Opening to vulnerability

Chris Rand

This practice is really about deeper and deeper love. That’s what my teacher Doug says. It’s true, I know, but there are so many walls up still. It’s quite difficult to plow straight into the heart. And it’s much easier to just keep it all nice and intellectual, even in the practice itself — to somehow divide mind from heart. But, that’s just not how things actually are. And it catches up with you.

Last week I had an interview of sorts. There was a lot invested in the one half-hour I was allotted, and due to train delays, etc., I was running late. I arrived with a ton of nervous energy and was over-heated, hurriedly pulling off layers as I sat down across from this stranger. There was a smile on my face that didn’t go away well into the conversation. It was a smile that, though perhaps genuine on one level, was belying what was actually happening inside. And the person with whom I met was an incredibly perceptive person. And he turned the lens inward, and forced me to look at that disconnect. He challenged me in so many ways, (and I was uncomfortable in so many ways!). The visceral reality of the pain in my cheeks — because I could not get them to relax, try as I might — and the rawness that emerged in the middle of my chest were together perhaps one of the most intense felt experiences I’ve ever had. I did not want to make myself vulnerable because if I did, the tears were going to fall.

You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation…and that is called loving. Well, then, love your suffering. Do not resist it, do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.–Herman Hesse

Here I was relating. Here someone was giving me the incredible, unconditionally loving, gift of reflection. And boy, did it hurt. There was so much contraction! Fear. “Don’t want to look, don’t want to feel, don’t want to know.” Here I am, dedicating my life to the work of self-inquiry and meditation, and someone holds a really clear mirror up to me and I realize there’s a virtual fortress around my heart.

It started with the question: “Can I be real with you? Can I challenge you?” And then, an observation about how I was relating. And it was not what I would want to hear. Specifically, he told me that I was alienating him. The words I was using were alienating. Here I am, wanting so badly to connect, to relate, to open my heart and all it’s doing is closing. All I could think was, “wow, do I really do that?” Am I just alienating people all the time? Am I putting up barriers so that I don’t have to be vulnerable? So that I don’t have to look at these soft spots? Have I alienated you, dear reader, friend?

Where the self, the ego, the me is, love is not. –J. Krishnamurti

It was difficult to talk about “me”. It became clear in the context of this conversation that I have conditioned myself to talk in generalities, not about my mind, but about the mind. And it’s useful–it’s a way to intellectually encourage an understanding of anatta, of things not being personal. But perhaps it has been premature, in the sense that there hasn’t been enough experiential understanding. Perhaps there’s a sterility there and, as a result, a distancing. And then there’s all the conditioning of just not being in my body. Not being heartful. Being so much more comfortable analyzing, theorizing, reading, talking, etc., rather than just being itself. Experiencing as it is. Opening up to all the story lines that make up my suffering. Allowing them to unravel as part of this process. If I don’t do that–if I just say “oh, they’re not real anyway”–then I’m ignoring, detaching. I’m acting out of fear and aversion. And that’s not wisdom.

Sometimes I think that’s why I don’t write. Why I have trouble writing substantive emails. Why I have trouble writing more often here. It’s that perennial tension of wanting intimacy (thus I generally only relay personal experience) but fearing it at the same time–with every expansion, there’s a contraction. Undoubtedly, after pressing the publish button on this post, it will be followed by the exclamation: “Doh! Why’d you go and do that?” And that’s why being in a situation where there’s no running away, no distracting oneself — whether in a conversation with someone who’s not going to let me hide, or on retreat — is so important. If all you can do is sit, lie down, or walk, essentially do nothing, a lot of “people” are going to show up for tea (see Ken McLeod’s “Something from Nothing”). And if you’re willing to meet them, there’s a lot you can learn. The walls go up every time I insert media, Internet, book, etc., into the mix instead of just feeling whatever is being felt, instead of just knowing what’s being thought. There’s so much distraction from “me”. And it means that if someone is going to meet me in that space of vulnerability, I’m going to have a much harder time meeting them because, if I can’t meet myself intimately, how am I possibly going to meet another?

Yes, this practice is about deeper and deeper love. And it starts right here.

Thanks to Parabola for the Hesse quote.

Leave a comment


  1. Maria

     /  February 3, 2011

    Really liked your post. Somehow I can relate to it.
    Thanks for putting such difficult feeling into words.

  2. Beautiful, Katherine! and thank you for sharing.

    I think you are being too hard on yourself here. This person who was interviewing you was well intentioned no doubt, AND there are also some good reasons for why you may have taken your time to let down your armor. This is what we do as humans. Thousands of years of having to shield ourselves from potential aggressors. Opening up to a perfect stranger requires some time, more so for some of us than others. It is just the way it is, and no need to layer harsh judgement over that reality.

    May you be kind to yourself, and may you cuddle the soft armor around your heart.

    • Phew, I’m human, what a relief ;) All kidding aside, I actually don’t feel there’s so much judgment. This experience was an important teacher and there’s really quite a bit of interest. Certainly a wanting to soften that armor, a wanting to be more open and vulnerable. But there’s also a meeting me exactly where I am. Thank you, as always, for your love and support from afar.

      • “I actually don’r feel there’s so much judgment” is a judgment! Is there a “right” amount of judgment or too much or too little? Oh to be able to have instinct and intuition so the judging! lol Getting back to “I actually don’t feel there’s so much judgment”, could you say that without the negative? What DO you feel, or is that putting you or anyone on the defensive? Do ALL questions put us on the defensive? Are we all bullies when we ask ANT and ALL questions, even if it is an MD trying to save ayour life? Maybe questions are OK if there is zero invalidation in the form of the questioners agenda having ego and or drama? Oops, is that a judgment, too! How to communicate without ego?

        • Meant: Oh, to be able to have instinct and/or intuition DO the judging instead of my identity, my ego and drama, etc., do the judging. When and/or if I, my identity, my ego, my drama, my social and cultural constructs DO the judging, perhaps instead of reall doing any judging of others I am really only projecting about myself! Maybe the fairest people of all are those who hardly communicate at all, because at least they are preventing judging from continuing!

  3. On the internet, Katherine, you are the most open and vulnerable writer in the entire Buddhist Blogosphere. And frankly, I hear the phrase “You are alienating me” as your interviewer’s projection. He might have felt alienated, but can he own it as his own feeling rather than projecting it on to you are your doing? I think it is tremendously hard to remain open when one projects so much authority/wisdom onto a teacher and invests so much hope on a particular interview. We want to appear our best and most pleasing, we want to present the image of our best self — and then this other person in challenging – who wouldn’t be defending their heart? The opening line “Can I be real with you” immediately sets off alarm bells in my mind. It is the opening line of someone who assumes a role of power and authority. Why not just be real rather than announcing it? I don’t want to invalidate your feelings of regret or sadness at feeling inauthentic or self-protective and not open and loving in that interview. It’s just that I know how hard being that way would have been for me under such circumstances. I agree with Marguerite. Be easier on yourself. The first challenge of the Buddhist path may be compassion for ourselves when we catch ourselves being ourselves. How can we extend lovingkindess to others when we can’t extend it to ourselves? As for me, I still don’t know what to do in an interview with a teacher. Everytime I am in one I have to ask myself, what is this for and why am I here? It’s taken 14 years to figure out how to be me in these interviews. Sometimes. Was it Joko Beck who once said she wouldn’t cross a room to meet a teacher? Metta.

    • Seth, thank you for your heartfelt comment and for sharing. You bring up an important point – and that’s the conditioning around authority. It’s very strong. And interviews are tricky as a result, no doubt (and group interview, eek!). I agonized over them so much on my first long retreat. Never felt like I was communicating effectively. Was I authentic in this particular interview? Absolutely. Could I be anything else? Totally agree that being compassionate with ourselves is key–that’s why I said about deeper and deeper love: “it starts right here”. Oy. Superlatives. Vulnerability in one two-dimensional context is not the same as in others, however, and I guess I’m just saying I want to know more about this mind-heart, which is not two, but one. And contraction always flummoxes. There’s so much to learn there…

  4. Katherine,
    As Marguerite says, how beautiful and thank you for so openly and honestly sharing such intimate thoughts and feelings with us. How kind of you to us, but as Marguerite says, I sense that you were being too unkind to yourself.

    A few thoughts spring to mind to share with you. There is the wonderful Ajahn Chah quote: “Only one book is worth reading: the heart”
    But first you have to open the book, open the heart. To be more exact, I suppose he meant citta or heart-mind rather than the heart in our Western heart-mind duality.

    So how do we open our hearts?

    Through meditation? Ajahn Chah again: “In meditation we are learning to read the book of the heart”. Metta meditation in particular shoud be helpful and I have found it so. Also, Ajahn Sumedho is always encouraging us to meditate with the attitude of metta, an open-heartedness to what arrives at the “meditation door”. Also Joseph Goldstein discusses (“One Dharma” p. 114) Thich Nhat Hahn’s suggestion that “when we are feeling anger (aversion) we should hold it in our arms with great tenderness…..bringing mindfulness to the anger is like the sun shining on a flower; the flower cannot resist opening when the sun penetrates it”

    Another way is reflection? Yesterday, I listened to two talks by Gil Fronsdal ( mid-2010) on intention in our practice and life. Gil encourages us to reflect daily, if not more often, on our deepest intention(s). Reflect more, distract less. In Gil’s recent talk on “Solitude” he warns against such time consuming distractions as computers.

    As soon as I started reading this post, and being mindful of the need to reflect on my deepest intentions, and it triggered the intention in me to become more open-hearted. Thank you so much for helping me see this.

    Many teachers talk of the need to remove the crusty layers of conditioning, defilements or whatever that surrounds our hearts. A nicer image prompted by your beautiful photo and Thich Nhat Hanh is that we are like flower buds that one day may open to free the beautiful flower inside – our pure hearts or Buddha-nature. May it be so.

    • Thank you Terry. Indeed, we must recognize mind/heart as one as in citta. And metta is very important, but my practice has consistently shown me that it’s something that has to arise organically. True, we can have the intention to cultivate metta in all that we do, but as far as a specific method of meditation it’s just not authentic for me. So, it’s more about showing up for exactly where I am and the more I can do that, then the better I can show up for others.

  5. Wow. There’s a lot I’d like to say right now, but I’d rather say it…not type it. And not even say it so much as just talk about it. Poke it here and there with a stick and see what happens. I agree with others that whatever happened in that interview sounds more like it was about him than about you. From your account it sounds like you were doing exactly what people are supposed to do in interviews. He may have been trying to put you at ease, but telling you that you were alienating him is hardly the way to do it. Perhaps he has his own discomfort with authority, with being the boss, etc and was trying to signal that it’s OK to talk person to person. Nonetheless. One interaction. Hard to conclude anything. But I think this is different from the point you were making about using media, the Net, books, intellectual repartee (sp?), to both approach and conceal. And I think it’s worth exploring whether or not there is any sense of urgency, drivenness or compulsion there (you know, that whole greed, hatred and delusion thing). Before taking that as a criticism, I’d hasten to add that this too may be more about your interlocutor (in this case me) than it is about you. I admire this post and its vulnerability, but I wonder what will happen when you and your readers are no longer looking our computer screens.

    • Okay, especially because it seems like without the tone, the gestures…there was some misunderstanding across the board, and you would rather talk then type about it, we will continue the conversation off line then ;) And a very good point Mr. K, re what happens when someone steps away. Hope you check out Nathan’s post.

  6. nathan

     /  February 4, 2011

    hmm, i’ll echo Seth’s point about authority, as well as the pressure of an interview setting, which easily can lead to desires to offer something “perfect.” i’ve had opportunities to sit these past two weeks with narratives arising right before interviews with our teacher at the zen center, and it was funny how i was essentially searching for something “wise” to say, instead of just offering what was most burning. because i got to sit with those narratives for an hour, two hours at a stretch, i was able to go in and just offer, but a lot of mental gymnastics took place beforehand.

    on the other hand, although i agree with the others that you might be pushing too hard on yourself about all this, i want to support the deep inquiry you seem to be doing, and also a willingness to take more risks, in particular in relationships.

    i’ve come to see how easy it is for those of us who have been “on the path” for awhile, in committed ways, to get lost in Buddha speak, and also to stay silent not as a wise decision, but as a method of hiding. i see it in myself at times, holding back when i’m not confident enough in what i have to say, or when i don’t have a string of definitive answers or wise questions to offer. and i see in at least some of my fellow sangha mates, and in the way some of us write and discuss online. it’s so much easier to sound wise than it is to actually embody it, and let it come through on it own.

    we’ve been having a thing at zen center we’re calling a lay practice intensive. two weeks of meditation, chanting, and dharma study that occurs around the two ends of the “ordinary day.” practice in the morning, then going to work, interacting with others, doing your life, and then practice in evening. one of the qualities about it that i’m finding enjoyable and challenging is the flow between introspection and outward expression. the retreat container has often felt otherworldly to me, even though i know it’s been a great support, especially when i was first starting.

    but the larger point i’ve been seeing is that regardless of form, whether long retreat, “practice intensive,” or just a daily sitting practice or sutra study – none of it necessarily leads to being a more open, vulnerable, and alive person. The threads often need to be deliberately teased out, so that the introspective insights are translated into awakened relationships based on love, vulnerability, and wisdom. i always remember the buddha’s hesitation to teach during the first days of his awakening. to me, that’s a story about vulnerability, about relationships, and about how we can make decisions that expand the field of insight, or which contract it in every moment.

    so, don’t be too hard on yourself, but don’t be too soft either.

    • Nathan, thank you. You got my back here in a big way. Really appreciate your input. On the obsessing over what is going to be said in interview, geez, I think we must have all experienced that many times over. The beautiful thing I’ve learned from that – including one 16 hour period during a week-long retreat the theme of which was basically, “the tyranny of thought”, where I could not stop thinking about how I was going to set things straight with my teacher and how I was going to tell him this and that and blah blah, only to have it all melt away the minute I walked into the interview – is that while thought can be used skillfully in order to better relate to others, what ultimately matters is what’s right here, right now. And you can’t plan for that; thought can’t think it’s way out of it or through it. Indeed, it just offers itself up. That’s wisdom working.

  7. alywaibel

     /  February 4, 2011

    Thank you for the honest sharing of your experience. This post seems different from some of your other more intellectual posts, and I really relate to it! When I am working on being more open and fearlessly vulnerable in my life/practice, experiences like what you described happen. It doesn’t matter what he was or wasn’t projecting, just use it : )
    Thank you, again, for your vulnerability here, it is really precious.

  8. Ha! I see a little more clearly how intense this was. Sounds like quite the lucky experience, however painful. I feel like sometimes we need someone to tell us “hey, your foot’s in a bear trap” in order to start feeling the pain of the metal teeth in our ankle.

    In any case, thank you for sharing this. The rawness and openness of the post really comes through, and is greatly appreciated. Lord knows it ain’t easy.

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