by Sally Kempton
Originally posted on Patheos.
Roberta approaches me during a break in an urban workshop. Retreats and workshops, she explains, leave her feeling so wide-open that she’ll often find herself picking up other people’s energy and moods. She’d left the workshop the night before, gone out on the street, and felt overwhelmed by the Saturday night energy of the city. Not just the cars honking and the music, but the people who passed her by, and even her own boyfriend.
I look at her—tall and blonde and thin—and asked her if in general she feels vulnerable. She burst into tears. “I want to be open,” she said. “But I feel so raw!” Raw, in this case, is another word for vulnerable. And Roberta’s struggle is a real one.
If you’ve done much yoga, meditation, or even deep psychological work, you may have felt something similar. When I was first spending time around my teacher, the energy generated in meditation would sometimes leave me feeling weepy and irritable, hypersensitive, even overwhelmed. No one had ever told me that the first (and many subsequent) stages of opening the heart could feel like exposing a wound, or like taking the lid off of a Pandora’s box of old, unprocessed griefs and fears.
Nor did I realize, until years later, that fielding these feelings of vulnerability is not optional, nor even personal to me, but an actual part of the yogic process. Yoga, after all, is not an escape from life, but a way of taking yourself into life’s pulsing heart. As you do that, you will inevitably meet your own vulnerability. Just as vulnerability and rawness are synonymous, so are vulnerability and openness. In other words, to find your way to true openness of heart, you need to pass through the forest of vulnerability.
Vulnerability opens the door to love, to grace, and to the deepest forms of healing. Your vulnerability, scary as it can be, is inseparable from your capacity for intimacy and creativity and love. The place of prayer, of yoga, the place where we encounter the divine within ourselves is also the place where we meet our vulnerability.
Yet, here’s the caveat. The practice of opening to vulnerability is not for wimps. It’s an advanced practice, requiring strength, discernment, and appropriate boundaries—all qualities that our yoga practice will give you, if you give it time.
The most open person I ever met was my teacher, Swami Muktananda. When you looked into his eyes, you’d meet no barriers at all; he was willing to meet you at the deepest place you were willing to go. At the same time, I’ve never met anyone with such strong boundaries, and such a take-no-prisoners attitude toward challenging situations. He embodied the lines of the 16th-century poet-saint, Tukaram Maharaj: “We servants of God are softer than butter, but we can cut diamond.” His softness, paradoxically, was made possible by his hardness, by the energetic strength he had attained through hard-core yogic discipline, by containing his energies and turning them inward until he had created a vessel of absolute protection.
The spiritual journey often looks like a dance between the two poles of vulnerability and boundaries. It’s a continuing dialogue between the impulse to soften and open, and the impulse to contain and protect. The two apparent opposites turn out to be equal partners in the process of embodying spirit and heart.
So the question for Roberta was how to accomplish such a balance? How could she continue to delve deep into her inner self, carving out pathways for an open heart if she didn’t feel safe or grounded doing so? Or, to put it another way, how do you protect yourself from the dangers of vulnerability without sacrificing its gifts?
You begin by looking at the origins of vulnerability and understanding the path it typically takes.
Stage I: Original Vulnerability
The developmental journey of every human being begins in utter vulnerability. If you’re lucky enough to be well-parented, your original vulnerability is met with kindness, and as a result you’ll develop a kind of basic trust in the goodness of the universe. But even when you have great caregivers, early childhood is filled with necessary losses—including such natural events as a mother’s temporary distraction or absence, to weaning, to the birth of a rival in the form of a younger sibling. These losses teach us about the world and help us to recognize our unique individuality, but they also accentuate our sense of basic vulnerability.
The Invulnerability Strategy
In response, we set in place our personal strategies for drawing boundaries and finding protection.
Roger, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, tells me that from an early age he learned to outrun pursuers from the local gangs, and became so tough and ‘fearless’ that at age 6 he bit a playground bully who tried to take away his lunch. Coleman, on the other hand, grew up in a professional family in Indiana and learned to survive his parent’s stony emotional detachment by becoming the family jester. To this day, he protects his heart with jokes and pleasing social behavior that reveals to no one the core of fear that lurks behind it. Some of us hide our vulnerability behind our skills and competencies, our work ethic and talents. Some hide behind a mask of cool or even anger. Others internalize vulnerability, identify with it, and use sensitivity as a kind of shield, like my friend who could always disarm my anger by claiming that it scared him.
The Myth of Invulnerability
The attempt to protect ourselves against vulnerability is a crucial aspect of the human journey. It’s how we survive as individuals. Ideally, our protective strategies give us a ‘skin’ without creating a hard shell. But the shadow side of our strategies is denial of our vulnerability, and therefore of the possibility of growth. When the ego runs unchecked by logic, its protective instincts go haywire. “You’re scared of being abandoned?” it asks. “No problem, I’ll make sure you’re the one who does the abandoning.” And there goes your marriage. Or, it takes the stance of the victim, convincing you that your problems are caused by an ever-changing cast of people who have it out for you, and often unintentionally creating more situations that help you feel victimized. Or it takes refuge in a spiritual practice or a religious belief, thinking that it can be saved by some form of orthodoxy, or by staying positive. (Staying positive is surely the true American religion!) The strategic ego may convince you that you’ll be safe if you own your own home or (especially in our celebrity-focused culture) if you’re recognized or famous. Then, when you lose your faith, or fail at your assigned task, you feel as if you’ve lost everything.
The ultimate form of protective denial is the closed community—whether the wealthy suburb or the Green Zone of Baghdad, where walls and gates, literal or figurative, keep out intruders, so that we don’t have to see anyone who isn’t part of our tribe or cultural ‘family’. We have myriad ways of convincing ourselves that vulnerability is for the ‘others’—the homeless people, the poor, the victims of genocide or hunger in distant places. Vulnerability is for the designated ‘victims,’ while we, the lucky ones, keep our distance, even though we may give money or support, clinging to our belief that somehow for us things will always turn out okay.
Until, that is, it doesn’t.
At some point, most of us are forced to reclaim our vulnerability, whether we want to or not. Life takes no prisoners, which means that if you don’t consciously reconnect with your vulnerability, it will eventually come around from behind and bite you in the butt.
For most people, this occurs through a head-on collision with a painful external reality—an illness or accident, the loss of a job, a partner’s infidelity, a teacher’s ‘fall.’ This moment of collision with the unexpected is one of the great archetypal themes of literature and life. In the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, the royal Pandava brothers lose a dice contest and have to leave their palaces and wives for exile to a forest. The wealthy Jewish aristocrats of The Garden of the Finzi Continis find that their garden walls can’t keep out the Nazis. For Lauren, a ski champion, it was adrenal burnout. For my beautiful designer friend Sasha, it was breast cancer at age 29. For you, it might be the loss of your job or your lover, or the big collective awakening to vulnerability that hit the United States after 9/11 and has escalated through the economic crises of the last few years. This is the moment of disillusionment—the rending of the illusion that anything can ultimately protect you from the acute vulnerability of human life.
At this moment, we can either freeze in fear or grief, or choose to look beyond our Green Zone and use an external disillusionment as a stepping-stone on the inner path. In fact, the challenge posed by disillusionment is the very challenge that yoga prepares you to meet. Yoga is contained in the moment we meet our essential human vulnerability and choose to learn from it instead of rejecting or denying it.
In the Indian tradition, it’s said that we practice yogic disciplines so that they’ll be with us at the time of death. I’d say that we practice them for those little deaths that come up in the course of life. When we can meet our own vulnerability without armoring ourselves against it, we begin to discover its gift of radical openness. All the higher emotions—generosity, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, and especially humility—emerge from this place of openness and vulnerability. To recognize our vulnerability is to connect with the mystery of life, and especially, the mystery of how life can be so wondrous and beautiful, and yet so absolutely terrible.
I often observe this in people going through intense processes of upheaval and change. They start off by trying to ‘fix’ the fear and confusion that change has created. They’ll call or write me looking for a quick yogic solution to the pain of a lost lover or difficult work situation. As we talk, I sense their feelings of “Why me?” or “What did I do wrong?” I also hear the hope that somehow, there is a short-term practice that will work magic, or a correct attitude that will bring back the cheating partner or the lost job. Sometimes, of course, it does. But most often, healing comes in that moment when the ego gives up the struggle against circumstances, and willingly steps into the vulnerable feeling.
And here’s where we get back to Roberta and what to do about her rawness: in order to hold and bear the acute experience of vulnerability, she needs appropriate containers. The practice of consciously putting up boundaries is part of creating a container. Creating a boundary can mean something as simple as maintaining a physical distance between you and another person (for most people, 29 to 35 inches is a comfortable distance for conversation). But it also involves setting personal limits, being able to say ‘No’ appropriately, understanding who you’re willing to let into your intimate inner circle.
Another form of container is our relationships of trust; certain friendships, our teacher, or practice community can help us find safe spaces in which to open. But ultimately, the container I’m talking about is the inner body vessel created through focused practice and contemplation. All yogic disciplines, bottom line, aim at strengthening not just the body, but the energy body—through concentration, through the practice of stillness, through learning how to find and occupy the core of our being, the inner Center from which we can safely ride out internal and external storms. Short-term practice can be helpful, but ultimately, that container is formed through accumulated practice and self-inquiry. There’s an unmistakable energetic strength that comes from having met and re-met the spaciousness behind the mind, the Witness Self, the space between breaths, the Great Beloved in the heart, the invulnerable inner Self.
Its only when we have such a container that we can truly step into radical vulnerability. In Part 2, we’ll look more deeply at what this means.
|Sally Kempton, formerly known as Swami Durgananda, is recognized as a powerful meditation guide and as a spiritual teacher who integrates yogic philosophy with daily life. She is the author of the best-selling book Meditation for the Love of It, and writes the popular Wisdom column for Yoga Journal. She is a teacher in the tantric tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, conducts workshops and retreats on its applied philosophy, and is also a core founder and faculty of iEvolve: Center for World Spirituality. You can find Sally’s personal website at www.SallyKempton.com|
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