Facing Up to Vulnerability

I am not a Buddhist.  However, I readily acknowledge that in the area of mindfulness I can learn from the oral tradition of the Buddha that has been passed down over more than 2,500 years through teachings and stories.  Tara Brach, practising Buddhist and international mindfulness teacher, shares one such story related to vulnerability, “I See You, Mara”.   Tara recounts that the Buddha when travelling and teaching often encountered a sense of vulnerability experienced as “fear of loss or rejection”.  His way to manage this fear was to name it and face it – he called the fear Mara (“the god of darkness”).  So, whenever he encountered such fear and sense of being vulnerable, he would say, “I See You, Mara”.

Facing up to vulnerability and naming our feelings

There are times when we feel intuitively that we should do something that would be helpful to others, but we become fearful and give into our sense of vulnerability.  For the Buddha, “Mara” epitomised this fear and vulnerability.  We could find our own name for this darkness that can overwhelm us and impede our ability to be intimate, creative or compassionate.  Whatever way we choose, the basic process involves naming our feelings when we feel blocked by a sense of vulnerability.  In this way, we can tame our feelings, draw on our strengths and reduce the inhibiting influence of feeling vulnerable

In a previous post, I discussed the genesis of our sense of vulnerability and offered a short meditation that Tara teaches to help us to open to our vulnerability in our everyday life.  However, we may be faced with a specific challenge represented by an opportunity to do something worthwhile for others and, despite the value of the proposed action, we find ourselves procrastinating out of fear of some adverse outcome.  On these occasions, we can face up to our procrastination self-stories and bring them above-the-line.

What can be helpful, too, is to explore whether there is an underlying adverse event (or series of events) that gave rise to our personal sense of vulnerability.  Have we experienced an occasion when we were deeply embarrassed, totally rejected or attacked for our ideas or efforts?  How is such an event playing out in our lives now?  In this reflection, we can relate our sense of vulnerability to its origins and our deeply held belief (however false), that a similar outcome will be experienced again if we challenge the “status quo” or advance ideas that are different to mainstream thinking.  This deeply held belief about adverse outcomes can immobilise us if it remains hidden and not exposed to the light of observation and reflection.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become increasingly aware of the impact of our past experience on our sense of vulnerability, begin to name our underlying feelings and access ways to face up to being vulnerable.  In this way, we can progressively release our capacity for intimacy, creativity and compassionate action.

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Image by Quinn Kampschroer from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

The Pillars of a Meaningful Life

In the previous post, I discussed how making meaning in our daily lives contributes to well-being. I also drew on what Dr. Paul Wong stated in terms of the need to align our lives with what we consider to be meaningful – in other words, to achieve congruence. Paul is the author of the book , The Human Quest for Meaning: Theories, Research, and Applications. Through his research, writings and presentations, he has developed the concept of the pillars of a meaningful life. He has identified seven of these pillars which I will discuss below.

The seven pillars of a meaningful life

  1. Believing that human life is inherently meaningful – this is foundational, because once you acknowledge that your life has meaning, you can pursue the realisation of meaning in your own life. You can begin to value your work, be grateful for the many things that you have and can do and explore meaningful relationships with people who are like-minded. This can lead to life-time friendships and collaboration. This fundamental belief also enables you to accept that suffering and pain are part of human existence and have a meaning in your life.
  2. A profound self-awareness – understanding at a deep level who you are and where you fit into the greater scheme of things. This understanding and acceptance provides the basis for recognising your potential for contributing positively to significant others in your life and those you interact with on an given day. This means avoiding delusion and being open to your potential.
  3. Exploring what is unique about your passion and mission – discovering your unique purpose. This involves capturing what inspires and energises you and becoming conscious of the challenges and responsibilities that flow from your personal pool of knowledge, skills and experiences.
  4. Pursuing your best self so that you realise your potential – overcoming the negative thoughts and barriers that block your potential. If you are not consciously trying to improve yourself, you can find that you are going backwards. Even small steps towards fulfilling your potential will bring you closer to your best self. This is a life-long journey but leads to a sense of well-being when you have achieved a real breakthrough. It is important to approach this self-realisation task non-judgmentally, avoiding “beating up on yourself” for not progressing as fast as you “should”.
  5. Self-transcendence – contributing to something that is bigger than yourself and that will outlast you. Viktor Frankl suggests that self-transcendence is central to your well-being as it is part of your “spiritual nature”. This involves moving beyond self-centredness and self-absorption to being altruistic and compassionate – ultimately being other-centred, whether the other person is a neighbour, friend or casual contact. Happiness and well-being lie at the heart of self-transcendence.
  6. Relating well to the people who are closest to you – your life partner, your children and closest friends. This “intimacy” is a rich source of happiness and well-being. If you are in constant conflict in this arena, you need to explore the dynamics of the situation and your contribution to the conflict. Relating well entails reflective listening, being thoughtful and aware of others’ needs, and “going out of your way” to help the other person when they are not coping, are ill or saddened by some occurrence in their life.
  7. Having a sense of personal fulfillment when your life is productive – in line with human connectedness. This means, in part, having a sense that you are using the surplus in your life to contribute to the well-being of others. It also means using your knowledge, skills and experience to be a productive and positive contributor to your work team and your organisation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and small acts of gratitude, we can enjoy happiness and well-being, develop rich relationships and realise our potential through positive contributions to our work team and our community.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Being Vulnerable: How to Improve Our Relationships and Contribution

In the previous post I discussed Tara Brach’s presentation on vulnerability and intimacy and ways to overcome our defence mechanisms. In this blog post, I want to focus on becoming vulnerable to improve two aspects of our lives – our contribution and our relationships.

Vulnerability is universal

Vulnerability is “part and parcel” of being human. When you think about it most people you encounter in life will have experienced at least one trauma – a significant frightening or disturbing event – in their life at one time or another. A traumatic event may take many forms and people will react differently to varying events such as the death of a child, partner, parent, sibling or friend; the break-up of parents through divorce; a major car or workplace accident; loss of a job; experience of chronic illness and/or pain; severe financial difficulties resulting in the loss of a home; break-up of an intimate relationship; a period of mental illness; addiction to drugs or alcohol; or any manner of distressing events.

Tara makes the point that “the more wounding there has been, the greater are the defences”. We each have been wounded at some time through various events, traumatic or otherwise, that have intensified our sense of being vulnerable and precipitated our defence mechanisms designed to protect us from such vulnerability. Ian MacLaren recognised that everyone experiences vulnerability when he wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”.

Because of our past experiences, we may feel afraid to speak up, to take part in a group activity, to perform publicly, to engage in conversation or to give positive feedback to another person. We may feel that we will be rejected, laughed at, or cut out of a group. We might be concerned about experiencing embarrassment, lack of control or overt emotions expressed as tears.

How we hide our fear of being vulnerable

There are many ways that we can camouflage our fear of being vulnerable such as:

  1. excessive criticism of others, constant judging (people never measure up to our expectations)
  2. projection of our own fears or anxiety onto others (“they are too fearful or lack courage”)
  3. aggressive emotions such as anger, blame (fight behaviour)
  4. withdrawal through depression (flight behaviour)
  5. inertia (freeze behaviour)
  6. overcontrolling others
  7. overconsuming – food, social media, goods and services, drugs
  8. hiding behind a mask/role – being the boss, the helper or the victim

The problem is that these ways of hiding our feelings of vulnerability are often subtle, elaborate, sub-conscious and developed over long periods of time. It takes a concerted effort and continuous training to be able to identify our defence mechanisms and overcome them through sustained, focused attention in meditation.

Being vulnerable to improve our contribution

Tara at one stage in her presentation tells the story of how a disturbed teenager’s life turned around when he heard a monk sing a song both loudly and off-key in front of an audience. He was taken with the courage required by the monk to do that and make a “fool” of himself. The monk showed bravery by placing himself in a potentially embarrassing situation.

I previously recounted a similar story of coach Mo Cheeks (who could not sing in tune) getting up in front of thousands of people at a NBA playoff and helping a 13 year old girl complete the national anthem after she was overcome with nerves.

Both these stories illustrate the power of being vulnerable (overcoming our natural defence mechanisms) to make a contribution to others and the community generally. Mo’s action, for instance, has been a source of inspiration for more than half a million people who have viewed the video of his compassionate intervention.

Improving a relationship by being vulnerable

Tara tells another story of a mother who was feeling very vulnerable because her daughter had become addicted to heroin and was continuously in and out of treatment centres for her addiction. The mother hid her sense of powerlessness and being vulnerable by her angry, blaming and controlling behaviour towards her daughter. Through psychotherapy the mother was able to let go of her defences and need for control and provide compassionate support for her daughter – to be with her daughter in her struggle, trusting in her daughter’s own wisdom to break free of the addiction.

The daughter did succeed and overcame her addiction and the mother and daughter built a deep relationship through this mutual experience of vulnerability. The mother was able to overcome her defence mechanisms to provide constructive support that enabled her daughter and the relationship to move forward.

A meditation on vulnerability

In her presentation (at the 35.45-minute mark), Tara provides a basis for reflection on your own sense of vulnerability and how it is impacting your relationships. She suggests you focus first on a relationship that you want to improve in terms of closeness or one that is bogged down in a pattern of behaviour that is not constructive. The focal relationship can be with anyone – life partner, friend, child, sibling or work colleague.

The reflection then revolves around exploring the ways that you are creating separation through your own thoughts and actions. Tara provides some questions to explore how your vulnerability is impacting the relationship:

  1. in what ways are you protecting yourself in these interactions?
  2. are you judging the other person?
  3. are you projecting on the other person some expectation of how they should be?
  4. are you withholding yourself and pretending to be who you are not?
  5. are you trying to impress the other person by constantly explaining how good you are at some endeavour or how much better your trip or experience was?
  6. are you operating from a low level of trust of people generally?

Once you have addressed these questions, the process then involves getting in touch with how you feel in your body when you are defending yourself – are you uptight?; does your face reflect your intensity?; are you physically rigid?; or are you looking distracted (as you search for a self-protective response)?

You next ask yourself how would you manage if you let go of one or more of your defences in your interactions with this person – how will you need to feel differently? A visioning question can be helpful here – “What if I reduce my armour, what will our interaction be like and how will I cope with being seen to be flawed or being rejected or looking foolish”? You can ask yourself, “How likely is it that these outcomes I fear will actually occur?”

The final step is to face your fear and sense of being vulnerable, acknowledge it and use your breathing to bring it under control. You can adopt a mindful breathing approach, deepen your in-breath and out-breath or envisage the fear as you breathe in and envisage its release as you breathe out.

As we grow in mindfulness through noticing and managing our vulnerability through meditation practice, we can open ourselves up to more creative contributions to our community and to deeper and more meaningful relationships. As the defence barriers we construct begin to come down or weaken, we are able to free up our creative abilities and let people into our life.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog. 

Overcoming Our Defences: Opening to Vulnerability

Tara Brach provides an extended, profound and thought-provoking talk and meditation on the topic of vulnerability and intimacy. She highlights the fact that our innate tendency to protect ourselves from vulnerability is something that we share with nature. Tara discusses the elaborate defence mechanisms that humans develop to ward off vulnerability and argues that these defences become a barrier to intimacy, creativity and a life lived fully. While it takes courage to let down our defences, the starting point is to deepen our awareness of our own individual defences through meditation and mindfulness.

Vulnerability – our common condition with animals and nature

Tara highlights the fact that experiencing vulnerability is part of our evolutionary condition – a condition we have in common with animals and nature. Cats for example hiss or spit when they are fearful and feel threatened. Hope Ferdowsian in her book, Phoenix Zones, emphasises the vulnerability we share with animals and highlights the need to “value vulnerability”. Joanne Kennell discuses some of the very strange ways plants protect themselves from predators to reduce their vulnerability. One of the more fascinating defence mechanisms is the complex defences created by the Bullhorn acacia tree which Joanne explains “house and feed aggressive ants” that, in turn, protect the plant from anything – plant, animal or fungi – that will threaten the plant.

It is natural for us as humans to feel vulnerable and just as natural for us to develop our own defence mechanisms. Tara points out, though, that what served originally as a productive defence mechanism can soon become an unhealthy habit that proves injurious to us. She mentions self-protecting defences such as pretences (pretending to be what we are not), hiding our feelings such as disappointment (to prevent exposing ourselves and our vulnerability) and withdrawing (physically and/or psychologically).

Our culture reinforces our innate tendency to hide our vulnerability because of the emphasis on being strong, competitive and independent, along with a focus on external things such as looks, dress and status. We want to be seen to be “cool”, “with-it” and confident.

Accessing our vulnerability


To overcome this innate and environmental conditioning to hide our vulnerability requires insight and courage. Tara explains that, because of the extent and depth of our conditioning, willpower alone will not remove our self-sabotaging defence mechanisms. What is needed is a deeper awareness of our individual defence mechanisms, insight into how they impact us and openness to the vulnerability that they hide.

Tara suggests that one way into our defences to achieve “de-armouring” is to answer a number of questions that are summarised below:

  1. Do I recognise my unique knowledge, skills and experience and am I prepared to use them to help create a better, healthier world?
  2. Am I aware of the many ways that I protect myself from being vulnerable?
  3. How do I relate to a sense of vulnerability when it arises in me?

A short meditation practice for accessing vulnerability

Tara offers a short meditation practice (at the 22.30 min mark) that can be undertaken at any point during the day – e.g. when you park your car or while you are walking. The basic process is to “stop and pause” to get in touch with your feelings of vulnerability – an approach you can use to get in contact with your “everyday vulnerability”.

You begin by closing your eyes or looking downwards and using your breath as a pathway to your vulnerability. As you breathe in, ask yourself “What is happening for me now?; In what way am I feeling vulnerable?; “How am I relating to this sense of being vulnerable?” As you breathe out release any physical tension associated with feeling vulnerable and open yourself to your potentiality.

Tara maintains that as we learn to “relate to” vulnerability, rather than “relate from” vulnerability, we are able to free ourselves from the limitations created by these feelings. Part of the power of this process comes from naming our feelings.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation and accessing our vulnerability we can become more aware of what makes us feel vulnerable and how we experience and relate to this vulnerability. We can begin to create an openness to being vulnerable and learn to relate to this feeling with understanding and acceptance of what is. This will enable us to move forward more courageously and creatively.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of ulleo on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.