Vulnerability and Caring for Others

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Brene Brown describes vulnerability as the willingness to show up and be seen, deeply seen. In her book, Daring Greatly, she discusses the life-changing capacity that allowing ourselves to be vulnerable can bring:

Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, and creativity. … I know this is hard to believe, especially when we’ve spent our lives thinking that vulnerability and weakness are synonymous, but it’s true.

I have been working with my own ability and willingness to allow myself to be vulnerable, to be seen. I wanted to bring this  topic to our practice evening this Thursday.

One of the most challenging experiences that I have had in my life has been supporting our daughter Callie as she has struggled with an eating disorder for the past 6 years. As the disease has progressed, and Callie has been in and out of more than a dozen treatment programs, we have had to constantly evaluate how our support may be helping or hurting her chances for recovery. Over the course of time, we have had to make adjustments based on the information and experience we had acquired at the time.

Personally, I have come face-to-face with a number of beliefs and opinions that have directed how I viewed this situation and that have guided my actions. For example, early on, I had a strong desire to fix this problem for her. I worked with her nutritionist and prepared all of her meals, and made sure that she followed her meal plan. This was sufficient to get her out of high school and off to college, but it certainly did not solve the problem. Later, I became focused on tough love. With this approach, I attempted to use financial support as an incentive to “encourage” her to follow her meal plan. That did not work so well, either.  We have tried a number of tactics from signed contracts to various types of rewards to meditation and yoga retreats. Little has worked in helping her find a permanent solution.

This winter, Callie was again losing weight and her treatment team called and asked if I would be willing to come to Montana for 10 days of intensive family therapy with just her and I. The family therapist explained that the family dynamic is such that one parent is often the nurturer/caretaker and the other the provider/protector (although frequently these roles are interchangeable) and she felt that given the parental role that I played in our family if Callie and I built a stronger relationship together it might allow her to find her voice to stand up to the eating disorder.

So, I went to Montana for 10 days and I hung out with Callie and we had a lot of fun, did a lot of therapy together, and we worked on our relationship. During this time, I came directly in contact with my own vulnerability. In our first family therapy session, I was overcome by a deep fear that maybe it was my parenting skills that caused her to have an eating disorder. I opened to that possibility. I also realized how hard it is for me to be open, completely open, with another human being, even one that I love and feel close to. I worked hard to open to her and to the therapy. And finally, during an evening meditation, I cradled the eating disorder in my arms like I had heard Thich Nhat Hanh describe doing for anger, and in that moment, I realized just how much the eating disorder had contributed to our family. In many ways, the eating disorder has been protecting Callie, helping her feel less vulnerable in a world that seems way too frightening for her.

The situation with Callie is still very much on-going. She is just about to get out of a 4-month stay in a treatment program, and she will be heading back to her life in Bozeman in a couple of weeks. I am still very much figuring out how to continue our work together and how to best support her. I am not certain how to proceed forward, but I do have the strong sense that opening to my own vulnerability is going to play a key role in her recovery.

In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote the following passage that applies nicely to this topic:

We talk about social service, service to the people, service to humanity, service to others who are far away, helping to bring peace to the world – but often we forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first of all. If you cannot serve your wife or husband or child or parent – how are you going to serve society? If you cannot make your own child happy, how do you expect to be able to make anyone else happy? If all our friends in the peace movement or service communities of any kind do not love and help each other, whom can we love and help?

This Thursday evening after our sitting and walking meditation, we will explore how we open to our own vulnerability in caring for others by addressing the following questions:

What are your experiences with vulnerability in helping others?

How has your practice helped you to be more open and willing to serve others?

What mindfulness techniques do you use to open your heart when you notice that you are closed off toward someone?

Some additional excerpts on vulnerability and service are below.

Warm wishes,

Eric Donaldson

“I’ve come to this belief that, if you show me a woman who can sit with a man in real vulnerability, in deep fear, and be with him in it, I will show you a woman who, A, has done her work and, B, does not derive her power from that man. And if you show me a man who can sit with a woman in deep struggle and vulnerability and not try to fix it, but just hear her and be with her and hold space for it, I’ll show you a guy who’s done his work and a man who doesn’t derive his power from controlling and fixing everything.” Brene Brown talking with Krista Tippett in the podcast On Being episode entitled, The Courage to Be Vulnerable (Jan. 29, 2015)

“The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers. If you love someone but rarely make yourself available to him or her that is not true love.” Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ

“Don’t throw away your suffering. Touch your suffering. Face it directly, and your joy will become deeper. You know that suffering and joy are both impermanent. Learn the art of cultivating joy. Practice like this, and you come to the third turning of the Third Noble Truth, the “Realization” that suffering and happiness are not two. When you reach this stage, your joy is no longer fragile. It is true joy.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

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