Buddhist Psychology, Shame, and the Coronavirus Crisis

Have you had difficulty in your life? If so, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. The First Noble Truth of the Buddha is that life is difficult. Anguish, sorrow, and suffering are unavoidable features of our human existence. The Buddhist term for dissatisfaction is dukkha; to be alive is to experience dukkha. 

The Buddha was not interested in creating a religion based on rigid beliefs or positive thinking. His approach is psychological in nature. He encouraged people to explore what was happening in their mind and heart — and to find their way forward by observing and listening to their own experience rather than clinging to beliefs or formulas dictated by others.

Similar to modern psychotherapists, the Buddha was interested in how we can find inner freedom — awakening to a life that is more joyful and connected, based on truth, wisdom, and compassion. Inviting us to recognize that life is saturated with sorrow and disappointment is the first step toward liberating ourselves from it — not in the sense of eliminating human sorrow, but engaging with it in a way where it’s less prone to overwhelm us. This is a formulation that is applicable to our current world situation.

Shame Sends Us Hiding

If we’re emotionally honest with ourselves, we will recognize that our life has had many moments of emotional pain (rejection, loss, anxiety) — and physical challenges as well. As a result, we may try to deny and avoid life’s disharmonies. A childhood marked by being shamed, abused, or traumatized might have been so overwhelming that we employed the psychological sleight of hand of dissociating from such painful experiences in order to protect ourselves from debilitating emotions. Freud referred to this psychological defensive mechanism as “repression.” This is the well-worn habit of stuffing down or pushing away feelings that overwhelmed us, and which represented a threat to the acceptance and love that we needed. Arriving at the painful conclusion that no one is interested in hearing our actual felt experience, our authentic self goes into hibernation.

As psychologist Alice Miller chronicles in her classic book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, we are conditioned to create — and be driven by — a false self that we present to the world in an attempt to be respected and accepted. As we attempt to “soldier on” as if our painful and difficult feelings don’t exist, perhaps with the help of alcohol or other numbing addictions, we cut ourselves off from our human vulnerability. Shame toward our actual experience sends our tender heart into hiding. As a tragic result, our capacity for human tenderness, love, and intimacy are severely diminished.  

Empathic Failure

One consequence of dissociating from our genuine feelings and needs is that we may then judge and shame those who have not “accomplished” the task of denying their basic human vulnerability. Not having enjoyed a healthy, safe attachment with caregivers, we may conclude that others should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, just as we had to do. Everyone should take care of themselves, just as we had to do. The cult of the individual comes into full bloom.

If no one has been there for us in a consistently attentive, caring way — validating our feeling and needs, and offering warmth, comfort, and heartfelt listening when needed — we may proudly conclude that such desires represent the weakness of a child; human vulnerability is something to outgrow and something that others need to outgrow, too. 

When we shame ourselves for having tender feelings, such as sadness, hurt, or fear, we may fail to realize that we’ve actually lost compassion for ourselves. This empathic failure toward ourselves leads to a lack of compassion for others. 

Sadly, this failure of empathy toward human suffering characterizes many of today’s political leaders throughout the world, who are more motivated by power and acclaim than by compassionate service. For example, those advocating for universal healthcare and a social safety net may be considered pathetically weak, lazy, or unmotivated.

Empathy grows in the muddy soil of embracing our experience as it is rather than how we’d like it to be. Sometimes our experience is joyful. At other times, it’s painful. We deny our pain at our own peril. As Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist David Brazier writes in his brilliant book The Feeling Buddha, “The Buddha’s teaching starts with an assault upon the shame we feel about our suffering.” 

The attitude that we’re all on our our own is deeply ingrained in Western society. This limiting worldview is now bumping up against what is needed to defeat the coronavirus. The only way to stop the spread of this — and future — pandemics is by working together. 

We’re currently in a situation where we need to take care of each other by staying at home — and not hoarding toilet paper! Unless the fear of scarcity, the ethic of competition, and the strategy of divisiveness sown by many political leaders yields to a new ethic of cooperation and compassion, our society and world will continue to suffer unnecessarily. The coronavirus is teaching us that we’re all in this life together. Unfortunately, important messages are sometimes only learned the hard way. 

Buddhist psychology teaches that moving toward inner peace and world peace begins by being friendly toward our experience as it is rather than having aversion toward it, which only creates more suffering. By engaging with the sorrows and dissatisfactions that are a part of the human condition, we open our heart to ourselves, which creates a foundation for having empathy and compassion toward others. More than ever, this is what our world needs now. 

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