“I say vulnerable is woundable.” ~The Guru Pitka
So much of what I’ve been learning about lately is around vulnerability. Vulnerability in a psychological sense, of seeing my own limitations and being willing to acknowledge them. And also in a more cognitive and spiritual sense. The cognitive vulnerability has to do with dropping common ways of knowing and doing things, and stepping into new and uncomfortable territory, kind of like an infant when it takes a few shaky steps. In particular I’ve been stepping more and more away from rational and analytical ways of knowing to more intuitive and feeling-based ways, and it has been both incredibly rewarding and intensely new. And the spiritual vulnerability—perhaps the most complete kind of vulnerability—has to do with surrendering into the mystery, the unknown, into what in the Zen tradition is called, “Don’t know mind.” Spiritual vulnerability is about letting go of who we think we are, without any real guarantee that we’re going to receive some answer that we like.
In every case, vulnerability shares a common movement, one that is away from the solidly familiar and into the tenuous unknown. The unknown is unknown because it hasn’t been explored (by us) before. And for that reason it’s also quite scary. Vulnerability implies with it that we are opening ourselves to possible danger. Or certainly it feels that way. One of the lessons of tapping into vulnerability, and letting ourselves be vulnerable in the right circumstances, is that we see that we often overestimate certain types of danger. We often confuse discomfort and the unknown for sure and certain death! Something as simple as changing something in our routine can feel like an attack on our very sanity.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t certain situations where being vulnerable isn’t the most wise course of action. We have the ability to protect ourselves, or to hold back at times, precisely because we often need to. The world is a very difficult and unforgiving place at times, and thankfully we have the ability to shield ourselves from much of it. Those who lose their shields often lose their minds. But still, we aren’t always the best at estimating the difference between grave threats and those threats which seem real, but really aren’t. Knowing how to see the difference is a function of wisdom, and so wisdom becomes the means by which we exercise vulnerability.
Wisdom helps us see when we need to relax and open, and when we need to be firm and maintain boundaries. For instance, if you have a meditation practice, you’ll be familiar with some of these questions around formal practice: Do you set a timer and practice through whatever happens, no matter what? Do you practice for as long as it intuitively feels right and then move on? Do you have an intention to practice for a certain amount of time but give yourself permission to end or change form if something intense comes up? How much do you trust yourself, and how much do you put your trust in the practice? These are all questions that we have to actively explore as we discern, with wisdom, how to relate to our own practice, and thus our own minds.
In this way, a formal practice like meditation also serves as a meta-development of qualities like wisdom and compassion–two of the most crucial enlightened qualities highlighted in the Buddhist tradition. And these qualities are ones that unfold over years and decades of active engagement with these questions. This is the deep change that Buddhism, and all contemplative traditions, offer. But in order to really reap their benefits we have to continually be willing to step into the unknown and let go of who we think we are. It can certainly feel like dying, but sometimes we need to be reminded that the universe lives and breaths because of death, not despite it.