November 14, 2014

Freeing Ourselves from the Western Culture of Unworthiness


This is part two in a six-part series in which Acharya Fleet Maull explores some major themes we all struggle with:

1. Virtue & Goodness, the Forgotten Conversation

2. The Human Condition and our Western Culture of Unworthiness

3. The Neuroscience of Transcending Fear-Based Mind and Culture

4. Fundamental Goodness vs. Fundamentalism

5. Working with Fear & Vulnerability

6. Awakening Through Service 

What leads us to distrust our own innate goodness and that of others? What aspect of our western culture causes us to feel bad about ourselves? Where does this profound doubt about our worthiness come from?

No matter how enlightened our parents are, it is almost impossible to grow up as a young child and not end up with at least a mild case of insecurity about ourselves. The extreme vulnerability we experience as infants inevitably leads to feelings of profound helplessness and fear, despite the good intentions of our caregivers. Furthermore, in addition to our personal hardships from childhood, the world is relentlessly bombarding us with messages about how unworthy and defective we are.

On one hand, there are many beautiful aspects to our western culture. Even our American political system (whatever our political leanings may be) upholds kernels of wisdom, sensible philosophies, and sane principles. Western culture is replete with tremendous wisdom and knowledge. And on the other hand, there are also real problems. On some level, this American culture is like a huge ceremony of unworthiness.

By ceremony, I mean the way we live our lives, the way we create our culture and the way we manifest in our world.

The underlying and prevailing assumption in this culture is that we are not good enough—that we are not okay the way we are. The main assumption is that we are fundamentally flawed.

So where does that begin?

Well, of course, we’re born into a very fragile situationwe are completely dependent on the goodwill of our parents for our very survival. Once we’re out of the womb and kind of a separate being, we’re still type of a unitary state with our mother. Gradually, over the early months we start to individuate, and that is a very fragile process. At this point, we still don’t have a self yet, in psychological terms or spiritual termswe don’t have a strong sense of “my own being” and “my own presence” or “who I am.” How can we, as a two-year old, stand in front of our screaming parents and say “well, even though I’m only two years old, I don’t have to take that in.. that’s just their suffering.”

As a young child—any time we’re not feeling good and secure—we experience the world as though we were falling into a black hole of emptiness.

This is an unsettling, terrorizing, incomprehensible state as it lacks structure to hold or protect us. Even the most caring parents cannot keep us from getting an earache and being in extreme pain for several hours before the medicine begins to work, during which time that little being is terrified, without any means of rationalizing what is happening, lost in that black hole of emptiness.

So everyone, no matter how benevolent the surroundings or parents, is eventually confronted with that contrast between safety and threat, peace and dread, well-being and misery.

So out of that, almost out of a sense of terror, almost like being dropped out of a spaceship, we start grabbing onto anything we can to start to paste together a sense of self. And that happens throughout our early childhood and into our adolescence we build ourselves out of whatever is available to us. It’s important to recognize that for this little being any reference point is better than no reference point. In this way, even reference points like violence, chaos, shame, pain, hurt, can be powerful reference pointsthey’re better then nothing.

In fact, shame—the painful feeling arising when we perceive ourselves as inadequate, unwanted, defective and unworthy—is one of the most powerful reference points available to us. Why? We hold on to shame because it is familiar and habitual and, somehow, feels so real. How often do we tell ourselves “I’m not okay, I’m not good enough, I’m not wanted here, I don’t belong, I’m a mess” ? That experience keeps recurring and gives us a strong hit, which we can trust. It confirms our existence: “I feel like shit, therefore I exist!”

Furthermore, the culture in which our parents are raising us—the set of values and acceptable behaviors we are taught to follow—also breeds shame. When, as children, we do not meet these expectations and do not conform to the norm, even the most loving parents get scared and concerned.

Despite their attempts at hiding what they feel, they would have to be really enlightened for that fear not to show through. And when we perceive that fear, how do you think we interpret it when we are two months old, six months old or even three years old or five years old? We interpret it as “uhhh ohh, that part of me won’t be loved, that part of me will be rejected.” And we internalize that impression that we are fundamentally flawed and wrong as the truth of who we are.

Many parents are not so benevolent, educated, or concerned about their children’s self-esteem; and many parents communicate with their children in an overtly shaming or disparaging way… which isn’t even touching on how we respond to overt neglect, abuse, abandonment, and so forth.

This is a complex issue, here in what I call our “western culture of unworthiness.” I just wanted to get the conversation going, so, please, take some time this week and next to reflect on what I am surfacing here. Start and join a much deeper conversation with yourself and the world around you—your girlfriend, father, nephew, auntbecause this is something we all struggle with on one level or another, it just shows up in various different ways. How does it show up for you? 

Please, feel free to answer that question or ask another in the comment section below (I’ll be reading and commenting back). I encourage you to share whatever may be arising for you in relation to the ideas and questions I’m raising here. And finally, please join us next week for part three (in this six-part series), as we dig even deeper and start to delve into the next phase of “Working with Fear & Vulnerability.”


Until next time,
Acharya Fleet Maull



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Author: Acharya Fleet Maull 

Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: elephant archives 


Reply to JohnH cancel

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Alan Anderson Dec 10, 2014 12:00pm

Excellent article, Fleet. Thank you.

50shadesofyoga Nov 15, 2014 5:16pm

Competition is a major reason here as I see it. From early on: there are pre-schools that require testing the child because so many parents want their kids there and the school have to make the children compete for the few spots. It continues in all schooling years comparing apples to orange, pears etc. This competition is a great source of shame and other issues although it is perhaps perceived as a very positive inspiration by many.

JohnH Nov 15, 2014 3:15pm

You mention that unworthiness is a particular problem of western cultures. I would suggest it has something to do with our concept of God handed down from the Greco and Abrahamic religions. These cultures imagined a deity separate from ourselves and outside of our human condition. To connect with God we have to shun our earthy being and aspire to a "higher level" of existence. In fact, these religions teach that we must literally die before we can reach some transcendent "paradise". In ancient Greece, "hubris", thinking one is as powerful as a god was the ultimate sin and worthy of celestial rebuke.

In the east, God is part of you, just a deeper, more "enlightened" part of each individual's consciousness waiting to be revealed. In the east there is no "original sin" no excuse for God to abandon humans. I contend it is this western sense of abandonment and unworthiness that drives our manic activity to achieve – we become human doings rather than human beings. In the west, struggle is the way to the divine. In the east it is just the opposite – to abandon struggle and allow the integration with the divine to emerge from within. Our theology determines to a large extent our psychology.

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Fleet Maull

Fleet Maull is an intrepid social activist/peacemaker and itinerant meditation teacher who travels the world leading retreats, peacemaker trainings, prison programs and transformational seminars. He is an empowered senior teacher in two Buddhist lineages, as an Acharya in the international Shambhala Buddhist Community and a Sensei in the Zen Peacemaker Order. Fleet is well known as a prison reform activist and the founder of Prison Mindfulness Institute (aka Prison Dharma Network) and the National Prison Hospice Association. He is also a sought after business consultant, trainer, executive coach working with business leaders in diverse industries to build healthy and sustainable enterprises with cultures grounded in mindfulness, emotional intelligence, transparency, accountability and integrity. Fleet offers similar training to the general public through his Radical Responsibility® and Radical Possibility™ Seminars in cities all across the United States.

When Fleet’s not traveling the world speaking and teaching, he loves to take his sailboat out on the Narragansett Bay with his son Robert and/or his best (dog) pal, Ziji, who happens to be a master sailor. Fleet is the author of Dharma in Hell, the Prison Writings of Fleet Maull and numerous articles and book chapters. He is currently completing his latest book called Radical Responsibility. Follow Fleet’s work and/or get involved through his website, TwitterFacebook or at Prison Mindfulness InstituteNational Prison Hospice Association, orShambahla International.