In the expanse of possibility exist boundaries. From the time we are born, we are exploring them, pushing up against them, seeking to cross them in order to continue our own reach into this expanse. It doesn’t always make us happy to succeed, and it can often cause harm to others when we do. In fact, learning to respect the countless, intangible boundaries intertwined in the fabric of our personal, professional, societal relationships is one of the cornerstones of healthy interactions with others. However, how does one reconcile this clear need for boundaries with the Buddhist cultivation of “egolessness,” of realizing that our own sense of separateness is an illusion and one of the major causes of human suffering?
Contrary to a cursory reading of the term, egolessness is not as much about ‘getting rid’ of one’s ego so much as it is about abandoning the framework that assumes one’s ego, one’s self, is a solid, unchanging form that exists independent of other people and the overall workings of the universe. To be empty of ego is to accept that we are not the collection of preferences, life experiences, even physical forms with which we identify ourselves. Rather, egolessness gives rise to a clearer perception that all of these aggregates are subtly changing moment to moment. Holding on to particular narratives or a sense of how our bodies look is to cling to ideas that are outdated as soon as we’ve lived another second and grown another minute older, which causes a constant state of disharmony between our perceptions and reality. From a Buddhist perspective, letting go of a fixed sense of self gives way to a much more fluid, expansive interaction with the world in which we no longer have the need to defend these abstractions and can, instead, relax with what is. What we lose in self-important ‘specialness,’ we gain in communion with a vast and endlessly enriching universe that is extraordinary in its ordinariness. The realization that we, as individuals, are not the center of the universe, that our desire to avoid suffering and experience joy is common to all sentient beings, in theory, helps us to see that our motivations, our words, and our actions can all be reduced down to these fundamentally human drives. In the face of this basic but profound realization, we can then begin to blur the firm boundaries we erect between ourselves and others, peel away our defenses, allow ourselves to open up, be vulnerable, lose our sense of separateness.
So if the cultivation of egolessness is to blur the separation we feel from others, what does it look like to walk this path while still maintaining healthy boundaries necessary to live a healthy and productive life? This is a question I have struggled with quite a bit in recent years, especially with regards to romantic relationships, but probably in all of my relationships to some extent. The very human instinct to push and erode boundaries is often associated with immaturity or maladjustment, but I have also come to feel that this instinct is, at its heart, a pure desire to connect to something greater than ourselves, to blur those lines in order to feel closer to others. And when people for whom I care deeply begin to insinuate themselves through the limits that feel healthy to me, I find myself torn between a sense of my own self-preservation and a sense of obligation to open myself up as wide-open as I can to others, to blur boundaries for the sake of connection, for the sake of caring for others as part of myself. From this perspective, is enforcing my own boundaries just a way of adding more layers of armor around an ego desperate to remain intact?
In wrestling with this question, I’ve come to think the part of this equation I’ve been neglecting is that of prajna, the wisdom of direct perception. While Buddhism is based on compassion for others, this compassion is always depicted as coming from a place of strength and dignity. Novices are instructed to first focus on themselves, watching their own minds to discover its delusions and misunderstandings before attempting to help others. And this is for good reason: how are we to see others clearly before we have worked out our own neuroses? So perhaps the key to both cultivating connection and adhering to boundaries is to regard these limits as making healthy connection possible, a sort of safety net for us as we learn how to be skillful bodhisattvas. After all, a drowning man will drown both himself and the man he desperately grasps onto if the savior is just barely treading water himself.