Except for the two Burmese boat drivers, I was alone. My family was thousands of miles away while I was beginning my 21-day spiritual immersion trip in this sacred, recently-opened-to-tourists country. This hour-long boat ride was part of my hand-crafted itinerary. All the way up to this moment, I had been in complete control. Not anymore.
The two men spoke no English, but they had smiled at me, taken my luggage and helped me aboard. But instead of relaxing and taking in the scenery as my itinerary suggested, I unexpectedly found myself exposed to the raw reality of my situation: I had relinquished not just some, not even most, but all control.
Here I am, an American female, in a country I don’t know, traveling to a city that I can’t even point to. My cell phone doesn’t work, and who would I call anyway? No one knows where I am. If these men want to hurt me, kill me, sell me…I am utterly helpless to stop them.
It might not have gone further than that stab of realization except that just as I was breathing deep and delving into a book, the motor cut out, and I came completely undone. Icy fear flooded through my body. My heart raced. I didn’t know what was going to happen next.
I stared at the men as they raced back and forth, I listened intently to the tone of their voices, I strained my faculties to feel out the situation. While my logical side told me to get a grip, my imaginative part created incredulous yet entirely possible scenarios: we are sinking, they are going to sell me to pirates, they will leave me on that desolate island. Unable to ask the men for information (and them not paying attention to me anyway), I tasted vulnerability in a way that I never had before. And it was a bitter bite.
Letting go of Invincibility
Like many of us, I used to think myself invincible. As a kid, I rode my bike down the middle of the street knowing that cars would swerve out of my way. As a young adult, I entered the homes of men I barely knew, never once believing that the worst could happen. Not to me. Not through childbirth, not during illness, never have I let myself think: my life is not under my control. There’s always been some escape—a traveling companion, a miracle-working doctor, a phone nearby, something that I could hold aloft and announce to myself: Don’t panic! Everything is fine.
Certainly over my lifetime, this sense of invincibility has taken some blows. But the core of it was still standing and as long as it was, there was no room to build anything new.
The greater truth of vulnerability longed to be grasped.
On the Brink of Vulnerability
Vulnerability is nothing to scoff at as a transformative spiritual practice. Vulnerability asks us to honor and express our true emotions, even when it’s uncomfortable. It means remaining courageously open and transparent in a world spinning on deceit and stealthiness.
But vulnerability for me had still been a choice, a practice, a trial run. Unlike doing the hokey pokey, I didn’t have to put my whole self in. In other words, my practice of vulnerability hadn’t yet been stripped down to its essence: the complete and total loss of control over my own life. And death. That kind of vulnerability.
Perhaps I am delusional. It’s possible. Perhaps I’m having a mid-life crisis. Yeah, there’s that. Or perhaps my soul, the wiser, braver part of me knew it was time to move into an expanded space of consciousness and aliveness.
Within a few minutes, the boat motor restarted, and twenty minutes after that I saw a guide holding a sign with my name. While I could’ve climbed out of the boat and blamed my fears on my mind’s trickery, I opted instead to carry them with me through my trip.
What better time to drop deeply into the experience of discomfort than when discomfort is your overwhelming reality?
Instead of denying my vulnerability, I pressed further into it. Instead of covering it, I opened it wider. Instead of figuring out how I could control or limit it, I surrendered to it.
The Universe played its hand in turn, surrounding me in a crowd of men in a hot market and feeling a harsh tap, tap, tap on my shoulder, my guide pulling over in a remote area and leading me up a steep embankment to take in the view: It’s beautiful, I agreed, and what a great place to leave me and frightening turbulence on my last domestic flight. From moment to moment I remained aware that my foothold on this planet is tentative and my human passport could expire without warning.
Control, I realized not just mentally but bodily, is a mere illusion, a veneer kept in place only by our believing it exists.
A New Consciousness
Two months home from this trip and I am back inside a warm, cozy house. I have a wide range of travel options, money in the bank, a list of contacts on my phone and I speak the local language. What to do now?
First gut reaction: deny, deny, deny. Me, scared? Feeling vulnerable? Naw. Look at the pictures from my trip—now aren’t I the epitome of a confident single traveler? But once this piece is published, that option’s fried beyond recognition.
Second, I could attempt to pick up the crumbs of whatever’s left of my invincibility, go back to feeding myself the “Nothing will happen to me, I’m safe” line. But I’d be fooling myself: it’s not possible to untaste something we’ve tasted. Remember sushi? Whether you loved it or hated it, the remembrance will forever be there.
Third, I could evaluate this experience logically, equate vulnerability with fear, and smartly decide to do whatever I can to avoid feeling this in the future. I could tie up my traveling feet and corral my antsy mind, not expose myself to any situation I do not have some control in, and keep myself in line with reminders of how lucky I am that something bad didn’t happen!
I’m going to choose another option—a combo platter if you will—that mashes the gifts and lessons available from invincibility and vulnerability into an intoxicating blend of untamed adventure and acute awareness:
I’m going to live my life as if I am invincible and fearless. I will continue on adventuring, questioning, exploring my world and its people as I always have.
But going forward, I’m going to taste my life too—allow the bitter-sweet truth of my vulnerability, lack of control and yes, even fear, season each and every moment. The richest, most delectable cream of life awaits.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Keri Mangis
Assistant Editor: Kathryn Muyskens / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: yeowatzup/Wikimedia Commons