The Power of Defenselessness
All non-dual teachings remind us that we are already ‘That’. The depth of our being is God, eternal pristine awareness. Yet there is a world of difference between knowing this conceptually, and genuinely experiencing for ourselves the indestructible presence that lives us.
How can we let direct experience of our true nature genuinely open up?
The most direct route I know is the practice of defenselessness. It is the means by which we can get out of our own way, and let the web of our ego patterns unwind. For many years I grappled with this, understanding that surrender was the quintessential task. I would meditate earnestly to quiet my mind, try to remember who I really was, and pray – offering up the more difficult aspects of my personality caught up in some story of separation, usually triggered by a relational twirk. Sometimes my agitation would dissolve into the deeper ocean of grace, other times I would feel like a cat chasing its own tail. That’s because the one trying to surrender was the one in the way.
I was introduced to defenselessness through the workbook lesson in ACIM, ‘in my defenselessness my safety lies’. I sensed there was something pivotal about this invitation that seemed to turn 180 degrees on its head the belief that we must defend ourselves from danger within and without. Yet it was only after the spontaneous surrender that occurred in the cave of Ramana Maharshi did I understand the true power of this teaching. How defenselessness exposes our illusions and reveals the indestructible nature of who we truly are.
The power of nothing:
The instruction I heard in that cave of deep silence was all about nothingness. Nothing to be, do, get, become, seek for, relinquish, just be as you are, rest in God. By grace, the story of ‘me’ was rendered defenseless and it disappeared. Then a whole new dimension of space and silent presence opened up. This was far more than just a momentary spiritual orgasm. Its wisdom has continued unfolding in the years afterwards, revealing a very practical method for awakening that I practice and share with people daily. Defenselessness shows us how to relax the protective tendencies that we accrue through our lifetime that buffer us from the direct contact with our true nature.
If we genuinely do not try to get anything, reject anything or become anything, there really is nothing for our ego to do. Nothing to fight with or against. No victim, no victimizer, no self and other. No world. At first this feels dis-orientating. Then a host of awkward feelings often arise, sometimes fear, hopelessness, not knowing what to do. We feel dis-armed, and although this is the point when our ego typically would raise the red flag to distract attention onto something else, spiritually speaking, this is when we strike gold. If we just stay present, soft and open, defenses start dissolving and we will pass through the vulnerability they were built to protect in the first place. If we can allow this and not engage a story about who we are because of it, a natural unwinding of our armour begins. We meet more directly what we were trying to guard against. If we can just meet that avoidance purely, just as feeling, as body sensation, as subtle energy, the experience naturally dissolves, and we land deeper in a more essential aspect of our being.
Defenseless with what?
I am not suggesting that you try to practice defenselessness when crossing a busy city street, or when faced with a situation that might be asking you to stand up for yourself. Defenselessness is not to be confused with collapsing, being a doormat or shying away from speaking a difficult truth (with as much mindfulness as we can). A true spiritual path is not about wafting about in some pastel vapour.
Defenselessness is an inner practice. It shows us how to be present and un-armoured with our self first, so that we more substantially retrieve deeper wisdom. It asks for the humility to loosen our idealized self-image, our ideas of who we think we should be or would like to be, to just meet ourselves wherever we are, warts, jewels and all. Just meeting the truth of our own experience without defense, whatever that happens to be, trusting that the truth always brings some form of liberation. This helps us to be more available to grace, more real with ourselves and with the ones we love. Supports us in wiser action. Defenselessness exposes what truly is.
Understanding our Defenses:
It is important to view our defenses from a compassionate lens, because we all develop them for a good reason. Our survival instinct forms defenses from the moment we first experienced ourselves separate from the infinity of pure being. As infants this feels like being separate from the love we needed, the holding, the safety. Disconnected from the strength, the peace, the contact, the freedom. Of course the more enlightened and attuned our parents were, the more graceful this can be, but it the self-forgetting is a natural and unavoidable part of human development. It is not a mistake nor is it wrong.
When we are young and dependent, this dis-connection from the essential ground of what we truly are, feels like our needs are being denied. It can feel like being tied and bound in hell. It is incredibly stressful to our young nervous system, that cannot fully self soothe until around the age of seven. We don’t yet have the capacity to understand that the reasons why are not being responded to precisely the way we need, may not be because of anything we have done. With each moment of dis-connection from the love and support we needed, a mind-body and spirit contraction happens and we lose a little more contact with the grace at our core. To shut down and cut off from experiences that feel too much, feels like the only power we have.
Mud covering the jewel of your being:
With each layer of defensive contraction, beliefs are formed about what the world is and who we are. These beliefs are unconscious and begin forming our view on reality. This gives rise to our sense of identity, setting in motion patterns that shape our life. Each contraction and its defensive reaction acts like a layer of mud over the exquisite jewel of our being. By the time we reach adolescence, we are usually set in our defensive patterns of responding, and are reacting our way through life. Forgetting completely that the infinite grace of the universe is living us, we start polishing the outer surface of the mud, trying to shape it into something appealing, lovable, something that will get a positive result from the world. It seems to work somewhat for a while.
At some point in our life, a crack appears in this carefully manicured personality structure we have formed. If we are lucky, this ego piercing happens earlier than later. Usually some unexpected turn of life’s wheel initiates the crack – like the loss of a cherished love affair, death of someone close to us, an accident or illness, or losing our status or career. However this happens for us, our familiar ways of holding and knowing ourselves are de-stabilized. We feel helpless, vulnerable and deficient – just as a young child. We often feel angry about our plight and look for someone to blame. This is a further layer of defense. Spiritually speaking, this crack appearing is extremely good news, if we can muster the maturity to turn within and practice defenselessness in a moment like this. Not to rush to patch up the crack and re-polish the ego veneer, but to peer into the crack and see what might be underneath.
The fear to look within:
Much of my work involves sitting with people in soul friendship, encouraging them to be present and defenselessness in a moment like this, harnessing it as a portal to liberation. To welcome the experience of deficiency, vulnerability, not knowing what to do, and to genuinely let it be. To lean into it (like diving through a wave of the ocean) with willingness to really see what it really is.
So often, our habits of closure are held together by assumptions that have not been fully questioned. We confuse feelings with facts. Just as it is ineffective to re-assure a young child there are no scary monsters poised to pounce in the dark of the bedroom when the lights go out, just mentally telling ourselves there is nothing to fear doesn’t work. What truly helps is to turn the light on and patiently support the child to look everywhere they believed the menacing presence lurked. To look long enough for the child to discover through their own direct experience, that what they feared does not exist. We cannot skip this step.
Common to virtually everyone I share this practice with across cultures and religions is a very hidden fear that at the core of our being lies something bad, deficient, empty, not good enough, flawed. Turn within enough and at some point we all hit this. Its what makes us most want to run back up to the surface. Christianity made a whole religion out of this and named it ‘original sin’. Really, it is the ego’s primary state of deficiency. Often we feel ashamed about it, or frightened of it, and so suppress it deep into the unconscious. It feels like a huge problem, but spiritually it is perhaps the most important gateway into freedom there is. What appears to be the defect of our character is actually the most direct portal through. The Japanese value of ‘wabi-sabi’ understands this. The chip on the ceramic vase rendering it imperfect, is central to its beauty. The petals falling in a seeming mess off the roses, create spontaneous art on the table.
The gateway of deficiency:
When we directly contact our sense of deficiency – of being empty, rotten, not good enough, it feels that to expose it would cause us to be swallowed up by it, never to escape. Let others really in to see this, and it would be confirmed by rejection. We believe we are the only ones with this guilty secret and conclude that we must have done something bad to be experiencing this. Yet if we can just rest undefended with this sense of deficiency, this feeling dis-connected itself, we taste a very important truth – that our ego IS deficient. It can’t do anything but imitate the real thing. We find ourselves asked again to just be nothing, do nothing, get nothing, become nothing, seek for nothing, relinquish nothing, just be as we are, rest in God.
At first it feels very counter-intuitive to soften our defenses and courageously open into what a lifetime of conditioning suggests we protect against. This is what makes spiritual awakening feel like being asked to go towards death. All of our fears really come down to this. Fear that we will not exist in the way we know ourselves. Fear we will have no control in the unknown. Could we meet even this and not protect, not cleave to some spiritual concept even, not leave? That is the nexus of deep transformation.
Reflect on something in your life that recently triggered a defensive reaction. Firstly, refuse to judge yourself for the fact this arose. Instead, be curious about what feelings your defense was attempting to push away or protect from. Sit with this question deeply for about 20 minutes:
‘What don’t I want to feel?’
Every defense is a protection against feeling something. Could you open into it and see what it really is deeper than your thoughts? Sometimes it feels like we will die, melt down or go crazy if we let ourselves fully feel rage, terror, loneliness, grief, valuelessness, hopelessness, nothingness, despair. This is coming from a very young place inside that could not handle the intensity of such experiences. Yet if we can stay in the present, take in the loving support of the universe, and just open to the energy, the direct bodily sensations of the experience without telling the story about it, something very magical happens. We realize that our fear was just a gargoyle on the gate to the inner sanctuary.
To practice defenselessness with our self amidst our most vulnerable places is such an expression of love. To be absolutely present, not abandoning ourselves, and yet totally welcoming of whatever comes provides the fresh air for our soul. Just resting in being, things open up in the way we truly need. Your soul knows the way and a question like this (for 20 minutes) helps that way be found:
‘What’s it like to allow your experience completely?’
Ramana Maharshi said that enlightenment is not really a change but a shift of attention. This question shifts our attention to the opposite of defending. Allowing is a non-doing practice. Ceasing to interfere or control or even try to guide ourselves. It is something we can learn to let our ego habits relax.
What happens when we truly rest undefended is a mysterious process and it is slightly different every time. We are no longer in charge and that is the point. Finally we are humble and in this, grace becomes dynamic within our being – showing us what might need to be seen or done, perhaps appearing as guidance or perhaps revealing in direct experience a deeper taste of who we truly are. It is no longer in our hands. We are undefended, and powerfully open to the mystery. The inner teacher is liberated and we find ourselves resting more deeply in the vast ocean of indestructible being.