I once said to a friend, “You have no shame.” “I really don’t,” she replied, laughing. I noticed that when she got up and spoke to a group of people and said something I would have felt ashamed to hear come out of my mouth, she simply laughed at herself and moved on. At the time, I could only admire this and not imagine how to live it.
Then one day I noticed myself feeling ashamed of various things, and it occurred to me that this was just another form of negativity – useless. I don’t want shame, I thought, suddenly. Shame, I’m done. I have no shame. Then every time shame arose thereafter, I immediately said to it, No shame. I have nothing to be ashamed of. It is the same way that I overcame anger a year before, through sitting meditation, and it worked. It worked well because I was ready; I had realized how pointless it was.
Why did it take me so much longer to realize that shame was pointless than anger? When you get angry at people, they tend to get angry right back at you, causing you to feel pain (shame, in my case), which may lead back to anger. The external result is very clear and often open, because anger directed at others is a form of aggression. Thus Thich Nhat Hanh, famous Zen monk, has an entire book on anger, on letting go of anger as a way of healing oneself and one’s community. Shame, however, he talks less directly about (at least, based on what I’ve read by him). He writes much about self-acceptance, targeting shame in this way. But, somehow, while reading his work taught me to accept myself in some ways, for me it did not get so well at shame. Perhaps I simply was not yet ready to envision what lay beyond shame: self-confidence, self-love. For me it was easier to love many others than to love myself, by far. Or perhaps it is because shame is an internal counterpart to anger, thus less clear, less overt, usually deliberately hidden, more likely to end up in passive aggression (ashamed of anger?). We are less likely to see healing from shame as communal healing, because it is so internal and so furtive, and so less likely to target it in meditative practices, in the sangha. But shame and anger build off of one another, and we could even say that shame is a form of aggression against oneself, of internalized anger.
It is time we come out of hiding, come out of the closet of shame. I am not ashamed that my room is ever-disorganized (I am working on it), I am not ashamed to say that I used to binge-eat, I am not ashamed to say that I used to be ashamed of my body and mind, and I am not ashamed that my fears still arise to be overcome. I am not ashamed.