Finding the Vulnerable Heart, Part One

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.