The high value that the Buddha placed on shame contrasts sharply with the way it’s regarded in many segments of our culture today. In business and in politics, shame is all too often viewed as weakness. Among therapists, it’s commonly seen as pathological—an unhealthy low opinion of yourself that prevents you from being all that you can. Book after book gives counsel on how to overcome feelings of shame and to affirm feelings of self-worth in their place.
It’s easy to understand this general reaction against shame. The emotion of shame—the sense that you don’t look good in the eyes of others—is a powerful one. It’s where we allow the opinion of other people into our psyches, and all too often unscrupulous people take advantage of that opening to trample our hearts: to bully us and force on us standards of judgment that are not in our genuine best interests. It’s bad enough when they try to make us ashamed of things over which we have little or no control: race, appearance, age, gender, sexual orientation, level of intelligence, or financial status. It’s even worse when they try to shame us into doing harm, like avenging old wrongs.
But efforts to avoid these problems by totally abolishing shame miss an important point: There are two kinds of shame—the unhealthy shame that’s the opposite of self-esteem, and the healthy shame that’s the opposite of shamelessness.
This second kind of shame is the shame that the Buddha calls a bright guardian and a treasure. If, in our zeal to get rid of the first kind of shame, we also get rid of the second, we’ll create a society of sociopaths who care nothing for other people’s opinions of right or wrong—or who feel shame about all the wrong things.
Businessmen and politicians who see no shame in lying, for instance, feel shame if they’re not at least as ruthless as their peers. And for all the general dismissal of shame, advertisers still find that shame over your body or ostensible wealth is a powerful tool for selling products.
When all shame gets pathologized, it goes underground in the mind, where people can’t think clearly about it and then sends out tentacles that spread harm all around us.
This reflection by Than Ajaan Geoff is from the book, First Things First, (pdf) pp. 13-14.