Walking with the vulnerable self

April 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

Walking with the vulnerable self 2

To walk with the soft spot is to reclaim the disowned self and openly acknowledge its vulnerability without trying to change or “solve” it. To do this, the psychological barriers that prevent contact with the vulnerable self must be peeled back. In doing so there is a risk of prematurely exposing the inner self but if we never do it our suffering will never end.

It is not difficult to imagine why the soft spot was disowned. It sensitivity to things like disapproval and criticism is easily felt. And if you add trauma to the mix this sensitivity may be raised to a level that is comparable to a surgeon’s scalpel probing a raw nerve! To avoid this suffering we isolate the soft spot, much like we do a broken arm with a cast.

The mental cast that keeps you safe is a psychological barrier that directs attention away from the soft spot. Often formed in childhood these barriers appear as subtle or intense urges to do or not do something. The inability to focus when feeling anxious is an example of how a mental barrier directs the attention away from the soft spot.

Psychologists have described the interplay between the soft spot and these barriers as an authority facing someone without authority (e.g., the ‘inner child vs. inner parent’ or ‘top dog vs. the underdog’). However one describes it, their interaction is marked by an inner conflict that seeks to deny the self.

A key form of denial is identifying the soft spot’s vulnerability as some essential flaw in your nature that must be kept hidden if you are to remain safe. Over time, openly admitting this vulnerability then becomes tantamount to exposing your self to direct danger or even death.

One could spend a lot of time analyzing the psychological results of believing the self to be essentially flawed. It’s clear that feeling unworthy might evoke feelings of depression, anger or anxiety. Certainly dysfunctional living results from trying to disown this seemingly flawed self. But such analysis is only useful to the extent that it enables us to remove the barriers that keep the attention off and away from the vulnerable self.

In meditation we have a unique opportunity to turn our attention to the soft spot and reclaim the vulnerable self. Initial attempts to observe the soft spot may be brief as mental barriers will turn the attention elsewhere. You may find yourself mesmerized by seemingly real dangers that only later are seen to be imaginary. In general, you’ll feel even more vulnerable as you begin to explore what lies beyond your barriers. This is normal and there will be times when it is better to step back rather than plunge into emotional chaos. Only you can judge how to best proceed.

As barriers start to fall we uncover the false connection between our sense of value and vulnerability. We find that it simply isn’t true that if some hardship befalls us that it did so because of some essential flaw in our nature. We find that if someone says something critical that it does not mean we are bad. And we see that what we’ve feared all along is the judgment that we are bad. But that judgment is false!

Up to this moment we have disowned the soft spot because we mistakenly believed that we could not make a defense against our own essential badness. Seeing this is not so, that we are not bad, we start to walk with the vulnerable self in our daily life. Our first steps will be faltering as we still are under the habit of denying our soft, vulnerable self. But as we strive to hold this self in awareness we slowly come to understand that the only way to protect self is to be self, vulnerabilities and all. And when we do, we discover that the vulnerable self is, and has been all along, the Venerable Self.


Sitting with fear and your vulnerable self

April 7, 2016 § 3 Comments

Sitting With Hakuin

The Buddhist teacher, author, nun and mother, Pema Chodron tells us that if we follow fear down to the core of our being we will ultimately find that it represents a fear of self; a fear of self’s innate vulnerability. She calls this the ‘soft spot’.

The soft spot reminds me of the Sacred Heart of Christ that is described, in part, as pierced by a lance-wound, encircled by a crown of thorns and bleeding. Christian dogma tends to the interpretation that Christ’s heart bleeds because of our sins, which suggests a connection to the concept of original sin. I mention this because it parallels the experience of the soft spot as a place of suffering that we wish to avoid, and as some fundamental flaw in our nature that we wish to correct.

The approach to the soft spot requires care for in it we find our deepest fears. Serious psychological damage can occur if the undisciplined or weak mind enters the soft spot. It is therefore important to strengthen the mind through meditation where, in its early stages, we learn not to follow thought but remain focused upon a single object.

When the mind has reached a certain level of discipline the attention can be trained on the soft spot. The strategies employed to protect this weakest and most vulnerable area then start to show. We may see, for example, how status or a sense of humor is used to cover deep feelings of fear, shame or guilt. The strategy most used, and which underlies all strategies, is denial. Over the years we have trained ourselves not to look at our soft spot because of the deep discomfort and fear that lay there.

As we learn to drop our strategies, we invariably feel the discomfort of the soft spot ever more keenly. We feel the fear of being vulnerable to illness, injury, disapproval or loneliness. We feel the shame or guilt over believing that it is somehow our fault that we feel this way. “Other people,” we think, “aren’t like this. So it must be me!”

As uncomfortable as these feelings are it is necessary to stay with them. Yet, at times when the feelings become too intense, it may be necessary to walk away for a while. You must use your own wisdom in this regard. But each effort puts us a little closer to being able to sit with our fear and neither come under its influence nor push it away.

As we hold this soft spot gently in the awareness we join Zen master Hakuin Ekaku who sat with his terror of falling into hell. We sit with Jesus as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. We sit with the Buddha in those final hours before his great enlightenment when Mara conjured up hosts of terrifying demons, throwing spears, firing arrows and trying to burn him with fire.

If you do not turn from your suffering but, as Mumon wrote in the koan Joshu’s Dog, “enter this MU and there is no discontinuation, your attainment will be as a candle burning and illuminating the whole universe.” You can then enter any world as if it was your own playground and you will be free of life and death.

The ultimate freedom spoken of by Mumon does not come easily. Yet there are rewards along the way. Fear becomes more manageable and as we stay with our own vulnerability our hearts open to the suffering of others. Fear of illness may turn to compassion for the sick. Fear of loss may turn to a desire to help the poor. The willingness to open your heart to your own suffering, opens your heart to others. And all this starts with a simple willingness to sit with your own fear and vulnerable self as did the Great Masters of Old.

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