Strength in Vulnerability
Vulnerability, by its nature, seems like something to be avoided, but on closer inspection, we discover that vulnerability is where it’s at. Vulnerability is authenticity steeped in courage. There is a Buddhist term called “bodhichitta,” which is the “genuine heart of sadness.” It is that poignant feeling of tenderness that you feel when your heart is soft, and open. All of the challenges in our life, and all of our practice on and off our mat, is to help us connect to this vulnerable, open heart. This requires courage. In fact, the English word for courage comes from the French word “coeur” which means heart. It is the “triumph of our heart’s love and commitment over our mind’s reasonable murmurings to keep us safe.” (Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams).
Our ego fears vulnerability. Fear is, of course, a protective mechanism, which has gone haywire in our overactive minds. You actually don’t need fear to avoid danger, just some common sense. The reason why you don’t put your hand in the fire is not because of fear, but because you know that you’ll get burned. If faced with an imminent threat, you might feel a physical fear response, an instinctive shrinking back from danger. That is not the kind of fear most of us deal with on a daily basis. Most of the time, the psychological condition of fear is divorced from any concrete and true immediate danger. It comes in many forms: unease, worry, anxiety, nervousness, tension, dread, phobia and so on. This kind of fear is about something that “might” happen. You can always cope with the present moment, but you cannot cope with something that is only a mind projection - you cannot cope with the future. (Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now)
If we can sidestep the fear, and present our true self to the world, we experience a kind of liberation. We can show up the way we are right now, revealing our “imperfections,” admitting our mistakes, sharing our gifts -- the whole package. (If the Buddha Got Stuck by Charlotte Kasl) We can take whatever we tend to hide in the closet and let it be known to those people who have shown themselves to be a safe haven for our true selves. Everytime you reveal yourself there is more flow on the inside, and there’s less to hide or be afraid of. We are so conditioned to hold things in, that we fear sharing our story or opinions because we might be imposing -- as if we’re not worthy of taking up space and time. The truth is, every time we bravely reveal ourselves, we inspire others to self-acceptance. Our courage to own and share ourselves with the world is just what the world needs.
Before we can share our vulnerability, we must learn to feel our emotions. Oftentimes, when we have a strong emotional reaction, we immediately begin to craft a story around it. We look for a non-threatening explanation for what is happening, which often involves blame in an attempt to cover up shame. We seek the support of friends and family to build ourselves up and concretize our storyline. This happens so automatically, we often don’t even recognize we are doing it. We live in the story and don’t know how to step outside. Rather than attempt to manipulate the situation and control the outcome, we can practice holding the experience. We can pause, refrain from acting, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. As we turn our attention to the emotions, they might intensify for a time, or fade away, or morph into something different. All these experiences teach us that emotions are just energy, and, like all things, are impermanent. Archbishop Tutu apparently cries easily and often. He said, “And so I think we shouldn't think we are superwomen and supermen. To hold down emotions in a controlled environment, as it were, is not wise. I would say go ahead and even maybe shout out your sadness and pain. This can bring you back to normal. It’s locking them up and pretending they are not there that causes them to fester and become a wound.”
We have all had the experience of relief, when we hear someone else share their vulnerability on a topic for which we have been secretly carrying shame. It’s like a weight is lifted off our shoulders, and all it took was someone else being brave enough to share their story. We all experience the same struggles, but we forget and feel all alone. Brene Brown tells a story about a mom who got stuck in traffic and was late for her daughter’s play. Her daughter was distressed throughout the play and the mom rushed in and it was already over. A couple of moms looked straight at her, shook their heads and rolled their eyes. Just then, two other moms walked up. One shared the story of missing the last play altogether, not because of traffic but just because she forgot. The other mom said her son was the only one not wearing pajamas on pajama day and he still says it was the worst day ever. The late mom went from an experience of impending shame to relative calm, and was able to comfort her daughter. By sharing our stories of vulnerability, we inspire others to accept and share their imperfection. “Here’s my story. You are not alone.” (Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection) Vulnerability leads to connection. When we think of outstanding examples of humanity, we often think of acts of leadership -- a showing of strength during moments of crisis. However our humanity is defined equally, or perhaps even more, by our weakness and vulnerability, which reminds us of our need for one another.
Vulnerability is the ultimate act of courage, and through it we take back our power. It’s like in the movies when someone is blackmailing you, so you just reveal the dirty secret to the world and there is suddenly no leverage for the blackmailer. Vulnerability reveals those who would abuse their power. It sends the signal that you are no longer a victim. “When you exercise the power of vulnerability, you signal your system that the past is over and done. That you will not use the same defenses you have in the past. Tells your heart that the tigers are no longer in the grass. That they cannot hurt you.” - Stefan Molyneux
When we experience heartbreak, a crisis, or pain that completely knocks us out, if we stay present with that, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, that can be our moment of liberation. Ajahn Amaro, a British dharma teacher, said “That which is threatening to the ego is liberating to the heart.” It is in those moments that we can access our “bodhichitta” heart. Emotions become your support for being fully awake and present. Eventually, we will come to love the poignant aching of our tender hearts. We will find gratitude for the experiences that take us to this place of vulnerability. It is in opening to this tenderness that we have the ability to feel our whole range of emotions. For if we close ourselves off to the “unpleasant” emotions, we necessarily close ourselves off to some of the good ones.
With practice, embracing our vulnerability will lead to hope. Hope is the ultimate form of vulnerability. This is different from optimism, which is superficial and liable to become pessimism when the circumstances change. Hope is much deeper. Resignation, cynicism and despair are far easier postures to adopt, because they appear to save us from the risks of disappointment, rejection or heartbreak. “To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.” - Archbishop Tutu
** For further information on vulnerability, check out these insightful works which have formed the basis for this article: The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, The Book of Joy by by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams, If the Buddha Got Stuck by Charlotte Kasl)