Vulnerability

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

 

Our lives can be seen as a constant balancing act between protecting ourselves, and yet remaining open enough to ‘life as it is’ for presence, kindness, intimacy.All of us are somewhere on the continuum between being completely closed off and being very open, and where we end up on the spectrum depends on many factors, including our personality, gender, family history, our culture, and life events. Many people become interested in learning mindfulness when they feel the cost of their old self-protective patterns is too high. They may experience a sense of disconnectedness, or struggle in relationships, or realise that their coping strategies seem to cause more problems than they solve. Or their health and emotional wellbeing might show the strain of constant chronic stress.

We certainly need to protect ourselves – there are plenty of people around who’d happily take advantage of us if we let them. A sense of professionalism, of not imposing on our colleagues with our own dramas day in and day out, will help us in our career. Our children rely on us to be strong, to guide them. Yet it’s all too easy to mistake common sense, professionalism and good parenting with needing to appear invulnerable, perfect, beyond reproach. The more we reach for perfection, the more vulnerable we feel underneath. We know it’s only a matter of time before someone discovers a crack in us, and, if we have a tendency towards perfectionism, the slightest visible crack might feel like the end of the world. And striving to be perfect all the time also tends to make us judgemental and unforgiving towards others.

We like stories because they show us the vulnerability of their heroes, their struggles to survive despite their fragility. Even the great warrior Achilles had his Achilles’ heel. The story of Jesus has inspired people for thousands of years, and his is not a story of invincible power but of great openness and vulnerability. When he said, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,’ he was pointing to our common humanity, to the fact we all make mistakes.

People who begin a regular meditation practice often report an increased sense of kindness towards themselves, of being more open and forgiving. Interestingly, this tends to improve relationships even with some of the more difficult people in our lives. Sometimes we are caught in a ‘life and death’ battle, and will need to ensure that even our Achilles heel is firmly protected. Yet most of the time, our relationships will become stronger, and more rewarding, if we can open some of our cracks enough to ‘let the light shine in’.

Weekly practice idea:

What are some of your ‘cracks’, and how do you feel about them? Might some of those cracks be opportunities to’ let in the light’? What would this look like for you?

Anja Tanhane

 

Fragility

bird at garden show

‘(Venetian glass) is fragile and easily harmed as the consequence of its search for transparency and refinement and its desire to welcome sunlight and candle light into its depths. Glass can achieve wonderful effects but the necessary price is fragility. (…) It is the duty of civilisation to allow the more delicate forms of human activity to thrive; to create environments where it is alright to be fragile. And we know, really, that it is not glass which most needs this care; it is ourselves.’

Alain de Botton

I remember watching some B-grade Western on midday TV, when one of the cowboys said about his friend,

‘He faints at the sight of blood like a woman.’

If a woman really fainted at the first sight of blood, she’d be in a lot of trouble every month. Cultures have always struggled with the balance between toughness and delicacy – who is allowed to express what, in which way, to what extent. Sometimes the punishment for getting it wrong – a man who is too effeminate, a woman who is too strong – can be severe. Sometimes we choose a certain group to express our fragility for us – the young ladies in the drawing room, busying themselves with delicate embroidery, forever blushing and fainting, while the men are galloping across the fields boldly exterminating wildlife. In reality we all carry both fragility and toughness within us, and there is a lot to be said for a certain amount of toughness – we usually learn this soon enough in the kindergarten or the school playground. We may not always want to show our fragility to the whole world, but if we deny our fragility, our vulnerability, we are living a life of delusion. And this delusion can lead to scapegoating – expecting others to express fragility on our behalf; and to being hard on ourselves for simply being human.

If it is indeed the duty of civilisations to ‘allow the more delicate forms of human activity to thrive’, as Alain de Botton writes, then it is interesting to reflect where, in our current culture, we allow this to happen. What are the public spaces in which fragility is allowed and protected? We often see people portrayed as either ‘heroes’ or ‘losers’. Un-judgemental admiration for the heroes, unthinking condemnation of the losers – a lot of our public discourse runs along those lines. Yet anyone of us could find ourselves, if we were unlucky enough to end up as a media story, as either hero or loser. I remember reading about a man who risked his life to save a number of people during a severe bushfire. A few years later, he was convicted of stealing bushfire donation money from the local primary school. Our fragility is always present with us – we are heroes one day, and far from glorious the next!

Fragility, as Alain de Botton writes, is the necessary price for allowing sunlight and candlelight into our depths. Meditation allows us to open to the more tender aspects of ourselves. We can be strong, and also allow space in our life for fragility and vulnerability. We can treasure fragility, as the Venetians treasured their beautiful, delicate glass.

Weekly practice idea:

Find some quiet time, perhaps ten or twenty minutes, and reflect on fragility, its precious beauty in your life. What could be a way for you to connect with your fragility, while keeping yourself safe?

Anja Tanhane