Let’s talk about shame, shall we. Dictionary.com defines shame as, “The painful feeling arising from the dishonorable, improper, ridiculous done by oneself or another.” Some synonyms for shame include, disesteem, dishonor, humiliation, ill repute, self-disgust, self-reproach, skeleton in the cupboard, odium and mortification. There is a pivotal point in childhood when we discover this feeling of shame. In the Adam and Eve story, shame appears when Adam and Eve discover themselves to be separate from God. This moment of disconnection evokes self-awareness and Adam and Eve feel shame for their nakedness, hide and then cover themselves. That sounds about right, doesn’t it? This is a pretty common reaction to shame.
Interestingly, shame appears in childhood around 2-3 years of age. This is that wonderful time when those precious children let everyone know that they are their own person, and definitely separate from their parents. Some of my first memories of shame are being at the grocery store, grabbing the leg that resembles one of my parents and looking up to find a strangers face. It was the first realization of what a mistake was, that I made one and that someone saw me make this mistake. I can still remember that warm wash of shame.
Shame is often described as all consuming and I think that everyone of us here can attest to that, unless there are any sociopaths in crowd. It’s estimated that about 1% of the population does not experience the feelings of shame and anxiety. These people are thought to suffer from sociopathy or anti-social personality disorder. Where most people are motivated to be mutually connected to others, sociopaths are not. Shame is the emotion that indicates our deepest desire to be connected, to one another, to ourselves and to Source. It is felt when we feel that we have done something or there is something about us, that if anyone finds out, it will make us unworthy of connection. It is also felt when our boundaries have been violated as this gives us the message that we are less than and unworthy of respect. We see the latter so often in situations of abuse. In shame’s unhealthy form, we like Adam and Eve become reactive by running, hiding, and possibly becoming angry towards the self or others.
One of the readings for today, is Psalm 51. Though I have heard this psalm many times, I did not know the story behind it until I was asked to do this sermon. In the Psalm, King David is repenting and expressing his sin for commiting adultry with Bathsheba, impregnating her and then having her husband killed. In the story, David does not recognize his wrongdoing until the prophet Nathaniel lets him know about the boundaries that his has crossed in the eyes of God. It is only then, that he feels disconnected from God and shame for his actions. I found this very interesting. I was like, “David, you really didn’t know that was messed up, huh? However, as I thought about that more, I saw so many places in our society where the same thing occurs, in the avoidance of feeling shame and taking responsibility.
I see the avoidance of responsibility in the discourse about race and racism, classism, heterosexism, sexism, capitalism and patriarchy. Relationally and in the context of race, it looks like this; A person of color bravely describes their experience of racism and a white person somehow discredits their experience. This leaves that person or group of people to absorb the shame induced when boundaries where crossed and when someone is treated as less than.
We just saw this in the Trayvon Martin case, where some media sources attempted to slander Martin’s character, to somehow justify the killing. This is a classic case of a moment in history where the shameful shadows of our society were exposed. Many wanted to hide and cover up the blatant horror and shame of the racially motivated murder of a 17 year old child, in his own neighborhood, with nothing but skittles in his pockets. We, and particularly white folks, did not want to claim this as part of our collective, shameful shadow. Right now, we have prophets such as the creators of the Black Lives Matter movement, who have come, like the prophet Nathan did to King David, to awaken our consciousness. If we do the work of ownership and taking responsibility individually and collectively, we move towards transforming the shameful shadows of racism.
As much as I was shocked by David’s ignorance about his behavior, I was equally shocked by his ability to feel, take responsibility and move through his shame. It left me longing for government leaders who could do the same and I wondered why this was so abnormal. Why is it so difficult to admit a mistake? I think it is because we live in a shaming society, but not a shame welcoming/shame witnessing society. Shaming societies are based in dualities. “If you aren’t good, you are bad. If you’re not right you’re wrong.” There are good neighborhoods and there are bad neighborhoods. There are Democrats and Republicans….and the list goes on. Duality leaves little room for the nuances that can transform shame.
In a shame welcoming society there is infinite space between good and bad and it is not linear. It is liminal. We accept that we will all be victims and we will all be perpetrators. In this place where no one can be too attached to being good or being bad. If there is ownership and the taking of responsibility, by those enacting perpetration, compassion and forgiveness can be never ending strings of connection between all of us.
Rumi illustrates this point when he writes, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” This is the field where the father, in the prodigal son story, meets his child, and welcomes him home. I wish for us to cultivate this field, first and foremost in the self and then, families, friendships and political/social systems.
We have been working for the past few weeks with the metaphor of Rumi’s “Guest House.” Last week, Sheri described healthy anger as the watchman/watchwoman for your house, protecting your boundaries. As I thought about the personification of healthy shame, I, with a friend, came up with the metaphor of the mailman/woman. Shame is not really meant to come too far into your house. Shame is certainly not meant to be an overnight guest. For those of you who have shared a bed with shame, you know what I am talking about. Shame does not let you get any sleep, snores loud and if you let shame stay too long it takes over every room. It never does its own dishes and leaves a destructive mess. Soon, there is no room for any other guests to come and stay. It’s just you and shame, barricaded in, curtains drawn. Basically, shame becomes the creepiest mailman ever.
I can remember going to bed with shame many nights, as a child and teenager. The mail that shame was delivering said, “You are gay, that makes you different, a little gross and some people won’t like you. P.S. your identity is tied to people liking you so this is really going to suck.” I let those letters stack up for years. I have done many things, in my life, of which to feel some healthy shame, but being Queer is not one of them. Sometimes, our healthy interaction with shame require us to say, “Actually, this letter isn’t for me, return to sender.” I was finally able to do this my junior year of college, when I came to the realization that I was going to tell people my secret that had caused so much private shame. At the moment when I knew this, a new message came in that said, “Addie, everyone who loved you before is still going to love you and it will be even better because they will actually know you.”
When we are interacting with shame in a healthy way we open the door and say, what messages do you have for me today? We sift through the letters say things like, “Oh yeah this is for me. It’s going to take me a couple days to read this over, but I will address it” or “You know what, this was actually supposed to be sent to my mother/father/ancestors” or with the help of the anger watchman, “This is for my abuser, not for me, they may not accept this mail back, but I am certainly not having it in my house anymore.” If you are in a marginalized group then, “This is actually the weird shame projection mail that keeps coming to my house. It really should be sent to the address of white-hetero-patriarchy.”
When we utilize shame in this way it becomes part of an alchemic recipe. Just add a little vulnerablity, bravery, courage, compassion, forgiveness and voula! The end result, as shame researcher Brene Brown, would say is “whole-hearted living” and fearless authenticity. My wish for myself and for everyone is the next time the shame mailman comes, recieve the mail bravely as an invitation to return whole-heartedly to the Garden of Eden. This is the the place of connection with self, others and Source, where you can dance naked and free.
Do not deny yourself the darkness.
It is the place from which all things came.
Just before the lights turn on,
Just before the symphony begins,
Just before you find your truth,
Phantoms follow, my love. So…
Wade. Do not swim
Listen. Do not talk
Sit. Do not run
Adhere and you will find the Savior in the Shadow.
I’ve tried every healing and indeed,
they have all been good
I’ve tried the type where I trace the traumas of my mother
and the wounds of my father
down through the roots of my family tree.
I’ve tried the type where I harness my anger
and scream out to a room.
All so that I may be free.
I’ve tried the type where I channel the light
and send it straight out through my hands
I’ve tried the type where I send the light
to people in all of the lands.
And, Indeed. They have all been good.
Yet here on this day, as I sit and I pray
I see a path that is open and wide.
It calls out my name and says, “Go where you please.”
There are no more rules to abide.
Even if you move forwards and then go backwards,
you will still be moving forwards, my dear.
So wander about and sing every song.
These three words will move you along.
The first one is “I” and the last one is “you.”
In the middle is the only one that’s true.
Put it together and let it flow through your life.
These three words of, “I love you.”
Loons on the lake carry tunes of longing
like my words do for me
Graceful eased efforts took me to the high reeds this summer morning
where I found an opening
As I child I sought butterflies and fireflies
to keep them as my own
For it was beauty that I wished to catch,
On this morning, through the reeds, I heard a familiar whisper
“Beauty cannot be captured by way of nets, jars nor lenses
It is too big.”
A deep settling falls into my chest as I rest with this truth
Finally, I allow myself to melt into the landscape
I am beauty and I am big
The gentle breeze that sings harmonies
with the birds in the trees, create the soft quaking of love
in the water beneath me
Now when I hear loons sing their tunes again,
I know it’s one of belonging.
I have learned to spontaneously cry at the sight of myself
Like a mother weeps at first sight of her child.
I wish that everyone did.
Whenever this happens, it is always surprising
Love like this is only felt in a manner of overwhelm
It is a wave that takes my breath away and moves me to a profoundly different place.
Have you ever felt it?
Lord knows I have tried taking the blue waters from my own eyes and attempted love showers
The result was a drought for me and a drowning for you.
Luckily Wisdom caught me this time and whispered into my ear,
“Do nothing. Stand back and ask, ‘How do you experience yourself, my love?'”
All this time throwing water on you, when what you have is a Fire.
I lay myself down by the waters,
Surrendering to the gentleness that is me
Like the breeze, in the trees, that gives leaves their last breath
Detaching from needs to feel smarter, better, faster
Drifting towards Mother Earth, home to all that is true
When I land on her, she is soft, like my inmost parts
She hosts the epic return to myself
Reminding me of the Reverence that each heart deserves
Three years ago, I experienced the most intense/acute psychological pain that I have ever felt in my life. The Sandy Hook massacre had just occurred and I was deep in my work as a therapist for children, most of whom had been horribly abused. It started with the question that always tends to lead me down the rabbit hole, “Why do people do bad things?” I found myself staring into the eyes of photos of Adam Lanza (The Sandy Hook shooter) and asking “How?” over and over again.
In my work as a therapist children would often act out their experiences of abuse whether it was by flinching, freezing, hitting/biting or being seductive towards me during our sessions. They looked at me as if I was the one who hurt them and in the light of current events, these projections all of the sudden felt overwhelming. I began to question even more intensely, “How could someone do this?” and more painfully, “Am I capable of such atrocious behaviors?” I wondered if their projections and acting out towards me meant anything about me and who I really am. Was there something wrong about me deep down inside? I am sure that my identity as Queer did not help as these identities have been on the receiving end of judgment and projections of deviance.
During the holidays, I distanced myself from family, particularly my niece and nephew. In light of my work and what I was seeing on T.V. their innocence and vulnerability freaked me out. I lost 10lbs and felt as though I was in an internal battle with good and evil, trying to see which one I was. I was making a check list, “This means I’m good, but this might mean I’m bad.” The more I fought my brain, the more entrenched I became and the more pain I felt. In a moment of opening, when I surrendered to my emotions and found myself crying and alone, I felt an internal voice say, “Addie they do it because they are caught in a repeating dream. They are not awake.” I spontaneously understood there are no “bad” people or behaviors, only unconscious repetitions and recapitulations of the pain that others have experienced that then transfer onto another.
What I have come to realize is that I was looking in the wrong place for my answer. In fact I was looking for answers in a false reality. I was looking for the answer through the paradigm of “good” and “bad”, “right “ and “wrong.” In this paradigm I could only interpret Adam Lanza’s eyes as evil, which then locked me into the painful process of bifurcating parts of myself as either “good” or “bad” to assure and reassure myself that I was “safe.” This process had my brain going in so many different directions that I felt that I was losing my mind. And, I was losing my mind, which is exactly what I needed to lose in order to gain my answers.
The answer I received came only after I surrendered to my pain and my emotions. This moment of letting go cracked my rigidity into a thousand pieces so that the light could finally reach my heart. Like when light hits a prism, I was able to see into a new paradigm. In this paradigm there was no duality, only the light. There was only the process of dimming or getting brighter based on how conscious one was to their own beautiful and precious divinity. So when I looked into Adam Lanza’s eyes, what I now saw was a person in unacknowledged, unconscious pain, to the point where he forgot who he was. He lived in the paradigm of duality so rigid, it allowed him to embody the character of “evil.”
I would like to say that this was my ultimate awakening but since this time the struggle has continued. My ego feels a pressure to conform to societal beliefs around “good” and “bad.” It is far more difficult to sit with the belief that the people who do the most unspeakable things are in the most amount of pain. My ego does not want to extend compassion to the people who do atrocious things. I’d rather say, “They are just bad” and cut them off from anything that has to do with me. However, every time I do this I enter back into duality and start cutting myself off from the parts in me that need the most love. When I go down this path, I place myself at more risk of hurting another person because I am denying pain and making it unconscious. Anytime I have ever hurt another person was because I was in a state of unconsciousness and denying the recognition and validation of pain, in myself and others.
What if we all just sat with the statement, “Human beings, a group that I am a part of, hurt one another terribly.” Let that sink in. Think about people who have committed awful offenses on other humans or animals. Notice when you think of these people how much you want to run into the comfort of “good” and “evil.” The running makes sense. The pain feels too big to bear. I know because I tried to bear it and reason it and fight until there was no other option but to surrender to it. As painful as it was, I am grateful because it lead me into a new reality. In this new paradigm the lines between perpetrator and victim blur into a continuum. Without judgement, I can see that I have been on many spots of this continuum.
Currently, I am engaging in a practice where I find memories of feeling the most victimized and instances where I have been the perpetrator of hurt and I hold them in the same light. The victimized part of me never wants to feel the anguish of weakness again, which feeds the perpetrator inside, who preemptively attacks, but when I unleash anger on another, I end up feeling weak again. Around and around we go. The unacknowledged pain of each of these characters feeds the other. They are two shadows from the same light which need more love and compassion then ever. So I say to the part of me that has had the experience of victimization, “Yes, it is scary to feel weak. My love, what you are now experiencing as weakness started out as your precious innocence. If you allow yourself to feel the pain of weakness, you will inevitably reclaim your innocence.” I speak to the perpetrator inside, “Yes, you are really angry and protective. Tell me more about the pain you have felt which makes you feel like you need to protect. How wonderful it is that you are so protective of your precious heart. I am so proud of you for waking up in this moment and stopping the cycle of abuse, right here and now.”
This practice is what I would like to call, “Loving the hell out of yourself.”
If you have been on the receiving end of some of the most painful abuses of which humans are capable, I acknowledge and feel your pain. I do not want this writing to convey that you should be experiencing anything else but the true and raw emotions that arise. If all you can access is anger, then invite that anger in and love the hell out of it. I mean literally love the “hell” out of your anger experience. The only times the experience of anger is hellish is either because someone, including ourselves, tells us we should not be feeling it, so it calcifies and is turned inward and/or we unleash it on someone else. If the anger experience is becoming cyclical in nature, effecting your relationships and leading you towards behaviors that make you unhappy, this may be a sign that there is more hell to be loved out of it. A very simple way to practice this is by talking to the angry part of you as if is a small child in pain because that is exactly what it is. Any emotion after an abusive experience requires validation and deserves a voice. Furthermore, it deserves to be responded with the most compassion that the world has ever known.
It is my belief, that in this place and time, everyone experiences some level of trauma or abuse in their lifetimes. I also believe that everyone has acted in the role of perpetrator at one time or another. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia are all forms of abuse, often enacted unconsciously. The abuse brings to light the places where our species is still evolving. In this evolution process, it is our karmic duty to allow the painful emotions rendered through abusive experiences a full and loud voice. When we do this, we make the pain conscious and end the cycle of abuse. We end the “hell” experience of abuse. May we all learn to “love the hell” out of ourselves, both victim and perpetrator, so that duality and the hell experience shatters into a million pieces. The pieces will then be absorbed back into the light, the place from which all things came and will return. Amen.