself that weekend and not over done it. I realised that just being at the Hermitage, just turning up as I was with my post-ileostomy surgery limitations, was enough. The four hour journey there, the nervousness about it being my first time away since my op, the over exertion, dealing with my anxieties, all those had also not been taken into consideration and I’d kept pushing myself to do more and more. I started to feel very run down on Friday and didn’t pay attention to what was a clear warning sign.

So the most valuable lessons of the weekend was not what I thought it was going to be. It wasn’t about dialogue with others, it was dialogue with myself and about listening to and working with my boundaries.

Boundaries come up as part of the Discovering the Heart of Buddhism study course, particularly in the Mandala Principle section.

It was so helpful to be able to talk with my sangha mentor and teachers about this, and to be reminded to work with your boundaries (which in this instance was a combination of comfort zones and physical health) and not beyond them, as that will be (and was!) counterproductive.

Gently nudging at your boundaries (no more than 10% at a time Lama Shenpen recommends) whilst remembering to be kind to yourself is key. If you force yourself beyond them, then berate yourself afterwards when it doesn’t work out, will just reinforce existing boundaries. Encouraging personal growth through compassionate practice, working with you boundaries, is the more skilful and helpful approach.

I can clearly see now how I’d forced myself right outside my boundaries by taking part in the group activity, on top of everything else I’d done that weekend. I’d pushed and pushed myself right beyond my boundaries and became frustrated with myself wondered why I was struggling.

The other really important lesson was to discover that your boundaries move! Just because you worked successfully with a boundary once, doesn’t mean you’ll find it in the same place where you left it!

I had pushed myself into a group activity before and it had gone okay. I was nervous but I managed it. This time, due to being physically much weaker plus over exerting myself, that comfort zone boundary wasn’t where it had been before. Had I really listened to myself and acted with self compassion, I would’ve realised this and worked with that new boundary and not beyond it as I had done.

So, despite spending the rest of that weekend lying down, trying not to be annoyed with myself and embarrassed by my lack of self awareness,  it was a very fruitful visit. I learnt such a lot, just not what I thought I was going to be learning!

It took me about 6 weeks to recover from running myself into the ground that weekend and to feel well again, so I had a lot of time to mull all this over and vow not to repeat my unskilful behaviour!

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