Vulnerability as a Spiritual Path
[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]
Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.
Ask yourself a simple question: What is a good baby? If you have been raised in a Western culture, chances are you know the answer right away (whether or not you agree with it): A good baby is one that doesn’t cry! The training against vulnerability starts very early in life.
It is no surprise, then, that most of us wear some layers of protection, and know the experience of contraction, a desire to hide what is true inside. Yet many of us know that as we loosen the protection and become more and more naked, we come closer to how we once were, to our essential humanity. When we recognize this complex truth, we can begin to imagine choosing, moment by moment, how much protection would be helpful, and how much protection is keeping us away from the flow of life.
Fear of vulnerability is one of the core obstacles to inner freedom. Some of the fear is internal, a message that there is something wrong with us if we show emotion. Some of the fear is external, a concern that by being authentic and revealing ourselves we risk being hurt by others. Either way, our quest for inner freedom includes the willingness to step into the unknown, into discomfort. As Rachel Remen says, “The choice … is never between slavery and freedom. We will always have to choose between slavery and the unknown.” If we embrace the possibility of opening up and remaining soft in the face of whatever comes our way – then we actually grow in our capacity to be ourselves in full.
The path of vulnerability includes understanding what generates so much fear about stepping into more vulnerability in our lives; learning to sit with the discomfort to create more self-connection; finding ways of redefining vulnerability as strength; discovering an inner sense of safety; and securing support in inhabiting more authenticity. More than anything, though, the path of vulnerability is about choice: How can we muster inner strength to understand, face, and transform our fears so we can have the aliveness and authenticity that come from the willingness to share our truth?
Usually when we think of the meaning of the word “vulnerability” we think of it as an experience of being exposed in a way that could lead to hurt. When we talk about choosing vulnerability rather than having it simply happen, we are embarking on an extraordinary journey of changing our relationship with fear. As Chogyam Trungpa says, “true fearlessness is not the reduction of fear, but going beyond fear.”
Sitting with our fear, or with any difficult emotion – really sitting with it – creates possibility. As we open our hearts to ourselves, we find the needs underneath our emotions and actions. Connecting with the needs provides us some wiggle room around the stories that feed our fear such as “rejection,” “humiliation,” or “betrayal.” We also recover more room by connecting with others’ humanity in charged moments, with their needs that could lead to their actions or reactions. This eases our own fear, because it allows us to take everything less personally, to approach others with compassion, and to keep our hearts open as we engage.
What does choosing vulnerability look like? Here is a personal example. After a painful breakup with a partner many years ago, I took on the practice of examining myself closely for months to see the ways that I contributed to the relationship not working. Every time I found something, I shared what I found with my former partner. I felt exceedingly vulnerable Ã¢â‚¬â€œ as if I was providing my former partner with ammunition, a way to “prove” that it was my fault that the relationship ended. But I also loved the practice. I was being true to myself instead of protecting myself. And after a few months it meant we could be friends again.
Think of a situation from your life in which you had the opportunity to choose vulnerability or to choose protection. As you reflect on your situation and on what you did, bear in mind that inner freedom means becoming conscious of the fact of making choices, and then changing how we make choices by connecting them to needs. Which did you choose in your situation, vulnerability or protection? What needs were you attempting to meet with your choice? Did those needs get met through your choice? What needs were not met by your choice?
One key to this journey is to recognize that habitual choice is also based on needs. Once we become aware of what needs we are trying to meet by the habitual choice, then we can inquire deeply: Is this habitual strategy really meeting the need? At what cost? Can we find a willingness to make a different choice even though it’s uncomfortable? With full connection with our needs, we may well choose to engage in the habitual behavior some of the time, knowing what needs we are prioritizing in those moments rather than automatically out of fear or habit. We may also choose to embrace fuller authenticity and vulnerability because we have clarity about what needs would be met that make the discomfort worthwhile instead of basing the choice on an internal demand or an idea that is not connected to our needs. Either way, we are more able to meet life fully.
We do not embark on the path of vulnerability once and for all. In each moment the balance of our needs may shift. By inquiring into the lived truth of this moment we become present and step out of stories about what things mean. In each moment, we solve the emotional equation of that moment: With all of the needs that are on the table for this moment, what’s the action to take in this moment? What needs rise in significance in this moment? Which needs are less important in this moment?
What needs might be met by choosing vulnerability? Self-expression, authenticity, strength, integrity, or connection. What needs might be met by choosing protection? Peace of mind, safety, compassion for ourselves or others, ease, or relief. If we judge either set of needs, we lose our capacity to choose, the foundation of our inner freedom.
When we start working with vulnerability we discover what Sally expressed in a workshop: “I don’t think the fear will ever completely disappear, so I have to find a way of accepting the fear.” Like every difficult emotion, we have three basic options: to run away; to grit our teeth, tough it out, and do things despite the feelings; or to make room for the feelings and experience spaciousness around them. The point of being on the path is to find the freedom, not necessarily to always have to be vulnerable, but to have the option to be vulnerable when we choose.
by Miki Kashtan