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How to Work with Shame: Buddhism & Embodied Spirituality.

Shame is the gateway to compassion…

Shame says, “I am not good enough, or smart enough. I am not big enough.” It is an example of pervasive dis-contentment—a lack of content or vitality, a poverty mentality. From a Buddhist point of view, this brand of self-hatred is closely connected with basic sanity. Therefore, shame is considered to be an extremely powerful energy, as it serves as a portal, through which we are afforded the opportunity to relate to the emptiness or the lack of content in our tiny little ego shell.

First of all, shame recognizes the limitations of our egocentric life. There is a basic acknowledgement of insufficiency or defectiveness that naturally arises when the stale, lifeless words of our conscious self are used to describe the vast, luminous nature of who we truly are. Since we identify with the ego, we take this experience personally and get down on ourselves, beating ourselves up. This is all part of the ego pattern. It is the ego’s poverty stricken interpretation of the indestructible and limitless nature of the unborn mind.

Before ego forms this movement into shame by shaping it with it’s words, this energy is a call out—a yearning or prayer, of sorts—from beyond the veil of ego to reconnect with the vastness of our true lives. Silent shame is called in traditional Buddhist language, renunciation. It emerges out of our disillusionment with the ego and its games. This prayer is answered, not by becoming a better you, but by relaxing into the experience of being. It is an act of consent, not attrition. The ego attempts to work with shame by destroying vulnerability. Meditation works with shame by relating to the texture or energy and not by getting carried away by the words.

Buddhist meditation is about an open and direct relationship with reality, which simply means a relationship with the earth that is revealed in and through the body. It is a practice of embodiment. We settle into the life of the body, rather than getting tangled up in the story line. We simply bring our awareness into our heart space, and work with any resistance by breathing into the tension on the inhalation, and relaxing into the posture on the exhalation. When, not if, you notice that you have returned to the story, simply bring your awareness back to the heart space and continue to work with your resistance.

This practice is called object-less Bodhichitta. The word Bodhichitta means, “the heart of awakening.” By tapping into this awakened heart we cut through the “poor me” rhetoric of the ego, and reconnect with the innate wealth or sense of abundance that is embedded in the human condition. This experience of wealth is written on each and every one of our hearts. It is our inheritance as human beings, and by claiming our inheritance through an act of radical trust we rediscover our capacity to extend or express our true Self. This process of expressivity is called compassion. So, shame is the gateway to compassion.

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Editor: Tanya L. Markul

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Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. He is also the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA and a teacher at Explore Yoga. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist and Christian spirituality on Elephant Journal, and his blog. Click here to listen to the Finding God in the Body Podcast. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter.