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.

This is my charnel ground

Now when a man is truly wise,
His constant task will surely be,
This recollection about death,
Blessed with such mighty potency.¹

from the Visudimagga

Charnel Ground on the border between Kathmandu and Paton.

“[W]hen one is actually dying it is a bit late to begin thinking seriously about death. We should familiarize ourselves with the thought long before we hope it will happen! And besides, even for the young and strong, it can still come with unexpected suddenness. Mors certa — hora incerta, ‘Death is certain — the hour is uncertain.’ To bear this in mind is for the Buddhist an important aspect of Right Understanding. And therefore the Buddhist practice of Meditation on Death — not very popular in the West — should be encouraged.”²

Death is on the mind. It surrounds me. Something shifted. Before, there was a sense of detachment. I thought it was due to equanimity. Now, when I look into the face of my patient and see her life retreating, I see my own face. I cannot help but identify with this body that is so soon going to be a corpse. When the woman who talks like a machine gun, nonsensically, shuffles her wheel chair towards me, I cannot help but face my own confusion, the busyness of my mind. When the woman with no short-term memory grabs me and asks me to help her because no one there knows who she is, I face my own feelings of worthlessness and groundlessness. When I stroke the hair of my 98 year-old uncle, who lies in the hospital bed, victimized by pneumonia, and hear his sighs of pleasure in between coughing bouts, I melt; reminded just how important it is to touch and be touched, how we need each other.

The nursing home and its residents are my teachers. They provide an active reflection on what it means to live and die. I cannot do anything but face my fear in this environment. This is my charnel ground.

1. “Buddhist Reflections on Death”, by V.F. Gunaratna. Access to Insight, June 7, 2010.

2. “Buddhism and Death”, by M. O’C. Walshe. Access to Insight, June 7, 2010.

See also:

“In the Dead of Night” a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Chah

Death & Dying at DharmaNet International Learning Center

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