Shame, perhaps even more than other emotions, is a sticky substance that tends to ensnare us into a web of reactive thoughts, inner conversations, dramas, fantasies and imagined scenarios. All these arise as a result of deep conditioning and are further concretized in our neuronal pathways through countless cycles of repetition and rehearsal. Moreover, we are largely or wholly unconscious of our own patterns of reactivity, and so the process is left to fester indefinitely.
Pema Chodron, Buddhist monastic and teacher, famous for her books on Buddhist approaches to dealing with life’s pain and emotional challenges, issued a quote that as an individual and psychotherapist I always found incredibly helpful in order to help foster mindfulness to emotions, “Feel the feelings, cut the drama!” In both Buddhism and psychotherapy, one is exhorted to face one’s emotions with eyes wide open… that is to remain fully conscious and present, and without judgment, rigidity or avoidance. When one notices that one is starting to embellish the emotions with internal drama and reactivity, one is exhorted to simply stop. As the famous Korean Zen master (now deceased), Seung Sahn and founder of the Kwan Um Lineage of Zen, of which I am a practitioner often stated to his students, “Put it Down, only go straight”! He reminded practitioners, that all the inner dialogue is basically bullshit… conditioned mind and delusion that obscures knowledge of one’s true nature.
Practitioners are constantly being exhorted to keep acknowledging the inner conversations, thoughts, judgments and keep returning to just this moment. And so when feelings arise, do not try to control or analyze them. I encourage my atients to label the feelings and point their attention into the feelings. But once the dramas begin to arise, cut them as soon as they are noticed and return to the feelings.
The mind’s drama can appear in many subtle forms:
In the case of shame it my be thougts such as “I am a piece of shit”. “Why would anybody love me”, “I can’t do anything right”, “I am so stupid” and so on. remember, we were not born with such thoughts and reactions. They arose as a result of conditioning. Everytime we rehearse these thoughts, we fuel the cycle of reactivity and strengthen the conditioning.
And now I pose to you a couple of Zen koans, a sort of riddle that cannot be answered by rational/logical means: Before thinking, where is shame? Where is shame before you were born?
You cannot think your way out of shame, or make shame thoughts or reactions go away. Just keep paying attention. Label the thoughts as they arise by saying simply, “There is shame”. Keep labeling it for as long as it stays present. And watch what happens. It will simply drift away of its own accord, just like clouds. And when the drama returns, which it will…time and time again, cut it….Put It Down! And open to the feeling.