The way I see it [and the way I see reflected in the UM framework], there are 2 levels on which to work with overpowering emotions like shame:
- The Semantic level (content): introspection, self-study, healing conversation, meaning-making — emotional states (made up of thoughts + sensations) are treated like guidance systems used to make sense of experience
- The Sensory level (contour): bare sensory experience is extracted from interpretation and “equanimized” — difficulty is presented by the semantic drivenness to make sense of emotional states (thoughts + sensations)
Semantic Level of Shame
On the semantic level, the deeply convicted sense that “I am bad” (shame, worthlessness, valuelessness, unexplainable guilt) can be dealt with by allowing it to transform into something informative and meaningful. At this level (basically a wide-lens shot of positive reappraisal), shame itself becomes that which guides one away from the prison of shame. The memories, thoughts, emotions, self-views, and compulsive actions that make up a “run-in” with shame are all picked apart, analyzed, explored, experimented with, and interpreted in order to discover that they might have some important meaning (despite the fact that can be very unpleasant).
This approach is essential to cultivating a new relationship with one’s self that involves adaptive emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and actions. It grants an individual the ability to edit one’s own life narrative: not by changing the facts of one’s history, but by altering the meaning found in the memory of that history.
As a therapist, this is bread and butter. Meaning-making conversation is important. It is healing. It is vital.
Sensory Level of Shame
The other side of the coin, however, relates to working at the sensory level of our living experience. This is the contour rather than the content; this is the process rather than the particulars; this is just-sensing rather than making-sense of how one experiences the self and the world. Working with the sensory level of experience is aimed toward gradually allowing sensory experience to be fully and lovingly encountered as it unfolds naturally without interference. This is different that condoning negative thoughts or actions without any intention of improving them: there is a dialectical permission granted to one’s experience that involves a “being-ok” with whatever is happening in thoughts and emotions while simultaneously maintaining an intention to improve.
Interacting with one’s self at this (sometimes) very subtle level refreshes one’s relationship with presence itself — it can nurture a deep comfort moment by moment. Rather than reaching to meaning-making for comfort, one can rest in a suspension of the need to make meaning.
Is’s and Isn’ts
To be clear, the “suspension” described above is VERY different than nihilism: not believing in anything (or, more accurately, trying not to believe in anything) is categorically unhelpful. As humans, we have a psychologically instinctive need for meaning. We are the stuff-substance of a meaning-filled life, and a “good life” probably requires some type of container to pour ourselves into. This need is (one of probably many reasons) why we have the “containers” of culture, tradition, and family. This should not be forgotten, even if the attempt to abandon meaning is flirted with.
What is the suspension of the need to make meaning, then?
One primary principle in the Unified Mindfulness system of meditation that I have described is “Recycling the Reaction” (using all of one’s sensory experience as “material” in contemplative practice: taking the Material as the Method). Another important principle is the notion of a “Complete Experience”: Saying a quick and deep “YES” to the natural unfolding of sensory experience as it arises and allowing it to be totally affirmed through its own passing — an engaged consummation of sensory experience.
As we meet and variously interact with the experience of shame, what it wants is to direct our attention toward something important: it is an aspect of our emotional guidance system. That “something important” is discovered through semantic work — either individually or with a trusted professional.
Having a “Complete Experience” of shame could be said to be the goal of working with it at the sensory level. When any instance of shame arises, it will necessarily involve some combination of thoughts and emotions. Tracking the bare experience of thoughts (that we see and hear in our mind) and emotions (that we feel in the body) related to shame can eventually lead to a cultivated skill of affirming them to completion…
…as we do this “affirming to completion” (over and over), we can notice getting carried away less and less in inner commentary about shameful thoughts and emotions. Furthermore, at some point, when thoughts and emotions are allowed to roll along on their own (without our stopping them to stamp them with a label of “good” or “bad”), they are able to release themselves from the ruminating whirlpool of constant self-evaluation. Training ourselves to get out of the way like this involves a radical willingness to give ourselves and our thoughts+emotions full permission to be fully present together moment-by-moment.
Allowing this self-release can be an effort that leads to effortlessness. The functional purpose of thoughts and emotions is to be fully seen, heard, and felt; and one must deeply observe the way that they naturally fulfill that purpose in order for them to self-release.
When we are young, we are all each guided by an inner system of attachment bonding: an inherent motivational system that leads infants and children to be near, to communicate with, and to connect to the important adult figures in life (to be seen, heard, and felt by caregivers). When this happens, humans thrive. When it doesn’t, humans require various degrees of repair.
To truly deal with shame — to fully heal from the potential damage of shameful thinking and feeling — we must be the loving parent of our own thoughts and emotions. This may include deliberately checking them with some standard and guiding them to some end (much like we do at the semantic level). But preceding this is an opportunity to simply and elementally acknowledge: an opportunity that takes place purely at the sensory level. We are the seers, hearers, and feelers of our own thoughts and emotions, and one of the most important jobs we have in the task of “self-care” is to be a supportive and accepting attachment figure to ourselves.
Phases and Pointing-to‘s
As we begin to open up to something as powerful as shame, what will probably be noticed is the intensely solid quality that shame seems to have. Over time, however (and it can take some time), as we develop the skills of lovingly “affirming shame to completion” (through the UM lens, experiencing shame with a high degree of Concentration, Clarity, and Equanimity), that solidness can soften. A liquidity and airiness can be discovered within the very experience of even painful shame. The thoughts and emotions of shame (and all other experience, incidentally) actually point us toward a wholeness that we desperately want and that we already are — “Completely Experiencing” them gives them the radical permission to self-liberate right then and there: gracefully flowing and vanishing into the next receptive moment…
[Mid-point disclaimer: I am halfway through my list of 10 routinely problematic emotional qualities (working with “Ordinary Mind” as the “Path”). Just as a reminder, I am borrowing a LOT from the Unified Mindfulness system of meditation as organized by Shinzen Young. This is just as much a self-reminder as anything… I try to make sure I never forget that most everything I (think I) know consists of “borrowed ideas”: the only thing I am the “expert” on is how these ideas apply to my own subjective experience.]