A Soft Heart: Vulnerability and the Spiritual Journey
In the Christian tradition, the Book of Proverbs describes our heart as 'the wellspring of life', conjuring up in our imaginations the beautiful image from the Song of Songs of our soul, our spiritual being, as an enclosed fragrant garden with the fountain of Life at its centre, and where the Wind blows over the flowers releasing and spreading their exotic scents into the world. But I know from my own path, and from those I am privileged to accompany as a spiritual director, that amidst the pain and difficulty found in life, perhaps one of our hardest tasks in the spiritual journey is to keep a soft and open heart as a wellspring of life at our centre - the undefended heart of Love as shown to us by Jesus of Nazareth. So often, our seemingly instinctive response to pain is to close our heart. We armour ourselves with our defenses in the mistaken belief that this protects us in some way, that this is the guard of our heart, but it is not. It simply hardens our heart of flesh into a heart of stone, blocking our capacity to love and respond to others, ourselves and life in a compassionate, wise way. Our amouring is that very hardness we need to guard against.
“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23)
For some, one of the descriptions of the spiritual path is simply this letting go of our defensive armouring. The Eastern teacher Chögyam Trungpa describes this as 'meeting our edge and softening.' The path of the spiritual journey is that we keep on in some way in life meeting our edge - an edge where we feel uncomfortable, we feel threatened, or where we feel we have failed in some way and feel insecure. And, that our whole path, rather than pulling away or fighting (or whatever else we tend to habitually find ourselves doing in hardening our heart), is to soften and open, to be with the life that is here, not tensing against it.
What we find, when we start opening to the life that is here with us, is that we then begin to open to the layers of our vulnerability that we perhaps have been habitually running from. We open to our rawness - the 'soft spot' - our vulnerability and protective layers where we feel endangered, uncertain or at risk in some way. But with these layers of amouring, we may also find we are unwittingly covering over our aliveness, love, spontaneity and creativity. So, embracing our vulnerability is the path to wholeness and the wellspring of Life, letting the peace of Christ dwell in our hearts. When we awaken to opening to that which we don't really want to feel, and that we are not conditioned to want to feel, then we can start to find this freedom and liberation.
As the Persian poet Rumi so beautifully says:
“Very little grows on jagged rock. Be ground. Be crumbled, so wildflowers will come up where you are. You’ve been stony for too many years. Try something different. Surrender.”
Our culture tends to look differently at vulnerability, especially in our more masculine orientated world that sees vulnerability as showing weakness and revealing of our flaws in a way that seems to give our 'opponent' the advantage. We have been conditioned as part of our development not to look vulnerable: fight, flight or freeze being built into our very nervous system. Everyone has experienced wounding in some way and everyone has a tendency to try and protect themselves from more. And yet, so many spiritual teachers and saints, not the least of which is Jesus of Nazareth, show us the possibility by their lives that we can be more evolved and less defended. We can develop a capacity for an undefended heart. We can start to surrender, developing a wiser relationship to our vulnerability, holding ourselves and others in a sense of open-hearted loving compassion.
St Teresa of Avila's first room in the journey to the centre of our soul is self-knowledge. So, in this spiritual process of ever deepening self-awareness we can ask ourselves:
Do I recognise my own ways of protecting my vulnerability? Am I aware of them?
When my vulnerability starts to arise, how do I relate to it? What happens when I start feeling that sense of being exposed, uncertain, shaky, in danger, or risk?
In what way can I begin, in a compassionate and wise way, to disarm?
Where right now in my life is it possible to meet my 'edge' and soften a little more?
The key is to be in a wise relationship to our vulnerability, not to blame ourselves for how we feel, and to understand that our defenses were perhaps useful at some stage in our earlier development. But that perhaps now in adult life they have become a habit and are not so useful. Spiritual direction can be a safe, compassionate space where we can begin to see and release what binds us in these ways in our spiritual journey. We can soften our edges and start to embrace freedom, responding to ourselves with loving presence and compassion.
''Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.
Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not, 'How can we hide our wounds?' so we don't have to be embarrassed, but 'How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?' When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.'' Henri Nouwen