In June, 1996, I had an epiphany. In a motel room in Indiana, the night before returning home from a solo camping trip in Michigan and Canada, I discovered how much I had lost in my life because of so fiercely protecting myself. Up until that day, bringing forth my vulnerable self was to be avoided at all costs, which kept me numb much of the time, disconnected from myself and from much of life. Alone in my room, I cried, I talked out loud, and I finally exclaimed to myself that I wanted to reclaim every last bit of my vulnerability, just like I had it as a child.
I have had other dramatic moments in my life, before and since; rare and precious experiences of life opening up, my heart expanding, my spirit soaring, defenses falling away. Things suddenly felt possible where previously I was stuck, clarity replaced muddled thinking, hope came in as despair was leaving. I’ve also had such moments since. Only very few of those peak experiences turned into actual life-changing events. This particular one was the beginning of a clear path, the centerpiece of my practice of living the principles of Nonviolent Communication. At the time, I didn’t know this. Today, more than 15 years later, it’s easier to see how things have unfolded and what has helped me turn this from singular moment to a path I’ve been following all these years.
When I teach or even when I write, people sometimes tell me they experience that kind of expansive inspiration. For them, just like for me, many of these moments remain just that. Because I believe that the times are calling on all of us to respond differently to life, I want to offer some support to those who want to sustain these extraordinary experiences and make them part of their daily living practice. Here are some tips:
Clear Vision: I wasn’t just frustrated with my numbness and disconnection. I actually saw and sensed what the alternative was. I felt in my entire body and soul the pull towards the life I wanted. A path has to go somewhere, not primarily away from somewhere. To this day, the beauty of the vision is compelling, and helps me, more often than not, to find the energy to melt the protection and expose my soft self when the old habit still grips me.
Small Steps: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” said Lao Tsu in China in the 6th century BCE. I found this wisdom equally true of the spiritual life. At first, I was usually flooded and overwhelmed with the idea of becoming fully vulnerable again. I was so far from it, that imagining it to happen all at once was daunting and discouraging. For quite some time I didn’t make any progress, and then I stumbled on an insight that made it all possible. I realized that I cannot jump start vulnerability all in one step. I, for one, didn’t know what it would even look like. Instead, I discovered that many micro-choices take me closer to or further from openness. When someone asks me how I am, and assuming I trust the question to be genuine (sadly, that’s rarely the case in our culture at large), I get to choose how to respond. Which word I choose to express my inner state can be ever so slightly more or less vulnerable. If I keep making all the micro-choices in the direction of more vulnerability, then, with each iteration, I approximate my goal. I almost always have the strength to peel off one thin layer, even when I feel distressed and frightened. Conversely, although I have made huge strides in my quest, and I often reveal myself with ease in moments when others imagine it taking great courage, there are still times when jumping all at once is beyond me. With small steps, I also can feel and celebrate the micro-successes and build on that energy to continue.
Gentleness and Self-Acceptance: No path is going to have only success. In my experience, the long-term sustainability of a path depends on the level of gentleness we can bring to our “failures.” Being on a path requires enormous amounts of energy to walk directly into discomfort, to shift away from habit. Fighting with ourselves drains energy. Gentleness, on the other hand, creates internal harmony and allows inner energy to flow and be regenerated. Although by now I have very few instances when I am unable to release inner protection and reveal the soft self underneath, in earlier years this happened often. I don’t know what made it possible for me to accept myself to the degree that I did on those occasions. I do know that this acceptance has left my inner landscape truly gentle, a place for me to have a soft landing along the way.
The Freedom to be “Called-Back”: At some point along the way, I lost my interest in protecting myself. Whether by grace, effort, self-acceptance, or the power of vision, I came to full ownership of the path, completely free of any notion of “should” or “have to” about the vision. The most gratifying aspect of this inner alignment is my capacity to come back to the path when I fall off of it. Remaining at the level of vulnerability I now crave requires consciousness. Habit still remains. When I am not conscious, especially when my resilience is low and I feel helpless, I still stiffen up, protect, contract, and lose connection with myself or others. Even in those moments, my deep commitment means I can be called back to my path by anything that wakes me up and invites me to consciousness, even if it’s unpleasant. For example, I was once in a tough conversation with someone who then said: “You’re arguing with me, how about offering me empathy instead?” – and that statement was enough to bring me back and choose to respond empathically. I didn’t need to defend myself from the imaginary attack I could have read into that statement.
The ultimate goal, for me, of being on a path, any path, is to achieve inner freedom – to be able to live according to what my own values, needs, and goals are. I experience this freedom to choose from within, even in the face of a perceived “demand,” as an incredible aspect of what it means for me to be human, and a key reason I continue to be on a path.