From shame to self-worth: the spectrum of shame

Two children sitting side by side, the older one with a protective arm around the younger.

Shame is a very primal emotion, one that has a lot of traction in the mind.

As we grow up, from infants to adults, shame elaborates many nuances, like the branches and twigs growing from a single trunk.

Let’s consider four common sources of shame spectrum feelings.

1. Needs Not Being Acknowledged

First, consider a young child who is continually signaling her state of being and her needs. Maybe her caregivers respond routinely with attunement, empathy, and skillful responsiveness: this sends messages, associated with positive feelings, of existing for and mattering to her caregivers, of being inside the circle.

Or maybe her caregivers ignore her signals, or continually misinterpret them, or simply have a kind of dismissive tone – “I’ll put up with you if you don’t ask too much of me” – or even punish her for expressing her needs at all: this sends messages, associated with negative feelings, of not mattering (and sometimes not even existing), of being outside the circle. As many such experiences get layered on top of each other, there is a growing sense of being unwanted, of lacking value.

In the extreme, in cases of severe neglect and abuse, there can be a global sense of worthlessness.

More commonly, a kind of bargain is struck, in which the child learns that as long as she walks inside certain lines – and inhibits certain forms of expressing her true self (her true needs, her true feelings, her true perceptions of her world) – then the supply train keeps coming and all is well. But step outside those lines and wham, it’s the chilly exile or the hot attack.

2. Rewards and Punishments

Second, a child’s environment – both adults and peers – will praise certain qualities and behaviors and criticize or punish others. Those behaviors and qualities get associated with feelings of worth – or shame.

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For example, the psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson, described shame in terms of Freud’s stages of psychosexual development, as the emotion that arises naturally when that which should be hidden (e.g., excretions, private parts) is exposed. But how would a child know that certain natural aspects of life should be hidden without messages from his environment.

So what is it that gets criticized? Certainly, it is specific behaviors, and there is a place for that in healthy child-rearing. Examples include hitting your kid brother, lying, or stealing another kid’s cookie. Even if the criticism is not so wholesome, as long as it stays at the behavioral level, it’s not so bad.

But it rarely does. It’s a short hop from “That was so stupid” to “You’re so stupid,” from criticisms of actions to criticisms of persons.

That criticism is often conveyed implicitly, as a communication of disdain, disrespect, contempt, scorn. Think of the power in human societies when certain groups institutionalize the devaluation of others. I still remember my shock in 1963 in North Carolina for the summer when I saw three bathrooms at a gas station, labeled “Men,” “Women,” and “Colored.” As if African-Americans were something other than “regular” men and women, and not just other, but less as well in not being worth separate bathrooms for their own men and women. Racism has certainly not disappeared in the past 45 years, and other forms of devaluation exist today; just think of the fear-driven labeling these days of Arabs and others from the Middle East.

Researchers such as John Gottman have found that disdain is typically the most corrosive element in a relationship. Be very careful with it. It’s especially insidious when we feel it is justified, as with others in the political world that we disagree with. Or those in our everyday life who are Exhibit A for a roll of the eyes and the thought, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

In turn, those criticisms of the individual overall are very easy to internalize, and “You’re so stupid” becomes “I’m so stupid.” The contempt of others become hatred of the self. In terms of transactional analysis models of the personality – classically, child/nurturing parent/critical parent . . . or the modern formulation of victim/persecutor/protector – the internalized critic or persecutor has way too much power, and the internalized nurturing parent or protector is too weak.

3. Social Shunning

Third, we are intensely social animals, with an evolutionary history that associates survival with belonging to a group, for its protections, nurturance, and opportunities for finding a mate and passing on one’s genes. To be outcast, exiled, banished, shunned, etc. is a terrible thing, exposed to the cold whistling winds of the elemental world, trudging alone and vulnerable through life. Traditionally, it was the most severe punishment short of death, which puts it in perspective.

Those associations are active somewhere deep in the brain when a preschooler trots over to a group of children to play and they ignore her, when a child gets picked last for a team, when you audition for the school play and don’t get a part, when you apply to a special college and don’t get in, when you aren’t hired for the job . . . whenever by action or word you’re told: “You are the weakest link!” “You’re fired!” “You’ve been voted off the island.”

It’s kind of sick that there is a weird vicarious gleeful schadenfreude – pleasure in another’s misery – in reality shows watched by millions in which one person after another gets publicly scorned and rejected until there is only one . . . “American idol!!!!!” It’s somewhat the modern equivalent of the gladiator battles in the ancient Roman Coliseum.

These associations to lethal exile are triggered in one-to-one contexts as well, when someone doesn’t want to be your friend, or lover, or mate . . . especially if they have been that to you – and don’t want that any longer. When these events occur, haunted by their ancient shadows, they typically trigger strong and painful feelings of being unwanted – because, in fact, that is indeed the case.

4. The Inner Critic

Fourth, to function in life, we need to learn from our experiences, and that requires feedback. We have to look in the mirror and see if there’s some spinach stuck in our teeth. We need that internal evaluator continually registering: that worked and that didn’t; that helped and that hurt.

As long as the evaluator is clear-eyed and friendly, it’s a wonderful internal resource. But if it grows harsh – often through absorbing the emotional residues of the anger and contempt of others, or the meanings derived from social exclusions – it can become a terrible monkey on your back . . . actually, worse, a terrible growling spitting monkey in your mind. This negativistic evaluator blurs together with the internalized critic/persecutor, and then looks continually for the shortfall between “should” and “did.”

With each lash of the critical whip, the evaluator gets a little more powerful, and the inner self gets a little more cowed and resigned.

And so it goes, and here we are today.

Exacerbation By External Factors

These four sources of shame-spectrum feelings are exacerbated by a range of external factors, such as:

  • Belonging to a group that has associations with low-status, e.g., ethnic and religious minorities, women, homosexual orientation, poor, overweight.
  • Disintegration of traditional community structures that gave people a sense of belonging and value.
  • Extending the period during which youth are in schooling and unable (usually) to make much of a contribution to society.
  • Events that challenge self-worth, e.g., company downsizing, (often) becoming a mother, divorce, teenage (or adult) children being cold or rejecting, illness or disability (or even aging) that compromises the capacity to do those things that gave one a sense of value.
  • The sheer complexity and ambiguity of modern opportunities and expectations, which is a double-edged sword. These days, there are so many more choices to be had that there are many more ways to go wrong or fall short in making any of them. And this is especially intense in the American culture that equates worth to success.

These external factors add to the lived history of inadequacy that is buried in emotional memory. They also intensify any here-and-now challenges to self-worth.

So – as a result of these four sources of shame-spectrum experiences, exacerbated by external factors, we have within us circuits of shame that are ready, willing, and able to be activated by any appropriate trigger. That’s why little things can have such a big impact: it’s just a tiny spark, yes, but there’s that pile of dynamite there . . .

And then we often add insult to injury by feeling ashamed of getting ashamed!

Self-Worth Exercise

If you like, you could try this exercise, though you definitely need a partner for it. Here are the original instructions for the exercise from our script, which you can adapt freely:

“Find a partner, pick an A and a B. A’s will go first – after which you will go back and forth.

A’s, find a positive quality within yourself that you can sense is also present in B. Then say to B: “The presence of _________ in me recognizes the presence of __________ in you.”

Both A and B take a moment (often just a few seconds) to register this, and then it’s B’s turn to say something in the form of: “The presence of _________ in me recognizes the presence of __________ in you.”

Examples include:

  • The presence of caring in me recognizes the presence of caring in you.
  • The presence of happiness in me recognizes the presence of happiness in you.
  • The presence of loving being in wilderness in me recognizes the presence of loving being in wilderness in you.
  • The presence of being silly in me recognizes the presence of being silly in you.
  • The presence of strength in me recognizes the presence of strength in you.

It’s okay to name good qualities in yourself or the other person without false modesty or fears of flattery. These are facts, not compliments. And it’s okay if these qualities are not present all the time; perhaps they are deep down, even covered over, and would be served by calling them out.

This exercise can be very powerful, and enjoy and let sink in the beautiful feelings it brings up.

In the days and weeks ahead, you are encouraged to keep moving from shame to worth. As one simple way to do this, keep recognizing the factual existence of your good qualities and accomplishments. “Just the facts, ma’am.” In closing, to quote Meher Baba, six words to live by: “Don’t worry. Be happy. Make efforts.”

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From shame to self-worth: evolutionary neurobiology of shame

Dog looking guilty

Have you ever scolded a dog and seen him or her look guilty?

Obviously, animals do not have the elaborated textures of thoughts and feelings that humans do. But our emotions, even the subtlest ones, have their roots in our ancient evolutionary history. By understanding that history better, we do not reduce our feelings to animal instincts, but instead find illuminations from our past that paradoxically give us more choices in manifesting ourselves as fully human.

We can find two sources of shame spectrum emotions in our evolutionary history.

First, many animal species live in social groups with clear dominance hierarchies. Once those pecking orders are established, it can be lethal to challenge them. Consequently, many species have developed ways of signaling submission to the established order of alpha-males and –females. Consider how dogs losing a fight will bare their throat, or chimpanzees will display gestures of deference.

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Birds, and especially mammals, have rudimentary forms of the brain circuitry that produces emotion in humans. Those circuits would not have developed, consuming lots of metabolic resources, if they did not produce reproductive benefits.

Emotions function in the brain to motivate and guide behavior. We can’t read the mind of a chicken, sure, or that of a dog or an ape, but it seems like a very efficient way to keep these animals in line if they are experiencing emotions or attitudes that are the equivalent of feeling less than the Big Dog of the pack.

Second, taking this one step further, pack animals evolved cooperative behavior. Think penguins huddling together in the Antarctic winter, and cattle circling around their calves in response to wolves hunting in packs. But in most cases, their cooperation does not involve personal sacrifice for the good of others.

That comes in, big time, with primates, who appeared around the middle of the Cretaceous period, roughly 80 million years ago – so they had lots of time to evolve altruistic behaviors such as food sharing. And the full flowering of altruism – giving to others with no immediate tangible reward – is really seen in humans.

But how could altruism evolve when it would seem to confer reproductive disadvantages on the one who was altruistic? This has been a thorny question in sociobiology, with some interesting answers.

What they have found is that altruism makes sense from an evolutionary perspective when three conditions are present:

  • People (including our hominid ancestors several million years ago) lived and predominantly bred within social groups (typically around 20 – 200 members). Consequently, even if a person’s altruism led to her not passing on her genes, close relatives would live and pass on their own, and would be more likely to do so, given her sacrifice.
  • Social groups competed intensely with each other for scarce resources in the wild, so ones that worked well together – including because of personal, altruistic sacrifices of some group members – would have their reproductive advantages make a big difference.
  • The reputation of individuals would be known to others. So if someone became known as a non-reciprocator – a taker, not a giver – then he risked others no longer sharing food, shelter, etc. So people developed a natural interest in their reputation, in what others thought of them.

An unpleasant emotion that punished individual tribe members for not stepping up for the tribe in fights with other tribes, and for not reciprocating today for help offered yesterday, would help a tribe succeed in its brutal competition with other tribes. And as a variant on that theme, an unpleasant emotion that enabled tribe members to train their young quickly in proper behavior – proper in central Africa, a million years ago, or during the last Ice Age, say 15,000 years ago – would also confer advantages to that tribe.

Thus the origins of shame and guilt in the long slow grind of evolutionary history.

Exercise: “Letting Go of Shame”

Here are the instructions for the exercise, which you can adapt freely:

Imagine that you are sitting beside a powerful river on a beautiful sunny day. You feel safe and contented and strong.

Imagine that sitting with you is a wise and supportive being. Perhaps someone you know personally, perhaps a historical figure, perhaps a guardian angel, etc. Know in your heart that this is a very wise and honest and caring being.

Imagine a small boat tied to the bank of the river, there near you. Imagine an empty and open box in the boat that you can reach easily. Now, continuing to be centered in feelings of worth and well-being, bring to mind lightly something you are ashamed of. Represent it, whatever it is, as a small object on the ground in front of you.

Imagine that the being is telling you, or that you are telling the being, some of the many causes and conditions that led to that thing you are ashamed of. You don’t need the whole story; often a few seconds in your imagination can summarize the heart of the matter.

With that summary of the causes of the shame, see if you can feel a letting go inside.

If you like, in your imagination, bow to the object representing the shame: it exists, it is what it is.

Then put the object in the box, and let it go as much as you can.

Now bring to mind, lightly, something else you are ashamed of. Represent it, whatever it is, as a small object on the ground in front of you.

Feel free to repeat this exercise, and to go at your own pace, slowing down to dwell on certain parts, or speeding up to get through them to additional things you’d like to put in the boat.

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Meditating with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)

Irritable Bowel Syndrome IBS and meditation

Someone recently wrote to tell me that she suffers extreme embarrassment when meditating with other people, because her IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) causes a lot of intestinal gurgling. She becomes self-conscious about these noises, finds that the anxiety about them dominates her meditations, and has been so upset at times that she’s left the meditation room in tears. Also, her anxiety around making noise actually causes her condition to get worse.

I can appreciate her anxiety. I think we’ve all had times when we’ve been self-conscious about bodily noises (gas, swallowing, coughing, etc.), but to have it be more than an occasional thing must be very hard indeed.

If you’re affected by similar problems, I’d suggest letting people know that you have IBS and that it’s going to cause some noise if that’s at all possible. Just telling people that there’s a medical problem will probably help relieve some of the anxiety. Possibly you could ask the person leading the meditation to make an announcement. Any compassionate meditation instructor will be able to frame what they say in terms of practicing acceptance, etc.

To give other people the opportunity to practice patience or lovingkindness as they sit with any noise they may hear is an act of generosity. Don’t assume it’s a problem for them. I’ve had people flee the meditation room because they’ve had a cough and didn’t want to disturb people, when actually no one was disturbed — except perhaps being disturbed by the fact that another person hasn’t trusted them to be able to handle a bit of noise. So please do trust people. Give them the chance to learn to handle sitting with noise. You’ll be doing them a favor.

It may at first seem embarrassing to tell people you have a medical condition, but there’s no more shame to it than in having a cough, and you probably wouldn’t feel ashamed about letting people know you have a cold and that you’ll probably be coughing during a sit. You’ll get used to telling people this, so although it may be hard at first, it’ll get easier.

Meditation actually helps IBS sufferers. Three months after a group of IBS sufferers took an eight-week meditation course, 38.2% of them reported a reduction in severity of their IBS symptoms, according to a study carried out by Susan Gaylord, PhD, of the University of North Carolina’s program on integrative medicine. At the core of mindfulness is learning simply to observe our experience, without reacting to it with aversion or clinging. So if there is noise, or even pain, we simply notice those as sensations. If we notice ourselves tensing up or becoming anxious, we simply note that too, but we let go of the tension and let the anxious thoughts pass without getting caught up in them.

I remember some times I had problems with loud swallowing, and that has the same dynamic as my correspondent described — the more anxious you are about it the worse it gets. I got around this by trying to swallow as loudly as I could. For some reason it’s hard to swallow loudly on purpose. You might try something like that with your bowel sounds, if IBS is a problem for you. Now I know the intestines are not under conscious control, but if you pretend they are and give them permission to be as loud as they want (You go, intestines!) then that reassurance will help them to be more relaxed, and then they’ll be quieter. Also, if you’re almost defiantly trying to make noise, then the whole issue of being embarrassed about it becomes less important.

The practice of lovingkindness and self-compassion would also be helpful. First, start with your shame. Locate where in the body you feel the shame most strongly, and say “May you be well; may you be at ease.” Part of you is hurting, and it needs comfort and reassurance.

Do the same with your intestines. Show them love and reassurance like you would for a baby that had gas pains. Place a hand on your belly and say, “I know you’re struggling, but I’m here for you. I love you and I want you to be well.”

Have you been in the situation this person described? What’s worked for you?

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Dealing with guilt and shame (Day 19)

dealing with guilt and shame

People use the words “guilt” and “shame” in different ways. In everyday communication they’re used pretty much interchangeably. And the dictionary definitions aren’t significantly different. For example, shame is “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior,” while guilt is “a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation.”

Both of those involve a painful emotional response to having done something wrong. The word “shame” however has more of a connotation of personal failure (hence, “humiliation”) and is also described in stronger emotional terms.

In psychology, the two terms are used in very different ways. “Guilt” is used to refer to painful feelings of remorse. That is, we’ve done something that’s objectively or subjectively wrong and we feel bad about it. “Shame” is used to refer to fundamental feelings of unworthiness. It’s a sense of being fundamentally flawed, and that we, at our core, are “bad.”

The Buddhist word that corresponds to “guilt” is hiri. I’m going to use the word “remorse” to translate it, though, because even though the word guilt has that technical sense of “consciousness of having done wrong” as opposed to shame’s “consciousness of being wrong at one’s core,” the word remorse is very clearly about feeling bad because you’ve done something wrong.

In the Buddhist community I’m part of, the terms guilt and shame are commonly used the other way around. In fact the majority of Buddhist translators have used “shame” to translate hiri. That’s possibly because Christians tend to use the word “guilt” (sometimes in the sense of fundamental unworthiness — more about that below) and so various translators wanted to emphasize that Buddhism sees things differently. In this article I’ll stick with the widely accepted, modern psychological, use of the terms.

Shame doesn’t play a role in Buddhist practice. The idea of us being flawed in our very essence doesn’t work well in a tradition that says you have no essence. From the Buddhist point of view, everything that makes up “us” is impermanent. Yes, we all contain unskillful (akusala) drives and impulses, based on greed, hatred, and delusion. But those are not inherent parts of us. They are impermanent processes, and those processes can be ended.

In Buddhist psychology remorse (hiri) is a skillful rather than an unskillful mental state. This may be surprising! We usually think of “skillful” mental states as being pleasant, and remorse is definitely not pleasant. In fact it can be rather painful. So what does it mean to say that remorse is skillful?

Remorse/hiri is considered to be a spiritually useful emotion — an emotion that leads to our happiness and well-being — because it realigns us with our ideals. It’s uncomfortable, but good for us. When we’ve not acted at our best, or way below our best — when we’ve hurt someone, or been untruthful, or let someone down, for example — and we then become aware that this is not how we want to behave, a painful feeling can arise. This is remorse. This is the painful sense that our behavior has departed from the values we hold dear. And this helps us reconnect with those values.

We often lose touch with our deeper values in daily life. We’re complex beings. Yes, we want to be kind to people and yes, we want to be honest. But some parts of the brain are running on a very old operating system — shared with crocodiles and wolf-packs — that tells us to lash out when we’re threatened. Let’s call that Brain 1.0.

And we have parts of the brain running on a somewhat newer, but still old, operating system that tells us not to jeopardize our standing with our “pack.” This is an operating system (“Brain 2.0”) that we share with wolves, but not with crocodiles. So sometimes we lie, exaggerating our accomplishments, minimizing our flaws, trying to make others look bad so that we’ll look better.

And then we have Brain 3.0, which is more truly human, and which fully recognizes the value of cooperation, kindness, and is able to reflect on what constitutes a good and ethical life. It’s able to formulate ideals for us to live by and ethical principles for us to hold ourselves to. Although I call this part of the brain “truly human” it’s not lacking in other mammals. It’s just more developed in humans, who have a very large neocortex — the part of the brain in which this form of morality exists.

So remorse is when the neocortex (Brain 3.0) recognizes that we’ve been acting on the basis of fear, greed, or ill will — behaviors that are generated in Brains 1.0 and 2.0, and sees that those actions aren’t going to contribute to the wellbeing and happiness of ourselves or others.

Remorse, for it to be healthy Buddhist hiri, has to be focused on the act we’ve done. We feel bad because something was not a good thing to do. Remorse, in a way, is a form of self-metta (self-kindness), since we’re reminding ourselves of what does and doesn’t contribute to our own happiness.

And here’s where remorse (or guilt, if you want) is different from shame. Shame is focused on us, not on our actions. Shame may well be triggered by a specific thing we’ve done wrong, but we go from thinking that we’ve done something “bad” to thinking that we ourselves are “bad.” The “bad” thing we did is seen as proof that we have a “bad” self — perhaps even an essentially bad self. Shame is a form of self-hatred. So while shame and guilt/remorse/hiri may seem similar, they’re actually opposites.

Shame is very often influenced by the idea of original sin, which teaches us that sin is an inherent part of our nature. The Buddha’s view was that our unskillful tendencies are not inherent to us at all. They’re “not me, not mine, not myself.” Some Buddhist traditions emphasize that the mind is inherently pure, but that this purity is obscured by our unskillfulness. This is a much more encouraging way for us to think about ourselves, and many people feel a sense of relief when they come across this very positive view of what it means to be human. Of course even adopting this view that deep down we are good, there’s still a lot of work to do. But it’s easier to do that work when you don’t think that your unskillful tendencies are a fixed part of you, but are just “passing through.”

It’s worth, whenever we feel shame, reminding ourselves that our unskillfulness is something that’s relatively superficial. It’s liberating to recognize this.

And when we feel remorse, we can recognize that this is a healthy and useful response to having acted unskillfully. We don’t have to feel remorse for having felt remorse, which is what I think often happens. When remorse (or even shame) arises can recognize that we’re suffering, and treat our suffering kindly. (This is the practice of self-compassion that I’ve explained elsewhere.)

And we can also do whatever is necessary — confess or apologize, or make amends, to help redress any harm we may have caused and to lighten our emotional load. We let the remorse pass, reconnect with how we’d truly like to be living our lives, and then get on with the business of living with mindfulness and kindness.

(An earlier version of this article used the words “guilt” and “shame” in the way they’re often used by Buddhist translators, and in the community I practice in. I’ve corrected that usage here to bring the terminology into line with the conventional usage. I’ve also opted to use “remorse” as a clearer alternative to “guilt” and as a more accurate translation of hiri.)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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Connecting with Our ‘Soul Sadness’

hands holding sad-looking withered leaves

>Marge, a woman in our meditation community, was in a painful standoff with her teenage son. At fifteen, Micky was in a downward spiral of skipping classes and using drugs, and had just been suspended for smoking marijuana on school grounds. While Marge blamed herself — she was the parent, after all — she was also furious at him.

The piercings she hadn’t approved, the lies, stale smell of cigarettes, and earphones that kept him in his own removed world — every interaction with Micky left her feeling powerless, angry, and afraid. The more she tried to take control with her criticism, with “groundings” and other ways of setting limits, the more withdrawn and defiant Micky became. When she came in for a counseling session, she wanted to talk about why the entire situation was really her fault.

An attorney with a large firm, Marge felt she’d let her career get in the way of attentive parenting. She’d divorced Micky’s father when the boy was entering kindergarten, and her new partner, Jan, had moved in several years later. More often than not, it was Jan, not Marge, who went to PTA meetings and soccer games, Jan who was there when Micky got home from school. Recently, the stress had peaked when a new account increased Marge’s hours at work.

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“I wish I’d been there for him more,” she said. “I love him, I’ve tried, but now it is impossible to reach him. I’m so afraid he is going to create a train wreck out of his life.” I heard the despair in her voice. When she fell silent, I invited her to sit quietly for a few moments. “You might notice whatever feelings you’re aware of, and when you’re ready, name them out loud.” When she spoke again, Marge’s tone was flat. “Anger — at him, at me, who knows. Fear — he’s ruining his life. Guilt, shame — so much shame, for screwing up as a mother.”

I asked her softly if it would be okay to take some time to investigate the shame. She nodded. “You might start by agreeing to let it be there, sensing where you feel it most in your body.” Again she nodded, and few moments later, put one hand on her heart and another on her belly. “Good,” I said. “Keep letting yourself feel the shame, and sense if there is something it wants to say. What is it believing about you, about your life?”

It was a while before Marge spoke. “The shame says that I let everyone down. I’m so caught up in myself, what’s important to me. It’s not just Micky, it’s Jan, and Rick (her ex-husband), and my mom, and … I’m selfish and too ambitious, I disappoint everyone I care about.”

“How long have you felt this way, that you’ve let everyone down?” I asked. She said, “As long as I can remember. Even as a little girl. I’ve always felt I was failing people, that I didn’t deserve love. Now I run around trying to achieve things, trying to be worthy, and I end up failing those I love the most!”

“Take a moment, Marge, and let the feeling of failing people, of being undeserving of love, be as big as it really is.” After a few moments she said, “It’s like a sore tugging feeling in my heart.”

“Now,” I said, “sense what it’s like to know that even as a little girl — for as long as you can remember — you’ve lived with this pain of not deserving love, lived with this sore tugging in your heart. Sense what that has done to your life.” Marge grew very still and then began silently weeping.

Marge was experiencing what I call “soul sadness,” the sadness that arises when we’re able to sense our temporary, precious existence, and directly face the suffering that’s come from losing life. We recognize how our self-aversion has prevented us from being close to others, from expressing and letting love in. We see, sometimes with striking clarity, that we’ve closed ourselves off from our own creativity and spontaneity, from being fully alive. We remember missed moments when it might have been otherwise, and we begin to grieve our unlived life.

This grief can be so painful that we tend, unconsciously, to move away from it. Even if we start to touch our sadness, we often bury it by reentering the shame—judging our suffering, assuming that we somehow deserve it, telling ourselves that others have “real suffering” and we shouldn’t be filled with self pity. Our soul sadness is fully revealed only when we directly and mindfully contact our pain. It is revealed when we stay on the spot and fully recognize that this human being is having a hard time. In such moments we discover a natural upwelling of compassion—the tenderness of our own forgiving heart.

When Marge’s crying subsided, I suggested she ask the place of sorrow what it longed for most. She knew right away: “To trust that I’m worthy of love in my life.” I invited her to once again place one hand on her heart and another on her belly, letting the gentle pressure of her touch communicate care. “Now sense whatever message most resonates for you, and send it inwardly. Allow the energy of the message to bathe and comfort all the places in your being that need to hear it.”

After a couple of minutes of this, Marge took a few full breaths. Her expression was serene, undefended. “This feels right,” she said quietly, “being kind to my own hurting heart.” Marge had looked beyond her fault to her need. She was healing herself with compassion.

Before she left, I suggested she pause whenever she became aware of guilt or shame, and take a moment to reconnect with self-compassion. If she was in a private place, she could gently touch her heart and belly, and let that contact deepen her communication with her inner life. I also encouraged her to include the metta (lovingkindness) practice for herself and her son in her daily meditation: “You’ll find that self-compassion will open you to feeling more loving.”

Six weeks later Marge and I met again. She told me that at the end of her daily meditation, she’d started doing metta for herself, reminding herself of her honesty, sincerity, and longing to love well. Then she’d offer herself wishes, most often reciting, “May I accept myself just as I am. May I be filled with loving-kindness, held in lovingkindness.” After a few minutes she’d then bring her son to mind: “I would see how his eyes light up when he gets animated, and how happy he looks when he laughs. Then I’d say ‘May you feel happy. May you feel relaxed and at ease. May you feel my love now.’ With each phrase I’d imagine him happy, relaxed, feeling held in my love.”

Their interactions started to change. She went out early on Saturday mornings to pick up his favorite “everything” bagels before he woke up. He brought out the trash unasked. They watched several episodes of The Wire together on TV. Then,” Marge told me, “a few nights ago, he came into my home office, made himself comfortable on the couch, and said nonchalantly, ‘What’s up, Mom? Just thought I’d check in.’”

“It wasn’t exactly an extended chat,” she said with a smile. “He suddenly sprang up and told me he had to meet some friends at the mall. But we’re more at ease, a door has reopened.” Marge was thoughtful for a few moments, then said, “I understand what happened. By letting go of the blame—most of which I was aiming at myself—I created room for both of us in my heart.”

As Marge was discovering, self-compassion is entirely interdependent with acting responsibly and caringly toward others. Forgiving ourselves clears the way for a loving presence that can appreciate the goodness of others, and respond to their hurts and needs. And, in turn, our way of relating to others affects how we regard ourselves and supports our ongoing self-forgiveness.

Adapted from True Refuge (on sale January 2013)

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