Mindfulness and Shame

Mindfulness and Shame

In Buddhist cosmology, a number of spiritual realms are depicted including hell realms, the hungry ghost realm, the animal realm, the human realm and so on. Increasingly, these are not so much discussed as actual physical places, but as  useful metaphors to understand the status of one’s spiritual evolution. These realms are largely seen as the bi-product of our entrapment into cycles of reactive emotion. It is this force that creates endless suffering. So, in Buddhism, the idea of emancipation from suffering becomes to empty these realms; in other words to end the ceaseless habits of reactive emotion born out of desire and aversion. And so it means that one must open up completely to our various emotional states in a mindful and accepting manner.  So, for example….

Through reaction and habit, the force of anger (or any reactive emotion) creates the hell realm.

Hot anger and cold hate, attacking and revenge, what torture!

Opening to this experience, knowing it completely, reaction and struggle come to an end.

May we awaken to kindness and harmony.

extracted from the Prayer to Empty the Six Realms six realms


As with any emotion, one can learn to experience and embrace shame in an accepting and non-reactive manner. Each time we experience an emotion without responding to it by either acting it out or acting it in, it gradually weakens its power to influence us. As I explain this to my kids, its like having an itch without scratching it.  And equivalently, as with an itch, the more we scratch it, often, the more it itches. And so it is with emotions; the more we act upon them, the greater the probability that we do so in the future. Neuro-anatomicaly, we can observe that patterns become established in the central nervous system. This is essentially how learning and conditioning occurs. This particular form of learning is termed S-R (stimulus-response) learning. In the case of shame, this means that every time the stimulus occurs (shame) , we act upon it in some manner. Usually we act upon shame by hiding from and avoiding the experience. Shame tells us that whatever we are feeling is not OK so therefore even the experience of shame itself is not OK, and therefore we feel compelled to run from it. This then only serves to conserve and maintain the experience of shame.

So, paradoxically, the solution to shame is to completely open up to the experience. One must fully allow the experience to be fully acknowledged and experienced in a non-reactive manner. This also means becoming aware of the mental drama and internal dialogues that emanate from the experience of shame; the self-condemnations, self-punishment, comparisons to others and so on. Simple though this may sound, for many who are shame bound, this experience will be difficult and fraught with pitfalls. For example, one may feel ashamed to experience shame. One might experience the exercise as awkward, embarrassing or even self-indulgent. Shame will always attempt to inform us that whatever we are doing is wrong, flawed, stupid and so on. And so one’s task is simply to continue to acknowledge and label the experience of shame. That is all.

The more one attempts to get rid of shame, the more it will suck one in, like quicksand or a mud pit. Understandably, since shame is very uncomfortable, it is only natural that one would endeavor to eliminate or control the experience. How many times I have been asked,”How do I get rid of shame”? And of course, to their initial shock, and disappointment my answer is invariably, “Do not endeavor to dismantle shame. Learn to embrace it as if it was your only child”.  This act of true and radical acceptance is in fact the antidote to shame. This is very difficult for many to understand and even harder to achieve since we come from a culture steeped in notions of control.  But with patience and forbearance, it is certainly possible.

The biggest step is to learn to recognize shame. It is often not directly obvious but must be inferred from our thoughts and reactions. In the book, I have included the Personal Shame Inventory. I will present this in my next post. The inventory should not be used as a test, but rather a guide to help one to recognize the ways in which shame may manifest such that one can pay more mindful attention to shame when it is present.

In all my lives, may I meet whatever arises with awakened compassion.  

Opening to the depths of each realm, I rest in experience just as it is.  

Knowing and freedom arise together; May I not take birth in the six realms again.  

With an open heart to the cries of others, realms are emptied and beings are freed. 


As always, please feel free to post comments!!!!




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4 Comments. Leave new

  • Thank you for this post. I just want to express my gratitude for your blog. Ever since I’ve read one of your articles that talks about embracing shame, I’ve been learning to practice making space and open up to how shame sensations are manifested in my body. This has helped with my social anxiety tremendously, as I tend to feel shame quite often in social interactions. Before that, I would try to hide away from shame by avoiding whatever social situations that make me feel uncomfortable. Now, I go ahead and take social risks. And expectedly, shame rises up. But now I’m better able to cope and contain the feelings rather than react to it.

    I’m currently reading the first chapter of your book right now and so far, I like it a lot. Thank you for sharing your wisdom once again!

  • This post is very helpful. Thank you! Having just finished Donald Nathanson’s “Shame and Pride” I am contemplating how to deal with shame. You say it is radical acceptance. I’ve read elsewhere that shame is really a call to learning. I think both are true and are mutually reinforcing. My question for you is: Where should the focus be to learn from a shameful experience? Is there anything we can learn by exploring our worst selves (that we see in that shameful moment)? Or is the learning opportunity more on the stimulus (e.g., the activity we can’t master, the kids laughing at us, the parent putting us down, etc)? Or both?

    In my experience, the fear of shame is often more debilitating than shame itself. I guess my goal is to cognitively restructure that fear and then teach others how to do it for themselves. Thanks for any insights you can provide.

    • mm
      March 1, 2015 8:51 am

      I would agree, that shame as well as any difficult emotion or experience is a “call to learning” and not a thing to lament or avoid. So my recommendation is always to fully and mindfully embrace the experience of shame. Simply watch where in one’s body it impacts you. Watch the stories that your mind weaves around the experience of shame, but without getting sucked into the experience as best as possible. We can even provoke the shame in a pre-emptive manner by recalling situations or events that historically have served to elicit shame and mindfully sit with the experience. In that manner one becomes the hunter, rather than the prey!
      I would agree with your statement that the fear of shame or any dark emotion is more difficult than the experience itself. Like Mark Twain once stated,”The worst things in life never happened”:)
      Thank you for the wonderful questions. I apologize for the delay in response. Somehow, I did not get the notification on this comment from Word Press. Hmmmm…

    • mm
      March 1, 2015 9:06 am

      Oh, and I forgot to mention, regarding your statement on cognitive restructuring….my own bias is that ones time and efforts would be better spent adressing the emotions at the level of emotions, not at the level of thought. As one mindfully exposes the emotions, the cognitions will spontaneously rearrange themselves into much more accurate appraisals without any direct intervention to produce that. It just happens. Though we would love to believe in the supremacy of thought and logic over the emotions, the brain simply did not evolve in that manner. The emotional centers that lie deep within the sucortical regions of our brain, have tremendous power, and in reactive emotional states, overwhelm the messages coming from the pre-frontal lobes. We can now observe this using FMRI technology. And yet research shows that when mindfulness practices are employed, the frontal regions increase in activity relative to these “flight or fight” subcortical areas. Food for consideration!


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