Vulnerability: A Gateway to Inner Strength and Freedom

September 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm Leave a comment

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
Madeline L’Engle

If you look up the definition of “vulnerable” in the dictionary, you will find it to mean: 1. capable of being physically or emotionally wounded, and 2. open to attack or damage1; It is a state of being exposed or feeling raw.

This level of exposure can feel very scary.  On a daily basis, we minimize this insecurity by creating structures within which we can function with the uncertainties we face:  we craft a public image of ourselves that we project to others and we construct an identity for ourselves as a basis to stand upon.  Residing within these structures we remain protected from perceived harm, often based on former wounding.  However, these constructs also limit us from connecting on a deeper basis with ourselves and one another.

While this protection helps us to get by day to day and even survive, if we begin to rely on these structures as constant and genuine, we can deceive ourselves.  Maintaining the illusion that we can have ultimate control in our lives, we lose touch with the reality that everything is constantly changing.  Whether we like it or not, there will inevitably be times when the sense of identity to which we are clinging no longer serves us, or the façade that we are presenting no longer fits well.  Even when we know this intellectually, it can be challenging for us to release our grip on these structures in which we’re so invested.  After all, it can be very frightening to look inside and find nothing to hold onto.  Worse, if they disintegrate on their own, it can be even more painful; we may face an unavoidable crisis.  As Alison Luterman points out in her poem, Stripping, we are terrified to find out what lies beneath this armor:

I want to strip.  It’s the jewel
at the center I seek; let me be oyster, hoarding pearl.
Let me be coal, sheltering diamond.
Though in my heart of hearts I am afraid
I may be onion, each white circle
of stinky tears hiding another
exactly like it, Or rose:
whose petals are her everything.

Ultimately, we can overlook the fact that we must let go of these old structures if we are to grow.  Consequently, residing with our vulnerability is actually a gateway to our development.  According to Gail Sheehy, “With each passage of human growth, we must shed a protective structure [like a hardy crustacean]. We are left exposed and vulnerable – but also yeasty and embryonic again, capable of stretching in ways we hadn’t known before.”

In our culture, being vulnerable is commonly viewed as a weakness.  Relating without the external layers of protection (the façade or mask), can be likened to Samson cutting off his hair – diminishing one’s strength.  In reality, residing with our vulnerability may, instead, actually enable us to access innate inner strength and a source of power.

How, then, may we embrace our vulnerability?  The answer lies in our willingness to spend time with ourselves, to look more closely at how we are reacting to the uncertainty we face in life and to old wounds that remain open.  As we become familiar with our attempt to create and maintain a protective structure we create the possibility of letting it go when we realize it is causing us suffering.  Mindfulness meditation provides a way for us to meet ourselves in this compassionate manner.  Pema Chödrön speaks to the potential of this effort:

The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is
that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane
enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and
compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about
looking into someone else’s eyes

Through mindfulness practice, there is an opportunity to reside within the spaciousness of change and groundlessness of reality, rather than to perceive them as a threat.  When we are mindful of and acknowledge our present experience, we have a means of touching the tender places that may be scary.  By hanging out with these raw places in ourselves, in the safe container of meditation, without needing to do or change anything, we can explore what it is like to relate to them with friendliness rather than contraction and what is like to let go of our reaction rather than to contribute to it.

Finally, Gil Fronsdal, the primary teacher for the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, CA, suggests that adding a contemplation, reflection and inquiry component to mindfulness meditation can be a skillful way to learn more about these areas of vulnerability.  One way to do this is through writing or journaling when you touch these sensitive places in your practice.

Allowing yourself to become more familiar with these intrinsic aspects of yourself, as challenging as it may be, frees you to respond from this authentic place instead of being driven by fear.  Hafiz emphasizes this possibility in his poem, It Felt Love:  “How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty?  It felt the encouragement of light against its being, otherwise, we all remain too frightened.”

References:
1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vulnerable
2. John Welwood, “Vulnerability and Power in the Therapeutic Process” in Awakening the Heart (1983).

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
— Brene Brown

 

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Julie Forbes, Ph.D.

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