Vulner-ability – A Path through Compassion to Resilience

Vulner-ability – A Path through Compassion to Resilience

To be vulnerable has been a no-no through much of human history. From the language of the ancient Greeks, vulnerable means ‘able to be attacked or wounded.”  Thus armies and military fortifications to protect a society; defenses and strategies to protect a psyche. “Big boys don’t cry,” etc. Aversion and denial that fragility and hurt could/should/would ever happen to us or those we care about.

However, there’s a new trend in modern psychology and modern medicine to redeem vulner-ability, fueled in part by the recognition in all spiritual traditions that to be vulnerable is universally true in the human condition. Human beings everywhere and always are vulnerable to illness and injury, to loss and death, sorrow and struggles, as we have experienced so personally and globally in the current coronavirus pandemic.  And that experiencing vulner-ability to pain and suffering can crack our hearts open more powerfully than anything else in our personal and collective experience.

Spiritual teachers, psychologist, and physicians are suggesting that what can redeem vulnerability is compassion – the ability to be with, care about, and act to relieve suffering, angst, pain.  Indeed, studies show, as I have taught so many times, compassion in the face of disappointment, difficulty, and even disaster can lead to resilience.  Caring presence leads to courage and openness to change. Resilience is a direct, measurable, cause and effect outcome of compassion in response to vulnerability and suffering.

Wisdom and compassion are considered the two wings of the dharma in the Buddhist tradition, both leading to equanimity, peace with what is.  And as roshi Joan Halifax teaches, compassion means having both a strong back and a soft front when facing human vulnerability.

Chris Germer, PhD, psychologist and co-developer of the Mindful Self-Compassion protocol, teaches (in a recent Compassion in Therapy summit) that the healing power of compassion, whether compassion for ourselves or another when we/they are vulnerable, is to:

* See the pain (mindful awareness)

* Feel the pain (empathy)

* Care enough to want to relieve the pain (goodwill)

* Act to relieve the pain (intentional action)

The vulnerability itself becomes the cue, the trigger, for compassionate action.  Not just the noun, a kind, caring presence, but the full verb, engaging with the vulnerability and pain in ways that will actually help. We’ve all experienced this. We see a dog or cat limping because their leg got caught in their collar, and we move to help/comfort or get help. We see a child skid and fall off their skateboard/bicycle and we move to help/comfort or get help. We hear a catch in someone’s voice as they begin to talk about losing someone they love and we move to engage of offer help/comfort or help them find help/comfort.

Compassion is creating a paradigm shift in modern medicine, too.  Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference presents years of research by Stephen Trzeciak, M.D., an ICU physician, and Anthony Mazzarelli, M.D., an emergency room physician. They demonstrate clearly that compassion offered by health care providers when dealing with the vulnerability of seriously ill or injured patients not only improves clinical outcomes – pain and symptom reduction, reduced anxiety, depression and risk of PTSD, and we all care about that, but also improves the economic bottom line – increased revenue – patients are willing to pay more for compassionate care, and reduced costs – more compliance with treatment, less recurrence of problems down the line, which health care providers clearly care about.

Compassion in the face of vulnerability means radical acceptance of whatever I s happening. (Chris Germer is quick to caution not when there is harmful behavior or social injustice) and radical acceptance of the emotion reactions to whatever is happening – anger, fear, shame, grief.  Making space for and be-friending. (See The ABC’s of Working with Difficult Emotions.) 

Then a resonant engagement with the feelings of vulnerability, so we-another person “feels felt.” That feeling felt returns the nervous system to a sense of safety, from which we can discern what’s possible and appropriate to do next. 

And what we do next is find the resources (re-Source in spiritual traditions) we need to respond to the pain-hurt-wounding in skillful ways. (Ahem. That is resilience.)

I encourage you to consider shifting your own mindset about vulner-ability to focus on the cues to open the mind/heart to kind, caring, loving attention and engagement, to re-focus from the (inevitable) pain and hurt to the (very probable) possibilities of healing.