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June 1, 2023

Finding the Vulnerable Heart, Part Two

By Sally Kempton

Originally posted on Patheos.

In Part One of this series, we began to explore vulnerability as a path, and to look at what it takes to feel safely vulnerable. My meditations on vulnerability began during a conversation with a student named Roberta. Roberta had noticed that she often felt over-sensitive, too open to other people and even the pain of the world around her. In the last article, I discussed where vulnerability comes from, and the different types of vulnerability. Mainly, I tried to distinguish between the vulnerability that comes from weak boundaries, and mature vulnerability—based on real inner strength. That kind of vulnerability, what we might call radical vulnerability, is really only possible for someone who has established both strong personal boundaries, and a deep connection to her own core, the Essence, or inner Self. Here are some conclusions, along with a couple of exercises: one for creating energetic boundaries, the second for deepening your relationship with your own vulnerable self.

Developing Mature Vulnerability

In mature vulnerability, you reconnect with the openness and innocence of the vulnerable child, with her natural connection to Essence. But now, you inhabit that vulnerability not from the original, unprotected place, but from an adult awareness of your own strengths, and also with the power you’ve developed through your practice of yoga and other forms of inner work.

This takes time, but it will develop naturally as you become more and more established in your inner practice.

In the early stages of practice, it’s important to focus on holding your energies in your own center, and training your mind to seek the core where strength can be found. Once you have a deep sense of contact with your inner core, you might start to experiment with letting yourself be vulnerable. You ask yourself questions, like “How open can I be in this situation?” “What do I do when I feel frayed or overwhelmed by others’ energies?” A mature practitioner knows just when to put up an energetic barrier or shield, and has a kind of automatic protective energy system that comes into play when needed.

How do you develop the kind of protective energy that allows this? Partly by the specific practice of invoking protective energies.

For instance, in classical tantric ritual and meditation practice, you always start your practice by creating an energetic shield, using visualizations and mantras to imagine a container around your self and the ritual circle. Only when the shield is in place—protecting you from uninvited energies—do you open your body and mind to invoke the divine presence or the open space of expanded awareness.

The radical openness of a mature spiritual practitioner is possible only because he or she has gone through the process of strengthening his or her energetic body. In that way, the openness and apparent vulnerability of a spiritual master—someone like Gandhi or the Dalai Lama, who often seems childlike—is very different from the original innocence of the child. The child is, to use the language of developmental psychology, in a pre-rational or pre-individuated state. The advanced practitioner has matured as an individual, differentiated himself from his environment, and acquired adaptive skills and protections, as well as a functioning ego. From there, through practice and a radical willingness to let go into vulnerability, he earns openness, true enlightened innocence. That’s what it means to successfully reclaim our vulnerability.

Creating a Zone of Protection

Roberta’s difficulty was that she was opening her field of awareness without having either strengthened her energetic core, or protected her energy body. I gave her two practices, which you’ll find below. The first was the practice of shielding. The second, the practice of deliberately drawing in her energies—taking moments during the day to notice where you’ve leaked energy, or where over-stimulation has made you frazzled, or where a strong attraction or aversion has claimed your attention to the point where you feel out of your own center.

Practice 1: Shielding and Conserving your Energies
Begin by sitting quietly, and focusing in the heart.

From there, imagine yourself drawing in the energies you’ve given out today. Pull back the energy that has gone into phone conversations, into encounters at work, into the distractions of shop windows or the emotional pull of your spouse or child.

Don’t worry if you don’t feel you’ve fully ‘done’ it. Above all, don’t worry that this will cut you off from the people you love. On the contrary, the practice will let you gather your forces to meet them from a more centered place.

Now, imagine a circle of protective energy around yourself. One way to do this is to imagine a thick ribbon of light coming from your heart, and wrapping itself around your body like a cocoon. Think of the light-ribbon as an energetic shield, that lets in the energies that belong in your field, and keeps out the energies that don’t.

Now, with your awareness in the heart, begin to practice a basic indrawn meditation technique. This could be mantra repetition, focusing on the space between one breath and another, or focusing on the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. Think of this practice as your exercise in meeting your invulnerable core. It will give you the strength you need to open to your own vulnerability, without being overwhelmed by it.

It’s important when you want to explore your deep vulnerability, to do it from a ground of practice like the one described here.

Once you’ve created such a zone of protection, you might begin your exploration of vulnerability like this:

Practice 2: Diving into the Vulnerable Self
Begin by bringing to mind a part of your life where you feel vulnerable. Perhaps it’s at work. Maybe you feel vulnerable in relationship. Perhaps you’re confused about your direction. Maybe your physical health is being challenged.

Use thoughts of a specific situation to bring yourself in touch with your vulnerability, and then drop the thoughts.

Begin to notice how vulnerability feels to you. It may have a tinge of sadness. It might contain fear. As you explore these feelings, see where you experience them in your body. The feeling of vulnerability may manifest as a wincing sensation in the eyes, as a rush of tears, as hollowness in the gut or heart. Find the feeling, and stay present with it for as long as you can.

Then, ask the feeling what it has to tell you. What is the message of your vulnerability? What lessons is it showing you?

Finally, ask this feeling of vulnerability what gift it has for you.

(It’s important to recognize that the ‘gift’ might not show itself immediately. You might find that an insight arises immediately, or the insight might arise over the next hours or days. It might also come as an event in your outer life.)

When you are done, return to the breath, allowing the breath to flow in and out through the place where you have felt your vulnerability. Re-create your protective shields. Thank yourself for being willing to enter into the vulnerable self.

True Invulnerability

There is, after all, a paradox that we find as our spiritual practice begins to open us in new ways. At first, opening feels scary, because it recalls your original vulnerability, the unprotected feeling you may remember from early childhood. This can be even more unsettling when your body is filled with toxins, or your health is dicey. (Which is why diet and exercise are such an important aspect of any spiritual yoga!)

Yet, as you develop the skills learned through genuine practice, you begin to recognize that when you go into your vulnerability and connect with the divine, this helps you see that there is a space of invulnerability.

The true gift of meeting your vulnerability is always an opening into your divine core. At that same retreat where I met Roberta, the young woman with the boundary problem, I was approached by K, a successful designer and yoga therapist who had recently ended a long-term relationship. K told me that she’s actually relieved that the relationship is over though the breakup triggered a swamp of sadness. She said that it was sometimes so acute that she would sit for hours, unable to do anything but feel it. Then, at one point, because she had no choice, she gave herself permission to meet her vulnerable self.

At that point, the quality of the sadness morphed. She stopped feeling the sadness as her own. Instead, she’s begun graphically feeling the suffering of others. She’ll be cutting up a chicken and feel a rush of fear moving through her body, and recognize that the fear she feels is actually the chicken’s terror at being killed. She’ll see a mother scolding her child, and feel overwhelmed with grief. Stories on the news sometimes feel as if they’re happening in her living room.

She was worried that this could be the result of some glitch in her practice. Yoga is supposed to induce happy feelings. If she’s feeling such grief, could it mean that she’s doing something wrong?

As I listened to her story, two things occurred to me. First, that what she is experiencing is not something out of order, but a classical spiritual awakening, the kind that is often triggered by just such a crisis of vulnerability. Her acute experience of personal vulnerability had triggered the awakening of actual felt compassion. And this level of compassion is actually one of the flavors of enlightenment.

Felt compassion is different from our usual intellectual or ethical compassion, which come from the rational intellect and from our brain’s capacity for empathy. Felt compassion is way more visceral, so visceral, in fact, that when it’s happening to you, it can feel as if the pain of the world is being played out in your own emotional body. The great 19th-century sage Ramakrishna went through a period where he would feel the pain of the grass when he stepped on it. You can’t make that kind of compassion show up. It comes to you, through grace, from your inner core of divinity. You as an individual ego don’t and can’t feel with others in this utterly open way, just as you in your ego-self can’t love unconditionally. The opening you’re experiencing is an opening into your God-nature, your true Self.

And this, believe it or not, is the key to true invulnerability. As you touch and surrender to the radical openness of your divine self, as you settle into the openness that you might experience through meditation, or through opening to nature, or through this acute recognition of the pain in the world, you start to discover the paradoxical truth that this open spaciousness is invulnerable. Nothing can touch or take away the spaciousness that is most deeply you, just as nothing can take away the love that comes from those inner depths. So, by reclaiming and occupying your vulnerability, by letting yourself truly feel it, going down to the depths of it, you come to the place where you are truly invulnerable. And here’s where you transcend the protections that the ego has been trying to create for you. These are nothing compared to the protection of this enlightened openness.

During a pilgrimage to South India, I visited the Chidambaram Temple, one of the most powerful shrines to Shiva in the world. There, I had a meditative opening as powerful as any I’ve experienced—an opening into vastness and light that started in my heart and seemed to fill my body. When I left the temple town, riding toward the next stop on my journey, it felt as if everything around me was happening inside my own body. I could feel the ache in the shoulders of the workers winnowing grain, and even the pain of the grain under the threshing field. It wasn’t pleasant, though there was so much love in it that the tears flowing from my eyes were only partially tears of grief for their pain. For the first time, I realized what divine compassion really is: not sympathy or even empathy, but the actual felt experience of others’ suffering as your own.

An awakening like this inevitably brings emotion in its wake. Some of the emotions are ‘higher’ ones: gratitude, generosity, and the capacity to feel with others. But some of the feelings that come up are precisely the buried feelings that we’ve learned to mask or avoid. For me, in my journey through South India, one of these feelings was intense personal guilt—why wasn’t I doing more to help these people? But threading through and beyond both the global pain and the personal guilt was a feeling of love so powerful and ecstatic that tears poured from my eyes and my heart felt as if it were big enough to hold the world.

For K, the personal emotion that was arising was grief, an almost bottomless sadness at the pain of life. Yet within that grief, inside her experience of life’s basic vulnerability, she also began catching inklings of that same divine love. Paradoxically, the cheerfulness and positive thinking that had protected her from feeling basic vulnerability had also been protecting her from feeling the deep love. Spiritual growth demanded that she open to feeling, even feeling grief and anger and fear, that she be willing to sit inside it, and let it change her.

A few weeks after our conversation, K wrote to me, “I’ve been letting myself be with the feeling of global pain. Yesterday, it opened up into peace. It was such a deep feeling of peace. I realized, this must be what bodhisattvas feel. That even in the deepest sorrow, there is the deepest peace.”

When you allow yourself to consciously enter the state of vulnerability, you find that at its heart is peace. The peace that passes understanding. The peace that comes from standing poised in the aching heart of life. The peace that is your true protection, your invulnerable core.

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

Falling in Love with the Divine:
Devotion and Tantra of the Heart

with Sally Kempton & Dr. Marc Gafni

October 14th – 16th
Esalen Institute
Big Sur, CA

For many contemporary spiritual practitioners, devotion is a missing ingredient in their practice. Yet part of what gives practice its juice and excitement is the living relationship with the personal face of the divine—the Being-Intelligence of all that is—by which you are personally addressed, loved, challenged, and held. Devotion, heart practice directed toward a divine other, or the divine other in a beloved, is a secret of inner awakening, and a key to emotional healing and evolutionary transformation. It’s no wonder that some of the greatest sages and teachers of all time, from Rumi to the Hasidic masters, were also followers of the devotional path.In this workshop, two heart masters merge their gifts in the service of the unfolding of your own secret heart-tantra. Awakened Heart meditation teacher and author Sally Kempton joins Dr. Marc Gafni, rabbi, author, and teacher of Kabbalah and evolutionary spirituality, for this unique offering.

Click here to register.


  1. Thank you for this article.
    I have been going through such openings and though I’m not impatient, sometimes it just goes on and on, personal grief, inspirations for the country, pain of the world, wish to offer oneself to life itself, merging into love for divine. The only wish is that I want to have more and more space and time for it in my life.
    It has brought a complete paradigm shift in my life, about the limitations of mainstream (American) psychology and its assumptions about human life, its goals and the path… which we entered in our illusory search for ‘self-actualisation’.
    Right search wrong place!

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