How to Work with Shame: Buddhism & Embodied Spirituality.

Via Benjamin Riggs
on Apr 25, 2012
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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.


Editor: Tanya L. Markul

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About 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.


14 Responses to “How to Work with Shame: Buddhism & Embodied Spirituality.”

  1. Maiaoming says:

    hmm… while I agree with of this generally, I think of "shame" as more like "I SHOULD be x – y – z and I'm not" – and it's usually something we gain from our early childhood experiences. Sure, it's part of ego and it does, when we treat it with compassion, lead to a sense of acceptance of who we are as we are, but I feel like shame can have a pretty deep root – and, in my experience, we can even have it activated while practicing meditation – 'I SHOULD be able to do this better" –

  2. BenRiggs says:

    I would agree that shame has a deep root, but I would argue that the conditions for shame are older than our early childhood. I would also argue that the actual shame is deeper than I Should be x-y-z… That is an expectation, not shame. Shame is the "I shouldn't be" that inspires the endless attempts to become what we think we should be (x-y-z).

  3. ValCarruthers says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Valerie Carruthers
    Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

  4. […] How to Work with Shame: Buddhism & Embodied Spirituality. ( […]

  5. […] I am sure he was stressed. I understand. But I also understand shame. Her non-response showed me what we, as children, do with […]

  6. Henry says:

    Hi Ben,

    Thank you for sharing this insightful teaching.

    On a whim I looked up your other articles and read quite a few of those. At this time in my life I’ve become paralyzed by a fear and discontentment I no longer know how to relate or sit with. It has shrunk my perspective to a me, me, me crescendo and so far I’ve approached yoga, meditation, sports, relationships, family, anything really to help rid myself of my perceived vulnerabilities.

    I’ve stopped reading after 12 or so articles partly because I was just going through the intellectual stimulation and because I was responding with frustration which was building up to a feeling of hopelessness.

    How do I start down the path? Create space to begin without checking out before I even start? Is this something someone can show you how to do?

  7. Henry says:

    Rereading my post I feel an itch to keep articulating my “problem” because I’m anticipating that if you did reply I would judge your response as not enough.

  8. Well, Henry, I suspect you are right to say that you will judge anything and everything I say (or perhaps anyone would say) with a very skeptical attitude. I do not mean that in a sarcastic way. In fact, I think that noticing that is a big deal. And it is what you have to work with, and probably the source of your paralysis, no?

    I do not think that the path is about answers; it is about moving or living. What you are describing is, in one word, "stuck." There is no fancy solution that you will be able to apply to this problem, only trust. You have to leap, not into the perfect system, with the perfect practices and teachings coming from the perfect teacher, but into your own skepticism. Take your fear as the path. Be willing to experiment with it.

    "How do I start down the path? Create space to begin without checking out before I even start? Is this something someone can show you how to do?"

    Lets test your bleak assessment of your situation against the grain of your own experience. Just sit, without any idea of success or failure. Sitting meditation is not going to solve any problem, I promise! It is not intended to… Space isn't created; it is self-existing energy. You have to sift through the network of thought in order to rediscover it, though. Whatever mood you are going through, it is a created state of mind consisting of thought. In the practice of meditation you watch as you think, and then think about thinking. Then, simply label that process "thinking," and return to the simplicity of the present moment symbolized by the breath.

    Practice in this way for 30 minutes a day, for 45 days. Then reassess your situation. See after 45 days if you do not see the difference between "what you think about your situation" and the reality of the situation. The gap that separates your opinion and your experience is space, and this space is what makes every mind state workable. But it is a commitment. There will be days when you do not wan to sit. Those are the most important days, because it is on those days that you are breaking the cycle perpetuated by "me, me, me." The cycle is an addiction to comfort. Reconnecting with your capacity to act outside of your likes and dslikes is a huge step.

  9. […] How to Work with Shame: Buddhism & Embodied Spirituality. ( […]

  10. […] is one of those gremlins that shows up and causes us to question, to beat ourselves up, to become […]

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  12. […] We feel shame when we perceive that others would disapprove of our actions. The distinction between guilt and shame is slight, with the difference being that guilt is more about our own feelings that we are doing something wrong, and shame is about our belief that others would see what we are doing as wrong. While shame is probably of less utility, it does provide social protection that can be important in maintaining community relationships. […]

  13. Fred says:

    read raymond smiths' "stepping out of self deception", he will explain beautifully why a question starting with "how" is the problem, seeing things from the wrong view, a challenging but brilliant book