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  • smshige3

Vulnerability and Compassion

We sat alone and in silence, and ironically that was the beginning of making friends. Our five days and nights of being together started in separation and gradually became a period of intense connection and togetherness. We went inward and came outward. We all wanted to break out of our aloneness and experience oneness, though we could not articulate that desire.

I was leading a group of 16 year-olds from high schools in the Tokyo area, all on the fast track to achievement and success. Many of them saw the program at Stanford University as another way of reaching their goals. But some had read my book about the program and knew that they would be engaged in more than English study or cross-cultural experience. All saw the words Mindfulness and Leadership in the course title and expected that they would be taught about those things.

From the start I told them that wisdom can't be taught, but it can be learned. I explained that mindfulness was the foundation of developing as a leader--someone who brings out the best in themselves and in others. The focus of attention on our breath is the core of cultivating attention, awareness, and appreciation. In this seemingly simple way we are awake and come alive. Though this was complicated by their jet lag!

The class focused on the eight principles in my book, From Mindfulness to Heartfulness: beginner's mind, vulnerability, authenticity, connectedness, listening, acceptance, gratitude, and service. I won't try to capture the contents of the whole program here, but want to show how the students took their learning from class to their time together outside class and put it into action as they encountered each other 24 hours each day. They opened up and shared their thoughts and feelings with each other and became friends, a process full of vulnerability in this group of high achievers.

Their individual presentations on the final day were deeply moving. They embodied the theme of vulnerability that was modeled and stressed repeatedly all week. Many spoke of how they had removed their armor, the protective behaviors and thoughts that kept them hidden inside themselves. And they said that this was made possible by what had happened in class and also by what they courageously did in integrating their learning into their lives.

Many admitted to coming to the program a little bit broken and raw from life circumstance that finally drove them to admitting that suffering exists in their lives and they want to be free. They long for care and companionship, and want to break through the barriers that force them to hide their longing or risk rejection or humiliation. Through sharing their private parts they realized that there are many kinds of armor that look so different, yet beneath it lies the same tender heart wanting to love and be loved.

They used their presentations to show how they were overcoming their limitations by embracing their vulnerability, their imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness. They expressed joy at their newfound sense of connection to self and others, and heartfelt gratitude to all who had helped make this growth possible.

Glowing with the warmth of our coming together, we closed that moment with a little song:

Are you mindful?


Are you beautiful?


Are you wonderful?


Lead with your heart

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