I remember almost 25 years ago, sitting in my friend’s apartment crying in Marie’s arms as the waves of old (but now fresh) grief flowed out from my heart. Once again, I stepped through the fear and shame that my grief made me weak and incompetent, un-intelligible and less than. And even while I was openly and unrestrainedly expressing my grief and deep sadness 18 years after my father’s death, I feared that doing so made me even more unacceptable and displeasing. I feared what she was thinking about me, how she might judge me. But slowly, the fear began to dissolve as she uttered some compassionate words: “Of course you miss and grieve your dad. Your grief and tears are beautiful. You must have loved him with all your 10-year-old heart. We all have to tell someone. And you are wonderful.”
A year later, I had a very difficult experience with a friend I confronted on what I experienced as very disrespectful behaviour. That confrontation was met with anger and great displeasure and I was left feeling humiliated, confused and ashamed. Part of me wanted to hide in my apartment, to shut down my heart, to repress all the deeply painful feelings flooding me. But another part of me knew that hiding was the ego story of shame and humiliation. The heart story of humility, vulnerability and self-compassion knew that I had to reach out, be vulnerable and through humility and full presence to the moment, find my centre, reclaim my light and discover the wisdom available.
I called upon another friend who listened compassionately and quietly, who just sat with me as I worked it through. He didn’t try to fix it for me. What he did do was affirm that I’m a wonderful woman in what felt like my weakness and wrongness. What he did affirm was my hurt beneath the shame and that this encounter was not my wrong-doing alone. I felt loved and accepted. In that love and acceptance, my shame scattered and became undone.
I share these two experiences to highlight the power of appropriate, respecting and safe vulnerability. To experience the power of vulnerability, we invoke, even if unconsciously, the virtue of humility and the presence of a higher reality of love.
Humility differs from humiliation in that humility calls us to respect our humanness and divinity simultaneously and equally. As a human being I have limits. These limits are good and life-giving here. Without the use of some sort of flight mechanism, for example, I cannot fly. I cannot live years without food, water, sleep, shelter. As empowered as anyone can be in their imagined potential, we are grounded into the critical point of our actual human potential. In our bodies, we cannot live outside the human experience.
While we humbly acknowledge this truth, we also can and need to acknowledge that we too are spirit within. Spirit and matter meet within, which is the blessed incarnation of our unique existence. Humility calls us to claim both and so when we feel naked in our vulnerability, we equally are invited to claim our inner light and cherished essence.
In acknowledging that I’m both divine and human, I can trust that my vulnerable encounter with my own deeper being will lead to healing, love, and wholeness. The fear that my friends would criticize, shame or reject me was a smokescreen to my deeper ego fear. My deeper fear was that ‘my vulnerability and inner light were wrong’.
However, the power of humility called me into full presence, full vulnerability with my heart. When I humbly open my heart and become vulnerable to “what is, as it is”, as in the moments described above, I become fully present to me, to the other, to my experience as I am rather than my ‘ideal’ of who I am. In that presence, I stepped into the acceptance that I am loved. True vulnerability is pure presence. And pure presence to “what is, as it is” radically transforms us and those equally sharing this moment of presence.
Richard Rohr, a contemporary Franciscan mystic puts it this way: “In being humbly vulnerable, you give a piece of yourself to the other. You see a piece of yourself in the other (usually unconsciously). This allows the other to do the same in return. You do not need or demand anything back from them, because you know that you are both participating in a single, Bigger Gazing and Loving—one that fully satisfies and creates an immense Inner Aliveness. Simply to love is its own reward. You accept being accepted—for no reason and by no criteria whatsoever!”
We often consider those who are vulnerable as beings who are weaker than us, such as children, animals, our ecosystem, women in many countries, and spiritually speaking, the path to the Divine Feminine. However, mystically speaking, being vulnerable as a child or as an animal or our ecosystem is to be without the personal ego’s rationalization, judgements, analysis, ego constructed intellect and shadow defenses. Such vulnerability, mystically speaking, often invokes compassion, delight, joy, open to the wonder and awe and natural rhythms of life without needing to control or dominate the resources that sustain life. Mystically speaking, such vulnerability calls us to be fully present to the moment as it is, without dividing the moment. And such vulnerability is a practice of humbly accepting one’s beautiful place in the ebb and flow of all life. It’s the practice of deep acceptance of who I am as I am, neither greater than nor lesser than any being.
This is the radical nature of true vulnerability and humility. It is the practice of ‘Presence’. Presence shares with us the gift that we are loved, accepted and worthy as we are in this moment. Humbly, we tell our truth to ourselves and to the compassionate other. It’s about sharing our heart story, embracing that somewhere in our pain or shame or weakness, we are light, love and worthy. To the ego, vulnerability must be controlled and dominated. To our hearts, vulnerability or true presence to ‘what fully is as it is’, is a radical blessing of empowerment, truth-telling and healing. And so it is!