Last night’s circle was a bit of a departure; after all of the opening up and radiant joy and discussion of desires we’d been doing, it seemed time to talk about boundaries and safety. “Setting boundaries” is such a slippery concept; it seems too abstract to be of much use. So we talked in terms of our energetic fields.
I prefer the term ‘energetic field’ to ‘aura’ because fewer people get all shifty-eyed and back away from me when I say it. Come on, it makes sense that we have an energetic field. The electromagnetic energy of the brain and heart are scientifically quantifiable. This field is our first defense, both immunologically and psychologically. When we are aware of the boundaries of our field, when it is clean and clear, we can feel infringements upon it and deal with them. When we are unaware of our boundaries, or our fields are low due to illness, unhappiness, or stress, we are easily affected by others’ germs, criticisms, and demands.
In my study of the martial arts, and in the study of tracking and wilderness survival, I learned the importance of presence. When you are alert to the world around you, engaged with your surroundings, you are difficult to victimize. We practiced presence by pairing off and facing our partner, gazing into their eyes without speaking for five minutes.
Though this crowd is so freaking evolved that they hardly batted an eyelash, when I first encountered this exercise I found it a hellish experience. It was really hard to be looked at. My face felt funny. I kept wanting to engage the interest of the other person, to make looking at me a more interesting experience. But slowly I learned to bring my focus away from myself and onto the other person, and to simply be present with them rather than trying to control their experience of me.
Observing another person with such focus is a pretty rare thing to do socially. We spend a lot of time in our own heads, evaluating the impact we are having on the others around us, guessing at their judgments of us, obsessing over the same old thought patterns that tend to preoccupy us. Rarely do we fully engage in observing. Yet observation is critical not only to our survival, but to our happiness. It is when we are fully engaged with the world, taking it all in, stretching all of our senses to savor what is spread before us, that we experience joy. It is also, not coincidentally, when we are most alert to the intentions of others and whether or not they are beneficial to us.
I have two exercises I practice regularly to hone my ability to observe. One is the kundalini exercise known as “the woodchopper” (I’m sure it has a fancy sanskrit name but I don’t know it.) I try to do this exercise every morning, setting an intention and then using it clear away any blocks.
Stand with feet shoulder width apart, a slight bend in the knees. Hold your arms out straight in front of you , palms facing inward. Then turn your right palm outward so that the thumb points down. Bring it under your left hand and across, bringing the palm of the right hand to the back of the left hand, clasping it with the thumb. Now, on the inhale, raise your interlocked arms straight overhead. Exhale forcefully and bring them down to chest height, as though chopping wood. Inhale and lift them again. Do this, following your breath, for three minutes. (I can actually feel the space around me come alive after this exercise, and I am far less likely to take any crap from anyone on the days that I do it!)
The second exercise is a mental one. I have noticed that when I stop observing, it is often because my mind has slipped into a pattern of thought negative enough to distract me from the real sensory world all around me. Generally, for me, these thoughts are about money, but in the past they’ve been about relationship, or self-image. We all have certain default thought patterns our brains like to worry over. Once you’ve identified yours, stop yourself the next time it plays. Just stop. Then make a conscious effort to interrupt it. For example, if I am thinking “how will I pay the bills this month, I’m afraid to look at my balance” I can shift that to “Isn’t it amazing that I am never hungry? I am always surrounded by plenty of fresh, wonderful food. And my business has been doing so well lately. It grows every month. And I was just awarded a fellowship that will pay half of my tuition. ” (HOORAY! I still can’t quite believe it!)
This exercise does a couple of things: first, it trains us to be aware of our own thoughts so that we can snap out of them and be more engaged with the world around us; second, it gives us a line of defense against people who read our preoccupations and use them to manipulate us. Criticism always hurts most when it is directed at something we don’t like about ourselves. When someone can discern what it is we are struggling with, it can become a tremendous source of power for them. But if we are aware of our own vulnerabilities and are actively working with them, we no longer give over power to those who would use them to leverage us.
We closed with a round of brags, gratitudes, and desires. It is much easier to notice infringements of your boundaries when you know what your boundaries are! Stating your desires is a very effective way to jumpstart this process.
Most people see a radiant, fully alive woman, and are inspired to come more alive themselves. There are, unfortunately, others who see her and try to take what she has by force. We don’t have to allow this, however subtle or overt it may be. We can define what is allowed in our energetic field, notice when these boundaries are being breached, and take action to defend ourselves. In fact we have a responsibility to do so. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr’s spiritual advisor Howard Thurman, “what this world needs is people who have come alive.”