Challenge #6: Vulnerability in Practice

The practice makes us vulnerable. We are led to let the carapace of protection drop, and then what of our old protective habits of fear and retreat, anger and blame? The writers in this issue's JustThis speak of opening to people and feeling worthy enough to come out of hiding, responding to aggression and danger in new compassionate ways, fully experiencing change and loss, becoming malleable and receptive to whatever comes.

Vulnerability and Worthiness
(Emma, Kim, Quandra)

Kim: When Quandra wrote “vulnerability” I felt something hit me in my chest. It is the elephant in the room. “Worthiness” didn't seem so serious . . . maybe even another topic. Tonight I went to a party. Everyone was talking to someone, and I didn't want to intrude and didn't know how to intrude. I thought I might be at the party and leave without talking to anyone, and no one would know the difference. Then I saw a man seated alone, and I sat at his table and we started talking. He knew all about the migratory patterns of Monarch Butterflies and told me about them. I felt vulnerable at the party as I do anticipating my 50th high school reunion in June. What if someone discovers I have nothing to say?

Quandra:  I think worthiness and vulnerability are correlated. When my Uncle Des walks into a party, he proceeds to interject himself into every ongoing conversation throughout the night. He enters the room with the assumption that he belongs. I love it.  He couldn't care less who knows more about a topic of discussion; he'll just throw in his 2-cent opinion with no hesitation or deliberation. In his mind, nothing he says can detract from his non-negotiable sense of belonging. That's an awesome sense of worthiness that I think empowers his willingness to put himself in vulnerable positions (e.g. mingling at a party).

I haven't been as open to vulnerability because my sense of belonging—worthiness—isn't as strong. I wanted to invite a friend somewhere today, but I talked myself out of it, saying "she probably won't want to do it," and decided not to open myself to rejection. I decided not to make myself vulnerable.  Then, I asked myself what a person who assumed their own worthiness would have done. That person, I think, would have just offered the invitation without the deliberation and wouldn't have taken a decline as a personal rejection because their sense of worthiness doesn't depend on any specific event . . . it's just assumed to be true so being vulnerable isn't so threatening. If I believe I'm worthy of love and belonging no matter what then I can be vulnerable and okay no matter how things work out. I can be awkward at a party and know that I was just awkward at that party, that's all. My core sense of worthiness wouldn't be shaken to the point that I fear whether others see me as worthy. I haven't grown to this point yet.

Emma: Me neither. I love the phrase “non-negotiable sense of belonging,” Quandra. Yes, that is what I long for. I hold back, too, swinging between a longing for connection and a fear that being vulnerable will lead to my annihilation.

I used to often feel as though I had no feet. My vulnerability didn't feel like a choice to be made, just something that I had to cope with. Without my feet, I'd get knocked flat on the floor with just about every interaction I had. A lot of therapy and my Zen practice have slowly returned my feet to me. I still get knocked about some, but I can at least stay upright now. I suspect that this basic sense of worthiness is to be found in the body, in having a fully embodied experience of our own right to be here. Our bodies don't question that. I mean, our lungs don't say, “Has Emma been good enough to deserve breath today?” They are utterly impersonal. Our hearts continue to pump blood through us day in and day out, whether we're being kind and loving or a total asshole.

There is grace in talking about topics like worth and vulnerability. It would never have crossed my mind that either of you would have concerns about your worth. You're both fascinating and brilliant. Knowing these fears are universal somehow takes the sting out of them. It's just more evidence that they're not personal.

Kim: The Monarchs’ life span varies greatly (from 3 months to more than a year) depending on when they are born, and what jobs they need to do. The man I was talking to said they are the only animal that has such a varied life span. Of course, we are all vulnerable to have a premature death. But that is not determined by the date of our birthday. Is this vulnerability about fearing death? Certainly that's the vulnerability of a soldier (something I admittedly know little about). Or maybe the ultimate vulnerability is facing the wall in the zendo? We can't turn on the radio or TV. The only opium is running away with out thoughts, and that gets old pretty fast.  We are nothing but who we really is (Suzuki Roshi used "is" instead of "are" to denote the oneness of things).

I keep shying away from the worthiness part of this theme. At first I thought “I don't have an issue with that.” Now I've flipped 180° on that. It is my insecurity of being worthy that makes me so vulnerable. Thanks, Quandra, for suggesting this topic, which is quite the Pandora's box.

Quandra: Emma mentioned annihilation.  That's a heavy word.  When I read that I thought "maybe that's what has to happen though." Maybe, annihilation is what leaves our true selves exposed.  I heard someone say there's a part of us that was never born and a part of us that never dies.  So, not even annihilation can touch that part.  That word made me think about that section of A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield that says “Only to the extent that a person exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible be found within.”

I wrote at the end of my previous thoughts that I haven't grown to that point of a non-negotiable sense of worth yet.  After I sent the email, I thought of it differently.  It's more like I haven't grown to the point of reconnecting with it.  I remember being a teenager who didn't care so much about what others thought.  It's been over the years, for various reasons, that I learned to guard my heart and shy away from being too vulnerable.  That's what I mean when I'm talking about vulnerability: exposing my heart.  I don't really mean physical vulnerability or fear of death.  I feel I have so little control over that.  I don't even bother worrying about it.  I like what Emma mentioned about an embodied experience.  I want to settle so comfortably into my body that I reconnect with that part of me that knows exactly how to reach out in vulnerability.  That part of me knows exactly how to take care of me in that vulnerable state.  I need to reconnect with that.  In my mind, I feel like that would be like coming home to myself.

Kim: Yesterday at a Shuso ceremony at the Zen Temple we had the opportunity to ask questions of the Head Student. I asked him, “Is the Big Mind vulnerable.” First he said, “I haven't heard that question.” I replied, “Well, I made it up.” Then he said no, the Big Mind is not vulnerable, but when we come out of it, we are. I switch back and forth between feeling vulnerable and feeling invincible (actually most of the time somewhere in a la la land in between). It seems my choices when I'm feeling vulnerable are to be depressed, to protect myself from harm, or to simply take notice of that feeling and gently bid it goodbye. Bertrand Russell wrote in his autobiography that he used to feel tremendous anxiety. Then one day he realized that in the grand scheme of things, he was so unimportant in terms of the cosmos that his existence or non-existence really didn't matter (Big Mind?). From that point on he claimed his anxiety had left. Did he bid it goodbye or rationalize it away?

Quandra: I can relate to that. I'm less likely to fret over myself and how others see me when my perspective is broader. I adopted a new kitten this weekend (Zoya). I've been so consumed by taking care of her I barely remembered how agitated I was last week over a very uncomfortable meeting I had at work last week. Normally, I would have replayed that meeting in my head and wondered how each thing I said and did might have been perceived, but I brought Zoya home and was only focused on making her comfortable (and making sure she doesn't scare my geckos and bird). I've had a broader perspective, so protecting my image is smaller. Maybe, it's not that vulnerability goes away exactly. Maybe, it can just be held in such a large perspective that it doesn't dominate our emotional state. I think this is why some people recommend doing volunteer work when you're feeling down . . . getting connected to something bigger than ourselves can make us feel less anxious about our own image.

Emma: Yes, being of service helps me put my fears into perspective. I think it's because love, tenderness, and compassion arise in me, and their enormousness cradles the fear, vulnerability, and shame, which are, in that moment, both right-sized and deeply cared for. The love, tenderness, and compassion might be arising in response to someone else's needs, but they are my feelings, and they help me, too. I've found myself in so much fear about what someone is thinking about me, absolutely lost in despair over it, and then had that same person tell me about some struggle or joy in his or her life, and the fear just seems to dissolve—perhaps like Steven Levine says, into the enormous heart of mercy. And other times, the fear and vulnerability and lack of self-worth are just up and all that I can feel. It's so hard to just greet them, to recognize them as old friends, but doing that feels needed sometimes, too. Kosho talks about how all of our many selves are always trying to help us. The parts of me that feel fear and vulnerability, that say, “No! Do not connect! Danger! Danger!” are loving me in the only way they know how; they're using every bit of knowledge they have to keep me safe. It's just that those parts of me don't have access to the vast store of knowledge and experience from my whole life that I can find when I'm present to my whole self. Congratulations on your new kitten, Quandra.

Quandra: Emma talked about her love, tenderness, and compassion being extended to others but helping her too. I want to remember that . . . my goodwill towards others helps me too. That's really helpful. There was a guy who shared at a meditation group I attended who really made himself vulnerable.  It reminded me of how valuable it is when someone demonstrates vulnerability; it's like an invitation. I'm so grateful that he didn't hold back. His vulnerability invited me to share my own. That type of revelation can allow for real healing. A wound can't heal if it's not exposed.

Kim: I'm reminded when I am at funerals and one person after another speaks so authentically and with so much insight. If only we could take that truthfulness and retain it for our non-funeral activities. It is like we take our clothes off and reveal our deepest most innermost heart of hearts. Wow. How can that level of vulnerability be retained? That incredible warrior strength? That courage?

Emma: Life is so generous to us. It keeps presenting with opportunities for us to open up to our deepest experience of ourselves and one another. Not just with big, momentous life-changing opportunities; all the time. We get to choose again and again how we will respond, who we will let in, how deeply and thoroughly we will let ourselves be moved by it.

Kim: And we can open up now. That's the incredible gift of life—that we can “start over” at any moment.

Ai-ki-do(g) the Way of unifying with life energy or any other growling entity
(Mike McCarthy)

“There are indeed (who might say Nay) gloomy & hypochondriac minds,
inhabitants of diseased bodies, disgusted with the present, & despairing of
the future; always counting that the worst will happen, because it may
happen. To these I say, How much pain have cost us the evils which have
never happened!”—Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, Apr. 8, 1816
After years of participating in martial arts, vulnerability as a practical
physical function has become second nature. It's easy to surrender to an
aggressive force by flowing with the action until your opponent's aggressive
move has carried them beyond their ability to maintain stability and
balance, allowing you to leverage their own momentum against them. But inner
vulnerability as part and process of an enlightened path is much harder to
achieve because the opponent is self. Our ignorant myopic view of reality,
our misplaced fear of hurt or rejection or failure, our selective
pessimistic memory that tends to focus only on the negativity of past
experience, our insatiable desire to control, and our denial of our own
inner potential, all separate us from freedom, freedom from our own self
centered illusion.

As a young boy I walked to elementary school every day, and there was this
large dog that took certain undue and unwanted interest in my wanderings by.
First there were only growls and barking as I hurried by, but somehow the
creature sensed my fear, and the situation escalated over several days. I
tried running and I tried kicking back at the beast, who was set upon
chasing me, but both actions led to tugs at my pant leg and shattered ego as
I desperately tried to remain on my feet and struggled to move beyond his
territorial bounds where he would eventually cease his aggressive pursuit.
My fear only increased as the days went by. I imagined all sorts of
miserable and tragic fates; and, I asked the wrong questions. Why me? What
did I do wrong to deserve this? When will this be over? Can I face another
day? How can I avoid the situation? Should I lie about not feeling well and
stay home?

Then the day came when I was finally liberated from my fears by fear itself.
I had carried the burden for so long that it turned into paralysis. As the
dog raced to once again harass me I was frozen in my footsteps. I couldn't
move; this was the end. I closed my eyes and surrendered to being knocked
down and having my throat ripped out. But seconds went by and nothing
happened. I slowly opened my eyes and there he was, just sitting with head
cocked to the side and ears perked erect. I stuck out my hand and he sniffed
my palm. I remember him relaxing his ears and returning to his haunt on the
front porch of the house. I hadn't fled and I didn't try to harm him; I had
unknowingly communicated a new signal. I wasn't prey on the run, and I
wasn't a threat; I was just another creature passing by.

Fight or flight is part of an ingrained mental state. We have rehearsed
fight or flight so many times in our lives, beginning in our childhood, that
they have become deep ruts in our inner consciousness. But what if we use
the momentum of every situation, good or ill, that comes our way to leverage
our fear of the unknown? What if we simply surrender to vulnerability and in
doing so maintain our inner spiritual balance? Might we find that it is our
self centered and deluded illusion of reality that is the true root of the
distress and suffering in our life?

I'm Not That Old
(Katherine Moore)

I'm not that old. Not really. Not compared to my parents or my grandparents. But I know insecurity. I've watched at least three genocides unfold on tv. I've seen three buildings blow up or tumble down. My country has been at war three times or for a third of my life. I can recall one, two, three, four, five, six school massacres during my time here and several more told to me by the history books. I know what it means to fear. I know that I am vulnerable.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend told me that she took her niece to see a movie and was put off by the presence of armed guards and ushers seating people in the theater. A man (a copy cat killer as he was called) had tried to sneak guns and ammo into a movie theater in Kansas City. Therefore, they were beefing up security in North County St. Louis. Her eleven-year-old niece wanted explanation for the new security measures. My friend said she didn't know what to tell the girl. She said she told her, "All you really need to know is that the nearest exit is right there. Most likely nothing bad ever happens. But if it ever does, it's just good to know where the exits are."

I don't know if my friend's comments to her niece were wise or not. I've never had to talk about random violence with a child. I guess I am lucky in a way that I don't have to figure out what is right action in such circumstances.

This last school shooting played out for me mostly via Facebook. I watched a lot of people I know grieve in a multitude of ways. The posts that disturbed me the most were young fathers explaining that this was why they carried a gun, to keep their children safe. I felt so bad for them.

I have never carried a gun. I never felt I needed to. I did however carry a small can of pepper spray on my keychain. And I did not simply have it in my pocket. I had it in my hand and ready pretty much every time I left the house. I was very scared of one particular person for a period of time in my life.

The pepper spray didn't make me feel safer. I clung to the weapon because I was scared. So when I see these fathers who are my age writing about how this gun will keep their family safe, I already know that they are clinging to that gun because they feel completely vulnerable. That is why I feel bad for them. That and because they have to explain to their kids why it's important to know where the exits are.

The letter I haven’t been sending
(Allyson Whipple)

for A.S.

I’ve spent hours staring
            at your address, pondering
            the etiquette of forgiveness

I’ve catalogued deeper losses:
            Dik Van Merteen
            Mark Gobble
            Amanda Dewey

I’ve weighed my scars,
            all my hours in the dentist’s chair,
            days lost to painkillers
            the cold-snap ache of tendons

There are so many ways to stay angry,
            but I understand the heaviness of guilt

And more than that, I’ve got gratitude
            for walking, for dancing
            for the fact that you didn’t flee the scene

I understand that memory is its own
            kind of nerve damage
            and letters of forgiveness can stir up that racing pain

So please excuse me if I don’t send one;
            I can’t help but fear intrusion

Note: Dik Van Merteen, Mark Gobble, and Amanda Dewey were Austin cyclists/pedestrians hit and killed by vehicles in 2012.

Snow Cold Flakes
(Richard Fisher)

Snow cold flakes
gather warmth
insulating my thoughts
against melting
changes on
the morrow.
Tomorrow now-morrow
ever again
each flake a star
in a galaxy of universes
falling into a well
disappears in

He Was Tapping His Foot
(Ginger McGilvray)

He was tapping 
his foot, 
under that white knit blanket in that 

dying bed in the 
nursing home. 

Hot white August
afternoon, Round Rock
My sister, our cousin and I somehow piled
up and on or around
that slim bed, with my dad, still
tall, still
handsome, still

laughing and
talking as
the three of
us do.

My dad, tired tumored
mind, working on

breathing again.

One of us noticed it,
and pointed,


there it was. How he had tapped
his foot
a thousand times before
to someone like

Neil Diamond,
Marty Robins,
even some funny stuff like

I want to say
it was Johnny Cash singing
Sunday Morning Coming Down,
one of dad’s all time favorite tunes.

Or it could have
just as well
been Willie
City of New Orleans.

Oh yeah.

Dad “couldn’t stand” Willie’s voice, unless
he was singing
that one.

My dad’s
couldn’t help it,
every time.

Tap tap tap tap tap tap

That was the last time.

My Father
(Lina Lee)

Bright moon floating alone,
Autumn wind whirls in chrysanths from home, half the world away.
Papa yawns from his afternoon nap in his old chair,
Throws his jasmine tea party with only his TV.                       
I was 5,
Papa bicycled me to local traveling shows.
I was 10,
Papa scootered me to school on rainy days.
I was 17,
Papa carried my luggage to the train station and sent me off to college.
I was 21,
Papa saw me off on the plane to America.

Papa was young and fast, he ran like a racing greyhound.
Papa was steadfast as a tall standing mountain, echoed colorful tunes
We were chanting in life.

Now, he wobbles, he stumbles, he stammers,            
He keeps his eyes half closed while his TV friends keep on chatting.           

Birth, Aging, Sickness, Death.
Life cycle remains constant.           
My one wish for papa, is a long life
And a share in this moonlight loveliness, half the world away!

Portrait in IMC
(Allyson Whipple)

You wake up, and
call for your husband.
I remember
that's what my aunt did
with her last breath,
so now I'm worrying
that it's the end.

Just as suddenly,
you fall back to sleep,
your legs kicking death away.

I sit and meditate
on your fighting frame.

Every now and then
you groan, as if
the act of resting
is too much work.

It's not yet solstice, and
the afternoon spreads
into night.
Soon, it's too dark to
see, and all I
have is the sound
of your tired breathing.

This morning, I remembered:
(Allyson Whipple)

there's no point in wondering
whether you'll live
through today

either you won't
or you will

just as it would be
if you were out
of the hospital and healthy

we push aside the
facts of drunk drivers,
faulty wiring,
inaccurate directions

we circumvent
the museum of accidents

the trap looms over
us all, and we
pretend it's invisible
to get through each day

yours shines in stark
relief against the hospital
ceiling, but that doesn't
mean it will fall
tonight, or next week

it doesn't mean
mine won't tomorrow

In the Tide
(Sarah Webb)

Stand at the lip
ankle deep, knee deep 
that far, no further.

The place where tides come
in and back, in and drag back,
that’s the place of life.

Stand.  Let the water pull you
not on the dry
not in the deep.

It will call,
siren of dark water,
tremble your arms.

Stand in the dark-light
no sun, no night
forms ready to take shape.

A wave-voice, a tern-voice
cries, What am I?  Am I?

One bare foot
cold with wet
gritty with sand

dark water raising
salt air moving
a star pleading.

(Emma Skogstad)

When you seek and seek
and seek the truth,
when you say yes to it,
even when you think
it will kill you,
even when it rattles your bones,
and slings mud on the crisp
white sheets on your washing line--
when you do this,
eventually, peace will find you
and you will find peace.
But be warned.
Peace is not always quiet or still;
sometimes it is a deep vibration,
a rock and roll song,
a piece of chocolate cake dripping
in heavy cream sauce.
Peace can be raucous,
I tell you, downright audacious.
One night, you might find your peaceful self
dancing naked in your backyard
while the stereo blares through the window
and the trees’ branches and the leaves
and the blades of grass
sway to your beat.

(Emma Skogstad)

Your red car
speeds us farther and farther into now
into ourselves into the night wind
the wind beats against our skin
as the car follows the road’s turns
music pounds loud around us
and out into the night air
dun dun dun
and you sing
and I laugh and you drive
and I watch the night sky.
We fly in your red car
(sadness sits waiting
she can’t fly)
and nothing else is real
for a while—
we are
we are
we are
the beat of the night air,
the music,
the road,
and your red car.

Introduction to French Language and Culture
(Allyson Whipple)

Back when I thought I’d never get married, I picked up a little high school French. I could ask directions to the salle de bains and bibliothèqe. I could order une verre d’eau, un croque-monsieur, une plaque d’escargot. But what mattered most was learning to say Je t’aime. Because I was never getting married, but there was, like, this guy, you know? My own language was too intimate, too real, too dangerous. When he passed in the hall, I’d whisper Je t’aime, Je t’aime, Je t’aime, knowing that even if he heard me, I was safe—he was enrolled in German I.

Tibetan Girl
(Melissa Prado Little)

Love and Fear
(Ginger McGilvray)

Fear and love are not opposites. They swirl around each other and dance and co-create the living moment.