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Vulnerability takes Courage

My first workshop in Singapore was going smoothly and it was time for lunch. I was relaxing in self satisfaction and relief when my bubble was burst. A student came to my table and surprised me by telling me that the workshop wasn’t going so smoothly for her. It lacked “intensity,” and wasn’t reaching her. I reacted with a sharp retort, something like, “Well, that’s your problem, the workshop will continue in the way it's going. It’s too bad that you’re not getting what you want, but I don’t think I can provide that.” The student seemed stunned by my dismissive reaction and we retreated into small talk. After a while, we excused ourselves.

Once I was alone, I was able to reflect on my behavior. Why had I reacted in such an aggressive manner? Why had I been so defensive? Feeling attacked, I had struck back.

This story came to me: A samurai asks a master monk to teach him about heaven and hell. The monk immediately slaps the samurai! Enraged, the samurai draws his sword and chases the monk around the room, intent on killing him. Finally cornering the monk, the samurai—face still contorted in rage—raises his sword for the killing blow… “That!” says the calm monk, pointing to the samurai’s anger-flushed face, “is hell!” In a flash, anger flees from the samurai’s face, replaced by gratitude as he puts away his sword. “And that,” declares the monk triumphantly, “is Heaven.”

I saw the student sitting alone waiting for the workshop to resume and went up to her. I told her that I was concerned about what she had expressed and asked if she would like to share it with the group, assuring her that since it is important to her it is important for the group. Some others may feel like she does, and some may not, and that it would good for the group as a whole to reflect on the questions she was raising. She seemed surprised and agreed that she would do as I asked.

When we were all together I began by saying that one of us has a concern about what were doing in the workshop and I would like to give her a chance to express it to the group. She did and what ensued was an intimate sharing of how people were feeling about what we were doing. It opened us to a new place of vulnerability. I was able to share the Zen story and recognize how I had drawn my sword when I felt threatened. I apologized for my defensive behavior and reflected in front of the group on how I was learning in the moment how much I need to follow my own teachings about deep listening.

The student who was upset was now smiling and reflecting on her own behavior. She said she was satisfied that she was being seen and listened to. The group came to a new level of intimacy as others too became more open. At the break, the student came up and hugged me, and said how surprised she was that I had offered her that opportunity. Later, she told me that on further reflection she realized that all she really wanted was to be heard, then she could move on and listen too. She said that if I hadn’t given her that moment, she probably would have retreated into her own private space, not really participating.

For me, it was another lesson in the power of vulnerability. To know, we must open ourselves to the other person or experience. To move with and be influenced by the novel, we must be confident enough to be vulnerable, secure enough to open ourselves to the being and becoming of the unknown. Overcoming our fear requires trust and learning to be comfortable with not knowing, with ambiguity and uncertainty. The lightness of “beginner’s mind,” is a state that may appear to be weakness and ignorance, but from which the new can arise.

This is the art of teaching and learning. I teach what I need to learn, I always say. Teaching and learning are interconnected, I always say. But walking the line between teaching and learning is tough. How do you have enough trust to stand in front of others and tell them something as if you know it, yet be open enough to admit that you are still learning it? This complexity is all embodied in the word, Sensei, the Japanese word for teacher, to be explained in the next blog.

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