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Tuesday, November 22, 2016
THE POWER OF VULNERABILITY: An Excerpt from MAKE PEACE WITH YOUR MIND by Mark Coleman
 
Many of us are well acquainted with our “inner critic.” It is the voice that makes us second-guess our every step by saying “not enough,” “not good enough,” or sometimes “too much.” At times the inner critic can be so strong that it feels invincible. But in Make Peace with Your Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You from Your Inner Critic, bestselling author and renowned meditation teacher Mark Coleman promises that it is not. We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book. 

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I often feel humbled by the critic. In the same way that I have practiced mindfulness and am still humbled when I sometimes forget where I parked my car in a parking garage. Despite all my time working with the critic, it can still get under my skin at times. It can still trigger a feeling of unworthiness that creeps in like mist, still attack me for the slightest thing, sometimes as a defense against feeling vulnerable.

I remember being under assault by the critic many years ago after a long period of the critic being quiet. It is hard to say what sparked it. Sometimes those waves come out of the blue. This time I was feeling particularly challenged by the administration of my various work projects, and I’d lost some money in a business transaction. Because of the workload and stress, I’d neglected some friendships, and my relationship was suffering. It felt like many details of life were falling through the cracks.

At times, when the judgments seemed to be endless, my spirits got very low. It felt as if everything I did was never enough. What kept this process in place was my being more allied with the critic than with myself. I would side with its harsh attacks. “Why can’t I get my stuff together? Why am I letting people down and losing money?” its voice would rant. I thought its point of view seemed justified.

A natural reaction to such pain is to harden, to close down, to brace and contract, rather than feel. That is pretty natural, given how much it hurts. The problem with this attitude is that it keeps everything in check, and we freeze emotionally. It fails to provide the resources to deal effectively with those critical voices in our head or the emotional burden they inflict. It puts the process on hold, and it can drag on and on.

At some point I cracked open to feel just how painful it was to have lived under that critic’s shaming voice. I also felt humbled that it had gone on for so long and that it was still having an impact. You could say the critic was judging me for not having done a better job at working on it! The net effect was that I felt raw and exposed.

This feeling of rawness is key to working with vulnerability. They often feel like one and the same thing. The challenge is to find a way to be comfortable feeling the innate vulnerability of being human. If we can hold our vulnerability with a loving attention, the painful feelings can unfold and slowly move through us.

In working with the critic, it is essential to shift our allegiance from the judge to ourselves. And just as we would do for a friend, we need to take care of ourselves and hold our own hand through these difficult, painful feelings. We must meet our pain with a kind heart, with a loving embrace as if we were holding in our arms a loved one who was hurting. It is the appropriate response when we are feeling battered with judgments. One of my teaching colleagues, Sylvia Boorstein, was able to model this in the way she would talk to herself when struggling. She would say, “Oh honey, you are startled. That’s so hard. How can we help you? What do you need?” We can usually do that with others. The trick is learning to give that gift to ourselves.

Being with our pain in an undefended way can allow the healing quality of compassion to arise. Compassion is the heart’s natural, caring response to pain. It is from the vantage point of the caring heart that we learn how to hold ourselves kindly. It is this same heartfelt attitude that strengthens our ability to defend ourselves. It is not an aggressive defense; it is a grounded, vulnerable strength that will not tolerate any harm to ourselves or others.

Fierce compassion says to the critic, “No, please don’t talk to me like that. That is not helpful — it is hurtful.” This quiet strength is an expression of our wise heart that will take care of us at any cost and will not let anything harm us. It is the strength of a mother bear. It is an attitude that replies to the critic, “I know you are trying to help, but it’s not working. It’s okay — I can take care of myself now. You can be quiet now.”

I recall, during this difficult period, running late for an appointment, when I also realized I had double-booked myself and was not going to have as much time as I’d planned for either appointment. Then my car battery died between appointments, which meant I would be late for a public talk that evening. I could feel the tidal wave of judgment brewing for messing up my scheduling for the day.

Then something radical happened. Something softened inside, and instead of attacking myself with criticism, I just felt how hard it was to keep juggling such a packed client schedule, navigate unpredictable work circumstances, and try to manage an overly complex teaching life, all while doing a lot of business travel overseas. I felt the pain of that constant struggle to hold it together. And, out of the blue, a kind voice emerged that simply said, “Oh, this is hard for you. This is not easy for you, to manage your time and your life like this.”

Those simple statements emerged after I’d done a lot of work on shifting allegiance away from my critic and on accepting the reality of my life and my challenges in dealing with it. This was not letting myself off the hook; it was just lovingly acknowledging to myself how hard I found it at times. It was letting myself feel the vulnerability of the situation, not listening to the critic, and feeling the pain of it. Once that occurred, it was easy to take the next steps of rearranging my calendar, calling roadside assistance for my car, and taking care of business without persecuting myself. It was a heartfelt, liberating moment.

For me the ability to access this self-compassion signaled a significant shift that allowed me to move from paying attention to the words of the critic to feeling the pain they inflicted. Since that time, there is no longer a cell in my body that wants to let such thoughts in. There is a quiet strength in the ability to rest in that tender place. Vulnerable it is; weak it is not.

It reminds me of a quote from the ancient texts that says, “Make your heart as vast as space, so big that nothing can harm it.” When our hearts are that wide, it is as if the judgments are ripples on water, flowing away and leaving no trace. This is what vulnerability makes possible. It allows the natural strength of the heart to emerge.

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Mark Coleman is the author of Make Peace with Your Mind and Awake in the WildHe is the founder of the Mindfulness Institute and has an MA in clinical psychology. 

Mark has guided students on five continents as a corporate consultant, counselor, meditation teacher, and wilderness guide. He lives in Northern California. Visit him online at www.markcoleman.org.

Excerpted from the book Make Peace with Your Mind. Copyright © 2016 by Mark Coleman.



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