The Power of Vulnerability
By Sandra O’Brien
Naked and exposed. That’s the answer many people give when you ask them what it feels like to be vulnerable. But to lead a truly purposeful and meaningful life we need to embrace the emotional exposure that is vulnerability.
“What the hell am I doing here?” I thought to myself. I was waiting in the searing summer heat to get an auger machine to drill six holes into the hard-packed playa of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. The heat was so intense I almost passed out. By the time someone arrived with an emergency Gatorade I couldn’t even speak. I questioned and cursed every decision I had ever made that led me to this wretched, hot and dusty place. But how quickly this animosity reversed itself upon my re-hydration, as I looked around at the magnitude of the magical scene before me. And I realized that I was home.
For a week every summer, this is the “Playa” – the site of Burning Man. It’s an annual event of about 70,000 citizens (called “Burners”) in the temporary metropolis of Black Rock City, Nevada, who come together to become a community surrounded and consumed by art, creativity, self-expression, involvement, inclusion and interaction. It’s where people from all walks of life and all ages gather to break free from society’s rules and expectations and just be themselves. My kind of place.
Participation is one of the key principles at Burning Man. Getting involved and giving selflessly of one’s unique gifts and talents for the enjoyment and benefit of the community is at its core. With that thought in mind, I decided in the spring of 2017 to create a small art project to display in front of the camp we share with about six to eight other Burners. It was going to be my gift to them. I had found four plastic female torsos at a local thrift shop, and I had to have them, although I didn’t know what I was going to do with them at the time. So I nicknamed them “the girls,” and propped them up in my living room. I stared at them, wondering what I could do. I decided to meditate on it and let the girls speak to me.
I’ve always had an affinity for causes that help empower other women, and in accordance with that core value, an idea emerged. The four female torsos would each embody four facets of a woman’s essence: Divine, Feminine, Warrior and Goddess – DFWG for short. It resonated, as I was personally getting back in touch with these elements in my life as well. I had fun creating unique designs representing each of these themes, and a secondary design with lights that would display another unique pattern at night. In addition, with the harsh conditions and frequent wind storms, the playa dust would accumulate on the torsos over time and contribute to their look, adding the element of survival to the overall theme of an Empowered Woman.
Upon arriving on the Playa, I went seeking some help from Burning Man’s Art Support team to dig the postholes for DFWG.
“So, tell me about your art and your vision for creating it.” one of the workers there asked. Um, I thought nervously. I wasn’t expecting questions about my art!
“Oh, it’s just a modest piece I put together to display in front of our camp. I just need help getting some holes dug for the posts.”
I showed her a couple of photos and explained, “I was inspired by these four female forms. To me they represented four aspects of every woman’s essence: Divine, Feminine, Warrior and Goddess. I wanted viewers to see them and reflect on them. What makes them divine? Feminine? A warrior? A goddess? It’s supposed to be all about empowerment.”
I could feel my palms getting sweaty. I hadn’t really shared my vision and inspiration with many people before. Why was she asking me these questions? All I wanted were some holes dug.
“Can I show these photos to some other people?” she asked. Jeez, I thought. These people are used to dealing with real artists and real art. They’ll probably laugh at my stuff.
“Okay I guess…” I responded hesitantly. She left, and I sat there feeling like an idiot for what felt like an hour. She returned with another person she introduced as the head of Art Support. By this time I was thinking they were going to admonish me that I was in the wrong place and this was for serious artists. I prepared for the worst.
“We like your art and your vision,” she said. “We think it’s a powerful message, and we would like to put it out on the Playa for everyone to enjoy.”
What? I thought. What just happened?
My heart was pounding. It was only my second time attending Burning Man, and this year, I was going to be an Official Burning Man Artist! My work displayed on the Playa for all to see. Who, me? I’m not an artist. How did I get here? What if nobody likes it? I felt shocked. Then excited. Then terrified.
Suddenly, I was caught up in a flurry of planning and logistics. We went out to check the placement of my installation. It was awesome – and intimidating. The location, in the “Art Garden,” was close to the city and “The Man” structure, so it would be easily noticed. And it was surrounded by lots of other art installations.
“But those were made by real artists!” the voice of self-doubt in my head taunted. I would surely be exposed as a fraud.
Then we went about the actual work of installation – digging dirt (where this story began), placing poles, running wires, checking lighting, securing each and every aspect of the installation and then cleaning up, because another core principle of Burning Man is “leave no trace.” The installation was finally done. I took a step back, looked at my art and savored the moment. I was hot, tired and dirty, and in shock at my accomplishment.
The next day I went to check on my installation, and people were walking by, stopping to look at my work. I was still having a hard time believing it. I was an Accidental Artist.
My friends threw me an “art opening” party that night, and waved over people to “come meet the Artist!” I spoke with them and explained my vision for the piece. The responses were so positive. People really got the message and loved my art! Even other artists were encouraging. I was invited to attend the exclusive Burning Man Artist’s Party where I got to meet and mix with all of the creative visionaries who had brought some magnificent art to the Playa. Pinch me!
I didn’t even know what Burning Man was a few years ago. But, I was a different person then…
Vulnerability is Where Fear Meets Courage
For most of my life, I didn’t really “do” emotions – feel them, understand them, process them or express them. I was a practicing attorney and being good at compartmentalizing my emotions served in my career.
It was also easier to stuff down emotions, and play whatever role was expected of me: career woman, devoted wife, doting mother. From the outside, I’m sure it looked like I led a charmed life. But I knew I was playing a role and not being true to myself out of fear of what would happen if I didn’t meet others’ expectations. I didn’t feel safe. I ached to be genuine and live from a place of self-love and respect. No more masks. No more people-pleasing, fake behavior or superficial small talk.
Over time, the discomfort of being someone else became greater than the fear. It was affecting every aspect of my life, and I knew had to make some big changes. I could not continue to feed the fear, including my biggest fear, the unknown.
My two boys were mostly out of the nest, and I felt comfortable that they could handle what was coming. So, I finally left my 25-year marriage, which had become emotionally unhealthy, and moved across town to a condo in a new neighborhood where I didn’t know anyone. I was embarking on the ultimate exercise in vulnerability – starting a new life with a new “me.” But first, I had to find out who that new me could be.
As many people do during major life traumas, I went looking for meaning and purpose. I could feel that a part of me was missing. First, I had to get back in touch with my emotions. A therapist suggested I try meditation. I had never been a religious person, but this was more of a spiritual thing, so I tried it.
I couldn’t really quiet my mind at first, but she said that was okay and to keep trying. A strange thing started happening. What I used to call the “voice in my head” or my “gut instinct” started showing up more when I meditated. The more I practiced meditating and paying attention, the more I felt I was getting in tune with myself. Some unpleasant stuff came up, too. Emotions I used to stuff down and ignore. But this time I wasn’t trying to be somebody else, so I became curious about what they were telling me. Sometimes the emotions were dark and came with physical symptoms – a heaviness in my gut. Other times, I felt a strong sense of calm and lightness. These were all new, and I wanted to know more.
One night, I was at a friend’s house, and there was another person there. She started talking about spiritual classes she had taken that gave her the tools she needed to better take control of her life. Now she was starting out on a career she always wanted, and said she had transformed her life. I was intrigued. I had already taken a big step, but didn’t know where to go next. I realized my lack of any spiritual practice or connection was the piece that was missing within me. As the saying goes, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” And boy, was I ready.
The classes she had taken were with The Modern Mystery School. I had never heard of it, but I was ready to learn. I met with one of their teachers who explained the school and its mission and described how the tools I learned there could help me on my spiritual path. It was not a church or organized religion, and there was no religious dogma attached to their teachings. They described their program as universal teachings and tools that empower others to realize their own true selves and potential.
Discovering the New Me: Magick in Action
I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I started taking some classes, reading books and listening to others who had traveled this path before me. I absorbed information from a variety of sources and integrated them into my life. Over the next couple of years, I learned more tools that helped me grow and learn about myself. The more I learned, the more I wanted to make needed changes in my life. I felt a new connection to myself and to the universe. I was re-discovering the strong woman I used to be, and it was time for her to take charge. As the late great Maya Angelou observed, “Stepping onto a brand-new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation which is not nurturing to the whole woman.”
During this period, I was still living in my ex-husband’s hometown. My energy felt stuck, and I realized I needed a new place for the new me. By this time, I was opening myself up to love again and was in a long-distance relationship. He lived in California, while I still lived in Kentucky. Additionally, my job was no longer satisfying, and I felt I needed to start over there as well.
One day during a trip to visit my boyfriend, we went walking on the beach. Suddenly I turned to him and blurted out a thought that had just popped into my head, “I am going to have a home that overlooks the ocean.” I don’t know where that statement came from, but it certainly wasn’t something my bank account agreed with.
I had been toying with the idea of moving to California, thinking I might “try it out” for a month or so. Upon the advice of a realtor, I started looking at available apartments to get a feel for the market. I wasn’t planning on making the cross-country leap right away, but the universe had other plans.
The first place I went to see was at the top of a hill. It was much smaller than my current home, and a bit outdated, but priced below most other places on the market. I didn’t think about any of that because when I walked in, I was drawn straight out through the sliding glass doors to the grassy area in back that overlooked the ocean. It was as if the angels had bathed the apartment in glowing white light and announced, “Here it is! What are you waiting for?” I signed the lease on the spot. My sons were very supportive. One even observed insightfully, “Well, Mom, you never really did unpack from your first move…and you have always wanted to live near the ocean.” Even my mom, who was in failing health at the time, encouraged and supported this move, saying, “You’ve outgrown this place. You need to move on.”
With their blessings and a sense that this was the next step I needed to take, we flew back to Kentucky to begin the monumental task of a cross-country move. Over the month of December, we sorted through the contents of my life and distilled it down to fit into one moving Pod. What no longer served me I let go, selling or giving away the remaining contents of my condo. There were times I was paralyzed by the sheer size of the task and the multitude of emotions surging through me. Soon after New Years Day 2017, I put my condo up for sale, and we began driving the long journey to California. I had many fears and doubts along the way. “What have I done?” I thought to myself. I cried in every state we drove through. Twice in Texas, because it’s a very big state! I remember seeing the signs for San Diego and feeling a swell of excitement as if I was embarking on a wonderful new journey. And I guess I was.
The Empowered Woman
Since that time, I have continued my meditation practice and taken more classes and trainings through The Modern Mystery School. For me, the tools I learned and people I’ve met through the school have helped give me clarity about my life purpose, provided a foundation for self-discovery and greater awareness and connectivity to my intuition and my place in the universe.
My creative spark has been rekindled, and I am currently working on a book to help empower other women on their journeys. This past Spring I was invited back by the Burning Man Art organization, who helped facilitate another chance for me to bring more art to the Playa this year. I’ll be bringing back “the girls,” in a new way, and am expanding my vision to incorporate more spiritual elements I’ve learned from my studies.
I now trust in the process, aligning myself with what resonates within me, and the path of my life’s purpose is starting to unfold. I still feel scared, anxious and self-doubting at times. I still struggle with putting myself out there and being vulnerable. But now I have the tools to work through and overcome those feelings. Then I breathe and remember the Divine, Feminine, Warrior Goddess that I am. In being true to myself, I have found new courage to live a deeper and more meaningful life on all levels. And in that exercise of trying and being vulnerable, I discovered the gift of empowerment.
Sandra O’Brien is a recovering attorney and reformed domestic goddess who is now embracing her creativity, uniqueness, spirituality and love of the ocean in San Diego, California. Her mission is to help women recognize and believe in their own self-worth and help facilitate their personal growth and empowerment.