“Before you finish eating breakfast this morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.”
– Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
I wasn’t taught to be my own person. I was taught out of it. I can remember years spent feeling not-quite-right – having little idea who I was or what I wanted. I had the impression of both asking too much and of having too little. I was surrounded by people, but there was an agonizing loneliness felt so sparingly that I wasn’t sure it was actually there, and my relationships suffered for it.
Then I learned about boundaries. But it took time for me to really “get” them. Much of what I learned was grounded in rigid individualism, independence, and self-reliance, which often felt unkind and unfeeling. Sometimes I couldn’t tell whether I had no boundaries at all or way too many. It all felt…icky, and it would take me years more to recognize why.
I see now that kid-Levi thought (and sometimes still thinks) he had to do everything on his own or risk manipulation or exploitation or both, and then he got confused when it got him nowhere. He didn’t have the awareness to know he needed help or how to ask for it, or enough trust to believe it would come if he did ask. I realize now that self-reliance, as it was explained to me, isn’t real – that the only people who don’t need help are the people who already have it.
I can’t think of anything I can do that wasn’t somehow enabled by someone else. As I write on my laptop, I depend on an incalculable number of engineers, programmers, truck drivers, miners, factory workers, farmers, and plenty of others I could never think to think of. I couldn’t make a single screw out of the thousands holding all my stuff together. To think, I borrow language from ancestors whose names I will never know. To meditate, I rely on those who taught me how. By extension, I depend on all the people they have ever depended on. We need and, to an extent, belong to each other. We are interdependent – an ecosystem ever-reliant on and taking care of one another, whether we recognize it or not. We are always helping and being helped, held up by billions of unseen hands and other, non-human appendages. Even to exist, to breathe, I depend on the earth.
Real boundaries are not walls, but bridges. They don’t isolate me from the earth and others, they are the vehicle by which I connect to them. I cannot connect if there is no “I” to do the connecting.
Without boundaries I have no sense of where I end and another begins. I can’t be in touch with my own needs or desires, nor can I ever hope to meet another person’s. Without the boundaries of my body, I can’t give my cat chin-scritches or boop her nose and, oh god, how could I live my life like that?
Every ecosystem is embedded within and connected to other ecosystems. I’d always understood them as something that I am in. But it turns out that interconnectivity does not begin with me and extend outward. It also goes in the other direction. I am not only a body in the universe; I am also a universe embodied.
Most meditation practices I’ve learned demonstrate the adage: “You are not your thoughts,” and address the natural follow-up of, “Well, who am I then?” But there is an equally interesting, equally important second question which is rarely asked:
“If I’m not my thoughts, who are they?”
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is one (in my opinion, highly effective) way of discovering at least part of the answer. What if I didn’t just watch my thoughts, emotions, and body sensations come and go? What if I learned to get acquainted with my inner-ecosystem?
Like all relationships, this requires boundaries – a degree of separation from parts of me I’d been enmeshed with for years, or even decades. IFS calls this “unblending,” and by learning to unblend my parts were able to tell me things about me that I didn’t know. Some of them were friends. Others only knew enough about each other to know they were at odds. A few didn’t know each other – or me – at all.
Today I help people get to know their inner voices, their conflicting thoughts, aches and pains, and out-of-nowhere emotions, and to navigate and re-harmonize the relationships between them with ecological sensitivity. Each of us can come to know our inner-ecosystem. We can meet with the interconnected constellations of parts who depend on us and each other and come to understand all the more intimately that no one can go it alone. He’s still learning, but kid-Levi is starting to see it too.
*Levi is an IFS-informed, trauma-informed coach, a meditation teacher in training, and the author of The Integral Guide. Still on his own trauma recovery journey, Levi has an invested interest in collective healing and liberation and a lifelong passion for teaching and revolutionizing Education.