Letting tenderness do its work
Notes on staying open
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A song I’m loving:
Ten·derness /ˈtendər/, noun; gentleness and kindness; sensitivity to pain.
I had one of the most profound experiences of my life last Friday as I entered into the portal of myself during an MDMA-assisted therapy journey, held by the mat on my therapist’s floor, by her attuned presence, by my own softened body and wide-open heart. I am not ready to share much about this experience; I’m still processing and integrating, still letting my body do what it needs to do without turning it all into something external, still letting the medicine do its job. What I am called to share, though, is my current exploration of letting tenderness do its work — in myself, in my relationships, in the way I move through the world. Maybe you, too, although I can’t say for sure.
It isn’t my role to ask others to stay tender — to insist others stay open. For a myriad of reasons, not everyone has the capacity to do that right now. I don’t blame them; if I were in many other shoes, I don’t think I’d be able to stay tender, either. Imagine asking someone up in flames to just stay tender, to soften, to turn toward grace. But I am feeling more and more into my own role, and the practice of staying tender keeps floating to the surface as the work I’m here to do right now, first in myself and my own family.
I’ve long thought of myself as a tender, gentle person, because it’s who I truly am at the core. Yet during my journey last Friday, I realized how much has been piled on top of my own tenderness, my own capacity to feel tender — I mean really feel it… not just think it or want to feel it. I’ve felt far away from the core of myself for so long that I forgot what it was like to actually embody the truest essence of me. Layers of protection have kept me from fully embodying tenderness (toward myself especially)… and I truly felt it down to the marrow, for what I believe is the first time in decades, last week.
The recognition of how we’ve been separate from our truest selves brings so much grief, and also an ample opportunity to replace the pain of it with love, with true acceptance, with room to return to who we actually are. It sounds cheesy but it is what I know to be true.
I felt what seemed like a lifetime’s worth of compassion for the walls I’ve been building since childhood, the walls that have both protected me from getting hurt and kept me isolated from receiving the connection and intimacy I’ve desired deep down. I felt tender in a way that allowed me to fully experience my own humanity and that of others, not just in my thinking self but in my heart, in places I don’t often feel it. I felt tender in a way I am still making sense of, in a way that has somewhat turned my narrow vision of myself upside down. What has become clear, though, is how the practice of staying tender is some sort of catalyst for staying close to alignment, to my values, to moving in the world with true, embodied care.
“We awaken this bodhichitta, this tenderness for life, when we can no longer shield ourselves from the vulnerability of our condition, from the basic fragility of existence. In the words of the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, “You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion.” It is said that in difficult times, it is only bodhichitta that heals.” — Pema Chödrön
I long thought I was letting the pain of the world touch my heart — yet what often actually happens is a turning away, a sharpness, where the pain doesn’t just touch my heart but entirely envelops it, making it hard to see anything else. This is what depression has felt like; this is what anxiety has felt like; this is what anything other than truly being present with the pain feels like.
I think about how tender my daughter is — how open to her own experience of the world, how easily provoked and moved, how quickly she can access her feelings and emotions in a situation. I think about how adults so often see a child’s tenderness as something to squash or fix, dampen or protect them from. And I understand this impulse to protect… I’ve felt it my whole life, quite literally until a week ago. Yet in the last week, I’ve looked to my daughter and sought out the wisdom in her tenderness, her openness, her true capacity to fully be with whatever is in front of her, no walls built, no layers of protection mastered over decades, no biases or narratives or conditions interrupting her lived wholeness and ability to see that of others, too. She mirrors to me how I want to be.
Tara Brach speaks about the revolution of tenderness — the way true tenderness allows us to move away from a self-centered experience and toward one of, in her words, “collective belonging and the preciousness of all life”. She teaches that you’re actually in your body when tenderness is present, and there’s a quality of openheartedness — you’re not thinking, planning or worrying, but are instead in your heart, open to what is. She says one of the main ways we block tenderness is by disassociating; we pull away, depress or repress or suppress, and attempt to control experience, rather than living it. Another way is by being in constant reactivity, over-sensitive and unable to process or digest. This rings deeply true for me — this pattern of either feeling disconnected or overly-reactive — and returning to the actual moment I’m in, so I can respond from my heart, is my lifelong practice.
Ross Gay speaks to the terrifying nature of tenderness in much of his work, and I’ve been asking myself how I can carve out more safety in staying tender — how I can confront the terror of openness and turn terror into willingness — how the willingness to remain tender amid a crumbling world might lead to a braver conversation, or an embracing of when I get things wrong, or an energy of fearlessness around doing what’s right. I wonder how I can orient toward tenderness as a method of forgiving, of myself and of others. I ask how staying tender might allow me to see more clearly, to move from the truth of myself, rather than from performance or expectation or wanting to please. I wonder how tenderness might actually give way to a depth of strength that doesn’t require me to hold power over anyone else. I wonder how staying tender can keep inviting me further into intimacy with myself, with others, with the earth, with what’s possible.
I want to stay tender by being willing to feel the grief.
I want to stay tender by letting in full joy when it arrives.
I want to stay tender by stepping out of my own vantage points.
I want to stay tender by practicing radical forgiveness.
I want to stay tender by continuing to envision what’s possible.
I want to stay tender by remaining a witness to what’s unfolding in Gaza.
I want to stay tender by remaining a witness to rising antisemitism and islamophobia.
I want to stay tender by being as present as I can to all of my daughter’s moments.
I want to stay tender by noticing where hardening is happening.
I want to stay tender by being willing to be wrong.
I want to stay tender by trusting what my heart knows is true.
I want to stay tender by letting myself be changed.
I want to stay tender by inviting in more intimacy.
I want to say tender by practicing, and practicing more, and then more.
An invitation to make your own list of ways you want to stay tender — maybe it will look entirely different from mine, and maybe it will feel silly, but it feels like care to me, and I am looking for more and more of that these days. May our tenderness and care contribute to the world we’d like to build — within and outside of ourselves.
Stay tender. Stay tender. Stay tender. I say this to myself and I soften.
This was a bit of a rambling, unedited letter, barely scratching the surface of what I have to say, yet it felt grounding and true to write. I’m grateful for this space, for a page to turn to, for words that help make sense of what isn’t yet known. Thank you, as always, for being here.
PS. A sweet memory of meeting one of my greatest teachers, someone who taught and inspired much of what I wrote about today — Tara Brach — back in early 2020.
△ A scene from a solo trip to the coast, a place to let it all out —
With so much care,
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