The Boundary Keepers
“…as a kid I had this odd experience… of being somewhat porous. For instance, I’d inadvertently pick up the accent of anyone I was speaking to. If I was speaking on the phone to someone from another country, everybody in the room would know from my accent the nationality of the person I was speaking to.
I was very mimetic—easily influenced by other people’s ways of speaking or moving—and I often felt ashamed of this, like I was somehow spineless and had no real integrity of my own. Only later, when I stepped into the village cultures of Indonesia, did I discover that this oversensitivity, which is fairly useless in our society, is very, very useful to any culture which assumes that everything is alive and sentient.
There are always individuals who are a little too sensitive to spend all their time hanging around other humans, because they pick up too much from nervous systems that are the same shape as themselves. If someone depressed walks in the room, they find themselves getting depressed, and if someone happy walks in they’re immediately joyous. They’re too easily influenced by other humans, and yet their sensitivity is just right for entering into a rapport with a very different shape of awareness, with an owl, for instance, or an oak tree, or an ant.
These particularly sensitive folks tend to gravitate quite naturally to the edge of any traditional culture, where with one hand they can turn toward the human collective, but with the other they are open to the whole field of other-than-human powers. They become the intermediaries between the culture and the living land.
I think that every culture worthy of the name recognizes the need for such folks. These persons are the boundary keepers, those who tend the boundary between the human community and the wild, more-than-human world in which human culture is embedded. Their craft or work is to keep that boundary porous, to ensure that it remains a fluid membrane and doesn’t harden into a static barrier.
It seems obvious to me that this is a capacity we all share; it’s part of being human. At the same time, there are folks who are a little oversensitive, perhaps as much as twenty percent of any population, who aren’t really good at working in the middle of the human community. That’s not really where their gifts are. They’re not very good at making decisions for the village, but they are really quite good at entering into relation with the other beings—with the animals or the local plants—and picking up what the land itself might need from us.
In the West, because we speak of the land and the rest of nature as a basically passive and insentient set of objects, such folks don’t know what to do with themselves. There’s no recognition that their sensitivity is good for anything, is actually necessary to the culture. Perhaps they learn to stifle their instinctive sensations, which just makes them sick; they become confused; often they get into quite a lot of trouble with the cultural mainstream.”
Abram’s account answers some recent questions for me and relates to a recent conversation with a close friend about being an empath.
(This is who I am)