Mindfulness, Vulnerability, and Courage

Mindfulness, Vulnerability, and Courage

Discussion date: Thu, Nov 17, 2011 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

In our Silver Spring and Takoma Park morning sitting groups we have been reading A Heart Full of Peace by Joseph Goldstein. About a week ago we read a section in which Goldstein describes his experience at a Japanese Zen retreat led by Joshu Sasaki, “a very fierce old Zen master” who taught with koans. As hard as he tried, Goldstein could get nothing right. He would go in for an interview, give his answer, and Sasaki Roshi would say: "Oh, very stupid.” and dismiss him.

Goldstein is given a new, simpler, koan: "How do you manifest the Buddha while chanting a sutra?" Goldstein decides he can do this by chanting a few lines from a sutra they have been chanting each morning. He memorized and rehearsed his chant and went in for an interview:

I went in, did my bows, started chanting— and completely messed up. I got all the words wrong, and the simple melody was nonexistent. I felt completely exposed, vulnerable, and raw.

In that moment, something quite special happened. Roshi looked at me, and with uncharacteristic tenderness said, "Oh . . . very good."

What happened? This is Goldstein’s reflection:

It was a moment of heart touching heart, still vivid after many years. In this powerful moment I saw that to receive compassion and love one must be willing to open to one’s vulnerability. Then we can connect heart to heart.

For several days I kept coming back to the story, often telling it or reading it to others. I realized that I was very confused about vulnerability. I knew what it is. Vulnerability is the capacity to be wounded, or as the dictionary puts it: "susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm." (Vulnerability comes from the Latin, vulnerare, to wound.) However, I had difficulty clarifying to myself or others what distinguished a healthy vulnerability from an unhealthy one. The healthy vulnerability, I felt, makes us alive and and authentic, as the Goldstein story illustrated. The unhealthy vulnerability seemed to be a weakness. It often manifested as fear, defensiveness, or whining. I do not like it in myself. I do not like it in others.

I started poking around the mindfulness practice teachings to see who could illuminate vulnerability for me and this passage by Joko Beck, in Everyday Zen:

Freedom is closely connected with our relationship to pain and suffering. I’d like to draw a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain comes from experiencing life just as it is, with no trimmings. We can even call this direct experiencing joy. But when we try to run away and escape from our experience of pain, we suffer. Because of the fear of pain we all build up an ego structure to shield us, and so we suffer. Freedom is the willingness to risk being vulnerable to life; it is the experience of whatever arises in each moment, painful or pleasant. This requires total commitment to our lives. When we are able to give ourselves totally, with nothing held back and no thought of escaping the experience of the present moment, there is no suffering. When we completely experience our pain, it is joy.

Aha. This is how healthy vulnerability works. It is to have the capacity to be with our pain. It is to have the courage and inner strength to share what scares us with someone else. It is being willing to take risks in life — to ask someone out for a date, to begin a difficult project, to love — all the time knowing that the result could be rejection or failure.

Unhealthy vulnerability is life without the capacity to be with our pain, without courage, and inner strength. It is fearing, feeling overwhelmed by, and running from the pain. It is being afraid to share the pain with others. It is approaching the risk in life and backing down, afraid of rejection or failure.

On a whim I put "Freedom and Vulnerability" in a Google search and came up with an incisive TED talk, the Power of Vulnerability, by Brene Brown, a professor of social work. She looked deeply into vulnerability, her own and others, beginning with a research project focused on relatedness to others. Why did connection come so easily for some and with such difficulty for others? She found:

There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it.

After thousands of interviews and life histories, she found that:

The other thing that they had in common was this. They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they talk about it being excruciating — as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say "I love you" first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.

She found that the original definition of courage when it first came into the English language was "to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart." If we don’t have the courage to be vulnerable, the alternative is to numb our selves to our inner pain. Unfortunately, in contemporary American society, numbing and running away are the options taken. As a result, according to Brown:

We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. The problem is — and I learned this from the research — that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment, I don’t want to feel these. . . . You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.

Brene Brown’s talk is much more subtle, funny, and encouraging that I can convey. This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will watch her talk and share our reflections on mindfulness and vulnerability. You are invited to be with us.

(You can also watch the talk at:http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html. There is also a second, equally wonderful talk available at http://www.livestream.com/tedxkc/video?clipId=pla_ee7b7e83-9020-44f8-9c4f-e06e3b414c3c.)

Joseph Goldstein’s complete telling of his encounter with Sasaki Roshi is below.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner

Senior Teacher

Five Mindfulness Training Transmission Ceremony

On Saturday, January 7, 2012, the Still Water community will join with other mindfulness communities in the Washington area for a Five Mindfulness Training Transmission Ceremony. If you are, or might be, interested in taking one or more of the trainings through the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center, please send an email to info@stillwatermpc.org or let Mitchell know in person. Even if you are not receiving the trainings this year, we invite you to attend the ceremony to nourish your seeds of spiritual commitment and to offer support to those who will be receiving the trainings. Details about the transmission ceremony, and the full text of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, are available on our web site, https://www.stillwatermpc.org.


Heart Touching Heart

From A Heart Full of Peace by Joseph Goldstein

The practice of compassion means letting experience in. A Japanese poet, a woman named Izumi who lived in the tenth century, wrote: "Watching the moon at dawn, solitary, mid-sky, I knew myself completely. No part left out." When we can open to all parts of ourselves and to others in the world, something quite extraordinary happens. We begin to connect with one another.

One of the most memorable experiences in my meditation practice occurred quite a few years ago. I was doing a Zen sesshin— an intensive meditation retreat— with Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a very fierce old Zen master. Roshi worked with the koan method. A koan can be a question the master gives you that does not have a rational answer. One of the most famous koans is "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" The idea is to penetrate the essential meaning, and then to demonstrate your understanding in your response to the teacher.

In this sesshin, we all met with Roshi four times a day to give him the answer to our koan. Everything in the sesshin is very structured, building the tension and the charge in the mind. I would go in with my answers, but often Roshi would just say, "Oh, very stupid," and then ring his bell to dismiss me. Once I gave my answer and he said, "Okay, but not Zen." With each interview I was getting more and more uptight.

Finally, he had a little compassion for me and gave me an easier koan. He asked, "How do you manifest the Buddha while chanting a sutra?" A sutra is a Buddhist text, and we had been doing some chanting of sutras every day. Well, I thought I finally understood the koan: I would simply go in and chant a little of the sutra.

I don’t think Sasaki Roshi knew it at the time, but this koan touched some deep conditioning within me. It went back to my third grade singing teacher, whose advice to me was "Just mouth the words." From then on, I had a strong inhibition about singing in public— yet here I was, having to perform in the pressure cooker of a sesshin.

Sesshin is held in silence except for interviews and chanting, and everything in the mind becomes hugely magnified. I was a total wreck. I rehearsed two lines of the sutra over and over, all the while getting more and more tense. When the bell rang for the interview, I went in, did my bows, started chanting— and completely messed up. I got all the words wrong, and the simple melody was nonexistent. I felt completely exposed, vulnerable, and raw.

In that moment, something quite special happened. Roshi looked at me, and with uncharacteristic tenderness said, "Oh . . . very good." It was a moment of heart touching heart, still vivid after many years. In this powerful moment I saw that to receive compassion and love one must be willing to open to one’s vulnerability. Then we can connect heart to heart.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Nov 17, 2011


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