In this episode, I’ll talk about how setting limits is essential to being a loving person, the specific yogic and Buddhist principle that helps us balance compassion for others with respect for ourselves, and I’ll fill you in on how hard creating healthy boundaries can be when you grow up with a parent who is severely mentally ill. You can use the player below (please keep this browser window on top to keep it playing smoothly) or you can also listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Stitcher.
Just a heads up before you listen - I believe stories are medicine, but medicine has to be dispensed at the right time, in the right amount, to the right person. My work frankly addresses childhood trauma, abuse, neglect, scenarios involving people living with severe mental illness, and other themes that might not be healing for you right now. I also talk about joy, liberation, and redemption, - but if the other stuff leaves you too charged up, these stories will be here if and when it feels like a good time to listen
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A woman with severe mental illness gave birth to me, and a different woman with severe mental illness raised me.
“Of course, we had to tell the children’s home all about your mama’s nerve problems, ” my dad told me.
That’s what my family, and a lot of other black families, called mental illness. A white doctor once demeaned and shamed Marlene Faye for saying she took “nerve pills” when he asked her if she was on any medications.
There were times she was well and stable, sure, and despite how raggedy and sad things got, we did laugh a lot.
Enmeshment is the opposite of having a healthy boundary with someone.
It’s a concept in psychology and psychotherapy introduced by Salvador Minuchin to describe families where a lack of healthy personal boundaries and over-concern for others leads to a loss of autonomy and healthy development. An emotional fusion happens, psyches get entangled, and patterns for later relationships develop.
I was tying to work all this out in therapy - again - in my late 30s, and had just done that awful thing you have to do when you go to a new therapist and have to tell your whole story over - again, and when I told him about my past and truthfully reported some of my self-destructive behaviors, he cut me off mid-sentence and indicated I should stop talking by holding his finger to his lips. “Boundaries. BOUND-O-REES - it’s clear you really don’t have any, for you - It’s all about the boundaries, baby.” He sat back in his chair all satisfied. Our time was up.
I found another therapist - even though it meant doing that awful thing all over again. Boundaries. I was learning. And I still am. This is a life-long practice.
Listen to the rest of this story on Spotify.
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In this podcast, I’ll tell you all about Buddhist near enemies and apparent friends, a most unexpected death-bed confession about the first time I was on TV, and tell a story about compassion in action. You can use the player below or search for my podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and most other places people get their podcast listen on.
Outside my Dad's Hospice Room at the VA, Dayton Ohio
In Buddhism, there are these wholesome emotions we cultivate as our practice grows, akin to the fruits of the spirit in Christianity. There are four, called the Brahmaviharas: loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. Compassion is a resolve to be present with suffering - both our own and that of others, in a skillful and engaged way. It is empathy in action - a vow to maintain contact with another being’s humanity, even when they act from their own wounds and ignorance. Self-Compassion is believing in our own light, even when fear obscures our best self and we act from damaged places ourselves. It is a commitment to work toward extinguishing that suffering, planting seed to transform it into wisdom.
Compassion, or Karuna, is what motivates some flavors of Buddhists to make a promise to work toward the liberation of all sentient beings, called Bodhisattva vows. Spiritually speaking, we go big. Until every last one of us is free, none of us are.
Now, I’m an agnostic Buddhist with a pretty complex relationship with Jesus, so I’m not going to make any definitive statements about whether reincarnation and rebirth are literal or not, but in theory, Bodhisattvas work our asses off to get freedom from the endless cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth only to turn around, come back into a human body and start over - again and again and again - until every last one of us is on the Nirvana bus. I took Bodhisattva vows in 2009, and candidly there are times I’m not sure what I was thinking.
Because compassion is hard.
It takes a lot of work to arrive at a point where you really and sincerely want people who hurt you, who disagree with you, and who move through the world in ways that upset you to be free from suffering.
I learned a lot about this from my father, who was not an easy man to love - you can listen to the podcast to hear the story.
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