By Jessica Graham
The strongest of us are those that are spiritually strong, and a spiritual warrior is one of vulnerability.
– Chogyam Trungpa
I recently spent a little over a month in silence at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge facility. It wasn’t always easy because I’m dealing with some health issues. One of the consequences of that is that I had to make all my own food. Now this place had some amazing food, truly. But my body couldn’t handle it, so I stuck to my very simple and healing Ayurvedic diet (shout out to Amazon Prime for mailing me everything I needed!).
I felt quite exposed and vulnerable in the little yogi kitchen making my meals, while everyone else ate what was served. I also felt a little guilty about not partaking of the delicious meals the kitchen staff made with so much love. I did my best to abide in love and kindness, while allowing the quiet burn of vulnerability to arise.
One day about half way through I was working away on soaking some rice and cutting up some apples to cook, and a much older Russian grandmother type of woman came into the tiny kitchen with me. I immediately tried to shrink down the square footage I was covering with my food prep. Soon she dipped back out, only to return twice more. I wasn’t bothered by her in the least. It’s a tight space but there’s enough room for two. After the third entry, she paused and looked at me.
Now on silent retreats such as this one, folks don’t make eye-contact. That helps you to go deeper in and is a wonderful part of the practice. But this woman was looking right at me expectantly, so I looked back. She said, That was the last time, I promise, and smiled and did a little bow. To my utter shock I said, I’m sorry I’m taking up so much space. That isn’t how I talk to myself or about myself these days, but I suppose the little girl who didn’t have enough room to be herself is still in there. I now felt exposed and vulnerable on a whole new level.
This small, square woman, who was always smiling, looked deep into my eyes and said:
You are taking up the exact perfect amount of space.
In that moment when I hadn’t been able to be kind and loving to myself, she was. Her piggy bank of love was clearly overflowing, as she spoke to the woman I am today and to the little kid that was feeling not good enough. I wanted to throw myself into her arms and cry for an hour or so, but that’s not what one does on a 35-day silent self-led meditation retreat. And so I just whispered Thank you with my heart broken open and my eyes wet. In some ways that interaction was a turning point for me. I felt loved and seen and deserving of that gift, which influenced how I moved through the rest of the retreat.
Spiritual Warriors of Love
As spiritual warriors we can sometimes get caught up in our next big insight or deeper unfolding of awakening. While deep practice and luxuriating in the glow of insight has its place, the excess effort and energy we put into it may be needed elsewhere. This is a call to you and to myself to even the scales a bit, or even tip them, in the direction of kindness, love, and vulnerability.
Perhaps you’ve had some big awakenings: emptiness, universal love, total unity. That is wonderful and will obviously change the way you live and what kind of mark you leave on the world. But these realizations are not enough. We must come back to the simple practice of mindfulness to complete the circle. Most importantly, mindfulness of kindness and love, and the commitment to vulnerability, even when all we want to do is lock up our hearts and run away.
In this practice and dedication to love, kindness, and vulnerability, we must as always start with ourselves, our many unique selves. Self love and kindness is the foundation from which our service to the world is built. Incidentally, it is also the way to open to a much deeper and more consistent abiding in the mystery and beauty of existence.
Existence, true reality, is love. Unconditional, impersonal, all-encompassing, and totally divine love. We lucky humans get the gift of living that love in action. But accepting this gift isn’t always easy. It is so strange that we can evolve spiritually in such profound ways, and yet be unable to take in and give back all the love that is available to us.
I think this is often because of our deep fear of vulnerability. We humans like to have it all together, we don’t want to show weakness or limitation. But this is exactly what is needed to heal and evolve.
For me it has been, and continues to be, a long road to really letting in love and kindness. There is a hardness inside of me, based on the emotional wounds of my life, that has, with practice and patience, been softening over the years. I’ve learned that, as uncomfortable as it may be, vulnerability is the antidote to shame and suffering. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been worth it. To allow our protected tender spots to be opened and seen is the act of the true spiritual warrior indeed. Every time you open your heart and mind you are inviting deeper awakening and deeper love.
So, beginning today, with yourself try this out:
Stand or sit in front of a mirror.
Look at yourself.
Relax from your head to your toes.
Stay sitting until the mind is done making judgements about your appearance.
Now begin to say these simple words of lovingkindness to yourself, any self that arises:
I see you.
I love you.
You are deserving of love and kindness now and always.
Repeat these phrases for as long as you like, but aim for at least five minutes.
If any judgemental or negative thoughts arise, know that that is normal, and simply return to the phrases above.
This is an incredibly intimate and vulnerable thing to do, even though you’re all alone. Allow that intimacy and vulnerability to flow through your hard spots, massaging and soothing them. Be willing to let love and kindness radiate through every cell of your beautiful body. This is brave work, and you are a brave and beautiful human.
At first you may notice negativity flare up big time. This is normal. When we are creating a new habit the old ones will do their best to hang in there. Be patient and offer lovingkindness to whatever arises.
After a few weeks of doing this, however, you’ll be amazed how the mind begins to shift. When you forget your phone and have to go back up to your fourth floor condo and you’re running late, you may be surprised to hear those phrases kick in instead of the usual annoyed and self-critical thoughts. Beating yourself up will become less okay.
You’ll also start to come in contact with the inherent sweetness and beauty of you. It was always there, it just gets hidden by the conditioned mind. This practice is a kind of brain surgery, a rewiring of the brain for self-love and kindness. Over time the neural pathways of your brain will expand to include a deep love and appreciation for you, just as you are, moment by moment.
Sharing the Love
With this new attitude of love and kindness for yourself, you will be able to get to work spreading it to everyone and everything. This takes daily practice to make it effective, just as with the phrases above. We humans, even the really awake ones, have a tendency to forget to be kind when money is tight, or health is bad, or we are feeling overwhelmed by life. By intentionally practicing kindness and love for others you fill up your lovingkindness piggy bank for the rainy days. That way you’ll always be overflowing and able to give, even when you are are having a tough time.
Here are just a few ways you can practice offering love and kindness:
- Go outside and let nature show off for you
- Spend time thinking about all the things you love about your partner
- Make eye contact, smile, and connect with people in customer service
- Create art and share it with the world
- Call family and friends and ask how they are
- Listen and pause before responding
- Volunteer for hospice
- Take the dog for an extra walk
- Use non-violent communication
- Sit quietly in a park until you can hear all the animal sounds and then listen
- Write your partner a letter and mail it—even if you live in the same house
- Commit to a practice of accepting everyone for who and how they are (including yourself)
- Learn some good jokes and make people laugh
- Go see unknown comics and musicians and clap and cheer loudly
- See people as a mysterious activity that is in unity with you and everything else
- Don’t illegally download books, music, or films
- Only eat meat as much as your body needs, and make sure the animals were humanely pasture-raised
- Be nice on the internet, even with the people you deeply disagree with
- Meditate every day
Try these and add more to the list. There are endless ways to share love and kindness with the world. As you practice love and kindness with yourself and others your system will settle into a new rhythm of ease and gratitude. You’ll begin to see that being open and vulnerable is the only way to live.
On retreat, in the Yogi kitchen that day, my vulnerability was met with love and kindness. This is lovely when it happens, but it won’t always be that way. You may open your heart to someone who cannot hold space for you, because their load is too heavy to bear. You may get disappointed by a loved one. You may feel that you are not seen by someone. You might not get what you were hoping for out of an interaction. But please, don’t let this create new walls around your heart. Keep softening and opening anyway, no matter what.
So, you beautiful warriors of love and kindness, get to work. You need no armor, no weapon, no shield. Let vulnerability take these from you. All you need to is the willingness to open to the bittersweet journey of learning to love yourself and everyone else. Let your heart break open so big that there is room for everything. I see you and I love you.
Photo Credit: Bethan