I recently asked a French person how to say boundaries in French. And then our discussion turned into one about whether the word is even needed here because there is such a strong social code which is reinforced by family norms (which definitely vary dependent on social class) and a centralized public education system. I was talking about social boundaries, how to say no to unreasonable requests or how to not find out weird sex things about people we used to know. My impression here is that people are in pretty tight social containers and unless you are very young or living on the margins, you know exactly what is socially acceptable and what isn’t. I find this comforting but these same codes can be a stultifying prison.
We are in Europe but the borders are closed for the first time in decades. Our bodies are protected by skin but we debate the boundaries between ourselves, 6 feet, 23 feet.
A long time ago in Chicago I was at a conference and discovered that a California friend was also at a conference there. She was an electrical engineer and giving a paper and I had time so I went to watch her. I love seeing people do their thing, especially if it’s a thing I know nothing about. I think this was in 1998 and I still remember learning two concepts. She told me that she had terrible stomach pains before giving a paper and I have since learned that many people run to the bathroom before public speaking. I can’t remember the cute name she had for it but she survived and presented her paper very professionally.
The second thing I remember was the topic of her paper. It was delightfully poetic. It turns out that when one works with electricity, basically energy, there are not linear boundaries. At some point the charge changes or the current is blocked, electricity can be controlled by mankind. But the place where this happens is more a zone than a line and she called it the boundary of unboundedness. You are positive, you drift through a zone where things get more intense and then, you are negative. So between two states is another state, the state of unboundedness, extreme potential and not a lot of control.
I remember the diagonal line on her graphic and then the little clouds along it, the groupings of things that weren’t on one side or another but still in the in-between maybe becoming state. I always delight in teaching my high school students the word liminal from the Latin limens or threshold. If I have one foot out the door and one foot in my confined space, where am I? Teenagers are in a liminal state, not yet across some boundary of adulting. Our hearts can be in a liminal place, connected to the past and unwilling to look at the present. It is uncomfortable to be hanging out in the bardo to be doing the limbo lower and lower in limbo day after day. But when I think of my friend’s paper, and she was very smart, I wonder if maybe we aren’t always somewhere in the unboundedness.
Tomorrow the French president will announce the next step, the next amount of time, the spatial limits of our bodies here. I hear that these might vary by region so our boundaries may be different than boundaries in the north.
What do Americans really mean when they say boundaries? I am taking a Bhagavad Gita course and hear that the goal of the Vedic world is to create boundaries and spaciousness that allow us to share each other’s company. The stronger our boundaries, the more we can do, the more space and time we can have to share the world with each other. Knowing where one’s boundaries are takes focus, good will and sometimes brutal honesty.
In trauma and in meditation studies I hear much talk of windows of tolerance. This window is the boundary of unboundednesss, the spaces where I still feel free, not trapped in lethargy or jolted into uncontrollable and overwhelming emotion.
Happy Easter and Passover. Times between death and birth. Times between staying put and leaving. May your boundaries of unboundedness be as loose or tight as your secret self desires.