“Trespassers will be forgiven.” I was driving across the country to see my friend and Sunday worship was on the radio. As the bishop read these words, tears sprang to my eyes. Where did the tears come from? I think they were an expression of the experience of being forgiven—of knowing that the worst of me has been seen and accepted and loved. I think the tears were my deepest shame, transmuted into humility, gratitude, and grace.
My tears contained an echo of the moment when I first encountered Pure Land Buddhism, decades ago. I had just taken part in a strange (to me) Buddhist service including circumambulating a shrine while chanting in Chinese and prostrating to the golden Buddha. I was chatting with a couple of fellow students afterwards over tea and they told me about the word bombu. “It means foolish being,” they said. “We are all bombu. And we are all forgiven by Amida Buddha.”
The foundation of Pure Land Buddhism rests on the assumption that we are fallible beings, bobbing around like corks on the sea of our greed, hate, and delusion. The concept doesn’t involve judgment or criticism, just a wry acceptance of the pervasiveness of our ego and of the impossibility of bringing about our own perfection from inside this morass of blind passions. The student’s words pierced my crusted layers of self-protection like light shining through dark clouds. Could it really be true?
It has taken me many years to see how much I am propelled by my hidden shame. I think this is true of others too. My current understanding of shame is shaped by Internal Family Systems (IFS), the model I use in my psychotherapy practice. IFS suggests that we all consist of many different parts, which interact with each other as well as with the world. These parts are different for each of us, but as an example, most of us have variations on self-critical parts, getting-stuff-done parts, judging parts, and parts that distract us by making us eat chocolate or watch Netflix. These parts are divided into two broad categories: protectors, the parts that keep us safe and functional, and exiles, the younger parts of us that hold undigested material from old psychological wounds.
Many of our exiled parts carry burdens of shame. The idea is that when we were shamed as an infant or child, the strength of the emotion may have threatened to overwhelm our system. If there was nobody to help us hold it or process it safely at the time, we maintain our steadiness by bundling the shame away and shoving it into the dark corners of our psyche.
Does shame have a purpose? We could say that we use shame to try to change someone else’s or our own behavior. When we are shamed by another, it is often because they are attempting to avoid feeling their own shame. When my mum scolded me as a teenager for being “supercilious and self-righteous,” she was probably warding off her own embarrassment at her cocky teenager showing her up in front of her male friend. Parts of us then take on this role internally, self-shaming ourselves to try to keep us “acceptable” in others’ eyes. When I feel a stab of embarrassment after being “too confident,” I am continuing this job of keeping myself small so nobody will judge me and connect me back in with the shame of being supercilious.
Shame is such an overwhelming emotion—maybe the most overwhelming. Unlike contrition, where we feel appropriate regret about our unskillful behavior, shame is absolute. We haven’t “done a bad thing,” we are bad—through and through. In her book This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us, the theologian Cole Arthur Riley describes what can happen to our contrition when we don’t neutralize it with confession:
…What begins as guilt will mutate into shame, which is much more sinister and decidedly heavier on the soul. It doesn’t just weigh on the heart; it slithers into the gap of every joint, making everything swollen and tender. We learn to walk differently in order to carry the shame, but then we become prone to manipulate things like nearness and connection just to relieve our own swelling.
Yes—shame slithers. Shame is icky. Shame threatens to isolate us from our fellow humans, telling us that we are utterly unworthy of love, and maybe even that the center of our very being is toxic. Shame has great power. No wonder we spend so much of our energy trying not to feel it.
I carry shame about never being enough, and this plays out both in small ways (a hunger for likes on media) and big ways (a long relationship with a beautiful man who was lost in addiction). This shame has also driven my workaholism for decades. Some of my young exiled parts were burdened with the belief that I am unworthy, and so other parts of me decided to remedy this by working extra hard. These protector parts think that if I become successful and achieve great things, then I will become worthy of acceptance and love. As long as the exiles are stuck with the burdens of their beliefs and shame, I am aware that I will never be successful “enough” to feel acceptable. Over the years, this drive has had some positive side effects—the many books I have written, the successful projects I have completed—but it has also led to my missing out on the gifts of life—lazy afternoons reading under trees, or time spent enjoying friendships. So how can we possibly approach our poisonous wells of shame without drowning in them? How can we start to dismantle the fierce self-protective defenses that keep us from falling into these wells—the addictions, the violence, the disconnection, the modern disease of always striving for more or better?
Internal Family Systems and Pure Land Buddhism offer us the same answer: we must encounter Great Love. We must begin to believe in the possibility 0f something that sees us exactly as we are, with all our deep flaws and ugliness, and that accepts us just the same. In Internal Family Systems this Great Love is known as “Self” (I know—not an ideal descriptor for us Buddhists!), and it is perpetually available both inside of us and outside of us. In Pure Land Buddhism this quality is personified as Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. We are told that, as bombu beings, if we simply call out to Amitabha Buddha, we will be forgiven—just as Jesus forgives our trespasses.
Over the years I have used Internal Family Systems with my own therapist to unburden many of my exiled parts of their shame. This has left me lighter, happier, and freer to make different choices. I also see the wells of shame inside us as vast—of a size not unlike the innumerable beings, inexhaustible passions, or immeasurable dharma teachings we hear about in the bodhisattva vows. The only appropriate antidote for these lakes of shame (in my opinion) is the infinite compassion of Amitabha. I will add a disclaimer here—any Buddha or other religious saint will do the job. And if deities aren’t your thing, emptiness, the endless kindness of Gaia, or the Benevolent Great Unknown will work just fine.
I trust that, having called out to Amitabha by saying their name, their infinite compassion is working on me all the time. I trust that my shame is being transformed, as quickly as it can be, into self-knowledge, compassion for others, and grace. As time goes on I also become more familiar with my particular self-protective mechanisms (my need for control, my people-pleasing), and I bring these ways of being into the light. Once I have a clearer view of the ways in which I try to protect myself, it becomes possible to make sense of these parts of me, and to feel compassion toward them.
As an example, I recently noticed myself making a sharp comment to an esteemed Buddhist colleague. My default position would be to immediately regret it and to feel like a terrible person. The parts of me that are embarrassed by my sharp comment are trying to change my future behavior by shaming me. If, instead, I bring what happened into the light by getting curious, I might realize that my sharp comment was spoken by jealous parts of me that are protecting me from feeling shame about my own lack of expertise. When I gain clarity about my internal process, I still feel contrition and I still apologize to my colleague, but I no longer feel like the worst person in the world. I am no longer reinforcing the existing shame, which would only set me up to be jealous again in the future. It is an irony of Internal Family Systems theory that our protective parts often create the very situation they are working so hard to prevent.
The Buddha also completely understands why I do these kinds of things, which often cause harm to others or to myself. They see that I am only trying to protect my vulnerable, shame-burdened parts as best I can. They see it all, and they forgive me and my bombu nature. As my heart opens, little by little, my old shame, despair, fury, and grief rush out, always met by light. Always met and embraced by the Buddha’s love.