Guilt and shame are related kinds of regret. Their differences are in the regret’s root, target and intensity. Shame has less motivational value than does guilt, and motivation lies at the foundation of all yoga development. This article discusses how to manage feelings of shame.

Three Types of Shame

Let’s begin by defining shame in terms of three aspects of regret:

  1. Intensity — If regret is overly intense about a particular event, it can be hard to cope with and move on from.
  2. Target — Events can be avoided, but we take ourselves wherever we go. Here, the regret is based on a fear that we will be personally judged by others. There may be no particular event we can point to as a cause for this regret, or crucially, as a solution.
  3. Basis — If our regret is rooted in delusion about who we are in relation to other beings and the world around us, it will be hard to learn from it, share what we’re going through, seek the help we need, or empathize with the needs of others.

Shame, Self-Knowledge, and Empathy

In yoga practice, self-knowledge and empathy go hand-in-hand. In Bhagavad-gita, we find this point in the sixth chapter, verse 32:

atmaupamyena sarvatra samam pasyati yo ‘rjuna
sukham va yadi va duhkham sa yogi paramo matah

Arjuna, a perfect yogi, by comparison to his or her own self, sees the true equality of all beings, in both their happiness and their distress!

Shame inhibits self-knowledge. We are eternal souls, and so our nature consists of eternality, perfect knowledge and bliss. When we are saddled by shame, our consciousness is directed to identify with the body and mind, and furthermore, with the unhappiest aspects of them.

Shame is also linked to a lack of empathy. This preoccupation with what we perceive to be the worst aspects of ourselves, (again, not our true selves but our material minds and bodies) takes up so much energy that we can hardly expect to have enough left to care equally for others.

Managing Intense Regret

When our shame is built of overly intense regret, there is still some connection with how a particular event has harmed ourselves or others. This knowledge is a property of the mode of goodness, and makes it easier to convert that shame into healthy guilt, redress it, and move on.

Asking ourselves questions about our regret can help with this conversion process:

  • “I know I feel really bad about what happened, but what could I have done better?”
  • “Is it possible that by focusing on my embarrassment, I might inadvertently make more mistakes and compound the problem? What’s the present priority?”
  • “What advice would I offer to someone I love, if they felt like I feel? Can I extend this same kindness to myself?”

Managing Self-Targeted Regret

In personal shame, we conform to certain codes not because they are ours, but just based on perceived or received judgements by others. Whereas the mode of goodness is concerned with the cultivation of virtues culminating in service to others, passion looks at how we feel first.

Passion wants praise, and either fights or flees from blame. Values are seen as means to enjoyment. If codes of conduct don’t feel pleasant, they are dropped:

duhkham ity eva yat karma kaya-klesa-bhayat tyajet
sa kritva rajasam tyagam naiva tyaga-phalam labhet

Anyone who gives up prescribed duties as troublesome or out of fear of bodily discomfort is said to have renounced in the mode of passion. Such action never leads to the elevation of renunciation. (Bhagavad-gita, 18.8)

To overcome this passionate regret, we have to be willing to give up comfort if it is in our rational self-interest, and for the love of others. This willingness empowers our conscience to provide consistent inner guidance through morally troubling situations. It lets us be true to ourselves.

We can then stand up to judgements from others, to say nothing of paranoia that we might be judged, on the strength of spiritual conviction. We can do the right thing, not just the easy thing. We will have nothing to be ashamed of, and public opinion won’t make us pretend that we do.

Managing Delusional Regret

Shame becomes nearly untreatable if rooted in a false idea of who we are, and how we fit into the world around us. If we poorly distinguish where our identity begins and ends, we may blame others for our mistakes, and we may wait for Mr. or Mrs. Right to come along and fix us.

But because we misjudge the boundaries of the inner and outer world, we also blame ourselves. We internalize the shame which we project on others, and see ourselves as we think others see us, as worthy of blame. This self-hatred is a product of the mode of ignorance.

It’s never too late to overcome delusional shame, but we can’t do it entirely alone. Shame can’t coexist with real, intellectually honest empathy. The sustained attention on what someone else is going through won’t allow our feelings of shame to steal the spotlight.

The same goes for blame, which is shame projected. If we expect Mr. or Mrs. Right to save us, we may equally resent them for taking their sweet time in doing so. This resentment can be internal and cold, or aggressive and heated. Either way, it crowds out our empathy.

The Vedas, especially Bhagavad-gita, clarify the interrelations between five subjects, which if validly and precisely understood, help us see where our identity begins and ends. The five are
the soul, God, time, matter and karma. The resulting empathy helps heal our delusional shame.

Yoga and Shame

Unless we value ourselves as souls, we won’t want to undergo the self-assessments needed to advance in yoga. Self-discovery will seem painful, and without payoff. Some shame is natural, but if unaddressed, it can keep us from discovering the pleasant surprise of who we really are.

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