Difficult feelings: dealing with shame

Photo credit: Gabriel (http://flickr.com/photos/cod_gabriel) used under Creative Commons license

Of all the difficult feelings we can experience, shame is perhaps the most devastating.

I know for myself that nothing spirals me down into anxiety and depression faster.

This is not surprising. Shame can be described as judging oneself as having done something unacceptable, and finding not only one’s actions and their consequences, but one’s self wanting.

It is possible to feel shame without anyone else knowing about one’s actions or their consequences, but for myself, shame most often results when my mistakes and their consequences are on public view, and are judged by others as being unacceptable.

When I make a mistake but nobody else witnesses it, I can stay calm and correct things as far as is possible. In that situation, I may feel guilt about my actions and their consequences, but I do not find myself wanting.

When I do something that others find unacceptable but I disagree that it’s wrong, or I know things didn’t happen that way, I may feel angry that I am being misrepresented, or surprised at another’s moral compass, but it doesn’t affect how I feel about myself.

But when I make a mistake and am witnessed in the act, and those witnessing me make their anger, disgust or disdain clear, I feel ashamed, and am overcome by a desire to cover myself, for the ground to open up and swallow me, to disappear from public view.

Photo credit: Marc-Andre Lariviere (http://flickr.com/photos/marcandrelariviere) used under Creative Commons license

This feeling, rather than supporting me to get on and do all within my power to correct the mistake I have made and to mitigate its consequences, gets in the way of any action on my part. Instead of reaching out to right things, my urge is to contract inwards and shrink away from everything outside myself

So what can we do, when feelings of shame arise, to enable us to stay open and carry on engaging?

I had the opportunity (ahem) to consider this question just a couple of days ago. I made a mistake which could have had serious consequences for those around me, because my attention wandered for a moment. With the help of others, the situation was brought under control, but not without their anger and frustration with me being freely expressed.

I felt an intense feeling of shame, followed by strong anxiety and depression, and a desire to hide under the bed covers for the rest of the week, and possibly the rest of my life.

By observing myself through this experience, and noting what helped and what hindered me in my response to the situation, I came to the following list of actions to help us through shame.

The first thing is to keep breathing.

Constricting and interrupting our natural breathing pattern is one of the most common reactions to difficult feelings, yet nothing blocks our ability to process emotion and take positive action more effectively than when we stop breathing.

The easiest way to keep breathing is to concentrate on breathing out; when we reach the end of our out breath, our lungs fill naturally, gradually re-establishing a natural breathing rhythm.

The second thing is to find someone we trust and who is reliably non-judgmental, and get what has happened off our chest.

The emotional and mental relief and the physical release this enables allows our feelings to shift, and opens up the possibility of viewing our situation objectively.

The third thing is to think of how we would react if a dear friend had made the mistake we have just made, and offer that reaction to ourselves.

We are usually much more forgiving, supportive and helpful when faced with the mistakes of someone else who we love than we are when looking at ourselves.

Offering ourselves gentleness and forgiveness – without denying our responsibility for what has happened – can free us to respond to our situation constructively, and to look at how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

The final thing is to consider whether others’ reactions to us reflect our own beliefs about ourselves.

This is perhaps something best done some time after  the event, so may not be much help in the moment, but it’s still a worthwhile exercise.

Knowing ourselves better is always, in my view, a good thing. This kind of consideration can also help to interrupt the cycle of anger and resentment at others for their reactions to us, which can be so destructive of relationships and of our own peace of mind.

The repercussions of my actions, what might have happened, others’ reactions to me and my own reactions to the whole thing are still ricocheting about my body, my heart and my mind. I’m continuing to breathe into my feelings, to offer myself love and support, and to explore my beliefs about myself, as well as putting in place rules and routines for myself to prevent that particular mistake happening again.

I know I will make mistakes in the future; I know that some of them will be made in public, and may have serious consequences; I know that others will judge me, as I will myself. But I also know that, when this kind of situation happens again, I have a list of solid practices to enable me to respond constructively, and right things again as far as I can, without crumbling.

What is your experience of shame? Do you have a set of practices which help you maintain equilibrium and take positive action when shame arises?

The difference between religion and spirituality. (Identity, authenticity, action.)

Back when I was a mentor at The Interfaith Seminary, the question came up again and again from the students I was supporting of the difference between religion and spirituality.

For some of them, this was a matter of having rejected religion and embraced spirituality; for others, they were strongly committed to their religious faith and community, and could not imagine separating spirituality out from that.

In an era when mainstream religion appears to be declining, while both spirituality without religion and fundamentalist ‘our way or the highway’ religion appear to be on the increase, this question about the differences and relationship between religion and spirituality is an important one.

As a mentor, in order to help my own understanding and thus better support the students, I came up with two sets of questions:

Am I a good…

Christian?

Muslim?

Jew?

Buddhist?

Taoist?

Student of A Course In Miracles?

Sikh?

Pagan?

Hindu?

For it to make sense to answer ‘yes’ to these questions, one would have to identify as a member of that particular religion, faith or spiritual tradition, and – where necessary – accept its tenets and dogmas.

This is the core issue with religion that I see both in people who reject religion in favour of spirituality, and those who seek to impose their faith and dogma on the whole world:

Group identity and individual authenticity are pitted against one another.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

One of the many things I learned from my training in Interfaith Ministry was that there is a deep well of wisdom and spirituality at the heart of each and every religion, regardless of how it has been practiced by its followers over the centuries, and what has been done in the name of its God(s).

So here is the second set of questions to consider:

In this moment…

Do I love God/the Source of All/the Universe? Do I love and forgive my neighbour and myself? What fruit do I bear?

Am I surrendered to God/the Source of All/the Universe?

How am I expressing my humanity? Do I have a living relationship with God/the Source of All/the Universe?

Do I practice loving-kindness?

Do I allow everything its own nature?

Am I willing to be as God/the Source of All/the Universe created me?

Do my deeds sing a love song to God/the Source of All/the Universe?

Do I relate to humans, animals, plants, minerals and spirit beings with reverence and love?

Am I free of ego-attachment?

Each question or set of questions relates to the equivalent faith in the previous set of questions, but these questions can be answered freely by anyone, regardless of their religious identity.

They are a set of questions not about identity, but about emotion, action, integrity and authenticity.

When we look beyond the identity of a religion or faith group, and instead look to the roots of its spirituality, we see that at the core of each faith there is fruitful wisdom and a challenge to each one of us as human beings.

This does not mean that we can ignore the injustices carried out in the name of religion, but it gives us the tools to challenge the people who carry them out in the terms of what they say they are, and what they claim as the source of their values.

Science Fiction Wisdom: Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace – Battlestar Galactica (2000s)

The spiritual lesson from science fiction that I’m going to write about this week is not as simple, clearcut or easy to apply as the Litany Against Fear.

In fact, it’s downright disturbing, so disturbing that, if you are triggered into dissociation, PTSD, anxiety or any other unpleasant and life-limiting experience by talk of physical and mental abuse of children or (possibly) delusional mental states, I suggest you don’t read it.

It also contains spoilers for seasons 3 and 4 of BSG, so if you’ve not watched that far yet, you might want to bookmark this post to come back to when you have.

Now the warnings are out of the way…

What we know about Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace

Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace’s story through the five seasons of BSG is not a pretty one. For all that she’s a strong and in many ways admirable character, she is also seriously messed up. As far as I’m concerned, this messed-up-ness reached its apotheosis (reference intentional) in season 3 episode 17 (Maelstrom).

Kara’s story is long and convoluted. At this point in the series, we know that she has been captured by Cylons twice, and subjected by them to mental torture. We know that her mother subjected Kara to repeated physical, mental and emotional abuse from an early age, and that nothing Kara did was ever ‘good enough’.

The ancient mandala.

We know that a picture that Kara has been painting since she was a child is a close copy of a 4000 year old mandala of concentric rings, connected to the fleet’s mission of finding Earth. We know that she has been told by the Cylon Leoben Conoy – who is also one of the Cylons who subjects her to awful mental torture – that she has a special destiny, for which her mother, through the abuse, was attempting to prepare Kara. We know that Kara did not visit her mother in the two months before her mother’s painful death from cancer.

Destiny, vision or delusion?

The eye of the storm.

Near the beginning of the episode, while the fleet refuels, Kara, ‘Hotdog’ and Lee Adama fly over a gas giant planet, where Kara sees a Cylon raider, invisible to Lee and the crew back on the Galactica. Kara chases the Cylon fighter, which may or may not exist in reality, over the eye of a storm, which is identical to both Kara’s paintings and the ancient mandala. On a second visit to the planet, with Lee Adama flying on her wing, Kara again sees and follows a Cylon raider invisible both to Lee and to the instruments of the Galactica.

This time, her Viper is hit by the Cylon raider, and she is knocked unconscious. A series of dreams, memories and visions/delusions, guided by someone or something with the form of Leoben Conoy follows, focused around her mother and her death.

Kara’s painting

Kara goes to her mother’s deathbed, and holds her hand as she dies. Next to her mother on the bed a scrapbook of Kara’s life: all of her childhood drawings, school certificates, every single record of evidence of achievement in Kara’s life, large and small is there. Kara’s mother – according to this vision, or delusion – abused her daughter and withheld her approbation in order to make Kara strong enough to face the challenge of this moment, in which Kara finally faces and accepts death, flying down into the planet and allowing her Viper to be crushed, with her inside it.

Abuse and forgiveness

And that is what I find so disturbing about this particular and (almost) final episode in Kara’s story. How many times have abusers told children that what they are doing is “for your own good”? Is that ever true? No. Even if the abuser genuinely believes that, does it ever justify the abuse? Absolutely not. Even if the abuse leads the child to develop survival tactics, skills or other aspects of themselves that are useful and important in life, does that make the abuse okay? No, no, and no.

In Kara’s case, her experience could have been a genuine spiritual visitation, both from her mother’s spirit and from whatever spiritual agent was using the form of Leoben Conoy. Her experiences of Leoben and her mother could have been constructs created by Kara’s own mind, to make sense of and reconcile her past in the face of her destined death. The whole experience could have been a series of delusions allowing Kara to give in to suicidal urges.

Whatever the case, I am left questioning the message the writers intended us to take away. This is clearly a make or break point for Kara’s soul, one to which the rest of her life, all of her experiences, good and bad, and all of her own actions, effective and mistaken, have led her. The inner experiences she goes through immediately before she is crushed by the planet’s gravity seem to enable her to forgive both her mother for the abuse, and herself for her abandonment of her mother in her painful, lonely death to cancer.

But that does not make the abuse okay.

Too often, looking for the meaning and lessons in the difficult events that happen in our lives can become a way of side-stepping the very real experience of pain, loss, anger and grief which they raise within us. Forgiveness is vitally important, but it does not mean that what was done to us was okay, or, as Marianne Williamson puts it, that we need to go have lunch with an abuser and make nice.

Forgiveness and levels of experience

At the level of our day to day experience of pleasure and pain, and our childhood memories of the same, we are a separate being, acting on and acted upon by other, separate beings. There is individual praise, recognition, fault and blame, and individuals can and must be held accountable for their actions and inactions. At this level, forgiveness does not make sense unless it is accompanied by regret and remorse on behalf of the individual who has caused pain, and/or who is responsible for it.

At the level on which all beings are not only interconnected, but inseparably part of each other, forgiveness is a matter not of accepting another’s apology, but of cleansing and healing a wound in the body of the whole – there is no separate self to be attacked and hurt, no separate self to be singled out and held responsible and accountable.

At the level of Spirit, the meaning of forgiveness is different again. At this level, forgiveness is a recognition that the truth of who and what we are, individually or interconnected, has not been harmed – indeed cannot be harmed – and that therefore there is nothing to forgive; forgiveness becomes a recognition of the reality of wholeness, regardless of physical, emotional and mental circumstances.

But great harm can be done by trying to apply this Spirit-centred forgiveness to the other levels of our experience. To tell a victim of childhood abuse that not only should they forgive their abusers, but that in reality ‘nothing happened’ is to silence them and invalidate their experience.

Conversely, to try to bring someone who is working on the Spirit-centred level of reality back to an experience of victimhood and blame that they have already successfully worked through is deeply inappropriate and potentially harmful.

And to leave out work on our collective wounding and healing, which manifests itself through institutions, groups and interpersonal relationships, is to leave in place systems which have a tendency to encourage abusive and harmful behaviour even in individuals who are focusing deeply on personal responsibility and inner work, allowing blindspots around, for example, racism, sexism and able-ism to stay in place.

Kara’s situation

Coming back to Kara Thrace, given her reappearance later on in the BSG saga, I am willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt that Kara was, indeed, being guided by a force greater than herself to a destiny necessary for humanity as a whole; that in the face of such a destiny, forgiving her mother became a matter not only of necessity, but of simple acceptance of the truth of the situation. But I wouldn’t want to use Kara’s experience as a primer on forgiveness.

What is your take on Kara’s story? What is your experience of forgiveness? Share your thoughts in the comments.

More ‘negative’ feelings: ANGER!

The other night I received an email asking me to do something that someone had assumed I’d be up for. It would have involved a 700+ mile round trip, with probably no expenses payable, to do a job that I didn’t need to be there for, followed by another job that would probably take a full working week out of my life, all for free.

What was my immediate response? **** right off!

Of course, that wasn’t what I wrote in my reply; I do have an operational brain-mouth filter, even if it does sometime goes on the blink. My reply was polite, if to the point, and took account of the fact that the request was made in all innocence, with no awareness of my health, geographical or financial circumstances. But my immediate, gut level, outraged response was vitally important.

‘Negative’ feelings and self-knowledge

Our immediate emotional response to situations gives us valuable information, if we learn how to absorb it. My outraged response to the email I received told me that someone else had overstepped a line. Whether or not it was the sender’s intent to do so is irrelevant to my self-protective emotional reflexes – and rightly so.

Anger, like fear, is governed by the amygdala, which responds to immediate threat; it isn’t concerned with how I can navigate a situation maintaining friendly relations, only in flashing a great big red light telling me that something isn’t right, and could be about to go very wrong – for me.

I have learned to listen to and respect my anger. My anger lets me know when I am, or am about to be, taken for a ride, or treated like a doormat. It lets me know that my values or my dignity are about to be, or have already been, breached. In this way, it acts as a signpost to greater self-knowledge, showing where my boundaries are, and guiding me on whether, perhaps, those boundaries need to move.

My anger is not nice or pretty, but it is strong, and it demands that I respect myself.

Anger as information

I have also learned to treat my anger as one piece of information – important information, but only one piece among many – in making decisions and taking action.

Because it’s part of a threat alert system, it’s usually the first piece of information to reach my consciousness, all horns blaring.

When I was a child I would react immediately, not waiting for any further information, and as a result had the most spectacular temper. Any slight to my dignity, real or imagined, would get the same all out reaction. I was a very satisfying person to play practical jokes on.

As I grew up a little and realised that this kind of temper reaction was counter-productive, I took to sitting on my anger, squashing it so effectively that I would even deny having any. This fitted well with my ‘spiritual’ self-image, but did me absolutely no favours in terms of emotional and psychological health.

Now, finally, I’ve begun to learn to treat anger as what it is – neither a good basis on its own for action, nor a ‘bad’ or ‘unspiritual’ emotion, but part of my body’s survival system. As such, it is neither good nor bad, but simply is. It’s what I do with it, or because of it, that matters.

“Let fury have the hour, anger can be power; D’you know that you can use it?”Clampdown by The Clash

Anger can be powerful fuel for action. It points to areas that are out of kilter, whether within ourselves, in a relationship or in a society, and drives us to do something to put things back in order. But anger only gives us power if we give it space, and use it wisely – neither acting on it rashly and selfishly, in only our own narrow interests, nor squashing it down and denying it.

Like fire, anger can be dangerous – it can hurt or even kill if used carelessly or without skill, or left to its own devices. But it can also enhance life, even make life possible. Like fire, anger must be smoored – raked, banked up and covered over so that it does not burn out, nor die out, but retains its core of heat – to be fanned into life when it is needed, as fuel for action.

Fire, managed in this way, is always available to be used to cook a meal, heat water, give light, or scare away wild animals. It becomes the hearth, the centre of the home. Anger managed in this way can transform into focus, drive and energy for action and needed change. It can become a pathway to awareness of our deep connection with one another and with all of Life – a pathway to the heart.

I’d love to know your thoughts. What have your experiences been with skillful – and unskillful – anger and its effects?

Harnessing passion: valuing and managing uncomfortable feelings

My apologies for the lack of blog posts this last week. You know that thing that happens sometimes, where you write about or tell someone about something in theory, and then that something comes up to you in real life and whacks you in the face with a cosmic clue by four? Yeah. That happened to me this last week.

I’d been thinking about how to take forward the issue of harnessing passion. As I indicated in that post, the difficulty comes in what disconnects us from our passion. Well, this last week I’ve had a really close and very personal reminder of what that really feels and looks like; for me what it feels like is lethargy, and what it looks like is apathy.

Life gone grey

When life goes grey, it is no fun. As a person with lifelong depression, I have a lot of experience of that state of no fun. It’s fundamentally caused by my brain chemicals going awry – not enough seratonin, in my case – and I have medication to help with that. But what causes the lack of seratonin? Is it just genetics and early life circumstances, or is the picture more complex?

I’ve come to believe, through working with my depression over the years, that while the origin of my dodgy chemistry may be that combination of genetics and circumstances, its ongoing continuance in my adult life has much to do with the self-protective habits I developed during adolescence and early adulthood.

One of those habits is retreat, both psychological and physical. Effectively, I run away.

Running away… from what?

You remember that Goddess Circle I talked about? I signed up for it, and recently began the Business Goddess e-course. One of the first exercises in the course is a worksheet to brain-shower ways to make a living, no holds barred, no inner censor. I dutifully listed away, and when I was done, I realised that I had only been thinking in terms of my non-scholarly work.

In this case, my running away took the form of a blind spot – a very large one: that my scholarly work could be just as much a part of doing what I love as all my self-employed creativity. This blind spot, this retreat — like so many others — had its roots in fear: both fear of failure, and fear of success.

Fear of failure…

I fear failure in my academic work. Studying for a PhD, proving myself in the academy, is something I’ve longed for so long, that the prospect of not actually being very good at it, of not getting the data I need, of  not being able to think clearly — a common experience with fibromyalgia — and thereby failing is too much to bear. It would open me to public rejection and shame, and private embarrassment.

…and fear of success

I fear success in my academic work. Succeeding in my PhD, proving myself in the academy, could mean a feeling of obligation to work in research full-time, within the confines of an institution, without time or space for my creative and spiritual endeavours. It might also mean becoming one of those academics secure in their ivory towers, who talk a good game, but don’t do anything. I might become the kind of person I disdain. This, too, would be too much to bear. It would open me to self-rejection and personal shame, however much public praise and recognition I might gain.

“Where there’s fear, there’s power.”

That saying is one of the pieces of wisdom within Witchcraft, which I first came across in Starhawk‘s writings. The fact that I’m afraid of these things in relation to my PhD means one thing: my PhD is important — maybe not in the grand scheme of things, but to me.

Fear, like other ‘negative’ and uncomfortable feelings such as anger, guilt, shame, embarrassment and envy, isn’t a part of life to be avoided or stamped out. It is powerful, pointing me to where the strongest pent up energies are within me. The specifics of the fear — what I’m afraid of — point me to areas for re-examination, exploration, re-imagining and healing.

In another aphorism, this time from the book by Susan Jeffers, I’m determined to “feel the fear and do it anyway”, following my discomfort to greater self-knowledge, healing and energy. I hope you are too.

When have you found a ‘negative’ feeling to be a source of wisdom and power? What helps you to “feel the fear and do it anyway”?

Equal marriage – because freedom of religion matters

I first ‘met’ Jane Carnall many, many years ago through an APA we were both members of (Amateur Press Association – a bit like a blog ring before the public Internet existed). I have always found her clarity of thought and her measured tone incredibly helpful.

Here, as a guest blogger at Heathen Hub, she turns her attention to the consultation on equal marriage in Scotland, and the support and opposition to it from different religious groups. She sums my feelings up exactly when she says:

Let the Bishop of Paisley and the Archbishop of Glasgow and the Cardinal of Scotland agree together that they must not, under any circumstances, enter into a same-sex marriage themselves with anyone, nor allow any Catholic priest in Scotland to celebrate a marriage between two men… or two women… That’s their right in a free country: to declare that such marriages are not valid in a Catholic church, no more than a marriage of two divorced people.

But it’s not their right in a free country to tell the Religious Society of Friends or the Humanist Society of Scotland or the Unitarian Church or the Pagan Federation or Sukkat Shalom or any other religious body what they should do.

Lessons from my household energy supply, part one: harnessing passion

My partner and I are lucky enough to have our own 2.5kW wind turbine feeding our household electricity supply. It stands there, just 6 metres tall but still magnificent, moving with the wind and providing us with the power to run our computers, heat our water, cook our food. When it produces more than we need, the surplus goes into the national electricity grid; when it produces less than we need, we get the extra we need back from the grid. Since it was set up four years ago, we need do nothing but watch it twirling. It’s a passive system.

Passion and energy

The word ‘passive’ has the same root as the word ‘passion’ – they both come from the Latin verb ‘passio’, meaning to suffer, to allow or to undergo. Passion is something we undergo, something that happens to us, just as the wind happens to the turbine. Also like the wind on the turbine, our passion, when it happens in and to us, can provide us with energy, but we need to use it, to harness it.

When we have power cuts, usually because high winds have caused trees to fall on electric cables some miles up the line from us, our connection to our wind turbine is severed. It is one of the most frustrating experiences I have had, watching our wind turbine spinning around at high speed, producing the equivalent of three times our day’s electricity needs, and none of it reaching us.

Getting cut off from our passions

This is what it’s like when we’re cut off from our passion, when we feel ashamed of it, or embarrassed to show it in public, or when we just forget about it. This might be because we’ve been told from an early age that we can’t make our passion central to our lives or ruin will follow, or because we’ve shared our passion with someone who matters to us and they’ve ridiculed it. It might be because our passion is so close to our hearts, or so big, that it feels too scary and risky to fully connect with it, to allow it to power our lives. It might be that our passion just gets buried under our everyday work and worries, so that it seems a million miles away.

When we’re cut off from our passion, it’s still there, it’s still spinning away – like that wind turbine – but we can’t access that amazing source of energy. Sometimes, we’ve been cut off from our passion so effectively and for so long that the parts of us that are fed by it have shrivelled. Sometimes we’ve been cut off from our passions so effectively and for so long, we don’t even know what those passions are.

Do you know what you’re passionate about? Can you feel the potential of that energy, lying within you?

Passionate about…

I’m passionate about people finding their spiritual path, the practice and community that allows them to feel their place in the Universe, at home in their lives and aligned in their actions. It fills me with joy when I meet someone who has found this, and with awe when I’m able to help someone on their way.

I’m passionate about honouring, including and knowing myself as part of the more-than-human*, all-species tribe* of all beings, whether human, animal, vegetable, mineral, spiritual or elemental. Remembering this life-wide connection and relationship grounds and settles some deep part of me.

I’m passionate about the magic that happens when people come together in love, and consciously dedicate themselves to each another, to their deepest common purpose, and to supporting one another through thick and thin. Every wedding ceremony, every ceremony to accompany a civil partnership, every hand-fasting I’ve conducted has been a sacred monument to joining.

What are you passionate about? How can you allow your passion to energise you? Let’s talk about it.

Related pages: Spiritual path-finding, Weddings and Civil Partnerships, Relationships.

* I first came across both of these phrases in the work of David Abram.