Sunday, April 21, 2013
A few comments during a discussion at the zen center yesterday brought to mind the issues of guilt and shame. During the particular discussion, we were talking about the idea of praying for "buddhas and ancestors" to support us. What that meant. Whether such a practice resonated with each of us or not. And how it was different from mainstream Christian notions of praying to God or Jesus for support.
Anyway, all of that made me think about guilt and shame. (Yes, it's a bit of a leap.) And how both of them - in my view - increase the separation narratives we have that alienate us from our true natures.
In my experience, guilt is always self-focused, overly attached to a solid self that "screwed up." Feeling guilty about yelling at your kids, or stealing money from the petty cash jar at work doesn't do anything to rectify the situation. In fact, it maintains the focus on yourself. The person or group of people who have been harmed by your action confront you and you say something like "Oh, I feel so guilty. I wish I hadn't done that." And sometimes what happens here is that the other person or group of people end up talking to you about your guilt. Or they end up having to accept that you felt guilty, and that nothing else can be done about what happened. Of course, sometimes nothing else can be done, but that's not really the point.
Shame is more tricky, although I don't think in the end, it's any more helpful. For the most part, shame just universalizes a mistake or set of mistakes into a totalized view of one's self. Instead of feeling bad about a particular behavior and it's consequences, you see yourself as a "bad person" who will "never get it right."
Indulging in either shame or guilt, in other words, not only doesn't help rectify the original situation, but also creates a stickiness around the mistaken behaviors that keeps them fixed in your mind and body. You keep thinking about what happened. You create a negative image of your self around what happened. And so you end up carrying what happened, often long after others might have forgotten it.
Buddhist teachings tend to point to remorse as a more appropriate response. Remorse is tied to repentance for specific actions, which then can lead to a sense of compassion for yourself and others who have made similar mistakes. Being remorseful help break down the self-focus, and also burns through attachments to misdeeds through both the act of repentance, and also any decisions that aid in rectifying a situation.
I could write more, but I think I'll end it there for now.
What have your experiences been with guilt and shame? Do you see them as helpful or harmful?
Posted by Nathan at 2:09 PM