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Shame and Connection

Affective Encounters on the Path —

When we fall in love (even for five minutes) it means we have met someone who resonates with some aspect of our mind from which we have been alienated – in the lover’s presence we feel complete, and the feeling is strongest when it is mutual. Even then, however, there are, famously, no guarantees. As often as not the resonance gives way to something else. The bond begins to shift and change, quite often dissolve. We feel then as if some part of our being has again been torn away, like a ripped-off limb or a stolen organ, but none of this is actually the case. As the lover recedes we simply lose contact again with that aspect of ourselves they were able to embody, and the challenge is precisely to take responsibility for that obscuration, work with it, dismantle it. The final stage in this dismantling process is a continuous erotic interplay of our direct and seamless connection to experience on the one hand, with, on the other, our lives as concrete entities who live and die apart and have to defecate and tie our shoes.

One of the better asana teachers I know mentioned in class a few weeks ago a TED talk by a Buddhist practitioner and Stanford brain scientist named Kelly McGonigal in which are conveyed some fairly remarkable discoveries about the nature of stress. Stress, it turns out, is only detrimental to your health when you believe stress to be bad. McGonigal lays out the basic research — the blind studies and the measurable physiological evidence that underscore how much our mental states contribute to what we encounter in the world. Surfing on line a few days later I came across a series of blog exchanges about one of the better meditation instructors I know who is being pilloried for alleged sexual indiscretions with a woman who may or may not have been his student at the time. In the grip of high emotion and also a certain amount of confusion, the various Buddhist practitioners commenting from both sides of the issue drew on an ethics of universalist prohibitions and commandments to indict or defend the teacher in question. Stepping back, it seems to me that, like electrodes affixed to the chest of a behemoth, these two nodes generate an interesting EKG of the cardiovascular health of the fledgling colossus of Western dharma. The proliferation of consensual hookup websites such as Ashley Madison and Tinder, in turn, suggest the way these debates about the role of eros in awareness practice are part of a much broader set of issues regarding sexuality in an increasingly interconnected word.

Perhaps because of the haphazard way I began a sitting practice, I never really feel like I’m a part of the community – I’m not a Buddhist so much as simply a person with a Buddhist practice. Like a lot of people in the 1990s, my first encounter with Buddhist thought was Chogyam Trungpa, a famous lush, some say, as well as an occasional letch, and even, at times, perhaps a bit of a thug. Thanks to Trungpa, my experience of Buddhism was suffused from the beginning with the threat of disruption and scandal, but this was appropriate given the nature of my approach. Through the mid 1990s, I had been reading a lot of the explicitly revolutionary Frankfurt School thinkers –Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse – who explored the fertile terrain where Marx and Freud overlap and collide. Trungpa’s description of psychological and social patterning in The Myth of Freedom struck me as a good deal more sophisticated and decisive than what can be found in the work of any of these thinkers. Better still, it wasn’t just theory – there was a practice involved, the possibility of a remedy. A friend from New York City who had a Tibetan practice happened to be visiting, so I took the opportunity to begin a practice of my own. Over the years I’ve worked with numerous teachers in both Zen and Tibetan schools of dharma. In the deep darkness of the Bush-Cheney years, an encounter with the Zen writer David Loy completed the circle for me, bringing the practice back in line with an activist political agenda.

The empiricism of Buddhist practice – it’s about practices rather than beliefs – is arguably the source of its deepest resonance with the culture of Protestantism. This is why the Dalai Lama and other Buddhists have gravitated toward cognitive neuroscience and other modes of empirical research in order to assert the measurable benefits – the “metrics” – of meditation practice. A consumerist model of the teacher-student relationship, meanwhile, embraces the transactional assumptions that govern our economy, offering the student a range of benefits at a range of prices, with choice playing a crucial role, and with the transaction governed by a categorical code of ethics. Both come together in programs like Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness training, which seize on “stress reduction” as a simple, tangible benefit for an engagement with a sitting practice, a claim many meditation practices do, in fact, deliver. At the same time, as many have noted, transforming Buddhism into a pragmatic program comes at a price, fueling our deep-seated resistance to core doctrines such as non-self, non-dual awareness and no-results.

At root, dharma practice, as every dedicated practitioner knows, entails very significant challenges that do not make sense within the cost-benefit rubric of consumerist culture. There’s no way to sidestep the need to painfully work through reactive conditioning breath-by-breath. Energy from one set of reactive emotional patterns (kleshas) flows down into deeper layers; often our inner demons show up in the flesh in the “real” world, insisting on confrontation. One danger with the consumerist approach, then, is that it makes the teacher into a kind of bait-and-switch salesman peddling the gateway drug of stress reduction, while concealing the real challenges of the path. Worse still, the consumer model of teacher-student engagement also comes complete with an off-the-shelf Kantian ethics firmly planted in the infertile soil of Western notions of Self and Other. There is a deep tension between this universalist ethic and the non-dual subjectivity cultivated in a Buddhist practice, which emphasizes the co-emergent aspect of mind, world and Other. One result of this marriage of convenience is that the transactional model ends up sewing dharma with threads of negative affects that are foundational within Protestant culture, most dangerously the affect of shame.

The way in which Buddhist philosophy, properly understood, runs parallel to, and resonates powerfully with, various schools of Western philosophy and critical theory from Heraclitus forward is a huge topic. Also, in light of the planet-killing effects of Western modes of existence, an urgent one. I would have a lot to say about the work of Gilles Deleuze in this context, for example, but the one branch that has been attracting my attention lately has to do with Affect Theory, and the writings of the somewhat eccentric but increasingly influential maverick Silvan Tomkins. By “affect” Tomkins means fundamental emotive energies that arise from the body before they are organized into emotional states that “I have.” Tomkins asserts that our affective makeup includes only nine main classifications of affect, beginning with what he calls interest-excitement. Tomkins goes on to assert that when the infant’s fundamental state of interest-excitement gets broken or interrupted, the infant experiences the second leading affect – the collapsive, corrosive affect of shame. Tomkins underscores the recursive, cybernetic dimension of affects, shame in particular; the mechanical way shame re-inscribes itself in our lives runs parallel to descriptions of the reactive, suffering self in Buddhist scripture.

Affect Theory is thus about as close as one gets in Western thought to the Buddhist view of a fundamental opposition between connection to experience and separation from experience, and it immediately suggests that what we are dealing with in the history of the West is the material expression of shame affect. Over the course of many centuries, from this point of view, shame affect has been externalized in social structures, technologies and economies of debt that express the West’s shame-based (i.e. alienated) version of individualism. In the West we compensate for our misery, our dhukka, by pushing it out of sight where it works its destructive magic on subject peoples and living systems elsewhere, and this is no longer a viable mode of existence. This picture is roughly consistent with a Marxist-Freudian political economy in which the true demons confronting those living in the West are psychic repression and the sublimation of anti-social emotion, individual and cultural mechanisms that fuel the “return of the repressed” in the form of world wars and environmental destruction. The Protestant self, is, famously, the seat of these mechanisms, and unfettered capitalism their purest expression.

Tomkins’s framework pertains to another confusing aspect of dharma practice that keeps cropping up – its inherent sexiness. Our fundamental affective state is one of interest and excitement – immediate, non-separate engagement with the world of experience, in all its intricate variety. Awareness, in Affect Theory as in dharma, is inherently connective, calling to mind how emptiness and compassion are depicted in classical Buddhist iconography as a couple entwined in erotic union. The practitioner is energized along her path by the fleeting experience of this ecstatic union, and the erotic fascination of the Other can become a powerful, distracting force. And, of course, it often happens in the West that one steps off the cushion or the bench or the yoga mat savoring the taste of the ecstatic right into the path of an oncoming locomotive loaded down with a cargo of shame. One problem with intimacy between teacher and student, then, is how the intensity of the connection generates a high capacity for shame should that connection be severed. The two qualities are dynamically linked – the only way to lessen the capacity for shame is to lessen the intensity – and hence the value – of the connection. Either way, when a connection is broken there is no blame – the resulting shame must be dismantled from both sides of the relationship rather than projected or transferred.

Challenging though it may seem, it is crucial that we root our ethics in the non-dual; any ethic based on generalized prohibitions and interdictions runs counter to the highly situational and singular “co-emergent” encounters of the dharma. All is historical and situational – there are no totalizing perspectives on which to base categorical imperatives. Intoxicated by ideas of transcendent purity and unity, we in the West set up our universalizing ethics and congratulate ourselves on our austere and exacting probity even while our destructive emotions are covertly expressed on disempowered populations elsewhere, and on living systems generally. We upbraid some politician or public figure who has transgressed our high standards, and while we pat ourselves on the back the planet smolders. If you really look at our situation with clarity you lose interest in the kinds of ethical debates that presuppose the validity of a shame-based definition of the individual as a solid, permanent entity, separate and apart, clearly defined and continuous in time. It is important to keep this in mind when assessing the inter-personal dynamics of the scandals that have accompanied the spread of Buddhist practice in the West.

One of the advantages of beginning with Trungpa is how his somewhat alarming transgressiveness seems in retrospect to be commensurate with the often-paradoxical challenges of the path, and I think this is part of what makes Pema Chodron such a helpful figure. There’s an interesting historical dimension to all this – arriving in the West during the Post-War era of 1960’s abundance, dharma is struggling to remain true to itself today in an era of manufactured austerity, top-down class warfare and re-stratification. Genies everywhere are being stuffed back into bottles. Progressive activist Adolph Reed has recently issued a compelling indictment of the categoricity of identity politics, bringing about a political culture in which “we are all right wingers now.” Better if the “all” in this statement did not include the dharma community. I come to agree with David Loy that the political arena is where western Buddhism needs to find its ground; dharma in the west cannot sidestep the ways we have institutionalized the three poisons of greed, aggression and delusion in our corporate consumerism, our military-industrial complex and our mind-killing mass media. Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk, in turn, underscores how the experience of separation that underwrites the affect of shame is only real when we believe it to be real – connectivity is more fundamental. Does that mean denying compassion to women and men who have been wounded by their encounters with teacher-figures from these wisdom traditions? Not at all. Bring awareness to situations in which people are being hurt, but do not lose sight of the corrosive and often hidden damage shame works once it has been let loose. Stay always on the lookout for how shame is used actively or passively in these situations – that is often how any violence propagates forward.


  1. Cheryl Slean says:

    Fantastic post! And bound to be controversial I would imagine. I’m a bit confused by your use of the word “shame,” which to me is a very specific emotion rather than the general “affect” that precedes other emotions…? I like the word “alienation” you used as analogous, to describe the self-other delusion, and I sometimes use “comparing mind” as the next step in valuing self over other, self less than other, etc. Shame to me comes from the delusion of self-other comparison– shame for being less-than, for wanting things we “shouldn’t” etc. The superego’s idealizing, comparing and judgment kicks in immediately on the heels of the root delusion of duality. That’s how it seems to me anyway, experientially; when I’m watching my mind moment-to-moment. I guess Tomkins is using “shame” as the shorthand for all these mindstates? Each of us has different conceptual language that most accurately describes the holistic inner landscape….

    Regarding ethics around sexuality between teacher and student, I hear what you’re saying about “rooting our ethics in the non-dual”, but we have to be aware that students and most teachers in western dharma are not fully awakened, and so live at least some of our lives from these root delusions (though we’re in the process of deconstructing them through our practices). And guess what, the deluded mind sometimes doesn’t know it’s deluded! That’s the nature of delusion. I see a lot of delusion in the resistance of some teachers to the suggestion that anything they do could ever cause harm: could it be possible, at all, that there’s a greed impulse at work in the desire to sleep with a student, masked in the language of awakening? As an addict, I’m well aware of the power of delusion to sweetly rationalize actions that satisfy strong craving, and that insight carries over into less obvious forms of greed. Yes, in theory we can talk about creating ethics and even guidelines of behavior from the awakened, non-dual mind of interconnection, rather than the superego (the separation-shame view, as you call it), but we have to speak TO the minds that are behaving from dualistic delusion. The fully awakened mind, in theory, won’t be tempted to harm with his or her sexuality, and will be very clear about where the line is. But who of us out there teaching dharma can make claim to the clarity of an arhant? And our students even less so. The Buddha himself, it seems, did not need rules, being awakened to the truth of compassion and non-harming, the utter pointlessness of self-serving desire and the relationship between the latter and the former (that is, the fact that behavior rooted in deluded self view will be more apt to cause harm, plus the concomitant keen ability to discern that view in operation, and finally to refrain from action once recognized). But he made hundreds of rules for the order of monks and nuns, each in response to some “transgression” by one or more of the order.

    I think it’s important that the most wise among us make rules for those less wise (like parents do with children), but the distinction from Protestant ethics, as you point to in your post, is to make them from the Buddhist intention of engagement and practice. So a rule, rather than being a promise of punishment should we transgress, is an invitation to investigate for ourselves the nature of this type of behavior and the mental impulses that underlie it. Not quite “rules are meant to be broken” but close: they are meant to be practiced with, and that practice will necessarily involve some rule-breaking and mistake-making. My teacher used to say: “do what you want, Cheryl, just pay attention while you’re doing it.” Buddhist ethics, as you note, are intended as a practical investigation, rooted in awareness practice. The punishment comes just by paying close attention to the outcomes of our unskillful behavior– feeling the pain of having caused harm to ourselves or others. “Mom says the stove is hot, let me see for myself- OW.”
    In the Theravada we have “precepts” of ethical conduct, which are stated in the language of practice: “I undertake the practice to..” refrain from harming, or from sexual misconduct, etc. Each practitioner has a lifetime to explore ethics practice, to understand the nature of doing harm and not doing harm, and to understand experientially and intuitively exactly WHY it’s preferable to not do harm, including doing harm through our sexual impulses. The investigation leads to the dropping away of the need for a panopticon, ever-watchful superego: we don’t have to “make ourselves” behave: the mind simply loses interest in harming once it truly understands the nature of pain and suffering. This, in turn, leads to deep inner trust and relaxation. Harming oneself or others becomes exactly the same thing; there’s absolutely no distinction, as the mind of non-dual awareness and wisdom reveals itself. The long-standing patterns of harming inherited– through repetition and practice– from family of origin and culture unravel and are replaced by ethical, that is, non-harming, modes of response. All this happens organically– not through the action of will, intellect or fear-based rule-adherence– BUT the rules do need to be there, as instruction/invitation, a way of discovering the truth for ourselves. As you note, the process of coming to these realizations can be excruciatingly painful sometimes, but that is the whole point! We gotta feel it to truly understand it. Fortunately, the the mind does heal; and the fact that the mind naturally moves toward kindness and compassion when exposed in this way to the nature of suffering is evidence, I posit, of the beneficence of the universe.

    Like everything else the Buddha taught, ethics practice is an iterative process of learning, and making mistakes is a necessary part of it. In our discussions, Guy, you have sometimes accused an ethics-based dharma practice of being “dry,” but in my experience it’s far from it: ethics is ultimately a joyful practice, because there is no greater joy than in watching the mind understand, penetrate and release its need to be selfish. I agree that the practice leads to more complete harmony with the creative and connective eros of life (what you call “ecstacy”). I believe (I know, in the experiential sense) that eros in human beings is expressed not only through love, in all its forms, but through compassion; and compassion dictates that we act in ways that are non-harming. So ethics and eros are interwoven; just different ways of talking about the same thing.
    THANK YOU, as always, for your insightful and thought-provoking post!

  2. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Now that is what I call a comment.

    Yes, you know, harm is the thing and the tricky part is we often don’t know when we are doing harm or how. Intention is a big part of it, but intention also can be semi-conscious or even unconscious/ignorant. There is harm in shame, I believe, because of its recursive nature, and there is harm in the “background” shame of the kind of universalist ethics I’m talking about. That may seem like an extremely subtle point…but I suppose the danger I’m alert to in the post is American dharma needing to guard against embracing toxic Western attitudes too easily without regard to the contradictions.

    I am in no way advocating for lax morals in teachers…but in our culture shame is a very powerful foe of the dharma, IMHO.

  3. Cheryl Slean says:

    Ha ha! Sorry I went on. Interesting topic! I happened to be writing a talk on a similar theme yesterday. 🙂 Agreed we are often unaware of when we’re doing harm but that’s what our awareness practice is for: to develop the capacity to pay attention and discern, ever more sensitively, what that word “harm” (or dukkha) really means, experientially. Although, I’d say, we actually DO know when we’re causing harm, we’re just not attuned to that knowledge. (our latent wisdom mind) I think our practice develops and sensitizes our attunement to wisdom mind. It also makes conscious our previously unconscious intentions. We’re all in process with that journey, and not just dharma practitioners but conscious people everywhere committed to acting more wisely. (Of course, dharma practice is the most effective means to transformation! 🙂 Agreed there is harm in shame– harm is usually the outcome when acting from a “defiled” mind – a mind filled with klesha like shame. TOTALLY agreed that we inherit many of these patterns of response from the “background” culture. But– I don’t think shame is a foe of the dharma, I think the dharma includes all dukkha, kleshas, brahma viharas, unwise views and wise views: the dharma is everything. Our dharma practice, as you point out in your post, is all about learning to work skillfully with kleshas– to understand their natures. As soon as shame (or any other defiled state of mind) becomes a teacher, a friend, an object of investigation, it is no longer a foe.

    And this is all fine and dandy, but to me dharma becomes very interesting indeed when the rubber of life hits the road– to whit: what to do about people who cross lines and harm other people? What to do when they insist that they’ve done nothing unskillful, despite the evidence to the contrary? Wisdom will act to protect the innocent while refraining from causing more harm to the “trangressor.” But that opens up the pandora’s box of crime and wise punishment… so I’ll stop right there! Thank you, Guy, for your post and your response.

  4. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Thanks for the second comment, Cheryl. I agree with what you are saying here. There is some difference between what Tomkins means by affect – or at least my interpretation of what he means – and the classical Buddhist view of shame as a defilement or even a klesha. For me there’s no reason to ask these two elaborate descriptions of inner states align with each other – I don’t know if Tomkins is “right” about affect, in other words, but I do find it compelling and resonant. I take it he is describing, inadvertently no doubt, that moment of separation or split in which connection gives way to separate self and world. For me, his rubric offers a different angle on the continuity between this moment of splitting and everyday experiences of shame-separation such as checking Facebook to see if my post has acquired “likes” or listening to Fox News and then on living-systems collapse around the globe.

    A foundation of shame is also implicated in universalist and totalizing systems of prohibitions and imperatives based on truth as a transcendent unity, and this is anything but a minor issue for dharma as it negotiates with the culture of the West. This background shame itself causes harm, and is implicated in political issues such as social justice and environmental degradation in ways I don’t think Western dharma can ignore. Tomkins and his framework is a way to frame this larger issue, which is really my point.

    For me, this practice tradition of dharma, while famously given to exhaustive lists, expresses a wariness about the universalist approach in how it has always place the singular encounters of historically particular teachers and their historically unique students at the foundation of transmission. This is considered to be one of dharma’s unique characteristics among the world’s religions, I believe. There is a healthy distrust of how a collective identity built around a universalist system can distort and subvert the quite radical and liberatory intent of practice – David Loy addresses all this very coherently.

    This is all a huge topic, so I’ll leave off here for now.

  5. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Just to add one more clarification: the reason universalist, truth-as-unity is so seductive is because it implies a stable world in which stable entities move in ways that can be predicted, fine-tuned, removed from disorder and chaos, etc. Very appealing and utterly false – the world is a place of endless emergence and collapse governed by no transcendent truths…and as challenging as it may be to use language and also avoid seductive ideas of transcendence – words being themselves symbolic abstractions – we have to always be on guard against these tendencies…especially in the West. Apologies for the soap-boxing.

  6. Oh boy, Guy! This is a great one! That opening paragraph deserves a life of its own. There’s much to talk about — but for now — have we talked about Merleau-Ponty? To me, he is the place where Western dualistic thought winds around on itself and emerges in a whole new way of being in the world — what he calls, in radical shorthand, ‘living perception.’ And, no surprise, there’s a book of essays by different contributors, on Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism. He’s not ‘political;’ he’s not ‘psychological’ — but his thought reaches beyond those realms and it remains for someone — you, perhaps — to bring it into the discourse that you are raising. As for me, this new book I’m working on — of my photographs, with texts — is explicitly entitled The Over-Spilling Life, which is a phrase of his and which I think my images embody. More later. Bravo. j

  7. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Astute, Janet. Merleu-Ponty had a huge influence on Francisco Varela, who was a longtime Tibetan practitioner and an influential thinker despite his early death. You may already know his work but he and his mentor Maturana developed the concept of autopoeisis in biological systems…kinda wonky and just one example of Mwrleau-Pontys impact on these issues. Super-wonky caveat – MP phenomenology arguably retains a foundation in idealism…which is what uncomplaining about…astute nonetheless…

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