Dialogue Nights #19: Embracing Vulnerability

| Mitch Bogen
Zoom screenshot of October 2021 Virtual Dialogue Nights

During times of crisis, personal or social, we often feel an obligation to be strong, for ourselves and others. There is a reason for this, of course, since much value is created in this manner. But what are the costs of always being strong? And what are benefits of being, not weak, but at least vulnerable at such times?

These are some of the questions that inspired the topic of the Ikeda Center’s October 2021 Virtual Dialogue Nights, “Embracing Vulnerability: Our Path to Genuine Growth,” which featured 28 participants joining from diverse time zones around the world.

In her opening remarks, Center Program Manager Lillian I explained that “when we met with our youth committee last month to brainstorm topics, a discussion around our feelings and emotions began to unfold. It might be the time of year or the fact that we’ve all had to feel so many things in the last year and a half.” One member observed that so many people seem to be “putting on a face” now. Another wondered why we “teach kids that crying is bad.” Others, said Lillian, tied it “back to what’s going on in our world right now,” observing that a lot of the world’s problems “come from not being okay to feel the way we feel… and that one thing we can do to help each other is to change the narrative around what feelings are and share that new narrative far and wide.” And that, said Lillian, is exactly what tonight’s Dialogue Nights is about: exploring “whether courageously embracing and treasuring the full scope of our emotions is really how we can grow and reveal our most authentic, powerful selves.”

Before turning over the screen to Center Events and Publications Coordinator Anri Tanabe for ice breakers, Lillian left everyone with insights from two thought leaders who have given considerable thought to the meaning of vulnerability. First, she talked about Brené Brown’s contention “that to be human is to be in vulnerability.” This means, said Lillian, “that it’s in your nature to be vulnerable, which suggests that your inability to be vulnerable can lead to inauthenticity and a disconnection from yourself.” Then she shared a quote from Center founder Daisaku Ikeda:

There is no true joy in a life lived closed up in the little shell of the self. When you take one step to reach out to people, when you meet with others and share their thoughts and sufferings, infinite compassion and wisdom well up within your heart. Your life is transformed.

Two Stories of Growing Through Vulnerability

After the ice breaker session, during which participants took a Kahoot survey on vulnerability and then broke out into small groups to share something about themselves that “people wouldn’t usually know,” Lillian introduced the evening’s two featured speakers, Kip Clark and Sakshi Khurana. Each would share their findings from what the event planning team called “The Vulnerability Project.” In it, Kip and Sakshi were asked to examine their own experiences around vulnerability over the course of two weeks using the following prompts:

Week 1
- In your own words, define vulnerability.
- What makes it difficult and/or uncomfortable to be vulnerable?
- Reflect/journal in what area of your life would you like to challenge being vulnerable?

Week 2
- Challenge yourself to practice vulnerability in this area of your life.
- Write down how did it make you feel? How did you grow from this experience?

Speaking first, Kip said that, for him, “vulnerability means laying yourself or parts of you plain, substantially, and bare to others.” As an aside, he noted that he almost completed that phrase by saying “for judgment”! Indeed, he said that this equation of vulnerability with being judged, along with a fear of being misunderstood, is what holds him back. Nevertheless, he is convinced that “living or communicating openly” prepares us for growth.

Kip then shared a personal experience of vulnerability and what he learned from it. For the last couple years, said Kip, he has been engaged in a unique experiment in which he sits on the steps at the main building at M.I.T with a sign saying Free Listening. One thing he found is that people sometimes find it easier to talk to a stranger about their problems or vulnerabilities than with someone they know. As time passed, he began to have several repeat visitors; in fact it got to where these people were sometimes making it hard for others to get some sharing-listening time in. So, at a certain point, Kip felt he had to set some boundaries with the repeaters. This created an unusual circumstance of vulnerability for Kip, as he didn’t want to be considered an insensitive or uncaring person. Before taking action, Kip checked in with each of them first. “They were,” he said, “understandably saddened, but they didn’t seem devastated.”

To ground his takeaways from this experience, Kip shared a quote from Ikeda that begins, “a young person’s heart is as sensitive as a thermometer.” What better definition of vulnerability? The first observation Kip made was counterintuitive, or maybe paradoxical. “I don’t think vulnerability scares us because it’s unfamiliar,” he said. “On the contrary, I think it’s so familiar to us that our alienation from it is embarrassing and shameful. So I think vulnerability is scary because it teases us and asks us to consider the open windows we’ve painted over.” Similarly, we fear being “diminished” by others when vulnerable,” it may be because we too often “diminish ourselves.” Ultimately, the benefits of vulnerability, especially in leading more meaningful lives, is profound. Therefore he recommends that all of us seek to model vulnerability for others.

Sakshi spoke next, saying, “I define vulnerability as being true to yourself, being honest with yourself, and sharing that with others. It is about sharing your lived experience as it is — raw and real.” She then shared a couple reasons she resists vulnerability: She might get “too carried away” and share too much, things she doesn’t even want to share. She might “put forward a self” that others might not appreciate. Essentially what makes being vulnerable hard for her is the “fear of being judged, rejected, misunderstood.”

To illustrate her experiences with vulnerability, Sakshi chose to share her experiences living with a chronic health condition, explaining that in the 8th grade she “was diagnosed with epilepsy and used to get seizures.” Thankfully, she said that “over the years, with the help of medication and my Buddhist practice, I stopped having seizures and almost pretended that my illness doesn’t exist.” She also moved to a new school district so as not to be judged by her illness. While it was a relief to feel this way, said Sakshi, it left her unprepared when heath issues arose again. “[It] took me back to my experiences as a child… It made me confront my illness, and accept that it exists. Yes, it’s real.”

This time, she decided to share with others about her condition, and immediately felt a great sense of relief. “The worry about being judged was gone,” she said, “and it was empowering to embrace my reality.” This last part is the key for Sakshi. Through this experience she came to see that vulnerability isn’t about “telling everyone everything” about your experiences. Rather, it means not “gaslighting myself” about vulnerability and “facing feelings for what they are.” This way, feelings can be a catalyst for her growth, a benefit, not a hinderance, to “my mental health.” Sakshi concluded by saying that she has experienced the truth of Daisaku Ikeda’s observation that “it is through the sometimes painful reflection and forbearance that is required to face head-on a difficult situation … that the internal workings of the conscience … can be strengthened.”

Vulnerability Is …

Following these presentations, Lillian invited participants to break into small groups for a 25 minute discussion of the same prompts that guided Kip and Sakshi’s reflections. After everyone returned to the “main room,” the Ikeda Center’s Preandra Noel led a brief “open mic” session during which participants could share takeaways from their breakout room dialogues. First, though, she conducted a whole group brainstorming session by asking everyone to complete the sentence “Vulnerability is …” in the chat room. (View full list here.) Responses were wide ranging, as can be seen in these examples: “Vulnerability is what makes you beautiful and unique.” “Vulnerability is courage.” “Vulnerability is a mirror.” “Vulnerability is the willingness to be and to continually become imperfect.” And, perhaps most uniquely, “Vulnerability is a cat showing her belly!”

The first person to share takeaways focused on what might be the central truth of vulnerability, which, she said, is that to become the person she wants to become, she needs to face her fears—not later, but now. The next person to comment emphasized how sharing your vulnerability is an act of value creation. Indeed, she said it is like taking a little bit of you and giving it to others, rather like a gift. This is important, she added, because many times we hold back from sharing our vulnerability because we don’t want to worry others. Finally, another spoke to the positive chain reaction that results from sharing vulnerability. When one person opens up, I want to open up, too, she said. We do it for others, to let them know it’s okay for them to feel their feelings.

Before handing the “mic” back to Lillian, Preandra led the group in one more vulnerability brainstorming prompt, inviting everyone to complete the sentence, “I want to challenge being vulnerable by …” (View full list here.) The responses were heartfelt, including:

  • I want to challenge being vulnerable by being myself.
  • I want to challenge being vulnerable by trusting myself and others.
  • I want to feel vulnerable by being authentic to myself and others in the most respectful way; not to victimize myself and [to] connect to others to share healing and love.
  • I want to challenge being vulnerable by sharing my doubts in myself until I overcome them!

To wrap up the evening, Lillian first thanked everyone for their openness and insights, saying they demonstrated Daisaku Ikeda’s conviction that “dialogue starts from the courageous willingness to know and be known by others.” Then, to conclude Dialogue Nights, Lillian introduced Andrea Rehani, a doctoral candidate at DePaul University who has been a regular attendee of virtual Dialogue Nights. Andrea recited a poem she composed specifically for the event. Called “(In)visible Entanglements,” the poem explored her own experiences with vulnerability. “My glitch has / not been short-termed. / Nor did it correct itself,” wrote Andy in her opening lines. To conclude, she offered these thoughts: “Glitches are poetic line breaks of vulnerability. Line breaks are a social practice of the human experience.”