Recognizing and Transforming Shame: A Zen Approach

One of my identities is as a figure skater. For twenty years now, I have been practicing, learning new skills and tricks on the ice. For me, the ice is a source of grace, intimacy, and comradery. I see it as a practice of mindfulness, of Buddha nature, of beingness. On the best days, like all practice it, it can be effortless and a source of joy.

The other day, after I warmed up, I entered the center rink to practice my spins. My sit spin is my favorite. My body memory usually takes over as I turn on my left leg and my right leg moves ever so precisely around the side until it is in front of me, as I sink down and my arms pull in. There is a delicious moment when I am centered and my body is in the right place when I pull in a little tighter and my speed increases until the rink around becomes a blur.

Yet on this day, little of that happened. I could not coordinate the movements. The more I tried, the worse it got. Frustrated I tried harder, but just as in practice, pushing harder, does not necessarily achieve much. Defeated, I tried to move on. This happens frequently, and soon enough, often in the same session, I recover what I lost. But what I noticed this time was my mind at work, questioning what was going on.

And the questions were not neutral or analytic. The questions were about my very being. Why did I think I could accomplish anything? Why was I deluding myself that I could even skate? Quickly they morphed into judgment. You are a laughingstock and never will be good at this. You should give up now. Everyone knows how bad you are.

This descent into self-judgment, despair and shame only took seconds and honestly only lasted for seconds. Normally I would not have even noticed these thoughts. Yet this time, I realized that this type of brief shaming self-doubt was often there, waiting for the right moment to insinuate itself. It was a moment of practice awareness.

As I was doing research on the origin of certain words for my novel The Troubleseeker, I discovered something that struck me as curious Linguists have proposed the existence of an ancient language that can be traced back to 4500-2500 BCE called Proto-Indo-European, which is the origin of most European and Indian languages, including Pali the language of Buddha. Many words, such as mother, father, numbers from 1 to 10 and various animals from wolves to oxen can be recognized across hundreds of current and now extinct different languages.

One word stood out for me—shame. Linguists believe that the word originated in PIE as skem-, from kem- “to cover” (as in covering one’s head or face in an expression of shame). I found it fascinating that along with words for family members, counting, agriculture and hunting, our ancient Neolithic ancestors needed a word to express a feeling that seems to be deeply baked into human existence.

The difference between shame and guilt (the latter is a word that appears much more recently in the 1300s) is that guilt is an admission that one did something bad or wrong. As there are actions or activities that can be examined, guilt is related to behavior. The noted researcher Brené Brown said, “With guilt, I can say, ‘I am sorry I made a mistake.’ Shame says ‘I am bad. Sorry, I am a mistake.’”

As Tim Burkett, a Zen teacher from Minnesota, said, “Shame damages a person’s image of themselves in ways that no other emotion can, causing you to feel flawed, inferior, worthless, even unlovable.” In its worst excesses, I have experienced shame as self-brutalizing hate, looking in a mirror and seeing nothing to love, an empty void into which I am endlessly falling. I feel the pressure of the world pushing down on me, punishing me, judging me. I feel an unworthiness so profound that it cannot be revealed. While shame may be attached to an action, it is a self-judgement that ignores the action itself and says my very being is awful and unredeemable.

Left unrecognized, shame has been correlated with depression, addiction, and suicide. Unrecognized shame can also lead one to be defensive and attack and blame others for the same things that cause us shame. Unrecognized shame does not let us have difficult discussions around race and privilege.

For shame to exist, we must be part of a family (whether it be of origin or choice) or some other group of people that has perceived commonality. Shame needs the comparison to others and emerges from feelings of judgement that one does not meet the stated or unstated norms of a group. Norms can be generated by religion, family, culture, background, education, and class and are overlain by norms held in a society about race, gender, and ethnicity. There are powerful forces around otherness, who belongs and who does not, that can keep any of us from being comfortable in our own skin.

Looking just at gendered norms of our society here in the US, we can see what we are up against. I mentioned Brené Brown a minute ago. She is researcher who has studied shame and vulnerability. Her TED talks on those topics are worth a look.

According to a study that Brown quotes, to conform to female norms in the US, a woman must be nice, thin, modest and use available resources for appearance. With a focus solely on outward appearances, the implication is that anything else (which is everything else) a woman does, breaks norms.

According to the same study, for US men to conform to male norms, a man must control his emotions, put work first, pursue status and be violent. Traditionally, the norms of religion, education and legal systems have reinforced these standards and support the subjugation of women by men.

These norms are devastating, spirit-killing and indefensible. Public shaming is designed to keep one alone and isolated. Queer people challenge most of these gender-norms, especially those of us that challenge the concept of gender and gender identity. Despite our challenges, we can’t help but feel the brutality of these norms when we do not fit or match up. As queer people, I think I can safely say that shame has been a too common experience in our lives and our development. Growing up and living in societies, communities and families where our very thoughts and feelings do not conform to external norms, our recognition of our differentness easily converts into shame as we are told to behave in ways contrary to our being.  

Shame can show up in a number of ways. This categorization I am about to give is my own, not based on any science, but I hope you find it useful.

Childhood or Developmental Shame: All societies, cultures and families prioritize certain norms around conduct and judge individuals based on them. Conscious attention to norms and shaming by authority figures in one’s life is designed to keep us in line with the expected behaviors of the group. As children we are dependent on others and powerless to control of our circumstances. In addition, children commonly believe their actions are the cause of good or bad things happening in their lives. It is not unusual for children to feel fault for their parents’ martial problems or illnesses in their families.  Add in punishing gods or verbal and physical threats for being different and the process of internalizing shame in implanted in our bodies and mind.

Not only do we blame ourselves for things out of our control, but we also begin to notice what is expected of us and how our imperfections make us fall short. Our internal processing results in feeling shame for not living up to what is expected, being unable to live up to expectations or of being by nature unaligned with these expectations. We react in secrecy, silence and self-judgement as we hide (remember kem—to cover) who we are consciously or unconsciously.

Incident-based shame: Specific occurrences in our lives may cause us to be overcome by shame based on our experiences of developmental shame. How I left one of my jobs fits into that category. After a very successful six years as head of a non-profit, my last six months fell into chaos with a new Board President that undermined me in every way possible, staff that felt threatened by that instability and turned on me and my inability to manage all of this. I started to lose sleep, I was anxious and although I complained about the situation to my friends, I never talked to anyone about the deep-seated feelings of powerlessness and shame whose story was that I was incompetent and always brought about bad things in my life and others. I judged myself harshly and without restraint. In the end, my dream of leaving with appreciation and acknowledgement went down the drain with part of my ego. Although I was able to take care of myself, I felt that the story I told to others about my departure was concocted and not completely true. The months-long process that the Board of Directors undertook to approve my departure did not allow me to publicly acknowledge what was going on, leaving staff to assume the worst by my silence and reinforced the secrecy, silence and judgment I felt.

Momentary shame:  Finally, there are those brief momentary judgments we make when we blame our beingness as the problem and surrender to defeatism. I started this talk with an example of how momentary shame pops up.

If shame is so in-bred into humans, what does Buddhism say about it? Strangely, there seems very little. However, Buddha does give us some guidance for dealing with our mind. In the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta, Buddha gives his son, Rahula, three steps how to for reflect on bodily actions, verbal actions, and mental actions (thoughts and emotions).


“Whenever you want to do a mental action, you should reflect on it: ‘This mental action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful mental action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful mental action with painful consequences, painful results, then any mental action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful mental action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any mental action of that sort is fit for you to do.


“While you are doing a mental action, you should reflect on it: ‘This mental action I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful mental action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it is leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both… you should give it up. But if on reflection you know that it is not… you may continue with it.

And the final step:

“Having done a mental action, you should reflect on it: ‘This mental action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful mental action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; “(if) it was an unskillful mental action with painful consequences, painful results, then you (will) feel distressed, ashamed, and disgusted. Feeling distressed, ashamed, and disgusted with it, (will help) you exercise restraint in the future.”

He repeats the same sequence of reflections for bodily and verbal actions.

Note the Buddha always asks does this lead to self-affliction before he asks if it results in harm to others. We need to reflect on what affect thoughts and emotion, speech, and physical actions have on ourselves. Through this reflection we can determine if we are skillful. He first reminds us to reflect in three steps, as we consider something, as we do it and after we do it. What makes this teaching powerful to me is the inclusion of mental actions—the formation of emotions and feelings.

Buddha provides us a way to see our shame and to work through it. I hear Buddha asking us to examine the actions that cause our own self-afflictions. He specifically calls out distress, disgust and shame as signs to when we are being unskillful. So how do we go about examining the shame we carry in our bodies and what can we do about it.

We can start through love and compassion for ourselves. Self-compassion is the heart of all compassion. Many people find it useful to chant the Loving Kindness Meditation or the Dalai Lama’s A Precious Human Life.

Every day, think as you wake up,

Today I am fortunate to have woken up

I am alive, I have a precious human life,

I am not going to waste it,

I am going to use

All my energies to develop myself,

To expand my heart out to others,

To achieve enlighenment for

The benefit of all beings,

I am going to have kind

Thoughts twords others,

I am not going to get angry,

Or think badly about others,

I am going to benefit Others

As much as I can.

~The XIV Dalai Lama

One way to become more aware of how shame affects you is to keep a shame diary for a week. Note down any time you hear or feel yourself in despair, no matter how momentary. What negative feelings are arising? Then ask yourself what happened just before this feeling, what triggered this feeling? Is there a story that arises about this feeling? Note these all down. Determine where in your body does this negative feeling sit. Next ask yourself, are there things that you could have done differently? Finally, notice if asking these questions changes the feeling or its place in the body.

By paying attention in this way for a week, you can see when shame pops up into your life. and identify any patterns. I was surprised in the last week, as I have been thinking about shame, how often attached to minor difficulties or challenges, momentary shame pops up, along with a default response of giving up and despair. When I became aware of the feelings, I could acknowledge them, react to them and let them go. Even when I did this, I would sometimes still notice how some unloved part of myself wanted to linger and not let go.

As I stated earlier, forgiveness and self-love are keys to healing shame. A therapist once mentioned that some Buddhist priests spent a year in the practice of forgiving themselves.

With that mention, I started my own practice of doing the same. I began with one of my earliest memories. At the age of about three, I remembered falling down the cellar stairs after I tried wearing my father’s work boots. In the original story I carried with me, I am clumsy and I am uncoordinated and I am stupid for hurting myself. Notice the harshness of these self-judgements. In my sitting, after the memory and some feelings arose, I focused the story on a different element—how I wanted to experience my father’s boots, how the boots smelled and what they felt like in my little hands. I wanted to be like my father, a man I emulated, and felt a power in putting these boots on my tiny feet. Then unexpectedly I tripped down the stairs because the shoes were so big. I was not ready to be him. I was a child and children try things that are sometimes dangerous. In the next step, I forgave myself for not knowing better, at that age, how to be safer. I also forgave myself for wanting to feel my father’s shoes and feel connected to him not knowing at the time that his family history never taught him how to be emotionally connected to his children.

Each day I sat, I created a five-to-ten-minute period to let my thoughts drift back to hurtful memories. I tried to look at these memories as a compassionate being and rewrite them as I could see them now. I always ended a session with forgiveness and by sending love into my own heart.

What I learned from this year-long practice was how much hurt I was carrying with me. Very often, I was hurt by situations in my family or in school or other parts of my life that were out of my influence or control. I carried with me a powerlessness from those experiences that could be re-invoked by other incidents in my life. By recognizing the powerlessness, I was able to let go of the story that I caused the situation and create a more nuanced story of being stuck in a place where I had few or no options. And now, I still remember some of these stories, but they have been neutralized and no longer carry the charge of shame and humiliation.

Along the way, I also forgave others that might have caused my suffering, like the teacher who held up my art project and said to the class, “this is not how you draw Abraham Lincoln.” As I saw repeated patterns of suffering, I repeatedly had to forgive my father, whose drinking on the weekends made me tiptoe around him, fearful of incurring his wrath, and ruing the times when his own shame and anger were physically taken out on me. I gained agency through this process of examining memories, re-writing them and forgiving all involved, most of all, forgiving myself.

I did not keep a diary of this process because I did not need or want to keep a written reminder of the suffering in my life, big and small. At the end, I felt cleansed in many ways, although the years since have added any number of new insults to my well-being. But practice now allows me to hold onto hurts less firmly at the start or when discovered, to let them go.

Ironically, while shame can only occur by being in relation to others, the aloneness and isolation that shame evokes, causes us to lose our connection to all beings. As the ego monstrously takes over, it pushes away the very thing that nourishes us. The antidote to the secrecy, silence and judgment of shame, is vulnerability, openness and compassion. Shame cannot exist if we can hold onto our interconnection with all beings.

In the Zen morning service, we acknowledge the suffering in our lives in order to free it from continuing. By acknowledging my shame, I have the chance of liberating myself and others from its grip.

Our chant starts: “All my ancient, twisted karma.” Karma refers to all the experiences I have had good and bad, filtered through the experiences of family, friends, community and society.

“From beginningless greed, hate and delusion.” All suffering begins from the three poisons. Delusion occurs when we do not acknowledge the impermanence of our ego and our connection with all beings. From this delusion, greed and hate grow as we try to protect the ego at all costs.

“Born through body, speech and mind.” We interact with our fellow beings through what we do, what we say, what we think.

“I now fully avow.” By acknowledging and reflecting these influences, their power over us is dissipated and we can live more freely in accord with others.

“All my ancient, twisted karma, From beginningless greed, hate and delusion. Born through body, speech and mind, I now fully avow”

Thank you.

This is a transcript of a dharma talk given to the San Francisco LGBT Sangha on 2 August 2021. You can listen to this talk and others on their site. A version of this paper was also presented in a workshop at the Germany-based 1st International Queer Buddhist Conference, 23 October 2021.

One Reply to “Recognizing and Transforming Shame: A Zen Approach”

  1. Thank you for this post. I am spending recent days minimizing my belongings after the loss of my partner and parents in the past few years. Traveling light promises more freedom to travel, focus, and contribute. I am examining memorabilia that sometimes triggers shame or indignation. Your words are helping me reflect mindfully.


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