January 7, 2011

Afraid of Vulnerability?

We all are. Researcher Brené Brown says, “Lean into it!”  It’s the pathway to human connection.

This video has been all over Facebook lately. It’s a talk by a charming Texan researcher (and storyteller), Brené Brown, who discusses the constituents of “wholehearted” people. She points to courage, compassion, connection, and vulnerability as overriding qualities of people with a healthy sense of “worthiness.”

Being a Shambhala Buddhist, I found the parallels striking to Shambhala teachings, which offer a path of working with courage, compassion, vulnerability, and interconnectedness in order to unveil a person’s “basic goodness” (similar to Brown’s term “worthiness.”)

Near the end of her talk, Brown discusses vulnerability at length, saying that “excruciating vulnerability” is essential for human connection.  This reminds me of Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s notion of the “sad and tender warrior.”  In Sacred Path of the Warrior, he says:

“The challenge of warriorship is to step out of the cocoon, to step out into space, by being brave and at the same time gentle.  You can expose your wounds and flesh, your sore points.” (p. 156)

Rawness, brokenhearted-ness (or “excruciating vulnerability” as Brown calls it), are keys to courage and compassion in Shambhala, essential not only for connection, but for understanding all of our interconnectedness.

Throughout her talk, Brown touches upon still more Buddhist themes, many pertaining to discomfort: leaning into discomfort; discomfort with uncertainty; blame as a function of discharging pain and discomfort.  At times, I thought, “She must be Buddhist,” but I don’t think she is.

I find it striking that so many studies in psychology, social work, and neuroscience directly correspond with Buddhist philosophy.  I suppose it makes sense: all of these fields involve studying the human mind.  As Jung said, we all have the same basic mind; we just have different propensities and points of view.

One note: despite finding such inspiration in Brown’s talk, at times I found it a little Oprah-ish—moving, but slightly self-conscious and clichéd.  It reminded me that without meditation (described in Buddhism as “the self-cutting sword” or “the self-burning flame”), even our genuineness and openness can become a source of pride—even vulnerability can become a credential, and our moment of waking up becomes something solid, sticky, and self-serious.  Probably in trying to “connect,” we end up discussing emotion in other peoples’ terms rather than sticking with principle experience.

However, Brown admits that the very definition of research contradicts vulnerability.  She realizes that research is all about finding solidity, while the subject of her research not only defies it; her findings teach us to defy it as well.

So ultimately, while I experienced a few moments of cringing, much of Brown’s talk rang true—and inspired me to look at my own path with fresh eyes and a vulnerable heart.


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