A leading Buddhist teacher writes about the knotty problem of guilt, but chooses to do so through a blend of fictional narrative, autobiography, and commentary. Vajradevi reveals all.
Caroline Brazier is a Buddhist practitioner and a psychotherapist of many years standing. She is a course leader of the Amida Psychotherapy training program and lives in a Buddhist community in England. She brings these two aspects of training and experience to bear in her book, Guilt: An Exploration. The Buddhist aspect is implicit in the kindness and perceptiveness Caroline Brazier brings to her subject. You will find this book in the “Psychology” section of your bookstore and it is this perspective that frames the story she tells.
Unusually, Brazier has decided to approach this nebulous and pervasive topic through a blend of fiction, autobiography, and commentary. She deliberately relegates theoretical ideas to the far margins of her book. There is not a study or survey result to be seen. We don’t get to hear anything of how guilt generally affects human beings or who is most susceptible to its influence. Instead she focuses down on a group of young children and, to a lesser extent, their parents and tells their fictional story letting us witness the complex emotions that form part of growing into adolescence and adulthood.
She places her characters in south London of the 1960’s. Not the England of the Beatles and mini-skirts and beehives but “a time of transition where traditions were still respected and radical new ways of thinking had yet to reach the majority of the general population.” A world characterized by freedom for children to roam away from familiar adults and create a realm of their own.
Brazier brings to rich and colorful life many of the ordinary events that provoke guilty feelings.
Through these characters and particularly “Joanne,” a spirited 10 year old tomboy when we first meet her, Brazier shows the nuances and subtleties of the feeling of guilt. When feelings, thoughts and actions conflict how does a child make sense of them? What affects the decisions we make to act? How do we feel when we want to act in a way we think is wrong and will be disapproved of by those we love or are scared of? How do we grow and explore our world when it means pushing against the boundaries of those who love us, or keeping secrets from them? Brazier explores Joanne and her friends’ responses of guilt in relation to ethics. How does a child work out what is the “right” or “wrong” thing to do? What of the “moral uncertainty” of different value systems a child is exposed to? Or, she asks, does the child have a deeply felt sense of what is the correct way to be?
Some of these questions Brazier leaves open while she answers others by painting a picture of great delicacy. What I appreciated most about her book is that guilt is not made into a heavy, static entity but something that arises in the intersections of emotions and impulses to act, and that guilt can be seen as almost a natural part of maturing.
The book captures the fear, doubt, anger and sheer uncomfortableness of many moments of a child’s everyday life. It is in these moments that guilt seems to lurk as well as in times that thrill and fascinate with new experiences. Through the story Caroline Brazier brings to rich and colorful life many of the ordinary events that provoke such feelings. A boy who loses an expensive new coat is thrown into agonies of confusion and guilt by the unexpected forgiveness from his strict mother. A girl unable to understand her new desire for intimacy is unkind to a school friend. Another child feels “different” and ashamed because of family secrets about her mother’s affair and her own racial background. Parents’ religious values conflict with each other and their child is caught in the middle, guilty at his ability to play one parent against the other. Sexual exploration is one of the main themes in the book evoking a whole cocktail of strong emotions — especially guilt — for the pre-adolescent Joanne to get to grips with.
The book captures the fear, doubt, anger and sheer uncomfortableness of many moments of a child’s everyday life
Often these occasions are a doorway to a new freedom, a new step in understanding and maturity that enrich a child’s life. Caroline Brazier’s story paints a powerful picture of the complexities of growing up. I am of a similar age to the author and brought up in the UK so there were many parallels to our experience as children. She evokes the world of a child in this period very well. I found many of my own memories and feelings re-surfacing, of times spent with my brothers and sisters building dens in the local woods and playing vivid adventure fantasy games alongside a meandering stream, coming home wet, muddy and happy.
The life of a child and teenager in 2009 is radically different to that of a child growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. Multiculturalism has given rise to many different ways of child-rearing within one society. Society itself is a more complex organism and children are at the same time more protected by parents but more exposed to danger especially from other young people. I have a question in my mind as to how well this book would translate to a reader from a different generation or culture. I suspect something would be lost but perhaps the central exploration would remain clear.
At times I would have appreciated a little more theory which would have helped to give the book more of a framework. As it stands, without many “hooks” from which a structure could hang, a cursory reading might lead to underestimating the value of “Joanne’s” story. This would be a shame as many areas such as independence, projections, conscience, choosing and testing loyalties are woven in to the book in a natural and informative way.
Vajradevi has been a member of the Western Buddhist Order since 1995, and meditating since 1985. Recently she spent three months in 2007 in Burma practicing under Sayadaw U Tejaniya whose emphasis is on observing the mind and its objects directly while maintaining a continuity of awareness in daily life. During the last three years she has co-led an annual intensive meditation retreat at Taraloka retreat centre introducing the main areas of the Satipatthana Sutta. She teaches at Dharmapala College.