Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Vulnerability and Worthiness

Kim: When Quandra wrote “vulnerability” I felt something hit me in my chest. It is the elephant in the room. “Worthiness” didn't seem so serious . . . maybe even another topic. Tonight I went to a party. Everyone was talking to someone, and I didn't want to intrude and didn't know how to intrude. I thought I might be at the party and leave without talking to anyone, and no one would know the difference. Then I saw a man seated alone, and I sat at his table and we started talking. He knew all about the migratory patterns of Monarch Butterflies and told me about them. I felt vulnerable at the party as I do anticipating my 50th high school reunion in June. What if someone discovers I have nothing to say?

Quandra:  I think worthiness and vulnerability are correlated. When my Uncle Des walks into a party, he proceeds to interject himself into every ongoing conversation throughout the night. He enters the room with the assumption that he belongs. I love it.  He couldn't care less who knows more about a topic of discussion; he'll just throw in his 2-cent opinion with no hesitation or deliberation. In his mind, nothing he says can detract from his non-negotiable sense of belonging. That's an awesome sense of worthiness that I think empowers his willingness to put himself in vulnerable positions (e.g. mingling at a party).

I haven't been as open to vulnerability because my sense of belonging—worthiness—isn't as strong. I wanted to invite a friend somewhere today, but I talked myself out of it, saying "she probably won't want to do it," and decided not to open myself to rejection. I decided not to make myself vulnerable.  Then, I asked myself what a person who assumed their own worthiness would have done. That person, I think, would have just offered the invitation without the deliberation and wouldn't have taken a decline as a personal rejection because their sense of worthiness doesn't depend on any specific event . . . it's just assumed to be true so being vulnerable isn't so threatening. If I believe I'm worthy of love and belonging no matter what then I can be vulnerable and okay no matter how things work out. I can be awkward at a party and know that I was just awkward at that party, that's all. My core sense of worthiness wouldn't be shaken to the point that I fear whether others see me as worthy. I haven't grown to this point yet.

Emma: Me neither. I love the phrase “non-negotiable sense of belonging,” Quandra. Yes, that is what I long for. I hold back, too, swinging between a longing for connection and a fear that being vulnerable will lead to my annihilation.

I used to often feel as though I had no feet. My vulnerability didn't feel like a choice to be made, just something that I had to cope with. Without my feet, I'd get knocked flat on the floor with just about every interaction I had. A lot of therapy and my Zen practice have slowly returned my feet to me. I still get knocked about some, but I can at least stay upright now. I suspect that this basic sense of worthiness is to be found in the body, in having a fully embodied experience of our own right to be here. Our bodies don't question that. I mean, our lungs don't say, “Has Emma been good enough to deserve breath today?” They are utterly impersonal. Our hearts continue to pump blood through us day in and day out, whether we're being kind and loving or a total asshole.

There is grace in talking about topics like worth and vulnerability. It would never have crossed my mind that either of you would have concerns about your worth. You're both fascinating and brilliant. Knowing these fears are universal somehow takes the sting out of them. It's just more evidence that they're not personal.

Kim: The Monarchs’ life span varies greatly (from 3 months to more than a year) depending on when they are born, and what jobs they need to do. The man I was talking to said they are the only animal that has such a varied life span. Of course, we are all vulnerable to have a premature death. But that is not determined by the date of our birthday. Is this vulnerability about fearing death? Certainly that's the vulnerability of a soldier (something I admittedly know little about). Or maybe the ultimate vulnerability is facing the wall in the zendo? We can't turn on the radio or TV. The only opium is running away with out thoughts, and that gets old pretty fast.  We are nothing but who we really is (Suzuki Roshi used "is" instead of "are" to denote the oneness of things).

I keep shying away from the worthiness part of this theme. At first I thought “I don't have an issue with that.” Now I've flipped 180° on that. It is my insecurity of being worthy that makes me so vulnerable. Thanks, Quandra, for suggesting this topic, which is quite the Pandora's box.

Quandra: Emma mentioned annihilation.  That's a heavy word.  When I read that I thought "maybe that's what has to happen though." Maybe, annihilation is what leaves our true selves exposed.  I heard someone say there's a part of us that was never born and a part of us that never dies.  So, not even annihilation can touch that part.  That word made me think about that section of A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield that says “Only to the extent that a person exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible be found within.”

I wrote at the end of my previous thoughts that I haven't grown to that point of a non-negotiable sense of worth yet.  After I sent the email, I thought of it differently.  It's more like I haven't grown to the point of reconnecting with it.  I remember being a teenager who didn't care so much about what others thought.  It's been over the years, for various reasons, that I learned to guard my heart and shy away from being too vulnerable.  That's what I mean when I'm talking about vulnerability: exposing my heart.  I don't really mean physical vulnerability or fear of death.  I feel I have so little control over that.  I don't even bother worrying about it.  I like what Emma mentioned about an embodied experience.  I want to settle so comfortably into my body that I reconnect with that part of me that knows exactly how to reach out in vulnerability.  That part of me knows exactly how to take care of me in that vulnerable state.  I need to reconnect with that.  In my mind, I feel like that would be like coming home to myself.

Kim: Yesterday at a Shuso ceremony at the Zen Temple we had the opportunity to ask questions of the Head Student. I asked him, “Is the Big Mind vulnerable.” First he said, “I haven't heard that question.” I replied, “Well, I made it up.” Then he said no, the Big Mind is not vulnerable, but when we come out of it, we are. I switch back and forth between feeling vulnerable and feeling invincible (actually most of the time somewhere in a la la land in between). It seems my choices when I'm feeling vulnerable are to be depressed, to protect myself from harm, or to simply take notice of that feeling and gently bid it goodbye. Bertrand Russell wrote in his autobiography that he used to feel tremendous anxiety. Then one day he realized that in the grand scheme of things, he was so unimportant in terms of the cosmos that his existence or non-existence really didn't matter (Big Mind?). From that point on he claimed his anxiety had left. Did he bid it goodbye or rationalize it away?

Quandra: I can relate to that. I'm less likely to fret over myself and how others see me when my perspective is broader. I adopted a new kitten this weekend (Zoya). I've been so consumed by taking care of her I barely remembered how agitated I was last week over a very uncomfortable meeting I had at work last week. Normally, I would have replayed that meeting in my head and wondered how each thing I said and did might have been perceived, but I brought Zoya home and was only focused on making her comfortable (and making sure she doesn't scare my geckos and bird). I've had a broader perspective, so protecting my image is smaller. Maybe, it's not that vulnerability goes away exactly. Maybe, it can just be held in such a large perspective that it doesn't dominate our emotional state. I think this is why some people recommend doing volunteer work when you're feeling down . . . getting connected to something bigger than ourselves can make us feel less anxious about our own image.

Emma: Yes, being of service helps me put my fears into perspective. I think it's because love, tenderness, and compassion arise in me, and their enormousness cradles the fear, vulnerability, and shame, which are, in that moment, both right-sized and deeply cared for. The love, tenderness, and compassion might be arising in response to someone else's needs, but they are my feelings, and they help me, too. I've found myself in so much fear about what someone is thinking about me, absolutely lost in despair over it, and then had that same person tell me about some struggle or joy in his or her life, and the fear just seems to dissolve—perhaps like Steven Levine says, into the enormous heart of mercy. And other times, the fear and vulnerability and lack of self-worth are just up and all that I can feel. It's so hard to just greet them, to recognize them as old friends, but doing that feels needed sometimes, too. Kosho talks about how all of our many selves are always trying to help us. The parts of me that feel fear and vulnerability, that say, “No! Do not connect! Danger! Danger!” are loving me in the only way they know how; they're using every bit of knowledge they have to keep me safe. It's just that those parts of me don't have access to the vast store of knowledge and experience from my whole life that I can find when I'm present to my whole self. Congratulations on your new kitten, Quandra.

Quandra: Emma talked about her love, tenderness, and compassion being extended to others but helping her too. I want to remember that . . . my goodwill towards others helps me too. That's really helpful. There was a guy who shared at a meditation group I attended who really made himself vulnerable.  It reminded me of how valuable it is when someone demonstrates vulnerability; it's like an invitation. I'm so grateful that he didn't hold back. His vulnerability invited me to share my own. That type of revelation can allow for real healing. A wound can't heal if it's not exposed.

Kim: I'm reminded when I am at funerals and one person after another speaks so authentically and with so much insight. If only we could take that truthfulness and retain it for our non-funeral activities. It is like we take our clothes off and reveal our deepest most innermost heart of hearts. Wow. How can that level of vulnerability be retained? That incredible warrior strength? That courage?

Emma: Life is so generous to us. It keeps presenting with opportunities for us to open up to our deepest experience of ourselves and one another. Not just with big, momentous life-changing opportunities; all the time. We get to choose again and again how we will respond, who we will let in, how deeply and thoroughly we will let ourselves be moved by it.

Kim: And we can open up now. That's the incredible gift of life—that we can “start over” at any moment.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


Kim: Today we were talking about entering the stream, and I realized (suddenly) that the stream is where we are. Even those who imagine themselves to be looking onto the stream are actually in the stream. In fact, maybe there is nothing but the stream. I wasn't able to say anything about this in the discussion group I was in. It wasn't my turn to talk. But as others spoke about being in or out of the stream it became clearer and clearer that believing that we aren't “in life” is like people in universities believing that they are in an Ivory Tower. It all happens wherever you are, whether you like it or not.

Bruce:  When you guys mentioned the “eureka” theme, my mind immediately went to an unlikely epiphany I experienced while cleaning my cat's litter box. I'd recently returned home after tending to the ash and incense containers from various AZC altars, when something about the quiet, everyday task of scooping cat waste hit me like a flash. I'm hesitant to articulate exactly what happened, because this seems beneath or behind (or before) the realm of conscious thought. Still, some kind of correspondence between cleaning a sacred altar and sifting through cat litter became suddenly and powerfully apparent. Both activities call for focus and attention on the task at hand. And besides, doesn't Buddhism caution against discriminating between the sacred and the profane (and does it get much more profane than cat excrement)? For me, this incident offers a lesson about being fully present and practicing in every moment, and it suggests that awakening is more random than rational.

Emma: Have you two ever noticed how those moments of awakening, of opening, often have this tender quality to them? For me, they arise with such softness and compassion. Yes, Bruce, I agree that they aren't rational. I never have these kinds of realizations after thinking and thinking and thinking. I wonder about their randomness. They seem random. But I wonder. Perhaps we always plant the seed for them. We sit, we listen, we stay open (or at least try), and when the time is right, when we are ready to see, the realization comes, as if from nowhere.

I love how related your realizations are—that we're always on the path ("in the stream"), whether we're being chiden or cleaning up after the cat, that's it's all life, beautiful, terrible, extraordinary, ordinary life. My favorite awakenings are the ones that humble me, sometimes so much so that I'm dumbstruck. They happen when I’ve been rigid, strongly convinced I am right about something or better than or apart from. Out of this contracted, lonely way of being, I’m shown my place in the order of things, my absolute value in messy humanity.

Kim: I got into my car the other day and felt something crawling on the back of my neck. I brushed it off. “Wow. That was big,” I thought. I turned on my interior lights, but couldn't see anything, so I went on my way. Then today I started to get in my car and a rather giant spider had built a web in the front passenger seat. The foreboding creature was in the middle of the web, waiting for me. At first I thought I'd vacuum him to oblivion, but then I felt a little compassion for the scary beast and thought I'd use a broom to move him outside. Then I started to imagine that he'd jump off the broom back into the recesses of my car and kill me at some indiscreet moment. (Is there ever a discreet moment to die?)

So I vacuumed up the spider and his web. (Was it a he or she? I don't know) Then I opened up the shop vac and saw the poor little dead spider huddled along the bottom edge of the tank. He went from being a beautiful gold color to a very dark brown, after being covered with dust.

I went on my way, rushing to the Zen center to sit. Rushing to sit is always a fun contradiction. Next thing I knew, a car failed to stop at a stop sign and was a few inches from the side of my car. I saw time freeze as I made a sudden swerve and survived the near hit. “Ah ha!” I thought. “Payback for murdering the spider.”

I told my wife my theory about the near accident. “But you weren't in an accident. How is that payback?”

“I was given a pass. This time.”

Bruce: It's very interesting that you describe a near-hit, Kim, because I was just thinking about something I once heard on a Zen podcast. This person observed that enlightenment is accidental in the sense of striking us unexpectedly, when we're not looking. Yet while we can't aim for awakening, exactly, what we can do is make ourselves more "accident-prone" through regular, mindful practice. Also, I have to say that "rushing to sit" reminds me of the expression "hurry up and wait."

Emma, you remind me that my favorite poetry captures the miraculous in the mundane, the “extraordinary ordinary, ” as you put it. And you're probably right to suspect the randomness of these eureka moments. Maybe this is how we're able to redirect karma, by planting seeds. Still, in typical Zen fashion, it's not a direct process of creating Cause A in order to reap Benefit B: in that sense, “deliberate randomness” may be a reasonable way of framing it. Live mindfully, simultaneously cultivating skillful means and letting go, trusting that the moments of realization and opening will come.

Emma: Ooooohhh. I like “deliberate randomness,” Bruce. It reminds me of this drawing I've seen of a man fishing from a dock. Next to him is a basket. A fish from behind him is jumping out of the water into his basket. What a great image for deliberate randomness. We can set the stage (and fish our hearts out) and then let go of how, or even whether, the fish will actually come to us. Someone very dear to me once told me you can have everything you need if you're not attached to where it comes from. He said it during a time of many small and large awakenings for me, the beginning of my redirecting my attention from what I thought was going to make me happy (by force if necessary). Perhaps it was the death of my Bulldozer Nature, or at least my first notice that trying to force my life to be how I wanted not only wasn't working but was making me miserable.

My Zen practice is the first thing I've ever done where I've given myself permission to be gentle, to take it slow. Although I sometimes have the odd thought I'm not doing enough, or doing it “right,” (yesterday, I decided I wasn't reading enough), I feel I am being drawn to practice by a childlike sweetness and an adult desire for wholeheartedness. It is extraordinary to me that we come together to learn how to be present. It's an entirely different process unfolding. I like your story, Kim. How different to even ponder not killing the spider. That's what meditation reveals to us, right? The pauses, the awareness of the gap between urge and action. It gives us the time to notice that we have a choice whether we will respond or react.

Bruce: I can totally relate to Bulldozer Nature, as that was very much my M.O. for many years (not that I'm claiming to be totally beyond it now). Also, the gap between urge and action was exactly how I was describing the effects of meditation on myself to some friends about six months ago.

As for blending childlike sweetness and an adult desire for wholeheartedness, my experience suggests that children are sweet, yes, and authentic, but without desiring to be so, without having to think about it. They're also angry, impatient, and various other flavors of not-so-sweet: point is, they are whatever they are in any given moment, slipping into and out of mind/emotional states much more readily than most adults. So you know that statement attributed to Jesus about needing to be like little children in order to reach the kingdom of heaven? I think he was on to something with that.

Kim: A dog came up to me and sniffed my pant leg. Satisfied, he walked away. Did he smell the dog that I'd been with? Did he think, “Oh, he was around a dog that smelled like . . .” As I watched the sniffer, I was particularly interested in that point at which the sniff made sense. He was so abrupt at that certain point, as if saying, “Ah ha, I know who he's been with.” We move from being an input device to a central processing system. We think, “I have the data. Now I know.” That, for me, is “eureka.”

(Note: Bruce Smith's blog: Kim Mosley's blog: )