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  • Writer's pictureJ. Randall Stewart

31 - The Practice of Stillness - Part 5: Boundaries

It’s hard to believe that happiness can be found in letting go. Every day I still battle this energy telling me to fight against that movement. I have to fight against it in me and in the world. The message of the human created ego-world is always “go, go” and “get, get.” Stillness is a counter message which doesn’t fall kindly on such ears. It sounds absurd in a culture created out of our creating. How can we possibly get anywhere good by trying not to get anywhere at all? How can we “get” happiness by doing nothing at all? I understand the pure absurdity of this message, and just how counter it is in a culture of self-actualization and material acquirement. But I also understand just where those pursuits have led our culture, and I believe many others are waking up to this broken reality as well. While we may not readily see stillness as the remedy to anything, we may at least be coming to see that the ways we’ve been seeking fulfillment and contentment as a culture are simply not working, and that is a big step forward in seeking something different. Seeing the brokenness of our current systems can at least catapult us into a different space, where we are ready to start looking for another way to be human. Of course, we could simply default to another system of fulfillment just as broken, but we could also take some time to get quiet, stop pursuing anything, and start learning to listen to our soul. That’s the beauty of the message Jesus spoke. He never said we needed to run anywhere, or get anything to be happy, fulfilled, or content. He taught that all those things were always with us, in us, and that we could discover and uncover them with the help of God as our Divine guide. Everything you need to be happy is already within you. That, I think, can be called the good news Jesus came to deliver, and the peace he’s still trying to bring us to. But do you believe it? I really don’t know what it will take for that message to get through. I know what it took for me. A breakdown. It took a confrontation with the reality of my broken ways of pursuing happiness to help me see a new way of thinking and being, which has helped me experience more peace and Shalom. And that’s all I can really say. It’s hard to describe the process. Metaphysical science is not like the natural sciences. It exists in a place that registers in ways so foreign and strange. We need a whole new set of eyes and ears to better perceive it. we are always experiencing it, we just don’t have the ability to perceive that if we’ve not been properly trained. I realize just how little I was trained to do that, but how lucky I was that God somehow got me there anyway. My early religious training never taught me about this. It was also, like the natural sciences, a religion of external things. Go to a building, eat some bread, sing some songs, hear a message, do the right things, feel the right things, think the right things. All was based in the external. We live in a culture built on externals, but what we need are mature mentors who can help guide us in the internal. I didn’t have that. But I’ve made it my life mission to become that for others. I don’t want you to walk alone on your spiritual journey, and I don’t want you to miss it. It’s too important, because it will unlock the happiness and peace you’ve been longing for, even if you don’t see that now. And I believe that stillness is the key, and that reimagining our human experience in light of these three Knowing and Being Centers is helpful in guiding us back to our whole self. They help us conceptualize, at least, that there is so much more to how we were meant to operate and be in the world. But how does stillness work in and with these centers to do that? Great question! The answer has to do with boundaries.

The experience of stillness for the three Knowing Centers is something like that image I described in our last discussion, of floating above the raw, river of data we can call true reality. About a month after my breakdown, God gave me a clear picture of where he/she wanted to take me in my recovery. The Divine gave me two different word images. The first was “unshakable”, and the second was a phrase from the Ralph Waldo Emerson poem “Woodnotes II.” The line was “nothing jostle or displace.” Both of those words from God are now tattooed on my body. It’s a helpful and concrete way I can live in the reminder of where I’ve been, and where God is still taking me. Maybe those two word images don’t readily speak to you, but what they spoke to me in a time where everything was shaking and displaced, was that God wanted to teach me a new way to live that grounded me so deep in the energy of life that nothing could upset, overturn, and tear me down again. There is a way to live where the tumultuous force of life’s negative energy can swell in and around you without upsetting or unsettling you at all. There are a million lessons like steps that take us on that journey of grounding, but I’m deep into that place now where I can say I’m becoming that unshakable person God promised to make me. And this is what it looks like. It doesn’t mean I never have fearful thoughts, feelings, or sensations. I experience the negative energy of the world around me in much more clear and clairvoyant ways now, than I ever did before. I’m much more in tune with the raw data of the world around me. But I’m much more like a mesh screen than a sail now, because I’m learning to release all the things within me that this negative energy would have gotten snagged on. What that means is that I can experience the negative energy in the world more fully, in less devastating ways. Jesus talked about this right before he was crucified, as he prayed to God about the vision he had for those who would try to live life as he did in the world. He said something like, “God, I’m not asking that you would remove my followers from the evil of the world, but that you would give them the ability to be protected from it, while in the midst of it” (my paraphrase). And that’s been my experience much more now. We were made to experience life fully, all of it, the good and the bad. The antidote to all the negative energy we feel in the world isn’t insulation and isolation, but a new kind of freedom that gives us Divine power to feel it and overcome it. Blindness to the reality of the world doesn’t free us, it is the curse that has broken us. The remedy, therefore, is learning to experience it from the place of a kind of stillness that can’t be affected by it. What that looks like for me, now, is that I still experience fearful thoughts, ideas, emotions, and physical sensations, but I can look at them from higher ground, see them as they really are, and know that none of them can really hurt me. They are not mine, and need not become mine. I have an inner place of stillness that is solid, protected, and cannot be disturbed by this negative energy. Let me give you a concrete example.

I work construction. I had a particular job where the customer was trying to renegotiate the cost after the work was mostly done. Of course, I was not happy about that. It was towards the beginning of starting the business, and I had established the project cost with husband, word of mouth. But after it was done the wife approached me with a different idea of what the cost should be. The husband was more passive and agreeable, the wife more contentious and strong-willed. Needless to say, I wasn’t budging on the price, and she wasn’t happy. That evening, I sat down, sent her an invoice with the previously established price, and she responded back in an angry series of texts. The last exchange was right before bed. Her last text was the worst, so, I decided to let it go, not respond, and just sleep on it. Perhaps the morning would bring new perspective and resolution. Hours later, in the middle of the night, I was awakened suddenly by what I can only describe as an intense, heavy, dark energy pressing into me. I could feel this energy mostly in my body, which was tingling and tense, like extreme goosebumps. But there was something about this negative energy which registered inside me too. My thoughts and emotions were quiet, but there was a part of this negative energy which seemed to be pressing past my body and a few inches in. It’s hard to explain. It’s probably what some would describe as some kind of spiritual attack. I know that sounds strange, but I know what I experienced. I knew almost immediately that this negative energy was coming from that lady. It was literally the negative energy of her anger pressing in on me in metaphysical ways. And it felt like a mild force of murder. I wrestled against that feeling for about ten minutes or so, resisting it with everything in me, and praying to God for help and strength. After about ten minutes I had this vision, an image flashed in my mind/emotions/spirit. I could picture myself in bed, in the dark, but just the outline of my body. But inside my body there was this glowing energy ball of bluish light, between my chest and my belly, centered in my body. In that flash I also felt the power of this light-energy ball. It was a strong energy of peace and protection. I also understood in my spirit just what it was, and just what God was showing me. In essence God was saying, “you are protected, this negative energy can’t get in. You will feel it pushing into your body, but deep inside you there is this energy of light which nothing can penetrate. You will always be this way. You will feel negative energy pushing against you, but it will never get in. I am the light within you, and the darkness will never overcome that light.” I felt the energy from that ball of light seeping out of me, at my core, even as the negative energy of this anger was still pushing in. But I could feel the peaceful, calm, protective assurance that this light was stronger than the darkness, and always would be. The light did not cancel out the darkness, it just gave me the ability to know that the light was infinitely stronger. Eventually, in about ten more minutes or so, the negative energy dissipated, everything became quiet again, and I fell back asleep. When I woke in the morning, I could still feel the remnants of that negative energy, in a way, but I could also still feel the power of that ball of light emanating from within me. The next day I went back to that customers house, to finish the job, and talked with the wife. I was able to be humble, and calm, and help her come back down from that place of anger. We both apologized to each other, reached a new price agreement, and I’ve continued doing work for her. But I’ve never forgotten that experience. I’ve had many more experiences of that negative energy, but never that God-vision of light in conjunction with them. Yet, the truth of the light within me continues to grow, and I continue to be able to handle more and more darkness with less and less instability. I know that light is within me, always. At times the darkness still feels so powerful. Sometimes it brings me to the edge of what I think I can handle. I can feel my very being pulled away from the center, but the center always holds.

This negative energy registers in the three Knowing Centers in the ways you’d expect, as negative thoughts in the mind, negative emotions in the heart, and negative sensations in the body. We all feel these things. Sometimes the affect is mild, and sometimes it is intense. Sometimes we can easily dismiss it, and sometimes we really struggle to let it go. What we don’t realize is that there is a work and a process of coming to a greater inner stillness that can create within us a growing strength to encounter this negative energy without getting stuck in it. You can think of it like a kind of inner Teflon, if you want. It is not the negative energy which really hurts us, but the ways we’ve grounded our identity in the ego self which gives that negative energy a stronger place to register. Remove the ego patches from our mesh-screen soul, and we gain a greater ability to register that energy less intensely. It is in trying to protect ourselves that we get the most hurt. Think of it this way. If I establish my identity from a defensive stance, and say, “nobody is going to do this or that to me,” then I automatically create a space within where, when someone does do those things, I’m going to get upset, disturbed, and feel the need to fight back. I’ve taken my stand on a set of personal principles which demand a certain level of respect and behavior. I am actually pre-determining how the entire universe should treat me. That sound sensible, except when we consider that universe and everything in it has no idea who we even are, as established by our inner identity attached to this defensive stance. I may go through the world saying, “you are not going to do what I don’t want,” but the world around has no ability to register anything about those internalize ideals and personally created identity space. All I’ve really done is set myself up in some boundaries which will be pushed around and broken. The world will not perceive the energy of those boundaries, but it will feel the negative energy of my pushback, when those boundaries are disturbed. The goal of stillness in this process can seem counter intuitive. It entails relinquishing to God the role of establishing and maintaining any ideals of human dignity. What we don’t realize is that all the negative energy in the universe is coming from our attempt to establish human dignity for ourselves. Stillness equals the practice of letting that go, and giving that to God. This state of stillness can be conceptualized in so many ways, as surrender, negation, rest, peace, stillness, or death to the ego, but it’s always about letting go of my need to establish and protect my own dignity and rights. It is what we might call the difference between retributive and restorative justice, or hate and love. Do you realize how negative it is to establish your own value boundaries? That can be a hard leap to make. But you do realize how negatively you react when those boundaries are disturbed. We see quite easily how this whole process leads us to hate, and then to hurt. But rarely do we ever trace all that harm back to the source of our attempt to create our own personal value space in the world. That’s because we imagine that it is, actually, our job to do that. But all we really create is all the negative, hurtful energy in the world. It is the energy of contention and violence. It is retributive, tit for tat reciprocity. Nonviolence is not just an action, it is the belief that we are grounded in the positive energy of God who is holding the whole world together at every level of existence – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – in and through the flow of love. At its most extreme, this belief allows us to suffer the violence of others inability to surrender to this flow, and know that we will still be alright, still be held in the space of Shalom. That is a powerful place, but it takes a powerful belief to live in. That is what my experience of that anger-energy and the ball of light was all about.

If I will not turn around, and turn away from the violence and hate of self-protection, then who will? Jesus very death on a cross was meant as the ultimate example of this kind of Shalom. He was murdered by the very world he came to save from this kind of negative energy, and he did so by never acting out of that same energy. He experienced that negative energy to the fullest, but never gave into it. He remained to the end in that place of stillness, never reacting in kind to the negative energy all around him. That is the example I am trying to believe in, and live out. First, it means that I must let my own self-protective boundaries go. I must learn to stop pushing my negative energy into the world. Then, when that is gone, I must learn how to properly handle others negative energy in love. When the hate of others violated personal boundaries strike at my heart, mind, soul, spirit and body, I must respond with love. I must also recognize that, in my broken state, I often do violate those boundaries. If I truly understand the harmful nature of those boundaries, then I will simply leave them alone. True transformation comes in no longer pushing back against others boundaries, which I can often clearly see are wrong, and working to get rid of my own unhealthy boundaries. That’s why transformation is from selfishness to selflessness. Not that I surrender to a space where I have no boundaries, but where I have no boundaries which I must establish and defend. Then I become, not a fortress of self-protection isolated from the world and the love energy of God, but a free-flowing spirit now open to that flow of love from God, and also open to let it flow through me to others. When I have no self-created boundaries, the boundless energy of God can flow to and through me, as I trust in that energy to establish, sustain, and protect me in a reality of indestructible being that can never truly be broken or die. Then I am living in the true essence of God’s being, and mine. Then I become a mesh screen in the midst of all this negative energy, instead of a sail. The full-on assault of everyone else’s established boundaries can crash upon me, and I will not be moved to that same kind of negative energy. Instead, I can be moved to compassion and love, because I see all the harm of those boundaries, and desire to help others become free from them, as I have. Then I can die a thousand deaths every day in my pursuit of helping others get free, feeling all that negative energy, but knowing that it cannot truly hurt me, even when it often feels hurtful to me.

This is the energy of God in the universe, the energy of love overcoming hate, healing overcoming pain, by taking on that pain, by absorbing it in order to see us free from it. This is the truth in the metaphor of Jesus death, burial, and resurrection (though I believe those things did actually happen). The example he set was that, as we take on the negative energy of others in the world around us, it kills us and then brings us back to life much stronger. With each encounter, as we take on the pain without retaliation, we gain greater strength to endure that pain, and response with love. And this kind of love is what renews the world. Again, and again we die through the pain, and are resurrected into new life. That new life is a continuing reconnection with our true self, through new and renewed awareness of ourselves and the world around us. We are more connected to the energy of the universe, both good and bad, and both are necessary in order for us to be fully awake, fully alive, fully engaged with God, as God is in the world. God does not run from our negative energy, or seek to snuff it out by snuffing us out. He seeks to deliver us from it, hence restorative, not retributive justice. I know that message can get lost when we look at the Judeo/Christian texts and history. We do not often perceive a history or people all that engaged in the world, in this way. Even God, especially in the Jewish scriptures, can seem very retributive and punitive. There is a lot in that idea to flesh out, but the short answer for now is that human consciousness is progressive, and God meets us where we are in order to guide us to where he/she is. The Christian Bible reveals the trajectory of God moving humanity from petty, punitive, violent and warmongering cultures to the place of love. We see the evolution of human consciousness clearly in the progression of history. The fact that we are able to look back through history and recognize the unhealthy aspects of past cultures is evidence of that (though we may miss it) God’s work of love in the universe has led us to where we are, and is continuing to lead us further on. We can see how God related to and was translated through those less evolved cultures, and determine this reveals the pure character of a petty God, or we can see that God was simply speaking the cultural language of the time in order to help them keep moving forward towards love. Another way to put it is, God knows how to use cultural metaphor and motivation better than we do. Don’t mistake Biblical language as absolute reality. Most people (including Christians) don’t know how to see through the Bible to the heart of God, at any given time in biblically recorded history. When we don’t know how to do that, we will miss the heart of love behind what God has been doing since the beginning, and is still doing now. I realize this oversimplifies a lot, but it’ll have to do for now. My point is, we have to let go of a lot of misperceptions about God in order to get to that space where we are learning to love as he/she does, as one powerful enough to absorb the negative energy of hate in the world with the positive energy of love. If we see God as engaged in the same violent protection of petty personal boundaries, then we will miss the energy of God’s love at work in the universe. If God is simply a cosmic ego, upset because we’re violating his/her Divine boundaries, then we’ll simply do the same, and we have. Small, tribal religion has often followed this path. If we are to rise above it, we must see a God who has first already risen above it. That kind of God is what Jesus came to reveal, in his life, death burial, and resurrection. He did not retaliate against the negative energy in the world, to the point that it ended his life. But it didn’t really, and he came back to prove that we can take that same stance in the world of love; to die every day, and every day to be reborn stronger and more alive. It’s a painful process to step into. I can vouch for that. But I can also vouch for the goodness of rebirth on the other side.

Jesus made the most basic, crude display in the most visible way possible to speak in the clearest terms that the immaterial is more powerful than the material. He came to show us that no matter what happens to us in every sense of our existence, we cannot die. The true boundaries of our truest self can never be diminished or hurt, in any way. We are, at the core of our being, eternal and indestructible, unshakeable and unable to be displaced. But we can only get to that truth as the false boundaries of the false self are demolished and destroyed. Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, then we will be reborn with each new death into the new life of our truer self. As the spiritual teacher Paul wrote in one of his letters to the 1st century church at Corinth, “when the perishable has been covered with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying written will come true, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’”. This is the message of Jesus, and the truth of the energy flow of God in the world, that he/she is bringing all things back to life, in the truest sense. If we think God has come to protect our personal boundaries; our group, cultural, religious, national, or political boundaries, then we don’t understand just how universal and expansive God is, nor how love itself lives and works. It is these boundaries Christ came to destroy, every one of these, because all of these stand in our way of coming back to this universal, energy flow of God which connects all life. Our boundaries equal death. They divide and separate us from each other, and from God. They produce the very thing we are using them to protect us from, a fragile identify which actually is capable of death. The degree to which we attach our life to that fragile identity, with all its self-referential boundaries, is the degree to which we will feel the fear and reality of death. The degree to which we are able to let all these go, and relax into the embrace of God, is the degree to which we will know we are held in love’s eternal embrace. Our boundaries will never keep us safe, nor do they keep others from crossing them. They only create invisible lines of offense, anger, fear and pride for others to trip over as they attempt to interact with us. Can you imagine what it would be like to meet someone whom you truly could not offend? What do you think that would be like? I can tell you, that is the kind of person who lives in complete stillness, always at peace, never afraid. And someone you would not be afraid of either, someone around whom you could relax, and be at peace as well, knowing that you need not guard yourself in any way. That is what it’s like to live in this place with no boundaries of our own to establish or defend. And it would rid the entire world of negative energy, if we all could but learn to live in that kind of stillness.

Does that sound appealing to you at all? Does that sound scary? Would you even know yourself without all your contrived opinions and preferences? Can you imagine letting them all go? Who would you be then? There’s only one way to find out. Stillness is the path, and the place to which we are walking that can deliver that kind of life. We’ll only see the value in that place when we’ve come to see the detriment of living in our own self-conceptualized boundaries. But I understand the strong impulse towards those boundaries. We’ve all been hurt. We’ve all experienced the pain of an oppressive, insensitive world. The instinct is to withdraw, insulate, isolate, and protect. It’s a survival instinct that is very strong. We decide from a very young age to draw these boundaries around ourselves out of fear. We all have child wounds. There were two experiences I remember clearly that formed mine. When I was two years old, a drunk driver careened through our front lawn and into an office building next door, in the middle of the night. I didn’t know any of that, I just remember waking up in darkness with red and blue lights flashing and a bunch of strange people in my house. I was scared, freaked out, and my parents were nowhere to be found. I felt alone, disoriented, and abandoned. The second was when I was nine. We were living in Australia, where my parents were missionaries for two years. I’d broken my arm, and had to spend a week in the hospital separated from my parents. I remember that first night, in a large open ward with twenty other beds, lying in the dark alone, crying. My parents had left me again. Those experiences formed in my little child heart the idea that I was alone and abandoned in a big scary world, and everything about the boundaries I formed as an adult had to do with protecting myself from that child conceptualized idea of the world. I encountered every person and situation with a very guarded suspicion, assuming they were out to hurt me, until proven otherwise. Of course, I struggled greatly with depression and anxiety, which culminated in a breakdown at 43. I’m surprised I held it together that long. But that breakdown was my breakthrough. It showed me that all those self-actualized boundaries built to protect me were actually killing me. I tend to think that my experience was probably the extreme, but is it? Even if it is, I’m thankful I was able to learn, even in a very painful way, the truth of what all my boundaries were really accomplishing. I pray we would all learn that lesson, though not through the devastation I experienced in my breakdown.

We will never put this world back together from the corners of our castle defenses, waiting for everyone else to come out of hiding and lay down their armor first. Christians waiting for the world to join their church, conservatives and liberals waiting for the world to join their camp. In human culture largely built around making it on our own, there is a God who has already made everything for us, who holds the entire universe together and can hold us together too. We must admit, our boundaries are not protecting us, they are merely isolating us and the world. We will only come together to the degree that we can drop our defenses and come out into the open, and we will only be able to do that when we can trust that there is a greater space of eternal love that can sustain such a vulnerable move. We all have our wounds. We’re all nursing our reasons to shelter and hide. But we must admit, the boundaries we’ve created don’t heal those wounds, they actually centralize them into the core of our identity. Identifying those child wounds and letting God heal them is a big part of that process. There are many ways we can come to that, through counseling and supportive friendships, but I believe we will never get as far as we need to unless we know we have perfect, Divine parents who can be trusted to never wound us again. It is only to such a universal and perfect love that we can release our need for self-protection. Any other entity is just not big enough to trust that completely. The degree that we feel safe, is the degree to which we will be able to venture out of our self-imposed boundaries and find healing. Partial trust in imperfect relationships will only produce partial surrender and healing, and people will always let us down. Imperfect people tend to only reinforce our need to self-protect. It's very liberating to live in a space where we don’t need others to absorb our wounds, and where we are actually able to begin to absorb theirs. That is only possible when we fall into the arms of a love big enough to hold us in a place where we know we are protected, where we know nothing can break the boundaries of who we truly are. Then we become sign posts for others to that same place of open-hearted love. It can be a painful road to walk, but love is greater than fear, and joy is greater than sorrow. There is an indestructible person waiting inside you to come out, but only as you let the fragile identity of your ego-self die. It’s a long road to get to that place, with many lessons and trust falls. But God knows how to get you there. Your job is to start trying to lean in and trust that. Trust can be hard in such a broken world. It’s been hard for me. But the freedom of living without our self-imposed boundaries is worth it. I hope you can see that, and I hope you’ll keep walking with me to that place of greater freedom. It comes through little steps towards greater stillness. Let’s keep exploring what that stillness looks like, and how to get there.

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