On Apologizing, Guilt, and Shame

In Japan, my dharma sister once asked a monk, “What is the most important point of Buddhism?”

“Thank you, and I’m sorry,” he said.

Within the context of Japanese culture, the meaning of this is clear. It is about the social contract that connects us all—about gratitude, as well as our impact on others. It is giving and receiving a relationship of care. This relationship of care is performed, again and again, through ceremonies. In the convent where I trained, we learned ceremonies both to acknowledge gratitude (for example, the yearly ceremony Soto nuns perform to honor Ananda’s role in helping women enter the Buddhist sangha) as well as to repent (a bi-monthly ceremony in which we apologize for our wrongdoing and recommit to the precepts). These larger ceremonies were the biggest and most explicit way we learned to express gratitude and repentance, although we were encouraged to do this in smaller, daily actions as well. These ceremonies of repentance and vow renewal exist all over the Buddhist world, although it seems to be less important in Western culture.

Growing up, I didn’t learn how to apologize. My mother is infamously bad at saying “sorry;” she views it as condemnation of herself, not as a recognition that her actions harmed others. This is, I think, how most people view apologies. We are not good at distinguishing between guilt (I did something wrong) and shame (I am wrong). Because we don’t understand the difference between guilt and shame, if we do something wrong, we often fall into a shame spiral, and this keeps us from recognizing and acknowledging the harm we caused. Shame, because it is so powerful, blinds us to the impact of our actions on others. Shame does not want justice or reconciliation. All shame wants is absolvement. When we feel shame, all we want is for the feeling to go away. It is only when we can move away from shame, towards something closer to guilt, that we can truly accept responsibility for our actions.

Yesterday, Against the Stream announced that it had concluded Noah Levine "more likely than not" violated the third precept by committing sexual misconduct. Last week, after Jezebel published its exposé on Noah, I watched a dharma talk he posted on his public Facebook page. In it, he sits cross-legged on an ornate wooden bench underneath a Buddha statue. He speaks of the “pain” and feelings of “betrayal” he is experiencing. Then, giving a pretty brilliant articulation of the Buddhist understanding of non-self, he explains that the Buddhist practice of non-attachment is helping him not take things personally. “This self-centeredness that we’re in is mostly a delusion… a lot of what we’re experiencing is not personal… the fact that we take it personal isn’t even our fault,” he says. He dances close to the subject of guilt, but never actually approaches it, saying that he’s looking for a balance between non-attachment and “responsibility” to his community. Yet at no time does he speak of shame, of wrongdoing, or of guilt. He never acknowledges that his actions harmed others.

“Karma is real!” he exclaims, noting that we are responsible for our “intentional actions.” Yet nowhere does he address the problem of intention versus impact, the gap between what we wish or mean, and how others are experiencing our actions.

If I am being very, very charitable, it may be that traditional Buddhist doctrine is at fault. The traditional understanding of karma is that karma unfolds because of our intention—it is about whether our intention is “wholesome” or “unwholesome.” Yet anyone who is in long-term relationships, anyone who is in a social contract with another person knows that our intention means very little if it is not having the desired effect. Saying “I didn’t intend to hurt you when I cheated on you,” or “I didn’t mean to make you feel unloved when I didn’t do the dishes for the second time this week” will not go very far towards taking away a loved one’s pain.

I wonder how I would react if seven women had accused me of sexual misconduct, if my own organization had to shut down because of these accusations. I think it would probably destroy me. I would spend my time in a fetal position in my bed, crying. I would be overcome by shame. I would feel guilt, of course, but mostly I would feel shame, because shame-- and self-hatred-- underlies my experience at all times.

A few weeks ago on my counseling grad program, we participated in three days of T-groups and I got a very close look at my own shame. T-groups are like group therapy, in which participants are encouraged to speak only about their own feelings. We were encouraged not to use phrases like “I feel judged” or “I feel attacked,” because these are not actual feelings, but rather, imply action or behavior in another that may or may not be true. What I realized in this experience is that underneath the phrase “I feel judged,” is the feeling of shame. In these T-groups, I began to speak more openly about my own shame. I started to see that any time anyone disagreed with me, or any time I took up space within the group, I felt shame. This was shocking to say out loud, because shame is such a strong emotion, and I usually felt shame in times it wasn’t really appropriate. Slowly more and more members of the group also began revealing their shame. Women, in particular, seemed to feel shame the most. We would feel shame just for speaking, just for “taking up space.” The men in the group were also conscious of not taking up too much space, but they rarely articulated shame after the act of speaking.

I have a lot of work to do about shame. Shame is a mind-state underlying most of my actions. I feel shame when I do something wrong, and I feel shame when I don’t. Women, queer people, and people of color are often the ones to teach about the importance of apologizing and forgiveness because we have learned, very early on, to apologize simply for existing. We have had to take a good hard look at shame, and move through it to guilt, to an understanding of justice, of the social contract between all people. 

The people who are good at apologizing and taking responsibility for their actions are those who are so intimate with their experiences of shame that they know how to let shame go. They are also the ones to teach about the importance of self-love. I have learned a lot already from those people who grew up in a culture that told them they were wrong, who internalized this message of being wrong, but who broke away from it. I believe women, queer people, and people of color are the teachers we need about shame, because we have had to learn self-love as an act of survival. We have had to learn that the shame we carry around has no purpose, that shame is paralyzing. We have had to learn to love ourselves so fiercely that we love even our own shame.

When I write and speak about shame, the task of confronting it seems so massive. Perhaps it would be easier to not feel shame or guilt at all. I envy those men who never feel shame for taking up space. It makes me think that maybe women and people of color are the ones who need an attitude readjustment. Maybe we should continue to follow those powerful white men who speak and stand and take up space and write books and start and ruin dharma centers without feeling even a little embarrassed by their own hubris, who run countries after illegal elections, who pay off porn stars and are accused again and again of sexual assault but don't care. Maybe we should learn from their courage, their lack of regard for the social contract that connects us all. Maybe we should be listening to those men who, after having caused so much harm for others, have the audacity to continue giving talks under a statue of the Buddha without feeling even a tiny bit, even a trace of remorse.

I will be reading from my book this Thursday, August 30, at San Francisco Zen Center, at 7:30. Come and say hi! Details here.


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