This is part three in a six-part series in which Acharya Fleet Maull explores some major themes we all struggle with:
- Virtue & Goodness, the Forgotten Conversation
- Freeing Ourselves from the Western Culture of Unworthiness
- The Neuroscience of Fear-Based Mind and Culture
- Fundamental Goodness vs. Fundamentalism
- Working with Fear & Vulnerability
- Awakening Through Service
In my last blog, I explored themes having to do with the blame and shame-based cultural influences in western society. We looked at the all too prevalent western cultural view that, due to some inherent flaw in our human nature, we must be coerced into good behavior through the threat of shame or punishment, and how we have lost track of the historically much more widely-held view of our innate goodness.
So, in this blog, I want to explore what, in our western culture, locks in and systematizes these feelings of shame and unworthiness, which underlie most of our coping mechanisms and personality adaptations.
Through mass media and marketing, our Western culture creates a certain standard of unworthiness. Marketers have discovered that by tapping into the public’s feelings of unworthiness, it becomes easy to sell a product by creating the illusion that it will restore self-worth. As we all know very well, in the world of marketing, the message is: “If you have this, then you’ll feel better about yourself and/or be more attractive to others.”
This marketing and media culture has become extremely sophisticated—to the point that we are bombarded by messages of unworthiness from the time we are little children. And of course, the more exposure we have to television and pop culture, the worse it becomes—but, realistically, we can’t escape it, it is everywhere.
Another factor contributing to our sense of shame and unworthiness comes from growing up in a Judeo-Christian culture. I don’t want to disrespect or demonize the roots of any of our great religious traditions, because those roots are steeped in wisdom; however, I think human beings have taken some of these wisdom traditions and twisted their doctrines too far in direction of fear.
The idea of original sin, for example, is very similar to the Buddhist concept of “ego”—except that Buddhists see ego as a relative phenomenon, one that is not entirely real. Ego is a certain kind of momentum that can be recognized, and by simply seeing it, it is possible to connect back to the ground, which is basic goodness or Buddha nature.
Whereas in most forms of mainstream Christianity, there’s only one way out—there is a Savior who has the ability to remove your original sin or transform your inherently flawed nature and save you from yourself and from eternal damnation. That savior being (God), through your faith, can convince you that you’re okay, I’m not saying this approach doesn’t work; but I still think it’s unfortunate, because it has perpetuated this idea of a flawed human nature, which pervades our culture and leads to all kinds of fear-based social institutions and strategies designed to protect us from ourselves and each other.
To say we’re all “sinners” in the sense that we are constantly growing and evolving is one thing (like the Zen master, Suzuki Roshi, saying to his students, “All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.” In this case, the message we tend to internalize to one degree or another is that I am bad, unworthy, unlovable and not to be trusted by myself or others.
So what is “sin” exactly? The original meaning of sin is just simply missing the mark.
I grew up in a Roman Catholic family living in a strongly Catholic neighborhood and predominantly Christian society; and as young person I was surrounded by nuns and priests who regularly admonished me and most of my classmates, saying that we were going to go to hell if we didn’t change our ways and follow the rules. I’m sure they really believed that instilling the fear of hell and damnation in us was for our own good, but where did they get this idea that without this fear we would surely turn out bad?
Fortunately, in my heart of hearts, I don’t think I ever truly believed this message, but it certainly penetrated deeply enough to create significant self-doubt and anxiety. No doubt it did so for others as well.
So when we have internalized this sense of our own unworthiness as individuals and bought into, as a culture or society, this notion of the flawed nature of humanity, then what kind of culture do we create around that?
What kind of institutions do we create? What kind of education, health care systems or prisons do we create? I think we are all intelligent and socially aware enough to see what I’m getting at here.
But again, I don’t want to demonize what we have done entirely because we’ve come this far as a human society and survived as a species, perhaps, to some degree, based on fear-based strategies; however,I would suggest it is largely because of our innate, unconditional basic goodness. Think about it: What do the vast majority of human beings on the planet do every single day? They get up every morning and do their best, working hard, even tirelessly, to take care of themselves and their families and to cooperate with others in a mutual and interdependent effort to meet their needs and survive as individuals and as communities and societies.
Imagine what life would be like if human beings were not innately and predominantly cooperative.
Despite all these things I’ve been talking about—human beings have still managed to survive and even thrive. We’ve done our best to try to organize ourselves with the greater good in mind, but unfortunately, because of this underlying message of unworthiness and the idea that human beings are flawed and ultimately dangerous, the whole thing is pervaded to a significant degree by fear and shame and the impulse to blame and punish. The social and political systems and institutions we have created are well-intended and not entirely without functionality or merit, but they nonetheless carry and perpetuate the message of unworthiness and in many cases cause significant and widespread damage (e.g. our broken education and health care systems and the related prison and medical industrial complexes, to say nothing of the military industrial complex that mindlessly promotes perpetual warfare as an economic necessity for its own survival).
Now I don’t want to give the notion that all this is the fault of modern Christianity. Quite to the contrary, I think Christianity on the whole has been a positive force for good in the world. The ultimate source of this fear-based suspicion and distrust of ourselves and others is simply the human condition and the challenge humanity is tasked to overcome.
We are born in a very fragile state, our very survival dependent on the good graces of others. Even the most enlightened parents cannot prevent their children from experiencing both immediate and existential fear and uncertainty about survival and essential worthiness or lovability.
The experience of absolute, unconditional parental love wanes over time in the life of every child, as the levels of oxytocin, the bonding neurotransmitter, naturally decrease in the parents’ brains and bloodstream. If anything it is this underlying human challenge that over time has twisted the wisdom teachings of Christianity and other faiths in the direction of fear and punishment. After all, despite the predominance of fire and brimstone preaching, the core message of new testament Christianity is that of love and forgiveness.
In the end, fear-based religious teaching and the religious institutions that perpetuate this messages of unworthiness are simply another example of human institutions carrying the message of fear grounded in the relatively modern and historically minority view of human nature as essentially flawed. Unfortunately, this leaves us with a somewhat schizoid situation in western societies, our minds and hearts split between love and fear, between forgiveness and shame.
Because of this split, it’s always possible for us to create clubs of goodness, where “my club is good because we’ve created enough fear structures to guarantee the goodness, and if people don’t abide by those fear structures then we kick them out—so everyone in here is good.” Whatever that club is, whether that club is a church, religion, spiritual or environmental movement, political party or even an entire country, those inside the club are good as long as they abide by the rules and dogmas of the club; and everyone outside the club is at the very least suspect and potentially bad, scary, dangerous or even evil (e.g. Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as the “evil empire”).
Once we have established our club and identified the outsiders, the barbarians at the gate, we can then justify all manner of otherwise abhorrent actions. We can be assured that we are good, upstanding people and citizens (club members) who love our families, go to church, work hard, while feeling completely justified in doing terrible things to people who are not in “our club,” and who we perceive as being a threat to our club’s security and our club’s way of life.
This is the realpolitik notion that it is a dangerous, scary world out there and if some of us are not willing to play hard ball and do the otherwise unspeakable things, the very survival of the club is in peril. After all we are the “good people,” the “good club;” and in the end, it is us or them, good versus evil.
Of course there is plenty of evidence for this kind of view—but it is worth considering that evidence from the perspective of “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
This raises the question, “What are the ultimate causes of violence, rape, murder, war, terrorism, genocide, holocaust and all such horrors that still beset our societies and global culture? Is the cause an inherent flaw or lurking evil in our human nature or is it rather the mistaken notion of such and the resulting fear, shame and trauma inflicted on so many.
For me if there is such a thing as evil or a propensity or momentum toward harmful and damaging behavior, it is not some kind of “bad seed” hidden in the heart of every human or even some humans, but rather something more like a virus that circulates in our human culture and societies in the form of internalized trauma and shame that inevitably resurfaces as rage and violence in their many forms.
Evidence suggests we are now carrying an unsustainable, toxic load of internalized shame and trauma in our human culture—and any time a human being experiences violence and abuse, chronic poverty, shamed-based education, racism, chaotic and unstable family and community life, displacement to refugee status, and any and all forms of oppression, we are adding to that toxic load.
Perhaps it is time to treat violence as the dangerous pandemic it is and marshall our united efforts and resources to address its root causes. At the very least, is it not paramount to find a way to keep our children safe and to develop non-coercive, non-shaming means of education and enculturation?
It might be hard to determine which is more critical to our human survival at this point: addressing the causes of global climate change and environmental destruction or finding the collective will to safeguard our children and transform our approaches to parenting, education and the transmission of values and culture. Such a question is likely academic, given the short and long term dangers involved in both.
Unfortunately, though the evidence for human-caused global climate change, environmental degradation, species loss and so forth is much more widely acknowledged than the roots of our global pandemic of violence, the collective will to address even the acknowledged danger of widespread environmental collapse and destruction is still tepid at best.
As you can see, this is a much deeper and very personal question that we all need to take a good and hard look at in ourselves. When we start to feel that sense of “I’m not good enough” arise in response to constant exposure to the media portrayed standards of attractiveness and value, we have an opportunity to look deeply into the source of our feelings of unworthiness. Likewise, when we start to feel fear and any kind of us vs. them thinking arise in response to the latest televised exploitation of events like the police shootings in Ferguson and NYC, the beheadings and other horrors in Iraq and Syria or terrorist attacks like the massacre in Paris, we have an opportunity to look deeply into the roots of fear in our hearts and minds.
What I’ve found helpful to explore is how the existing internalized fear, blame, shame, and trauma in ourselves impacts the way we respond to our world. Once we start to get a sense of it, we can begin to realize how we are all in this together, because for anything to really change in the world around us, we need to recognize and begin the process of healing and transforming the toxic load of negative conditioning we all carry to one degree or another. If we can start to question and break down those downloaded and internalized ideas that there is something fundamentally wrong with us or with “them out there,” we might start to see things shift.
If we could begin taking that ever-so-brave look into the origins of our own proclivity toward fear, shame and blame and start to re-pattern our brains in alignment with our own very discoverable and experienceable innate goodness and a default recognition of that goodness in others, we might see things begin to change for the better.
Because we’d start to see that we are actually all in this together. We would start to see just how much fear, shame and blame dictate so much of our shared and collective lives, obscuring the truth of the innate goodness of humanity; and we would start to see how that impacts our connections to ourselves and to each other’s ‘clubs.’ We could begin to imagine new possibilities grounded in a collective acknowledgement of human goodness and trust in the basic goodness of our shared humanity and in the unconditional sacredness of our world.
May all beings be happy and free of suffering.
As always, thanks so much for reading—I look forward to reading your questions and comments below.
Wishing you all the very best,
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Fleet Maull
Editor: Renee Picard
Photo: courtesy of the author