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 it’s protective instincts go haywire. “You’re scared of being abandoned?” it says, “˜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 that we convince 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 ok.
Until, that is, it doesn’t.
At some point, most of us are forced to reclaim our vulnerability – whether we want to our not. Life takes no prisoners, which means that if you don’tconsciously 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.
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 moved from his environment, 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.
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.
Diving into the Vulnerable Self
Its 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:
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 an uprush 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.
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 through she’s actually relieved that the relationship is over; 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 his 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 its happening to you, it can feel as if the pain of the world is being played out in your own emotional body. The great nineteenth 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 into 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 towards 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.