April 21, 2008

ANOTHER SLANT ON CONSCIOUNESS: Vulnerability, Presence, and Power

A while back I did a post on Hillary (Hillary and the Woman Thing) in which I talked about her appeal to me when she allowed herself to feel and show vulnerability. She became a much more three-dimensional figure, and I felt her presence as never before. It was a wonderful complement as well as an antidote to her poised and tough persona, which strikes me as too image-bound. This, among other things, got me thinking about how female power might differ from male power and even more generally about the connection between vulnerability, presence, and power. I will flirt with the first question here but end up focusing on the second.

I knew I had to write about this, yet it is a challenging topic. On the face of it, vulnerability isn't power, its weakness. It's a bit like claiming that up is down. I had only a sketchy, nonverbal sense about why I felt so strongly that this conventional wisdom is wrong.

Then I attended a seminar at the Women's Studies Research Center, where I work, by my colleague Hilde Hein, a philosopher who studies museums. During her talk she presented a double analogy she had used years ago in a talk on aesthetics. She showed on one side of the screen a picture of a proud aggressive looking nail and on the other a more humble sewing needle just entering some fabric. Below is her eloquent description of these different implements, taken from her early paper. She writes that both are employed, “…to bind together diverse substances, both [are] progenitors of socially significant structures." You will have no difficulty knowing him from her.”

He is strong, rigid, and straight, with a point at one end, the better to penetrate resistance substances, and a strong head at the other. A few sharp and well directed strokes fix him firmly in place....He remains there, stalwart and unyielding until the material that he punctures softens and rots away and he himself becomes brittle and rusted. She, by contrast, is pliant, sleek and tapered, her purpose integrated continuously throughout her form, which is, however distinctively marked by a hole at one end. A thread, introduced through that orifice, is carried distributed and left behind to hold together and shape a unity out of separate fabrics, which, once joined,live out their collective identity long after she has passed to be of service elsewhere.

This fable of gender difference intrigued me---the commanding authoritarian male who actively maintains structures with iron force as opposed to the more generative female whose nurturing guidance leaves only an inter-psyche thread. I found myself thinking about it when I woke up the next morning and sensed that this was a way into what I wanted to say. Among other things, its truth/ non-truth quality---its aptness along with its limitations as a caricature---captures the ambivalence I feel about framing this issue through a gender lens.

In her paper Hilde focuses initially on the different kinds of artifacts and then art each produces. I will focus only (and only briefly) on the different kinds of sheltering each provides for us. The strong proud nail is essential to the outer boundary layer that separate us from the environment--- our building and houses. The more humble and well traveled needle is essential to creating a boundary layer closer in--- our clothing.

Yet we humans, both male and female, are made of the softer penetrable stuff on the outside at least. The boundary of our body with the external world, our skin and flesh, is soft and permeable like cloth. Because of this we can experience the kiss of a young spring breeze on our face and the joyful effervescence of bubble bath. Of course it also means we wound and tear. To keep out infection and to heal, we have to be sown together, with needles---and nowadays disappearing thread.

We are no crustaceans separated from the world by a hardened shell. Instead the tougher stuff, the more rigid part of our body, our bones, are hidden inside. When they break or fracture, nails---or even mental plates---may be required to keep them in place and maintain the integrity of our skeletal structure.

We are made to be permeable to the external world and to each other. (In fact what are called mirror neurons in our brain make us mirror the feelings of others even when we are unaware of doing so.) To the extent that we experience and reveal our inherent vulnerability, we paradoxically reveal the stronger stuff inside. When Hillary's face revealed her vulnerability when her opponent came over to her podium in a debate during her first Senate campaign demanding she sign a statement, she seemed not only more likable, but stronger and more resilient. We saw the bones of her Being. This moment of being seems to have been the turning point in the race.

When we defend against external forces we don't like and the feelings they bring up---something alas we all do---we pretend we can maintain ourselves inviolate. Like George Bush we hold the line and become the decider of what we will let in and what we will keep out. Instead of feeling our vulnerability to the vicissitudes of life and fate, we turn it around and preemptively---and/or indiscriminately---kick ass. (The more openly vulnerable the target, the better to deflect our own banished feelings.) Instead of strength, we show meanness or bravado. Instead of letting life reveal the bones of being human, we try to stage manage it so it becomes an endless photo op.

The truth is we can't keep out difficult feelings, and perhaps especially painful vulnerability. It is inherent in the curse and gift of consciousness. Even if we try to deflect them by projecting them outward and making sure others feel them instead, they still leave their mark on us---in our muscles and maybe even our bones. In some real sense we store the unpleasant feelings we wish to keep out inside our bodies. (Remember the old saying that you become what you resist.)

My chiropractor tells me that like muscles, bones can hold tension. I'm not completely sure how this works; it could be that bones can store blocked Ch'i, or life force. In any case, the muscles that hold the bones in place have to maintain tension to do their job. I suppose as a result they can hold a certain amount of unnecessary tension as well. Difficult feelings we refuse to feel also can be stored in the patterns of reaction of muscles, including presumably the muscles that hold the bones. Whatever the mechanism, unfelt feelings tend to make our bodies function in a rigid and stiff or otherwise maladaptive way---the very opposite of the resilience and flexibility we all desire.

Experiencing vulnerability is not the same as feeling victimized. Nor does it mean taking to heart what another is saying or doing. Being vulnerable in the sense I am using it means fully feeling whatever is happening and letting it reverberate through the bones of one’s being. What I found so magnificent about Hillary in the debate in her first Senate race I described above was that she was completely present to that difficult moment.

This is a more difficult task with a backlog of stored trauma, as many of us have, or just stuff. But it is not impossible, just more of a challenge. The trick, it would seem, is to be completely permeable. This means feeling whatever is happening, remaining present as it reverberates through both our bodies and our being as long as it needs to, and then letting it pass out through the other side.

This ability to be fully present in the moment---and the next moment and the next moment--- feeling one's vulnerability to the external world and whatever it brings and brings up, links vulnerability not only to presence, but to real power. In difficult situations, correct action---actions which will serve others as well as the self---can only come from being present to what is happening as it echoes through our being before it goes out the other side. This is true whether it calls for the forceful structuring of the nail, the more gentle guidance of the needle, or something in between. No doubt we will often get it wrong, but with the effort to stay conscious, perhaps we can get it right much more of the time.

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