Boundaries and the body: how our sense of space is shaped by our embodied state

My ancestors came to me and told me: No is sacred. It is important for our No to be witnessed. We deserve for it to be upheld.

And they also told me that some ways of saying No can end up traumatizing us in ways we don’t intend. This isn’t our fault. This is because colonialism and patriarchy often prevent us from accessing the intuitive wisdom of our bodies.

In this spirit, I would like to humbly offer the following conversation around boundaries, embodiment, and colonialism. I hope that it enlivens and empowers us more.

I understand that at first, this article might bring on some edges, it certainly has for me, but I invite you to meet them kindly as you read along.

Please know that even though I will sometimes be holding a lot of this conversation from a place of “I”, that this is hardly a whole representation. In the end, I am but a vessel for all of those who have come before me.

Having said all of this, I would like to start things off by offering a teaching from my ancestors about our bodies, that tends to go unnoticed in ‘Western’ thought.

As mammals, we are naturally designed to respond to threat through survival reactions such as fight/flight/freeze/fawn. Developments in somatic psychology have provided incredible insights into how to work with these mechanisms. Yet, what is often out of view is the secret that our bodies can access immense capacity to navigate threat by consciously maintaining a relaxed and open embodiment. This principle is called shizen-tai (natural body) within Japanese martial arts.

The mechanism behind shizen-tai goes like this. When we are relaxed, our bodies gain a powerful integrity inside of our softened posture. This happens because relaxation and openness allow energies like bioelectricity and gravity to flow through us in an efficient and vital way. Through this, we can harness the power of our internal organs, skeletal systems, deep muscles, and relationship to the earth.

In contrast to shizen-tai, when we respond to the world through survival responses, we gain a lot of mechanical force through increased peripheral muscular tension. This can be highly useful in situations where our well-being is deeply threatened that we cannot access a more relaxed state.

The ability to differentiate and appropriately apply these two embodied states, relaxed and tense, means everything when it comes to cultivating boundaries that are healthier for ourselves and others.

The tricky thing about the Engilsh language is that the word “boundaries” can lead us to perceive the differentiation of self and other as happening at the external edges of our personal space. This sensibility highly correlates with the tense embodied state we discussed above, where protection is engaged by tensing up the external muscles of the body.

The issue with this is that tense embodied states can have harmful long-term effects on the body. It can reinforce somatic fragmentation, especially if the tension cannot be released after activation because of underlying trauma. Over time, the lack of circulation that this causes in the body can deeply affect the health our internal organs. Reliance on externalized boundaries can manifest as ailments such as allergies, leaky gut syndrome, and autoimmune disorders. All of these dis-eases are born from a lack of energy flow to our internal organs, especially the gut, which is the center of the soma’s immune system.

Another area of our life that externalized boundaries can become harmful is our relationships with those we are close to, such as clients, community members, friends, family, and intimate partners. Externalized boundaries ultimately don’t feel good to us or others. Because of this, defaulting to setting tense externalized boundaries can create chronic underlying activation and exhaustion in anticipation of conflict. This, in turn, can lead to re-traumatization when the setting of boundaries doesn’t go as planned.

The above-mentioned long-term detrimental impacts don’t mean that externalized boundaries are never appropriate. Externalized boundaries can definitely help us in the pinch e.g. when we have an altercation with a stranger. It simply means that it isn’t healthy as a default relational response, especially in contexts where long-term outcomes matter.

So now that we have thoroughly discussed the issues that come with setting externalized boundaries from a tense embodiment, let’s explore an alternative that I trust is a wisdom that can be found at the root of all our lineages.

Boundaries set from a state of shizen-tai are of a completely different nature from externalized boundaries. Even though they have an outward expression, shizen-tai boundaries are literally cultivated inside of the body. If you imagine externalized boundaries like an egg, with a brittle shell and a vulnerable core, shizen-tai boundaries are the exact opposite: soft and fluid on the exterior but strong and firm on the inside.

Embodiment wise, shizen-tai boundaries rely on vital energy flowing through the internal organs, especially the gut brain (enteric nervous system), to discern what is harmful or desirable for us. I am speaking to the gut brain especially because our intestines hold a sacred function in our body – to determine what enters our bloodstream and what is expelled as waste. The outward expressions of boundaries that are set with the gut brain as the main agent tend to be soft, gentle, and nimble (although they can also be powerful in the traditional sense if need be).

As you might imagine, shizen-tai boundaries not only restore the body’s vital functions but cultivate more kindness (not to be confused with care-taking) in our beloved connections. The actions that flow from shizen-tai boundaries are naturally flexible and fluid, reflecting a relaxed and open posture. The outward expression of shizen-tai boundaries may take various forms, such as taking time and space to respond to stimuli, creating containers to receive input, and guiding connections to places of mutual desire.

In fact, we probably already do all of the above without identifying them as boundary-setting actions. By writing this piece, I want to invite us to consciously lean into the idea of consciously and somatically internalizing our boundaries.

Related to this, my ancestors tell me that becoming more comfortable with embodying a relaxed and open state, even in conflict, is an essential part of an inner decolonization process. Here is why.

One of the most unfortunate consequences of white supremacist patriarchy is how it has ideologically entangled and confused our sense of power. Through a colonial lens, we might interpret relating through a relaxed embodiment, especially in conflict, as a sign of weakness. But in reality, the ability to stay in a socially engaged state while facing threat requires the capacity to work with fear, even terror, in a self-aware way. Cultivating such capacity can hardly be taken as a weakness in character.

How colonialism perceives relational space is directly related to this misunderstanding about embodying relational power. In colonialist-imperialist thought, nation-states, and other bodies that represent groups of people are defined by brittle borders that are to be vehemently guarded and advanced. As you can see, this directly correlates to a sense of personal space that requires contest and challenge at its edges.

This why I want to intentionally invite my friends and colleagues in liberation communities to move towards relating from shizen-tai, without defaulting to externalized boundaries. My ancestors tell me that we don’t need to draw binary distinctions between self and other and necessitate wars at the borders we have created for ourselves. Instead, we can practice seeing the energetic field around us as a space for slowing down incoming stimulus and staying in curiosity with others.

Even though this may sound scary at first, I believe that it is healthier for us to strive for shizen-tai and keep failing, rather than continually reinforcing tension and externalization in our relationships. While the path of pursuing shizen-tai may pose incredible challenges I trust that its benefits to our bodies and relationships, as well as its contribution to decolonization, makes it completely worth the effort.

Having said that, I understand that as survivors, we can be in situations where we just cannot access the sense of safety required to hold boundaries that are relaxed and open. If this happens, my ancestors tell me that:

  1. We can see our surpassing the threshold as a way of giving the people around us the opportunity to practice meeting the needs of others from a shizen-tai place
  2. And reciprocally, if someone responds to us with a tenseness that may feel off-putting to us at first, we can see that as an opportunity to acknowledge the sacred in the No and practice responding with shizen-tai.

In both of these situations, my ancestors remind me that mutual respect in the practice of relationship is what will bring us harmony while walking together down the bumpy road of life.

Finally, I would like to end this piece on a practical note by offering a simple breathing exercise to help you get more in touch with your gut brain, the foundation for cultivating shizen-tai embodiment.

Please remember, like any other practice that is worthy of our effort, learning to adopt shizen-tai is a lifetime practice. Ups and downs are expected. The anger and fear we might experience when challenges arise are part of the process. I invite you to this journey with an unconditional kindness to self.

Exercise

Below is a breathing exercise to help you develop your gut brain. If there is one meditative practice I would encourage social justice communities to embrace, it would be this one.

IMPORTANT NOTE: There is no need to rush. Your gut is a powerful place with many unseen emotions and memories. It is best to contact it gently and slowly.

  1. Come into a relaxed sitting, standing, or lying position. If you are sitting or standing, try to keep your back straight but relaxed.
  2. Lay your hands softly on your stomach, a few finger-widths below your belly button.
  3. Imagine a glowing ball behind your hands, inside your belly.
  4. Breathe gently into this ball, in through your nose and out through your mouth or nose. (If the ball image doesn’t work for you, you can use any other kind of loving image or word.)
  5. While breathing exercises can quickly become advanced, this simple exercise is a great place to start.

When you develop more settledness in your gut, you will notice that your nervous system will become less reactive and your responses to others will become more gentle without collapsing your sense of self.

This will allow give you greater choice in your relationships, including choosing to set a tense externalized boundary because we discern that to be the best course of action for a situation.

Inspirations

Kenji Ushiro Sensei
https://www.uk-jj.com

The Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/336889.The_Art_of_Peace

Tao Te Ching
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tao_Te_Ching

Special thanks

Special thanks to Dare Sohei, Susannah Bartlow, and Artemisia Solstice for hanging out and supporting me by being sounding boards for the ideas that have come together in this piece.