Shame is a feeling that we have all experienced. I’ve written about shame in the past but I wanted to share more today. I heard someone say not too long ago that they were so ashamed that they thought themselves undeserving to read Gurbani. That’s what makes this an important topic. Shame can make us think we are undeserving, when that simply isn’t true. When we get stuck in shame, it is a serious struggle. We lose our confidence and think we aren't good enough. We lose our motivation to move forward because we feel so bad about ourselves we think we are beyond being able to change. We get stuck in the past and on what we did or said, or our perceived deficiencies. This drives us into depression, anxiety and fear. When we are stuck in shame, we need the most support from people who care about us to remind us that we aren't the awful people our brains have made us out to be. Despite this, we tend to isolate ourselves out of fear of what people would say, and how they would judge and criticize us. This is because we want to protect ourselves because we are already hurting, and having someone else reinforce that pain would only make it hurt worse. People are downright hurtful and unsupportive sometimes, so we do have to choose carefully who we share things with because some people simply don't have the life experience, maturity or knowledge to be able to realize what is needed at that time. I believe in the importance of having a space in which we can talk safely- one in which we can comfortably share our thoughts, feelings and experiences knowing we will be received with empathy and understanding from the other person.
We all make mistakes, and some bad choices. Me too. It could very well be any of us in the situation we are shaming someone else for. In order to fix things, and work on yourself, though we need to move out of that shame. That doesn’t mean ignoring what we did and just saying “well the past is in the past, too bad” and then wandering around like nothing happened. Looking back can help us break patterns of behavior. Processing the past can sometimes take a long time but that’s okay because the time spent is learning about how to fix things, make things better, improve ourselves, etc. I think of it as an investment in myself and a type of sewa because looking back can break patterns of thinking and behaviour that would otherwise just be carried forward for the years to come. We need to remember though that the past cannot be erased, or redone, and so just thinking about it over and over, without the goals I stated above, is harmful. Then we are wasting our present re-living a past we cannot change. In order to get all this process started, we have to get past our shame. When we are in shame we need these reminders: God loves you, and if you ask for forgiveness and really feel it, He knows that. God is in all of us: “God says, all creatures are mind and I am in all hearts.” (p. 952 Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji) and “The compassionate God is merciful, humble, and is the ocean of peace; He dwells in everyone. He sees, hears and is always with me but I am a fool and I think that He is far away” (p. 612). There are so many stories of people who had done really horrible things in their lives and who had interactions with our Guru Jis and then changed their ways. I think back to those often because it reminds me that if those people were able to do it, it should be no problem for me with the help of Guru Ji. Our ability to learn and better ourselves is a really amazing thing. I am constantly learning each day, and we have to remind ourselves not to judge yesterday from what we learned and know today.
Lastly I wanted to comment on shame-based teaching. The reason this topic really came up for me lately is I’ve been reflecting on how much shame is used and accepted in medicine. Hearing things like “you are a failure, you aren’t going to make it, why did you want this career” in response to not knowing a fact/concept is really harsh but it happens frequently in medicine. I think the underlying rationale is “I went through it therefore you do too” or “it’s motivating you to do better.” Shame based teaching probably happens in every field but if f there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Brene Brown’s work in shame research, it’s that shame is not helpful, it is not a motivator, and there isn’t “good” shame. Listen to Brene’s response in this video to “don’t some people [ex. criminals] deserve to be ashamed?” (no!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdllwCXDyTA
Let’s use the example of a teacher telling you “you should already know that!” or “wow you don’t know that already?” I’ve heard teachers say this over and over. Instead of teaching a concept, they will comment on how this should already be part of our knowledge. It deters the individual from asking questions or clarifying concepts. You become afraid to admit when you don’t know something and that's when people become egotistical. You start to pretend to know things you don’t know and just memorize complex information instead of actually learning it. Basically you’ve now got an individual that pretends to know everything, but doesn’t know a whole lot in reality and that’s the opposite of a learning environment.The cycle actually doesn’t end here. I’ve then seen doctors shaming their patients and other students and learners. Instead of educating their patients and bringing the information to a more basic level so they can take charge of their own health, I will hear doctors using complex medical knowledge. Yet all the knowledge is not knowledge we came with when we were born or will take with us when we die! And more importantly, it can be learned. I could ask you a million questions on medicine and you might not know the answer but you could ask me how to make cheese or questions about types of dogs and I won't have an answer for you, so why make anyone feel bad if they desire to learn?
In closing I am just going to leave you with the thought that we need to stop justifying making other people feel ashamed, and instead start helping to support people in the ways they need to make change. One of the wonderful things about Sikhism is that our Guru Ji's made it clear that our relationship to God is a direct one. We don't need people with more spiritual experience to be our interpreter. The language used in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib was made so that it was easy to understand at the time, and used examples that were relevant to what people were seeing in their daily lives so that people could understand (I think it's hard for us now because the language has changed over time and the examples ex. farmhands, monkey traps, etc. are not relevant to our surroundings if we aren't farming or living in areas where those animals are, etc.). The idea was not to create a special caste or elite group of people who have all this knowledge and hold onto it. Rather the Gurus were against this and wanted each individual to be able to gain spiritual knowledge and share it with other people. The more people that understand and know, the better. It's never too late for us to learn and expand our knowledge of Sikhi!