learning to relish the small quivers of terror (or: how I learned to embrace and crave vulnerability)

“Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live,
and could not spare any more time for that one.”

Thoreau’s quote appears under a formal black-and-white photo of me wearing the standard black stole of the senior yearbook portrait. As much as I appreciated his sentiment at age 17, I never knew how aptly it would describe me.

For most of my life, I clung to the idea of autonomy in any measure as the touchstone of my existence. Going to college was the first time I felt mostly independent. Though I didn’t move to a cabin in the woods afterwards, the autonomy I acquired allowed me to declare my own independence from other people’s expectations.

In my years of self-proclaimed independence, I lived many lives on multiple continents. I snowboarded, climbed rocks, started a yoga practice, survived intense depressions, acquired extra passport pages, worked many different jobs, played new musical instruments. I felt independent due not to my frequent solitude, but because I usually felt removed. I rarely connected to any community, even when I was roped to other climbers. Usually I lived alone. I never had my heart broken. When I moved locales or changed jobs, I tended to drift from the people in the previous environment (though sometimes geography was a greater reason).

My primary focus in my mid-twenties was traveling to India, when I abandoned my default life—an independence from independence. Before going to India, I had always shunned vulnerability with anything, but most strongly with other people. I was long accustomed to having few kindred spirits; I seldom shared my spirituality and passions with many people. Instead, I always strove for control, for the sake of emotional protection. I craved distance, which I interpreted as safety. I considered admission of vulnerability as a sign of weakness or failure.

saguaro skeleton—a longtime mental image of vulernability
SK © 2011

As much as I never felt fully at home in Japan, the culture definitely fostered my preference for control. India was the opposite, the purest example I’ve ever experienced of organized chaos. I couldn’t navigate alone because initially I had no idea what to do or where to go. Itineraries and schedules are useless. Consistency is nonexistent. Advance planning is mostly impossible. Not surprisingly, this lack of control constantly frightened me.

Yet strangers took care of me. I spent my first night waiting for a connection in the Mumbai airport, during which time I alternated between trying to nap under fluorescent lights but also watch my backpack. By 5:00am, I was both exhausted and hungry from jet lag, but no food was available. Even though the waiting area was full of people, I chose not to ask for help or even suggestions. Unsolicited, an Indian woman offered me food.

That exchange reincarnated many times during my journey. Again and again, other people (Indians and otherwise) provided before I asked, whether where to find a bus stop, rent a room, or find an honest rickshaw driver. (This is not to say that I felt safe from touts, thieves, and cons. I didn’t.) When I did request assistance, someone always displayed generosity. And when I was too afraid to be vulnerable, such as when I had to spend the night in a hospital, my friend Carla insisted on staying as well, even though I tried to dissuade her.

Over time, I learned that the best way to live there was to surrender, without judgment, to people I could trust. Ironically, my independence from independence was anything but. Surrender clashed with my lifelong attachment to independence, and repeatedly admitting vulnerability was neither painless nor easy. In the words of Walt Whitman:

 “You oceans that have been calm within me!
how I feel you, fathomless, stirring,
preparing unprecedented waves and storms.”

(Not a coincidence that the human body and the planet have similar water composition.) My new emotional geography had a lot of storms, but they unleashed a lot of power.

India changed my entire life; unplanned circumstances and new people continued to reveal unimagined potential. Moreover, I had an audience. I kept a blog less for the sake of sharing than for occupying my free time. I felt nervous about acknowledging my fears, and offline I criticized every admission of confusion or weakness. Yet just as strangers took care of me in India, friends, family, and sometimes even strangers encouraged me after reading my blog.

not that I wanted to channel aggression, but sometimes it was necessary
SK © 2011

I learned that vulnerability to other people and my surroundings created the most beauty. India wrenched emotional independence out of my white-knuckled grip. I learned that emotional surrender, not isolation, allows me to live more deeply. I recently encountered the word “souljourning,” which perfectly describes my experiences in India, both as a retreat and as a journey of my soul. I still consider India’s souljourning lessons now. Over the subsequent years, my yoga practice has functioned as the time when I literally practice vulnerability, when I encounter fear, discomfort, and limitations physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Additionally, asana practice has provided the opportunity for vulnerability with other people. Though I practice independently, I am in a class. No doubt other practitioners have their own distractions, but at times they feel like an audience, at least to my ego. And I feel even more transparent around my teacher. Again, I had to admit vulnerability, and again, I encountered supportive, caring people who encourage me even when the challenges feel beyond my ability.

surrender. and trust in my teacher.
Omar Vega © 2011, ovegadesign.com

This has been yet another life. I was never innately inclined to be vulnerable, but yoga practice is impossible without confronting my insecurities. It has instilled a raw honesty with myself that I never had otherwise. The repeated surrender necessary to sustain yoga practice has substantiated the insight, healing, and joy that accompanies honest, raw vulnerability. The more I acknowledged my weaknesses, the more I transcended them. The more I admitted what I considered weaknesses or failures, the more others helped me with irresponsible landlords, bullying coworkers, and duplicitous friends.

I used to consider vulnerability with other people as a loss of (some degree of) freedom. Yet now I believe the opposite, that surrender to other people yields deeper love and greater freedom. Madeleine L’Engle wrote that love does not reject freedom, but rather that “it demands the courage to move into all the risks of freedom, and the risk of love which is permanent; into that love which is not possession, but participation.” (emphasis added)

Participation does not equal ease or constant happiness. Her explanation illuminated one of my favorite books, The Prophet. For many years, the first lesson was more bewildering than informing.

from “On Love” [all emphasis added]:
“When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning….
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if finds you worthy, directs your course.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;

And to bleed willingly and joyfully.”

Until lndia, I couldn’t fathom that love can (and should? or at least will) allow pain. Even more incomprehensible was how or why one would yield to love. I spent much of my life not seeking only pleasure, but certainly avoiding vulnerability. Whereas now I understand that vulnerability, though it doesn’t prevent suffering, allows love to exist—that love encourages both growth and pruning. Nature, as well as the universe, constantly reveal the necessity of cycles and seasons, the birth and death of all things. Without surrender to that cycle, one’s existence is seasonless indeed. I know firsthand that seasonless world, where I both laughed and wept, but not completely. The most powerful work I have done, the most powerful love I have felt, the most powerful connections I have sustained have resulted from yielding to others, from allowing my attachments to shatter.

My literal change of heart has often been fraught with pain, but I understand those last three lines much more immediately, from my own experience, and no longer do they seem contradictory to the nature of love. If anything, the difficulties I’ve experienced only reinforce Gibran’s assertions.

sunflowers at sunset
SK © 2011

So although I rarely welcome unsolicited advice, my perspective on my longtime insular existence has changed. Clarissa Pinkola Estés describes women’s aging as follows:

“…her layers of defense, protection, density become more and more sheer until her very soul begins to shine through. We can sense and see the movement of the soul within the body-psyche in an astonishing way as we grow older and older.”

In other words, the point is to grow more vulnerable, more connected to others. That vulnerability has allowed me to become mySelf more fully than I ever have before—again, another life, one more genuine than any of the others which preceded it.

The etymology of “alone” is a contraction of “all one.” My interpretations encompass opposite meanings. Until my mid-twenties, I lived alone in the sense of all of myself as a separate being. Yet now I interpret the word as “all [of us] as one”—recognizing the importance of connection. Notably, “yoga” has the same root as “yoke,” meaning union.

So now, ten years after declaring independence, I strive for interdependence. Vulnerability has been the operative emotional space for the most powerful manifestations to exist. I understand the impulse when an eaglet jumps out of an aerie or when a seed bursts in soil, the surrender necessary for manifestation of one’s purpose. As writer ST Frequency recently described the latter:

“As I have learned from the garden,
this is the crucible moment of transformation
where growth and fulfillment hang delicately in the balance.
Of course, it is also where life begins.”

At times of confusion, when I’m unsure of the degree of vulnerability I should allow, I try to notice how much fear I encounter. Fear can be a tricky emotion. I do want to heed its warnings. Yet I’ve also observed that my fears are born from insecurities, that sometimes the twinges of fear signal that something or someone has immense potential—that I should surrender, because it will be so worthwhile, where life can begin. A couple of years ago a college friend (familiar with my anti-vulernable tendencies) asked how I was doing, and I considered that I’ve learned to crave, or least embrace, vulnerability. I answered that I am “learning to relish the small quivers of terror.”

painting by Keith Prossick, keithprossick.com
photo SK © 2011

∞ Tremendous thanks to Todd Roderick, my incredible teacher. He was the first to mention that there are brain cells in the heart—that the heart has its own actual, biological intelligence. I am grateful for his wisdom and compassion over the years as I’ve learned to trust my heart’s mind.

∞ This post originated as an email explaining text messages inspired by an art exhibit. (Clearly, texts could not have encompassed what I was thinking.) So thanks to the friends, teachers, artists, and medicine for all the lessons.

SK © 2011


About stephanie francesca

Stephanie Francesca lives a life of eclectic and ecstatic passion. In no particular order, she is a writer, yogini, musician, teacher, nomad, lover, thinker, reader, dancer. She strives to balance effort with surrender, precision with laughter. Live life, love live, live love.
This entry was posted in community, gratitude, identity, southern (small s), travel, yoga. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to learning to relish the small quivers of terror (or: how I learned to embrace and crave vulnerability)

  1. Sues says:

    This is such a beautiful expression of growth!

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  3. http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/26/prochnik.php

    I encountered this article a few weeks after finishing this post. Paragraphs 5 and 6 perfectly articulate the dilemma with which I struggled for so long about vulnerability!

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