The Vulnerability Paradox

Posted on in On Our Radar by Sally Kempton


Roberta approaches me during a break in an urban workshop. Retreats and workshops, she explains, leave her feeling so wide-open that she’ll often find herself picking up other people’s energy and moods. She’d left the workshop the night before, gone out on the street, and felt overwhelmed by the Saturday night energy of the city. Not just the cars honking and the music but the people who passed her by, and even her own boyfriend.

I ask her if in general she feels vulnerable. She burst into tears. “I want to be open,” she said. “But I feel so raw!” Raw, in this case, is another word for vulnerable. And Roberta’s struggle is a real one.

If you’ve done much yoga, meditation, or even deep psychological work, you have probably felt something similar. When I first began experiencing deep states of meditation, the energy generated would sometimes leave me feeling weepy and irritable, hypersensitive, even overwhelmed. No one had ever told me that the first (and many subsequent) stages of opening the heart could feel like exposing a wound, or like taking the lid off of a Pandora’s box of old, unprocessed griefs and fears. Nor did I realize, until years later, that fielding these feelings of vulnerability, particularly being a woman, is not optional, nor even personal to me, but an actual part of the yogic process. Yoga, after all, is not an escape from life, but a way of taking yourself into life’s pulsing heart. As you do that, you will inevitably meet your own vulnerability. Just as vulnerability and rawness are synonymous, so too are vulnerability and openness. In other words, to find your way to true openness of heart, you need to pass through the forest of vulnerability.

Vulnerability, a precious quality of the female archetype, opens the door to love, to grace, and to the deepest forms of healing. Your vulnerability, scary as it can be, is inseparable from your capacity for intimacy and creativity and love. The place of prayer, of yoga, the place where we encounter the divine within ourselves is also the place where we meet our vulnerability.

Yet here’s the caveat. The practice of opening to vulnerability is not for wimps. It’s an advanced practice requiring strength, discernment, and appropriate boundaries—all qualities that your yoga practice will give you, if you give it time.

The most open person I ever met was my teacher, Swami Muktananda. When you looked into his eyes, you’d meet no barriers at all; he was willing to meet you at the deepest place you were willing to go. At the same time, I’ve never met anyone with such strong boundaries and such a take-no-prisoners attitude toward challenging situations. He embodied the lines of the 16th-century poet saint Tukaram Maharaj: “We servants of God are softer than butter, but we can cut diamond.” His softness, paradoxically, was made possible by his hardness, by the energetic strength he had attained through hardcore yogic discipline, by containing his energies and turning them inward until he had created a vessel of absolute protection.

The spiritual journey often looks like a dance between the two poles of vulnerability and boundaries. It’s a continuing dialogue between the impulse to soften and open and the impulse to contain and protect. The two apparent opposites turn out to be equal partners in the process of embodying spirit and heart.

So the question for Roberta was how to accomplish such a balance. How could she—and each of us—continue to delve deep into the inner self, carving out pathways for an open heart without feeling safe or grounded doing so? Or, to put it another way, how do you protect yourself from the dangers of vulnerability without sacrificing its gifts?

You begin by looking at the origins of vulnerability and understanding the path it typically takes.

Original Vulnerability

The developmental journey of every human being begins in utter vulnerability. If you’re lucky enough to be well-parented, your original vulnerability is met with kindness, and as a result you develop basic trust in the goodness of the universe. But even when you have great caregivers, early childhood is filled with necessary losses—including such natural events as weaning, a mother’s temporary distraction or absence, the birth of a rival in the form of a younger sibling. These losses teach us about the world and help us to recognize our unique individuality, but they also accentuate our sense of basic vulnerability.

The Invulnerability Strategy

In response, we set in place our personal strategies for drawing boundaries and finding protection.

Some of us hide our vulnerability behind our skills and competencies, our work ethic and talents. Some hide behind a mask of humor or cool or even anger. Others internalize vulnerability, identify with it, and use sensitivity as a kind of shield, like a friend of mine who disarms his partner’s anger by claiming that it scares him.

The Myth of Invulnerability

The attempt to protect ourselves against vulnerability is a crucial aspect of the human journey. It’s how we survive as individuals. Ideally, our protective strategies give us a “skin” without creating a hard shell. But the shadow side of these strategies is denial of our vulnerability and therefore of the possibility of growth. When the egoic mind runs unchecked, it’s protective instincts can go haywire. “You’re scared of being abandoned?” it says. “No problem, I’ll make sure you’re the one who does the abandoning”—and there goes your relationship. Or it takes the stance of the victim, convincing you that your problems are caused by an ever-changing cast of people who have it out for you, and often unintentionally creating more situations that help you feel victimized. Or takes refuge in a spiritual practice or a religious belief, thinking that it can be saved by some form of orthodoxy, or by staying positive. The strategic ego may convince you that you’ll be safe if you have enough money, the right relationship, or some kind of professional recognition.


At some point, though, most of us are forced to reclaim our vulnerability—whether we want to or not.

Often, this occurs through a head-on collision with a painful external reality—an illness or accident, the loss of a job, a partner’s betrayal, a teacher’s “fall.” This moment of collision with the unexpected is one of the great archetypal themes of literature and life. In the Indian epic the Mahabharata, the royal Pandava brothers lose a dice contest and have to leave their palaces and wives for exile to a forest. The wealthy Jewish aristocrats in the film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis find that their garden walls can’t keep out the Nazis. We read every day about the millions of Syrians, many of them from a “protected” middle class, forced out of their homes in the ongoing conflict. Even people living through less extreme collective circumstances will meet that moment. For Lauren, a ski champion, it was adrenal burnout. For my beautiful designer friend Sasha, it was breast cancer at age 29. For you, it might be the loss of your job or your lover. This is the moment of disillusionment—the rending of the illusion that anything can ultimately protect you from the acute vulnerability of human life.

At this moment, we can either freeze in fear or grief, or choose to use an external disillusionment as a stepping stone on the inner path. In fact, the challenge posed by disillusionment is the very situation that yoga prepares you to meet. Yoga is contained in the moment we meet our essential human vulnerability and choose to learn from it instead of rejecting or denying it.

When we can sit inside our essential vulnerability without armoring ourselves against it, we begin to discover its gift of radical openness. All the higher emotions—generosity, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, and especially humility—emerge from this place of openness and vulnerability. To recognize our vulnerability is to connect with the mystery of life, and especially, the mystery of how life can be so wondrous and beautiful, and yet so absolutely terrible.

I often observe this in people going through intense processes of upheaval and change. They start off by trying to “fix” the fear and confusion that change has created. They’ll call or write me looking for a quick yogic solution to the pain of a lost lover or difficult work situation. As we talk, I sense their feelings of “Why me?” or “What did I do wrong?” I also hear the hope that somehow, there is a short-term practice that will work magic, or a correct attitude that will bring back the cheating partner or the lost job. Sometimes, of course, it does. But most often, healing comes in that moment when the ego gives up the struggle against circumstances and willingly steps into the vulnerable feeling.

Here’s where we get back to Roberta and what to do about her rawness: to hold and bear the acute experience of vulnerability, we need appropriate containers. The practice of consciously putting up boundaries is part of creating a container. Creating a boundary can mean something as simple as maintaining a physical distance between you and another person. Or it can include a subtle practice like imagining a bubble of light around yourself.

It also involves setting personal limits, being able to say no appropriately, understanding who you’re willing to let into your intimate inner circle.

Ultimately, the container I’m talking about is the inner body vessel created through focused practice and contemplation. All yogic disciplines, bottom line, aim at strengthening the energy body—through concentration, through the practice of stillness, through learning how to find and occupy the core of our being, the inner Center from which we can safely ride out internal and external storms. A truly strong container is formed through accumulated practice and self-inquiry. There’s an unmistakable energetic strength that comes from having met and re-met the spaciousness behind the mind, the Witness Self, the space between breaths, the Great Beloved in the heart, the invulnerable inner Self.

Developing Mature Vulnerability

In mature vulnerability, you reconnect with the openness and innocence of the vulnerable child, with its natural connection to Essence. But now, you inhabit that vulnerability not from the original, unprotected place, but from an adult awareness of your own strengths, and also with the power you’ve developed through your practice of yoga and other forms of inner work.

This takes time, but it will develop naturally as you become more and more established in your inner practice.

In the early stages of practice, it’s important to focus on holding your energies in your own center, training your mind to seek the core where strength can be found. But eventually you begin to live from that center, and at that point you may start to experiment. How open can I be in this situation? What do I do when I feel frayed or overwhelmed by others’ energies? A mature practitioner knows just when to put up an energetic barrier or shield, and has a kind of automatic protective energy system that comes into play when needed.

How do you develop the kind of protective energy that allows this? Partly, by the specific practice of invoking protective energies.

For instance, in classical Tantric ritual and meditation practice, you always start your practice by creating an energetic shield, using visualizations and mantras to imagine a container around your self and the ritual circle. Only when the shield is in place—protecting you from uninvited energies—do you open your body and mind to invoke a higher presence or the open space of expanded awareness.

The radical openness of mature spiritual practitioners is possible only because they have gone through the process of strengthening their energetic body. In that way, the openness and apparent vulnerability of a Neem Karoli Baba or Ramana Maharshi is very different from the original innocence of the child. The child is, to use the language of developmental psychology, in a pre-rational or preindividuated state. The advanced practitioner has matured as an individual, differentiated himself from his environment, acquired adaptive skills and protections, as well as a functioning ego. From there, through practice and a radical willingness to let go into vulnerability, he earns openness, true enlightened innocence. That’s what it means to successfully reclaim our vulnerability.

Creating a Zone of Protection

Roberta’s difficulty was that she was opening her field of awareness without having either strengthened her energetic core or protected her energy body. I gave her two practices. The first was the practice of imagining a whitelight bubble around herself. The second was the practice of deliberately drawing in her energies—taking moments during the day to notice whether she was leaking energy, or where overstimulation had made her feel frazzled, or where a strong attraction or aversion had hurled her off-center.

Diving into the Vulnerable Self

It’s important when you want to explore your deep vulnerability to do it from a ground of practice like the one described in the sidebar.

Once you’ve created such a zone of protection, you might begin your exploration of vulnerability like this:

Begin by bringing to mind a part of your life where you feel vulnerable. Perhaps it’s at work. Maybe you feel vulnerable in relationship. Perhaps you’re confused about your direction. Maybe your physical health is being challenged.

Use thoughts of a specific situation to bring yourself in touch with your vulnerability, and then drop the thoughts.

Begin to notice how vulnerability feels to you. It may have a tinge of sadness. It might contain fear. As you explore these feelings, see where you experience them in your body. The feeling of vulnerability may manifest as a wincing sensation in the eyes, as an uprush of tears, as a hollowness in the gut or heart. Find the feeling, and stay present with it for as long as you can.

Then ask the feeling what it has to tell you. What is the message of your vulnerability? What is it showing you?

Finally, ask this feeling of vulnerability what gift it has for you. Then remain open. The gift might come as an insight or a thought. It might also come as an event in your outer life.

When you are done, return to the breath, allowing it to flow in and out through the place where you have felt your vulnerability. Re-create your protective shields. Thank yourself for being willing to enter into the vulnerable self.

True Invulnerability

There is, after all, a paradox that we find as our spiritual practice begins to open us in new ways. At first, opening feels scary, because it recalls your original vulnerability, the unprotected feeling you may remember from early childhood. This can be even more unsettling when your body is filled with toxins, or your health is dicey. (Which is why diet and exercise are such an important aspect of yoga!)

Yet, as you develop the skills learned through genuine practice, you begin to see that going into your vulnerability and connecting with the divine is actually what helps you see that there is a space of invulnerability.

The true gift of meeting your vulnerability is always an opening into your divine core. And this, believe it or not, is the key to true invulnerability. As you touch into and surrender to the radical openness of your divine self, as you settle into the openness that you might experience through meditation, or through opening to nature, or through this acute recognition of the pain in the world, you start to discover that this open spaciousness is invulnerable. Nothing can touch or take away the spaciousness that is most deeply you, just as nothing can take away the love that comes from those depths. So by reclaiming and occupying your vulnerability, by letting yourself truly feel it, going down to the depths of it, you come to the place where you are truly invulnerable. And here’s where you transcend the protections that the ego has been trying to create for you. These are nothing compared to the protection of this enlightened openness.

When you allow yourself to consciously enter the state of vulnerability, you find that at its heart is peace. The peace that comes from standing poised in the aching heart of life. The peace that is your true protection, your invulnerable divine feminine core.

A well-known spiritual teacher and writer, Sally is the author of Meditation for the Love of It, Awakening Shakti, and the audio course Doorways to the Infinite. A version of this article was originally published in Yoga Journal. She is a keynote at the Science and Nonduality Conference, taking place this month in San Jose.

Shielding and Conserving Your Energies

  • » Begin by sitting quietly and focusing in the heart.
  • » From there, imagine yourself drawing in the energies you’ve given out today. Pull back the energy that has gone into phone conversations, into encounters at work, into the distractions of shop windows or the emotional pull of your spouse or child.
  • » Don’t worry if you don’t feel you’ve fully done it. Above all, don’t worry that this will cut you off from the people you love. On the contrary, the practice will let you gather your forces to meet them from a more centered place.
  • » Now imagine a circle of protective energy around yourself. One way to do this is to imagine a thick ribbon of light coming from your heart and wrapping itself around your body like a cocoon. Think of the light-ribbon as an energetic shield that lets in the energies that belong in your field and keeps out the energies that don’t.

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