The most compassionate and loving people are the best at setting boundaries

Young men were yelling and laughing like it was 2:30 in the afternoon—but it was 2:30 A.M.

I was wide awake and pissed off. It’d taken an hour to fall asleep in the September cold.

The campground was outside of swanky Potomac, Maryland. They must be entitled rich kids, I thought, fiddling with my sleeping bag. They have BMWs, expensive camping gear, and those topknot haircuts.

I unzipped the tent and shined a military-grade flashlight their direction. They got the message. Within seconds, all was quiet except for the river.

In the frigid morning, I passed them on the way to meditate in my car. No topknots. Only modest camping gear. Not even tents! They were wrapped up in sleeping bags like mummies.

In the warmth of my car, I imagined the men freezing a few hundred feet away. I breathed in their regret for forgetting sleeping pads and tents. Following the Tibetan meditation practice of tonglen, I imagined their suffering as dirty, polluted air. I breathed out warm, healing air towards them, hoping the sun would soon rise.

I’ve been those guys before, I realized. I’ve showed up unprepared for a chilly night. I’ve stayed up late drinking and laughing just to forget my freezing hands.

Most of all, the resentment I’d felt seemed years in the past. I wasn’t pissed anymore—I was curious. Did they forget tents or plan to rough it out? Are they from the area or on a road trip? I decided to offer them firewood if they were staying another night.

In her book Start Where You Are, the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of Milarepa, an ancient figure in Tibetan Buddhism:

One evening Milarepa returned to his cave after gathering firewood, only to find it filled with demons. They were cooking his food, reading his books, sleeping in his bed. They had taken over the joint. So first … he sat on this seat that was higher than they were and said things to them about how we are all one. Nothing happened. Then he lost his patience and got angry and ran at them. They just laughed at him. Finally, he gave up and just sat on the floor, saying, ‘I’m not going away and it looks you’re not either, so let’s just live here together.’ At that point, all of them left except one. [Milarepa] didn’t know what to do, so he surrounded himself even further. He walked over and put himself right into the mouth of the demon and said, ‘Just eat me up if you want too.’ Then that demon left too. The moral of the story is, when the resistance is gone, so are the demons.

That’s not to say that we should roll over and give up when someone or something challenges us. I forgave the men after the fact. In the moment, they were keeping an entire campground awake. Their obliviousness gave me an opportunity to practice speaking up and setting boundaries—which doesn’t come natural to me.

As social worker and author Brené Brown says,

“The most compassionate people I’ve interviewed over the past 13 years were absolutely the most boundaried … loving and generous and really straightforward with what’s okay and what’s not okay.”

It’s counterintuitive, but being compassionate doesn’t always mean being nice.

To be sure, I’m not some great person or enlightened or anything. If the men hadn’t quieted down, I would’ve spent the night pissed off in my tent. It just happened that we all figured out a way to be on public land together, and I got to practice being compassionate.

The moral of the story is: set boundaries, have expectations for others and the world. But be ready to work with whatever happens. The world is going to do whatever it does. Our desire to control it—our resistance to reality—usually just makes things worse.

The next night, the men were gone but a large group of women had loudly taken their place. I felt resentment again. But there was a little more spaciousness to work with. I saw that they were enjoying the outdoors six months into a plague that’s kept us all cooped up inside. I covered my ears with a beanie and closed my eyes.

I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. If you’d like to work with me on your meditation practice or being more mindful in your life, reach out. Get my writing straight to your email inbox here.

Download my free ebook on starting and sticking with a meditation practice here.