By Suma Varughese August 2013 Vulnerability is the capacity to walk through life without armor or defense, knowing that just being ourselves is enough, says Suma Varughese I wasn't always someone who allowed herself to be vulnerable. In fact there was a time when I buttoned up myself as tightly as I would an overcoat, and denied anyone access to the private side of me. It all changed when I was gifted with a massive spiritual awakening. For the first time, I understood life and how to live it, I understood myself and I understood others. The awakening, which lasted a year, gave me a newfound capacity to contain my thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, and in that space of self-acceptance, I discovered vulnerability. I found I could express myself to others, I could share my fears, my inadequacies, my wants and my needs – in short, all the precious details that I was made up of. Suddenly relationships became far richer, far deeper, and immensely satisfying. Intimacy slowly seeped into my life. Some conversations in fact, left me feeling as if I had had a long sip of the clearest, purest water – some deep thirst in me finally felt slaked. But my journey into vulnerability really entered its stride when the effects of the awakening disappeared. I found myself back to being my old touchy, unhappy self and faced with the task of transforming myself into the person I had discovered myself to be over that last one year. Unfortunately the gulf between who I was and who I aspired to be was so wide that it seemed impossible to bridge. My new found awareness showed me what I had shied away from recognizing all my life – my lack of discipline, self-control, inability to focus or concentrate; my terrible memory, my incapacity to be organised, my indifference, laziness, my flaming temper, low self-esteem and so on. Each discovery of my inadequacies was like a searing wound to my psyche – the pain and the shame were almost unbearable. That was when my inner voice told me what to do. I simply had to announce to the general world everything that I had discovered myself to be. The inner wisdom told me that that was the only way I would get to accept it myself, and to have it reduce its hold on me. Petrified though I was to out myself and lose the world’s good opinion of me, I did it. I wrote about what I was going through, the discoveries that self-awareness had revealed to me. I told friends and family about my dispiriting discoveries. Not all knew what to do with these revelations. Some felt that I was self-flagellating; but there were many others who received what I told them with sympathy and affection, and with confidences of their own. That is when I discovered one of the unique properties of being vulnerable – it gave others permission to be vulnerable, too. And when both parties are open and vulnerable, lovely gifts like trust and intimacy flower out. Best of all, I discovered that the inner voice was right. The more I broadcast all the things I was most ashamed of, the less hold they had on me. For the hold they had on me was the fear of how the world would perceive these frailties. Having bared these to the world myself, I felt freed of my fear – nobody had a hold on me, for I had told the world everything. I had no secrets left. And a life without secrets, I realised, was a life without fear. Since then, living vulnerably for me is virtually an article of faith. Perhaps this is most so in my writing. I do not hesitate to share my difficulties, weaknesses and struggles with my readers. It is about expressing my truths even if these truths are unflattering, for nothing less will do. Moreover, these are what make me human and therefore constitute the most valuable part of me. And by sharing my humanness, I am also giving the reader permission to look at his humanness and perhaps own it more fully. Isn’t that the best thing we can do for each other? Allow ourselves the freedom and the privilege to be simply human? I like to think that the magazine you hold in your hand has also largely evolved into one that celebrates vulnerable writing. Writing that is founded on truth and the courage to explore the difficult terrain of oneself, without shying away. And yet, living vulnerably is not easy. It can, in fact, be excruciatingly difficult. For it runs counter to one of our most primal programs. And that is the need for personal safety. We don’t want to be out there where people can throw rotten tomatoes at us. We don’t want to be lynched or crucified for voicing an unpopular truth. We don’t want people to ostracise us for our imperfections. We don’t want to lose the world’s love and approval. It is so much easier to play safe. Fittingly, the word vulnerability comes from the Latin vulnerabilis (‘injurious, wounding’) and is the likelihood of being exposed to the chance of an attack or harm, either physical or emotional (Wikipedia). What is it then that causes us to let go of this primal need and step naked into the arena? It is perhaps an even deeper and more primal need – life’s call to evolve. There comes a time when being safe is not the highest priority. Being authentic, being honest, standing by one’s values, taking a stand for growth, appear far more important and that gives us the courage to take off our armour… Says writer and trainer Chitra Jha, “I have always been afraid of being vulnerable, as I equated it with being weak, needy, and open to misinterpretation. But for the past few years, I have been innately urged to be authentic, to shed all masks, and to be comfortable in my skin… When I began to shed my masks, my vulnerable self was exposed and I realized that it was okay to be weak, needy, and open to misinterpretation. As this understanding seeped in, I became much stronger than ever before. I tell myself, ‘It is okay to be human. After all, I have come to Planet Earth to have a human experience; why feel afraid of my human frailty?’ ”. Anil Bhatnagar, life coach and trainer, says he is at his vulnerable best when accused of some wrong-doing. Unlike before, he can withstand the discomfort of being seen in the wrong without taking recourse to the kneejerk reaction of defending himself. He says, “I feel I should not be defending those accusations that, in fact, are true, and I don’t need to explain if the accusations are false. In either case, no defence is required. Also, sometimes when people are accusing us out of their own anger, frustration or jealousy, it is best to quietly listen to them because it helps us empty out their negative emotions; defending on such occasions adds fuel to fire which may be damaging for both sides.” Bhatnagar’s stance shows us how difficult, and at the same time, how laudable vulnerable living can be. It requires us to come from a space of non-reaction, of self-worth and self-control, of inner strength, a space where we no longer find the need to protect ourselves. Which is why one has to grow into vulnerability; though ironically enough, we come into the world utterly vulnerable. Is there anything more vulnerable than the human baby? What a tender, defenseless morsel she is. And yet most babies are blissfully ignorant of this fact, and that is why they are also among the most powerful of beings. How joyfully they laugh and smile, and hold out their hands to you in utter friendliness, defying you to ignore them or retreat into your cold world of self-defense. You cannot but help melt and meet them in their vulnerable space. I commute by the local suburban train, and I have often remarked on the dramatic change a baby can bring to that often chaotic and angry ethos. Within moments, tense faces have relaxed and hands have reached out to fondle the infant, some fumble in their bags for sweets or something to distract the baby with, and the atmosphere is visibly friendlier than it was just moments ago. Unfortunately, the process of growing up robs us of that innate wholeness and perfection. The criticism, hostility and derision we are subject to, the mistakes we make in life, and our subsequent dwindling self-esteem, force us to retreat within ourselves, to reinforce ourselves with false identities such as an accent, or a degree, money or social status, and to operate in self-protective mode. Somehow, we buy into the belief that just being ourselves is not enough. We are in defense against life itself, and that is when it all goes wrong. BrenéBrown, a professor of social work and author of the book, Daring Greatly, and one of the few academics to have extensively studied this phenomenon, has some very interesting insights to offer on the subject. Her Ted talk on the subject, incidentally, went viral and is probably one of the few data there is on the net on vulnerability. Brown talks graphically of the price we pay for cloaking our true selves. She says, “And the thing is, vulnerability is not about fear or grief or disappointment. It’s the birthplace of everything we’re hungry for – joy, faith, love, spirituality.” So when we succumb to the fear that stops us from being vulnerable, we pass up joy and love and all good things. How does that happen? Brenéhas a powerful phrase which she calls ‘foreboding joy’. She says that one of the most terrifying feelings most of us experience is joy, because we immediately fear that it will be taken away. In her interview with Oprah Winfrey, she says, “When I’m giving a talk, I often say, ‘Raise your hand if you’ve ever stood over your child while he or she is sleeping and thought, ‘I love you like I didn’t know was possible’, and in that split second, you pictured something horrific happening’.” When our fear causes us to sho
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