When we are afraid, we put up defenses. To face our fears, we need to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is universal. There is anxiety in everyone’s nervous system. When we are vulnerable,
we perceive ourselves as a separate from others. We think we are doomed and have to tense against what can go wrong. But, it really is possible to live with an undefended heart.
We all experience the fear, isolation, even shame that is commonly associated with feeling vulnerable. We often think we are the only ones who feel vulnerability. We don’t talk about it because we perceive vulnerability in us as a weakness. Funny that we view it as a strength when we see if in others.
When we feel vulnerable, we put up defenses. We think the defenses protect us from our feelings and the reactions that life is going to trigger in us. But if this avoidance strategy worked, then we would not need to learn mindfulness. The natural reactions that we instinctively resort to, would result in security, happiness, and comfort. But that is not what happens. Our efforts to try to find zones of safety, create terrible suffering. Our instinctive reactions weaken us. They make the world more terrifying. They put us on the hamster wheel of reactivity.
The fear of vulnerability hooks us. We get stuck. If we are mindful, we may feel a tightening or tensing of our body. We feel ourselves closing down or withdrawing. We don’t want to be where we are. If we don’t catch it soon enough, we climb on the hamster wheel of reactivity. This starts by getting hooked into negative emotions like anger, jealousy, blame, or shame. These feelings lead to words or actions that end up poisoning us.
We think that we protect ourselves when we hide our vulnerability. But unless we are willing to open ourselves to risks and being hurt, we are closing ourselves to love, joy and friendship. It is scary to open to the life that is here, so we tense against it. Deep down, we are afraid of embarrassing ourselves or not looking good. So, we cover our vulnerability with layers of armor.
We want to avoid the feeling of fear, so we built barriers and defenses, closing ourselves off from experiences where fear might arise. We delude ourselves into thinking our defenses keep us safe. Often our defenses backfire, bringing about just what we were trying to avoid. A defense for the need to be respected is becoming a know-it-all. However people don’t respect know-it-all’s as they often feel put down by them.
Pema Chodron says that we often “act like timid birds who don’t dare to leave the nest. We sit in a nest that’s getting pretty smelly and that hasn’t served its function for a very long time. No one is arriving to feed us. No one is protecting us and keeping us warm. And yet we keep hoping mother bird will arrive. We could do ourselves the ultimate favor and finally get out of that nest. That this takes courage is obvious. That we could use some helpful hints is also clear.”
Letting ourselves feel our emotions is one of the most courageous things we can do. It is vulnerable to feel even joy. Pema Chodron says, “Emotions won’t kill you but not feeling them will. Our fear of emotion can absolutely kill us. Pain won’t kill us but numbing pain kills people every single day. We’re the most obese, in debt, medicated, workaholic, addicted adults in human history. Pain won’t kill you, numbing pain kills people every minute of every day.”
There is a feeling of freedom that comes when we stop using our energy to appear a certain way and just let our naturalness be there. Instead of using our energy to keep up our mask, we can use it to be present for ourselves and for others. This allows us to feel the peace that being in the present moment can bring. It also opens us to others fulfilling our need for belonging that is underneath many of our fears.
To live with an undefended heart, we need to be in a wise relationship with vulnerability. We don’t put ourselves down for being defensive. Our defenses made sense at some stages of our development, and thus they became a habit. But right now, they may not be so useful. We learn that defended isn’t safe. We may put our armor up to feel safe. But inside we still have the fear that “If I was not defended, I would be in trouble.”
It is hard to take off our armor because then you’re left in a very uncomfortable place. Pema Chodron says, “You’ve been doing the same predictable thing to get away from that uneasy, uncomfortable, vulnerable feeling for so long, and now you’re not. So, you’re left with that queasy feeling. This requires some getting used to and some ability to practice kindness and patience. It requires some openness and curiosity to see what happens next. What happens when you don’t fuel the discomfort with a storyline? What happens when you abide with this shifting, fluid, universal energy? What happens if you pause and embrace the natural movement of life?”
It really is possible to live with an undefended heart. We can get off the hamster wheel of reactivity by learning to be with our vulnerability. Besides needing courage, we can all use some helpful hints. That is what you will find in the post, Practices to Keep Fear from Controlling Our Lives.
May you have the courage to be vulnerable and live with an undefended heart.