Strong back soft front is a metaphor with a very powerful message that has been discussed by many spiritual teachers, including Tara Brach, Brene Brown, & Elizabeth Lesser. But the concept was originated by Zen Buddhist Roshi Joan Halifax. She describes it as follows:
“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open, representing choiceless compassion. The place in your body where these two meet—strong back and soft front—is the brave, tender ground in which to root our caring deeply.”
A Truly Powerful Metaphor
Having a strong back means being brave and courageous. It is a kind of fearlessness that arises when we feel strong, safe, grounded, and have a sense of belonging. Imagine a majestic mountain or the tallest tree you’ve ever seen. Think about their strength and stability and how they belong to the Earth. Then imagine yourself standing tall, strong, and confident, feeling stable and grounded knowing that you too belong—that you have a strong back.
Having a soft front means staying tender and open in the face of whatever discomfort is arising, even fear, anger, and hatred. It’s about embracing the vulnerability and the suffering. Think about the sun and the heat and energy it provides the Earth. Then imagine the vulnerable parts of you basking in this warmth, feeling soft, tender, and even compassionate—that you have a soft front.
According to all the research, we need both of these qualities to feel genuine love and compassion.
The Problem: Our Vulnerability Story
Vulnerability has been given a bad rap. It is confused with being soft, weak, and in some way deficient. Many of us live with the illusion that we are not supposed to feel vulnerable and suffer. Unfortunately, the moment we enter a vulnerable space in ourselves or in another, we have been deeply conditioned to want to either fix it or avoid it altogether.
We have built a strong narrative around vulnerability and a very inaccurate one. And so, we continue to reinforce our unconscious desire to ignore our uncomfortable feelings, to wear our protective layers (be they masks or armor), and to appear strong and stable by defending our insecure selves.
The Truth According to the Research
Research professor Brene Brown has proven that our faulty vulnerability story stems from false belief systems that must be challenged and rewritten. Her research shows that vulnerability is “the ability to navigate uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”
She sees vulnerability as the foundation of courage and therefore as a very necessary quality. According to Brown, “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, joy, trust, intimacy, and courage—everything that brings meaning to our life.”
So, how do we develop this equanimous combination of a strong back & soft front?
- We must first correct the inaccurate narrative around vulnerability which will allow us to properly redefine our relationship to it.
- We can then develop some practices that will help us to support that new story and narrative.
Braving & Softening According to Brene Brown
In her wonderful book, Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown speaks about how to practice both braving and softening. To build our courage muscle, she encourages setting and honoring boundaries even if they are not liked and/or disappoint others. We need to create boundaries in the home and workplace to let people know what is acceptable behavior and what is not. And then we need to honor those boundaries by holding people accountable with appropriate consequences. This will help us to feel safer and stronger. Accountability for our actions also helps us to live in greater alignment with our core values.
Brown believes that we, too, can exercise our vulnerability muscle by getting comfortable with vulnerability so we can soften and stay open rather than attack and defend. When we meet hate with hate, we end up causing more harm. And as difficult as this sounds, we are far better off responding to expressions of hatred and violence with opening up internally to whatever feels threatening to us. On the surface, it is easier to be angry and pissed off than it is to get to the vulnerability lying just beneath it. Similarly, it’s easier to think unkind thoughts and to behave inappropriately than to sit with and face our uncomfortable feelings. Yet, this is one of the pathways to courageous compassion.
RAIN: A Meditative Practice by Tara Brach to Help Open to Vulnerability
- Recognize what is happening (I am noticing a vulnerable feeling of fear, anger, sadness, unworthiness etc. arising)
- Allow the experience to be there as it is (“This belongs.”)
- Investigate with interest and care (I am noticing myself hooking into my anger story/I feel my body tightening/contracting…)
- Nurture with self-compassion (“I care and am listening.”) Know that you are not alone.
How to Begin Compassion Training
Like with weight training, when beginning compassion training (opening your heart to self and others) start small with the easier lifts. Begin by trying to open to the smaller hurts and irritations that leave us feeling vulnerable.
Instead of running from our uncomfortable feelings, we need to recognize and allow them in and open to whatever is arising. This will help our feelings to unlayer themselves by uncovering the smaller feelings that reside underneath the larger ones. This helps to build a strong back. And once we feel safe and grounded then we can find ourselves able to soften our front enough to welcome compassion in.
Some Pandemic Relief
Courage and vulnerability go hand-in-hand. One cannot commit to bravery without feeling vulnerable. There is nothing weak about vulnerability except avoiding it.
For many, this pandemic has pushed us into such a vulnerable place that we feel stuck and emotionally exhausted. My advice to you, dear reader, is to reduce the overwhelming effects of the “daunting bigger picture” by dividing it into smaller parts. Then explore each vulnerable part, one at a time, with a strong back and soft front. The circumstances won’t necessarily change, but your level of emotional suffering will.
*Note: If your vulnerability makes you feel unsafe, for example, due to a personal traumatic experience, you may wish to seek the support of a therapist.