Life hurts all of us and we all carry wounds from our childhood. The question is how we deal with them. Openness and non-judgmental attentiveness to these wounds can lead to strength and wholeness rather than ongoing trauma regardless of how severe the wound was. Our wounds are general lodged in the body, so if you spend time in your meditation staying with your sensations, you may make contact with feelings that emerge. It is your actual experience in the moment, not your old stories or your thoughts about how your life was supposed to be, that’s most important.
Shame or the fear that goes with it doesn’t have to be a problem. It only plagues us if we repress it, try to wish it away, or let it hold us back from doing what we want to do.
When we start to feel depleted, inferior, not good enough, or defective, shame may be kicking in. And we can all learn to recognize its energy.
Here’s a meditation you might try:
1. Name an experience you had not too long ago of shame. During your meditation tune into it. See if you can identify the external trigger and what you said to yourself right before feeling the shame (e.g., “I never get it right, no one will ever love me because I’m too old,” etc.).
2. Realize that you are not the feeling. You are much bigger than any single feeling.
3. Be curious. Where is it coming from? A particular memory or series of memories? Are there accompanying bodily sensations and thoughts or images?
4. Do you have an ideal or expectation you’ve created that causes the shame (e.g., “I should be perfect at work or exercise, I shouldn’t have this fear, this shame”). Are you clinging to an ideal that there will be no uncertainty, only stability and control, and shame comes up when the ideal isn’t met?
5. Notice how the word “should” maximizes your fear or shame. Who would you be without that ideal? Imagine yourself trusting in uncertainty, being open to whatever comes.
6. Who are you when you are not hooked by that fear or shame? Can you move around with a sense of trust in yourself and in the world? What you might do to experiment with being more trusting?
You might try experimenting as my therapist friend recently did. She felt ashamed when she found out that a statement she made to her client led the client to consider quitting therapy. When the client shared this with her, my friend made a simple apology and owned up to her own feeling of shame. It helped the client a lot to see that even her own therapist experienced shame.
When you’re feeling ashamed you might notice one of two things that commonly occur: 1.) You want to hide, to withdraw from the human closeness we all want and need; 2.) You let the shame propel you to give into the other person’s demands.
When I work with folks at Zen Center, I explain to them that disengagement/withdrawing or enmeshment/going along to get along are generally mirror images of each other. Then I help them consider how they might practice the middle way of engagement.
Often what we take personally is really quite impersonal. What was done to you or for you arose out of a complex series of causes and conditions over which you had little or no control. Besides, in most cases you were just a kid!
Our wounds do not disappear, but they stop hooking our mind and imprisoning our heart thru the practicing self-awareness and self-compassion. As Zorba the Greek said, “To live is to roll up your sleeves and embrace trouble.”
This is my first of two pieces on healing shame through compassion and bare awareness.
None of us have had lives that are free from suffering. As Zorba the Greek said, “Trouble? Life is trouble. Only death is nice.” To live is to roll up your sleeves and embrace trouble. So how can we open our hearts to include whatever is before us? Or better yet, how can we transform the world as we transform ourselves? To do this we need to directly face the truth of Jung’s statement, “Perhaps I myself am the enemy who must be loved.” When we begin to accept our lives as they are unfolding, we may begin to see a problem as an opportunity. But first we have to open up to it and face it without a trace of judgment. I wonder if the corona virus gives us just this opportunity!
Many of our “troubles” are due to projections from incidents in the past when we felt ashamed. Maybe you didn’t know the answers when called upon in class or maybe the girl or boy you were attracted to rejected you. Maybe you were teased or bullied for your size, weight, or way of dressing or maybe, like me, you were the last one chosen to be on a team.
If we feel ashamed of something as adults, usually a childhood memory has evoked this, whether we are conscious of this or not. We may be catapulted right back to the rawness we felt then. We may feel off balance, unworthy, or simply want to hide, just as we did then. And this may include bodily discomfort or pain.
Shame damages a person’s image of themselves in ways that no other emotion can, causing you to feel flawed, inferior, worthless, even unlovable.
Maybe you were caught cheating on a test and the teacher called you out in front of the class as happened to me in the eighth grade, or your coach called you a screw-up in front of the whole team, or you wet your pants at a sleep over at a friend’s. In each of these examples, you may have felt helpless and you got down on yourself because you “should have,” in the last case, been able to hold your urine. Shame is a response to helplessness, and the indignity suffered.
We generally believe that we have control over what happens to us. But this is often not the case, especially for kids. We believed when we were at that sleepover that “should have” been able to hold our urine and we feel ashamed that we didn’t.
Often, we build up a wall of shame denial. This wall can include refusing to acknowledge our own mistakes, being hypercritical of others, or dumping on others in some other way. The more we think that we need to be perfect, the more we tend to practice shame denial.
The question then is how can we use meditation practice to heal shame?
The best way to do this is by practicing self-compassion.
We know how much the kindness, support, and encouragement of others helps us whether we are five years old or fifty years old. But how about giving that same encouragement and kindness to our very own selves? And how about doing this as part of our daily meditation?
In my second book I talk about neural plasticity- the brain’s capacity to grow new neurons and make new synaptic connections. This means that it’s possible to pair the old shame memory with new experiences of self-empathy and self-compassion. When we do this, we are re-pairing!
It might be good to first notice the types of things you criticize yourself for: are they related to your body or appearance, your job, your friendships, or something else? How do you intensify this criticism? Maybe by magnifying your mistake, generalizing beyond it to include lots of other things you have done wrong, by repeatedly “should-ing” yourself, or by “all or never” thinking, or maybe a combination of all of these. What kind of language do you use when you put yourself down?
You can change your language to be more supportive and kinder by including self-compassion in your daily meditation practice. I have worked with many people to find compassionate language they might use with their favorite pet or best friend, which they then practice applying to themselves.
You might try the following self-compassion meditation, (which I got from another meditation teacher).
1. Bring to mind a shaming experience from childhood
2. What do you wish someone had said to you right after that experience? What would have been the most helpful and healing for you to hear at that time?
3. Imagine that someone you care very much about, someone you admire, is saying those helpful and healing words to you now. Hear those words in your ears. Take those words into your heart. Notice how those words make you feel.
4. Repeat those words to yourself. Take a deep breath and really take in those words. How does hearing yourself say those words make you feel? What matters is that you let the words in now.
It’s good to do this practice during your daily meditation as well as other times when you are getting down on yourself. Notice when you begin berating yourself for something you have done and take a few minutes to go through the routine above. By practicing this routine over and over again, your critical voice begins to be supplanted by a loving, accepting one. Over the course of my own practice, I have been able to soften my tyrannical, (which is quite profane) by repeating to myself, “nice boy, Tim” when I am getting down on myself. If you do this patiently and persistently using your own words, you may find yourself being as accepting of your own missteps as you would for your best friend or special animal.
When we first read or hear about living an enlightened life- acting from the same still center that Buddha did- it may seem like an impossible dream. But without dreams where would we be? By keeping this impossible dream alive even in the midst of the radical uncertainty that has been created by our current pandemic, we have a chance to tap into the joy emanating from our timeless center by simply practicing bringing our attention to it.
If someone tells you that your dream (whatever it is) is deluded, is that a criticism that should bother you? A phrase used in Buddhist teaching is, “flowers blooming in the sky.” This refers to how our minds get clouded by all types of delusions like a person with cataracts. Many people are experiencing more cloudedness/mind fog now due to the corona virus.
In early Buddhism the goal of meditation practice was the removal of these cataracts so we might see clearly without mind fog. But Dogen turns this teaching upside down when he suggests that genuine enlightenment means radically accepting that we are all dim-sighted people (who also experience mind fog). Even a dim vision can be very motivating. And our imperfections, including additional mind fog evoked by this pandemic, may help us in our spiritual practice. My hearing impediment has increased significantly in the last 20 years, but this isn’t completely bad. I have to pay attention carefully when someone is talking as well as watch them carefully- no more spacing out if I want to be connected to someone who is sharing with me. Opening up to and acknowledging both our mind fog and our flaws may help us connect to others I ways we never thought possible. “There is the principle of the Way that we must make one mistake after another,” says Dogen.
Genuine enlightenment, then, makes room for our delusions (including our mind fog) as it sheds light on them. If we are “enlightened” without awareness of our delusion, there’s a good chance that we will overlook our actions’ effects on others. The most important component of practice-enlightenment is bringing our delusions into awareness.
I would like to suggest four ways in which we can enlighten our delusions:
First, when you have a hazy vision of something you want to change, create, or transform, don’t dismiss it. Instead, work with it, play with it, and even fumble around with it. You may be surprised at what clarity comes out of this process.
Second, embrace not knowing completely what the vision is or how to implement it regardless of how much mind fog you have. Dogen calls this “going beyond Buddha.”
Third, be willing to take risks in reaching for something you deeply care about. Sure, you will fail a good deal of the time, but if you keep at it, you will be surprised at how often you succeed. When I became guiding teacher at Zen Center in 2002, I had a dim vision of how to make some of our activities less formal and friendlier for Americans, while continuing the tradition of offering priests’ training two a few individuals. Many people left during my first couple of years, but I stayed with my dim vision. And it worked!
This brings me to the fourth one; don’t give up on whatever aspiration or vision you have. Trust it regardless of how crazy it is or how difficult our current environment is for you. If you keep your heart and mind open, you’ll learn to live your enlightenment in your own idiosyncratic way.
Finally, this time of “sheltering inside” we might view as an extended retreat, offering us ample time to slow down our activities and our mind so we can discover how to take steps to realize our deepest aspirations as our mind becomes unburdened by thought even though the fog doesn’t entirely recede.
Practice-enlightenment is what keeps the dharma alive!
I have been teaching a class which includes introducing people to practical uses of some of the earliest teachings of Buddhist psychology: seeing through the neurosis of the self by bringing the aggregates into view; getting off the twelve-part wheel of suffering. This piece will focus on the aggregates and my next piece on the wheel.
Most peoples’ lives are dominated by a running narrative about who they have been, who they should be, and how to protect themselves from a world they have been hurt by and that is full of unpredictable events like the coronavirus. This narrative has an important function—in the case of the coronavirus, our individual narrative joins with other people’s to implement behaviors that protect us and keep us safe. Unfortunately, coronavirus or not coronavirus, our narrative spills over everything, impeding our ability to be fully present in our moments and, instead, stay on high alert much of the time.
Early Buddhist psychology suggests that this “self” is a fabrication, which consists of a five-part process of internal experience, referred to as 5 “heaps” or aggregates. These five heaps are: form, sensation/feeling, perception, concept, and consciousness. “Consciousness” is the one that dominates our lives as the storyteller.
Early Buddhist psychology also suggests that it is quite possible for consciousness to let go of rigid domination by the so-called story teller as we “bring the aggregates into view,” a practice which meditators have been engaging in for hundreds of years. As we develop the ability to do bring these components into view, we find that we are more present for, and intimate with our moments and not captured by before and after and the domination by the fifth aggregate, consciousness.
Here’s an example I used in class: As I am talking to the group, I notice someone yawning. I am making contact with the form of this person’s face. Immediately, I have a negative sensation/feeling. (Our root sensations/feelings are all either positive, negative, or neutral). A split second later I have a pre-verbal perception of his yawning expression. In another split second the concept yawning arises. This leads to consciousness: the story-telling narrative and reflections about my experience, which often spills over into everything we do.
The problem is that when consciousness takes over, chattering on and on about what we have experienced, we lose the ability to be with the first four aggregates that keep us grounded. These include contact with different forms, the sensations/feelings emanating from that contact, followed by our perceptions, followed by thoughts or concepts. Then consciousness takes over and this entire process happens very rapidly. I distract myself by thinking about whether that person is bored by me and/or I may worry about how to make the class more lively or how maybe I am getting too old to teach, etc.
Consciousness serves an important function- we don’t want to lobotomize ourselves. It’s wonderful that we have the ability to think, remember, plan, and imagine (and join together to prevent the spread of a virus), but not so wonderful when this mind of ours goes on and on about everything and we forget to enjoy the intimacy of moment-to-moment living.
“Bringing the aggregates into view”can work very well during our meditation. Let’s say there is a coffeepot on in the kitchen and I smell it while I am sitting in the meditation hall. I am making contact with a form through my nostrils; I have a positive sensation/feeling; I have a pre-verbal perception of the aroma; then the thought “coffee in the kitchen”arises. Thoughts begin to take off about my experience within consciousness. But if my meditation is going well a couple of things might happen: 1. I have been so focused on experiencing these first four aggregates that I am not swept away by the fifth. I merely say to myself “Oh, someone is making coffee,” and I come back to my sensations and/or breath; 2. I catch myself after a minute or two of narrative about the coffee and come back to whatever sensations/feelings I am currently experiencing.
Of course, it takes practice to learn to do this well, but anything we deeply care about takes practice. Next time I will talk about a practice for getting off the wheel of suffering which is quite similar to the one above. Both of these practices can help us calm down and just enjoy being present, coronavirus or no coronavirus, while prudently following the advice of knowledgeable health professionals.
In my second and third pieces on enlightenment, I’d like to focus on the Soto Zen approach, growing out of the teaching of Dogen in the 13th century. Dogen emphasizes marrying ourselves to each activity we do. Enlightenment then, is not a spectacular event. Each activity gives us the opportunity to experience the simple joy of pure engagement. Dogen calls this practice/enlightenment, an ongoing process that never ends.
Sitting in this chair, sipping my jasmine green tea with my left hand while my right one rests on my keyboard, looking out my window at the morning sky- all other activities that happened in the past and might happen in the future are swallowed up by just being here. As Dogen says, “The time when continuous practice is manifested is what we call ‘Now’.”
Regardless of what we are doing or what’s going on with us emotionally, we have the opportunity to do practice/enlightenment over and over, free from self-obsessions. “This is wonderful practice,” says Dogen. As long as the activity is not harmful to others or ourselves, it doesn’t matter what we do.
In Soto Zen, meditation is totally stripped of its older traditional form in which we meditate to experience calmness or change our state of mind in some other way. All we need to do is participate wholeheartedly in each activity as we release our thoughts about anything else.
We can experience intimacy in virtually all our activities- including everything from planning our day to deeply listening to others who might need support. And in our sitting meditation, we have the opportunity to be aware of each thought and emotion, positive or negative, without kicking out anything.
The year or two before my father died my thoughts about him continually came up during my meditation, including all of the words, said and unsaid, that formed my attitude toward him. Rather than dissing my thoughts as they arose, my practice/enlightenment gently allowed them to be, including all the different emotions that gave them energy and force.
This level of intimacy with my own process can only happen when I don’t suppress or repress any thoughts or feelings that come up. Each of my thoughts and feelings about my father deepen my realization of my relationship with him. My second teacher, Katagiri Roshi, used to say, “Whatever comes up, just digest it without judgment or evaluation.”
A wonderful benefit of this process is that our ongoing intimacy with whatever comes up has warm-heartedness as a by-product. A feeling of kindness toward my own process and my father’s, including where we completely missed each other over the years, emerges on its own, as I fully accept each/thought feeling. Dogen called this, “going beyond Buddha.”
This effort is motivated, according to Dogen, by the dream of enlightenment. And of course, trying to bring this dream or aspiration to life is another form of practice/enlightenment in and of itself. In the case of my father and me, my practice-enlightenment included an aspiration to be intimate with my thoughts and feelings about him as he approached death.
At Zen Center we chant, “sentient beings are numberless, I vow to free them” in the mornings. It’s so important that we included ourselves in this vow. If the aspiration to be intimate with my own process is wholehearted, I am enlightened already and my enlightenment spills over into my relationship with others.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher