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The Paradox Of Vulnerability & COVID-19

Picture of my dog exposing her tummy to be petted
The older she gets, the more trusting she becomes

Wow, what a difference a week makes!

Conditions have worsened significantly with respect to the impact the virus is having on our health and wealth. Last week, I shared a five dimensional way of thinking about balancing out the factors that support our wellbeing. I’ve seen so many positive, supportive offerings on social media, a welcome balance to the more dire sounding statistics and observations we need to consume to remain informed and proactive.

An important psychological/emotional aspect of this community experience is the pressure put on our sense of vulnerability and how we manage that pressure. Americans, in particular, are not used to feeling vulnerable in the ways that covid-19 is opening up. Sure, we’ve had our moments of recessions and stock market plunges, but these have been relatively rare and short lived. The causes have been related to our economic and political structure, things that we feel we have control ove.r Our underlying ethos is that we are the strongest, richest nation in the world, and thus somehow, invincible. Despite all of our resources, we are still in denial about climate change, an acceptance of which, would force us to expose our vulnerability. Our current president was elected on the motto of “Make America Great Again”, and like it or not, it is a deep reflection of our aversion to vulnerability.

The paradox here is that external threats tend to elicit fear responses, and those of us who don’t relate well to fear are likely to invoke all sorts of strategies to essentially live in denial; whereas responding with vulnerability will lead us to seeking help through social support and cooperation. It will lead us to finding the strength that we need to get through this crisis, together.

Consider these closing words from David Whyte’s essay on vulnerability - “The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.”

These times that we are in give us an opportunity to get straight with our relationship to vulnerability. There really isn’t much option. Easier said than done.

Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable requires us to be nonjudgmental, accepting, humble, and courageous. The first of these two are core aspects of mindfulness meditation. Many people think that meditation is about zoning out, or finding our happy place, actually avoiding reality. Those who have braved the journey to being alone with your own mind know it is practically the opposite! Especially at the beginning, and periodically when we find ourselves stressed beyond what we are prepared to cope with.

One of the many gifts of meditation is the ability to observe our mental/emotional state from a slight distance, a touch of objectivity, so that we can go deeper into self-awareness and then into transformation. To do this we have to learn to accept what is happening to us in the moment (e.g. physical discomfort, distraction, judgment, rage, fear, etc) and to allow those experiences to rise and fall without being judgmental, without reacting - other than to be self-compassionate as we develop into our fuller selves.

Slowly, as we become more adept at relating to our mental/emotional experience rather than acting from, we naturally develop a sense of humility. We recognize just how fickle our minds can be, how much strength it takes to stay on a course of intention, and how easily we get derailed. It is courage and the ensuing pride that arises from practicing being courageous that both gets us through and emerges to carry us forward.

Note, if we stop there, then it isn’t hard to understand why meditation is often seen as a selfish escapist activity. What’s the point of all that internal work? It is precisely to transform how we engage with our community and our environment. Through transforming how we relate to our internal world we are building the capacity to change how we relate to the external world. But, this requires explicit attention and effort. It is easy to get stuck in an internally focused meditation practice that brings some inner peace but does not result in transformation of how we relate to others. To do this, we must walk our talk. The good news is, that the resources have been built within us, and now it is a matter of choosing to apply them to our relationship - over, and over, and over again, until it becomes second nature.

I’d like to end with the opening paragraph of Whyte’s essay, “Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run form vulnerability is to run for the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close offer understanding the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability, we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.”

There are tons of great, free resources available to guide you in developing a meditation practice. Checkout my youtube channel with videos explaining the process and guiding viewers through a number of classic meditation practices.

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