"Awakening From the Trance of Unworthiness" (PART 1) by Tara Brach
---"Young Girl Struck by Sadness" — Pablo Picasso
It’s here in all the pieces of my shame
That now I find myself again.
I yearn to belong to something, to be contained
In an all-embracing mind that sees me. . . .
—Rainer Maria Rilke
Our most fundamental sense of well-being is derived from the conscious experience of belonging. Relatedness is essential to survival. When we feel part of the whole, connected to our bodies, each other, and the living Earth, there is a sense of inherent rightness, of being wakeful and in love. The experience of universal belonging is at the heart of all mystical traditions. In realizing non-separation, we come home to our primordial and true nature.
The Buddha taught that suffering arises out of feeling separate. To the degree that we identify as a separate self, we have the feeling that something is wrong, something is missing. We want life to be different from the way it is. An acute sense of separation—living inside of a contracted and isolated self—amplifies feelings of vulnerability and fear, grasping and aversion. Feeling separate is an existential trance in which we have forgotten the wholeness of our being.
Never in the history of the world has the belief in a separate self been so exaggerated and prevalent as it is now in the twenty-first century in the West. In contrast to Asian and other traditional societies, our distinctive mode of identification is as individuals, without stable pre-existing contexts of belonging to families, communities, tribes or religious groups. Our desperate efforts to enhance and protect this fragile self have caused an unprecedented degree of severed belonging at all levels in our society. In our attempts to dominate the natural world, we have separated ourselves from the Earth. In our efforts to prove and defend ourselves, we have separated ourselves from each other. Managing life from our mental control towers, we have separated ourselves from our bodies and hearts.
With our Western experience of an extremely isolated self, we exemplify fully what the Buddha described as self-centered suffering. If we identify as a separate self, we become the background “owner” of whatever occurs. Ajahn Buddhadasa, a twentieth-century Thai meditation master, describes this conditioning to attach an idea of self to experience as “I-ing” and my-ing. Life happens emotions well up, sensations arise, events come and go and we then add onto the experiences that they are happening to me, because of me.
When inevitable pain arises, we take it personally. We are diagnosed with a disease or go through a divorce, and we perceive that we are the cause of unpleasantness (we’re deficient) or that we are the weak and vulnerable victim (still deficient). Since everything that happens reflects on me, when something seems wrong, the source of wrong is me. The defining characteristic of the trance of separation is this feeling and fearing of deficiency.
Both our upbringing and our culture provide the immediate breeding ground for this contemporary epidemic of feeling deficient and unworthy. Many of us have grown up with parents who gave us messages about where we fell short and how we should be different from the way we are. We were told to be special, to look a certain way, to act a certain way, to work harder, to win, to succeed, to make a difference, and not to be too demanding, shy or loud. An indirect but insidious message for many has been, “Don’t be needy.” Because our culture so values independence, self-reliance and strength, even the word needy evokes shame. To be considered as needy is utterly demeaning, contemptible. And yet, we all have needs—physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual. So the basic message is, “Your natural way of being is not okay; to be acceptable you must be different from the way you are.”
Almost two decades ago, author John Bradshaw and others enlarged our cultural self-awareness by calling attention to the crippling effect of shame. Since then, many have recognized the pervasive presence of shame much as we might an invisible toxin in the air we breathe. Feeling “not good enough” is that often unseen engine that drives our daily behavior and life choices. Fear of failure and rejection feeds addictive behavior. We become trapped in workaholism—an endless striving to accomplish—and we overconsume to numb the persistent presence of fear.
In the most fundamental way, the fear of deficiency prevents us from being intimate or at ease anywhere. Failure could be around any corner, so it is hard to lay down our hypervigilance and relax. Whether we fear being exposed as defective either to ourselves or to others, we carry the sense that if they knew . . . , they wouldn’t love us. A winning entry in a Washington Post T-shirt contest highlights the underlying assumption of personal deficiency that is so emblematic of our Western culture: “I have occasional delusions of adequacy.”
During high school, I consciously struggled with not liking myself, but during college I was distressed by the degree of self-aversion. On a weekend outing, a roommate described her inner process as “becoming her own best friend.” I broke down sobbing, overwhelmed at the degree to which I was unfriendly toward my life. My habit for years had been to be harsh and judgmental toward what I perceived as a clearly flawed self. My attachment to self-improvement transferred itself into the domain of spiritual practice. While I realized at the time that kindness was intrinsic to the spiritual path, in retrospect it is clear how feeling unworthy directly shaped my approach to spiritual life.
I moved into an ashram and spent twelve years trying to be more pure—waking up early, doing hours of yoga and meditation, organizing my life around service and community. I had some idea that if I really applied myself, it would take eight or ten years to awaken spiritually. The activities were wholesome, but I was still aiming to upgrade a flagging self. Periodically I would go to see a spiritual teacher I admired and inquire, “So, how am I doing? What else can I do?” Invariably these different teachers responded, “Just relax.” I wasn’t sure what they meant, but I didn’t think they really meant “relax.” How could they? I clearly wasn’t “there” yet.
During a six-week Buddhist meditation retreat, I spent at least twelve days with a stomach virus. Not only was there physical discomfort, but I found that I made myself “wrong” for being sick. Having already struggled with chronic sickness, this retreat made it clear just how harshly I had been relating to myself. Sickness had become another sign of personal deficiency. My assumption was that I didn’t know how to take care of myself. I feared that being sick reflected unworthiness and a basic lack of spiritual maturity.
In one of the evening dharma talks, a teacher said, “The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.” For me this rang incredibly true. I had been hitting that boundary repeatedly, contracted by the almost invisible tendency to believe something was wrong with me. Wrong if I was fatigued, wrong if my mind was wandering, wrong if I was anxious, wrong if I was depressed. The overlay of shame converted unpleasant experiences into a verdict on self. Pain turned into suffering. In the moment that I made myself wrong, the world got small and tight. I was in the trance of unworthiness.
Several years ago, at a meeting with a group of Western teachers, the Dalai Lama expressed astonishment at the degree of self-aversion and feelings of unworthiness reported by Western students. I know many friends and students who have found, as I did, that even after decades of spiritual practice, they are still painfully burdened by feelings of personal deficiency. Many assumed that meditation alone would take care of it. Instead, they found that deep pockets of shame and self-aversion had a stubborn way of persisting over the years.
Carl Jung describes a paradigm shift in understanding the spiritual path: Rather than climbing up a ladder seeking perfection, we are unfolding into wholeness. We are not trying to transcend or vanquish the difficult energies that we consider wrong—the fear, shame, jealousy, anger. This only creates a shadow that fuels our sense of deficiency. Rather, we are learning to turn around and embrace life in all its realness—broken, messy, vivid, alive.
Yet even when our intention in spiritual practice is to include the difficult energies, we still have strong conditioning to resist their pain. The experience of shame—feeling fundamentally deficient—is so excruciating that we will do whatever we can to avoid it. The etymology of the word shame is “to cover.” Rather than feel the rawness of shame, we develop life strategies to cover and compensate for its presence. We stay physically busy and mentally preoccupied, absorbed in endless self-improvement projects. We numb ourselves with food and other substances. We try to control and change ourselves with self-judgment or relieve insecurity by blaming others. We are so sufficiently defended that we can spend years meditating and never really include in awareness the feared and rejected parts of our experience.
Often those who feel plagued by not being good enough are drawn to idealistic cosmologies that highlight the sense of personal deficiency but offer the possibility of becoming a dramatically different person. The quest for perfection is based on the assumption that we are faulty and must purify and transcend our lower nature. This perception of spiritual hierarchy, of progressing from a lower to a higher self, can be found in elements of most Western and Eastern religions.
When we are in the process of trying to ascend, we never arrive and always feel spiritually insufficient. This was clearly the case during my first years of practice in pursuit of becoming a more perfect yogi. The temporary and passing states of peace or rapture were never enough to soothe my underlying sense of unworthiness. I felt continuously compelled to do more. An alternative face of such insecurity is spiritual pride. The very accomplishments—like improved concentration or periods of bliss—if owned by the self, reinforce a sense of a deficient self that is moving up the ladder. With either pride or shame, our awareness is identified as an entity that is separate and afraid of failure.
In my own unfolding, as well as with friends, clients and dharma students, an intentional spotlight on shame and unworthiness has been enormously revealing. Many people have told me that when they realize how pervasive their self-aversion is and how long their life has been imprisoned by shame, it brings up a sense of grief as well as life-giving hope. Fear of deficiency is a prison that prevents us from belonging to our world. Healing and freedom become possible as we include the shadow—the unwanted, unseen and unfelt parts of our being—in a wakeful and compassionate awareness.
NEXT WEEK — PART 2