Vulnerability and the Tender Heart
“Ultimately it is on our vulnerability that we depend.”—Rilke
As children, many of us were taught courage in the form of the warrior or the explorer, bravely facing danger. In the Buddhist understanding, however, the greater courage is not demonstrated by aggression or ambition. The courageous heart is the one that is unafraid to open to the world, to care no matter what.
Facing suffering brings us a great task: to stay true to our deepest values and still remain open and vulnerable. Whatever hardens and closes our heart leaves us rigid, frightened, unresponsive. Through our grudges and fears we become increasingly territorial and defensive. How can we keep the heart open without losing our strength and our sense of justice?
To do this we must allow the heart to become strong in a new way. We turn toward the suffering of the world willingly, and let it stretch our compassion. In the inevitable pains, conflicts, and betrayals we discover we can embrace the power of love. In the midst of difficulty, we can repeatedly stop and return to our heart’s goodness, reconnect to our strength of compassion and our vulnerability.
With compassion we come to trust our capacity to open to life without armoring. As the poet Rilke reminds us, “Ultimately it is on our vulnerability that we depend.” This is not a poetic ideal but a living reality, demonstrated by our most beloved sages. Mahatma Gandhi had the courage to be jailed and beaten, to persevere through difficulties without giving in to bitterness and despair. His vulnerability became his strength.
Martin Luther King Jr. exhorted us, “Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the instruments of love.” At the worst times such an attitude may seem impossible. Yet even though some of King’s followers later rejected his precepts of non-violence, something in us knows that hate does not end by hate, that closing our heart is not the way.
Yes, the world is full of pain, uncertainty, and injustice. But in this vulnerable human life, in family, community and society, every loss is an opportunity either to shut out the world or to stand up with dignity and let the heart respond. When we come to rest in the great heart of compassion, we discover a capacity to bear witness to, suffer with, and hold dear with our own vulnerable heart the sorrows and beauties of the world. Then we can act with courage, standing up for what matters, all from a center of wisdom, peace and love.
In the midst of difficulty, we can repeatedly stop and return to the strength of compassion and our common vulnerability. We can trust the courage and vulnerability of our heart to meet life as it is. And in this way we will find in ourselves the power of love and truth to respond to a world that so needs our care.