A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Power Of Vulnerability

Photo: Roselle Angwin

A recent, powerful post from blog friend, poet and writer, multi-talented artist, craftswoman and workshop facilitator, Roselle Angwin, from Dartmoor:

I've been thinking about vulnerability recently, and what courage it takes; what an art it is. And how crucial it is to intimacy with self or other (whether or not that latter's sexual).

I think it might be useful to mention here that by 'vulnerability' I don't mean emotional manipulation, victimhood, martyrdom or self-indulgence. I mean simply a willingness to stand in who you are, weaknesses and strengths, and let another see you.

You have to be pretty strong in yourself to risk others seeing you as you are, no masks. More, you need to have grown beyond navigating your life according to others' approval, and whether it's offered or withheld.

You need to be living from your own centre out; and to have moved beyond the need to make ego and pride the be-all and end-all. It takes a certain depth of humility; and it takes being able and willing to carry on being vulnerable when others reject it, or kick you.

It takes being willing to keep on being 'out there' when others withhold — without demanding that they change, but knowing that you're going to keep on keeping on anyway.

After all, that's how the world gets in; and without the world getting in, how can we experience interbeing and empathy? The most rewarding experiences come from deep exchanges; deep honest authentic exchanges.

My daughter posted a shared snippet on her Facebook page recently: 'It's easy to take your clothes off and have sex with someone; people do it all the time. But opening up your soul to someone, letting them into your spirit, thoughts, hopes, dreams, fears — now that's being naked.'

I know this is not a new thought, but I am reminded how often we'll let other things stand in for vulnerability and intimacy: sex, for instance. Or food, booze, shopping, heated debates, clever talk, words that sound good but convey nothing of depth. Even silence — because of course there's silence that's evasive as much as there's silence that is shared.

I wrote once: 'The connections we make with each other are as good as the connections we make with ourself'. Intimacy and vulnerability, true openness, require a willingness to know oneself first and foremost, and to keep learning about oneself and the world, and to find a way of accepting oneself, strengths, weaknesses, triumphs and fuck-ups alike.

This means facing one's deepest fears about not being, ultimately, loveable as one is.

What's brought all this to mind (not that these things are ever far from my mind) is that I've had some very profound exchanges with people recently; or perhaps I should say that I'm currently meeting a number of men, specifically, on a deeper level: men who are not afraid to be open, tender, vulnerable — and not wimps. (I don't mean in romantic or sexual engagement, I simply mean in the course of daily life/work.)

There are of course always people who are willing to challenge the mores that tell us to walk in armour and that the world's out to get you, especially when one moves in alternative circles and if one leads the kind of retreats, or goes to the kinds of workshops, talks, campaigns, poetry or eg 5 Rhythms dance events that I do. I have always had close women and men friends both who are emotionally open in that way. But suddenly, partly in relation to my work, the number of people in my life who've made a transition into this kind of strength, coming from a sure and authentic centre, seems to have increased swiftly. I guess this post is to acknowledge, honour and thank these people. You make a difference.

What is happening in all our lives, individually and collectively, percolates to the surface at certain times, perhaps, more than others. We live in extraordinary and challenging times, and I suspect this is one of those 'surges', where there's a collective shift going on, an acceleration, at the moment, in counterpoint to global brutality, violence, anger and hate — in which I include, albeit in dilution, the defence mechanism of cynicism.

I've had a useful lesson recently, though, in the fact that others don't always want your vulnerability, or are threatened by it. What I'm learning at the moment is how to stand firm and let myself be vulnerable without forcing that on someone who, for reasons of their own, doesn't want it; how to keep one's counsel and hold still while not closing down oneself. An overtly (so to speak) open person can perhaps be just as much a threat to the wellbeing of a more reserved person as vice versa: it's not helpful to make judgements here, only to notice, and respond accordingly. (The image that comes to mind is the incongruity of a nun in a habit on a naturist beach — or a talkative nudist in a silent-order convent! I've been trying to avoid this obvious and seemingly value-laden analogy, but it keeps impressing itself. Neither's 'wrong'; they both just value different things.)

And of course the world, and our 'significant others', will continue to challenge us. That's how we grow; not in solitude on a mountainside in the Himalayas (though learning to love solitude is a prerequisite for all sorts of other strengths), but in active relationship.

This morning my Tricycle Daily Dharma dropped this into my inbox:

'Relationships work to open us up to ourselves. But first we have to admit how much we don’t want that to happen, because that means opening ourselves to vulnerability. Only then will we begin the true practice of letting ourselves experience all those feelings of vulnerability that we first came to [Buddhist] practice to escape.' Barry Magid No Gain

Here's to the strength to remain soft and open on the outside, and firm, clear and strong on the inside.


The Weaver of Grass said...

Many people never ever reach this goal in their lives - many don't even wish to go there.

am said...

Wish I had more time for commenting. There is so much I would love to say in response to this wonderful post.

Anonymous said...

A few rambling first thoughts on this interesting post...

I found myself wondering, how does one know when one isn't "wearing a mask", as the writer puts it?

Impulses arise subconsciously. People who are defensive (ie, deny their vulnerability) tend to deny that they are and have even less awareness of how they became so. How do I know I'm not?

However hard we try to know ourselves I think we inevitably tend to find ourselves in certain states of mind rather than navigating our way to them. Can we ever know ourselves well enough to know that the mask is truly off?

In other words, if I think I "have moved beyond the need to make ego and pride the be-all and end-all" I probably haven't!

When someone tells me I "need to have grown beyond navigating [my] life according to others' approval" I find myself wondering how many (if any) people have actually achieved this, and how they might know that they have. Of course, I should be aware of the risks of navigating my life that way but to suggest that
I can "grow" into a state of knowing that I don't can become a form of tyranny. In effect, it's saying that I can grow into a state where I'll never be an idiot again. I know this not to be true. I'm human.

Having said all that, I like the WS Merwin quote on her website: "I don’t think we have an imagination apart from the environment". If this is true (and I think it is), what else is there to be but vulnerable?

Ruth said...

You need to be living from your own centre out . . .

Yes to all of this.

So much depends on how we were raised, and it can be difficult to shed the protection and projection of perfection. One of the most important lessons we can teach our children is how to fail. And while we teach them that (by simply failing), we hopefully teach them how to be there for someone who fails.

I find that some of my worst characteristics, those that I would prefer not letting anyone else know about me (outside my inner circle of family, who know by living with me), are symptomatic of protecting my ego. For instance, being passive aggressive about no one else doing the dishes, rather than simply asking someone to do them.

All of this only matters in real time, real experience. I am interested in Roselle's experiences at work with male colleagues, and how that played out. What a treasure to have that sort of connection with work mates.

roselle said...

Robert, thank you for posting my blogpost.

And all those who have commented: thank you, too. I'm touched.

Sackerson: it's aspirational. I'm learning not to set myself up to fail, or to tyrannise myself with 'shoulds': simply to remind myself that my intention is to keep opening myself up. Often I don't achieve it - and that's fine. It's just something I try to hold in my attention; aided by 40 years' Zen practice.

And yes - we're all prone to delusion and delusion about our delusions! So it's not that I believe we can realistically outstrip our masks and realise egolessness - just, once again, something to remind myself to 'rest' in, as a useful intention/aspiration, frequently, on the journey. Would you agree?

All best to you all


roselle said...

Ruth, thank you for your vulnerability and wisdom in your comment.

Amanda Summer said...

This is exquisite. I am just now reading Pema Chodron's Start Where You Are, and it's heartening to realize how much Roselle's words vibrate with the same wisdom of this book.

roselle said...

Amanda, thank you - to be mentioned in the same breath as Pema Chödron - now there's a compliment. Pleased that you related to it.

Nick said...

Surely this isn't vulnerability; it's merely owning up to what you are.

Jan said...

Thank you for posting this Robert. I have little time to comment today and will need to revisit this when I have more time. As always, I wonder how to get rid of the tendency to judge myself and others. Striving to be this authentic, open and vulnerable self, inevitably it seems leads to comparison.

catharus said...

'Much appreciated post!!!

Anonymous said...

Deeply moved by this heart mindful artical. A practice to stay soft yet strong and clear.

Laughing Water

roselle said...

Nick, Jan, Catharus and Laughing Water – thank you all for your comments (C and LW for your generosity too).

Nick – I think owning up to who you are, as you put it, and then living that, inevitably involves both courage and vulnerability - wouldn't you say?

Jan, I think part of being authentic, and vulnerable, means allowing oneself to be less than perfect and seeing that it doesn't help to judge oneself. Doesn't authenticity mean being able to be who one is, rather than who one thinks one should be, or even more tyrannically trying to be who others think one should be? While discrimination is useful, judging self and others is another trap for the ego! I like what Buddhist teacher D T Suzuki reputedly said: 'You're perfect as you are - and there's always room for improvement'.