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How spiritual principles can feed our shame and do us harm

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

Spiritual principles can do a more harm than good. As a yogi and devoted practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism that might seem like an odd thing for me to say, so bare with me. I cannot tell you how often I am sat across from a client saying, "I know I should be more… forgiving, compassionate, accepting, grateful, positive" and so on.

The problem with adopting spiritual principles is that they become just another ´should´, and where there is ´should´ there is usually shame – the sense that there is something wrong with us, with our feelings, or with our experience.

Let me give you some examples:

You don’t get the promotion you were excited about and had worked hard for. You feel disappointed, frustrated, and disillusioned, but spiritual principles say that you just need to accept it. It obviously wasn’t meant to be, trust the universe. Spiritual principles say be positive, be grateful for what you’ve got, at least you still have a job!

A loved one treats you terribly, says some awful untrue things, and then cuts you off completely. You are devastated, heartbroken, and also a little outraged. Spiritual principles say you should be compassionate and not take it personally - they are obviously having a hard time right now.

You had a dysfunctional upbringing (most of us did), and as an adult you start to see how affected you are by the issues that your parents never took responsibly for dealing with. You are now left sifting through a messy emotional inheritance and doing the healing work they didn’t care to. You feel deeply hurt and desperately angry by a lot of what you are uncovering as you explore your story. Spiritual principles say that they did the best they could and you need to forgive.

I could go on.

We adopt spiritual principles because we believe that they will benefit us and elevate our lives in some way. We also live in a culture that encourages us to do so because it has an unhealthy addiction to all things positive. We live in a world that struggles to honour the whole, holy, human experience. This is why our shadow is so dominant - all our repressed rage and pain spews out sideways as greed and violence. We are told that acceptance will gift us peace, that gratitude and positivity are how we cultivate more joy, and that compassion and forgiveness are the keys to personal freedom.

In truth, what I see the majority of the time is so called spiritual principles becoming just another avenue fro the trauma to express - just another way to shame and silence and abandon ourselves - continually rejecting and judging how we really feel. We may find momentary soothing in a quick fix spiritual bypass but in the long run, authentic peace and freedom will remain elusive – why?

Because repressed emotion is for the most part the very thing that blocks us from peace, ease and joy. Supressed emotion clogs the subconscious – what we could also call the cellular system or body mind. We live in a traumatised and emotionally frozen culture that is terrified of authentic expression, so most of us have been pushing down feelings since before we were old enough to name them.

Even less "offensive" emotions like sadness are only acceptable to a limit – how many times has someone tried to comfort you by saying "ah don’t cry"? Notice how you feel, what happens in your body the next time someone says that to you. I

So we need to learn to feel fully. This is not to be confused with self indulgent dramatisation of every emotional current that moves through us. When we become melodramatic with out emotions this is usually a sign our needs were neglected when we were little - its the toddler in us crying out for someone, anyone, to please meet our needs. So I'm not shaming it. I've done a lot of it in my life. But when we talk about feeling fully we have to have a balanced view of what is meant by that. It is simply to learn to connect with and be honest about what we feel in the body, and honour it rather than repress it. To do anything other than this is to simply compound the problem - to continue to shame and silence the child or True Self within us who is hurting and desperate to be heard. When we reject our emotions and plaster them over with spiritual pleasantries we abandon ourselves and re-enact the emotional neglect many of us experienced as children.,

The greatest irony of all is that we can find acceptance for the lost promotion by grieving it and honouring the immense disappointment. We can discover compassion for the loved one who treated us terribly by grieving the loss and raging at the injustice. We will fall across forgiveness for our dysfunctional families, simply by allowing ourselves to cry and scream and shake and shout and do what we have to to let it all out. This too is a grief process. It will come in many layers and likely take many years, but the forgiveness we ultimately come to feel will be heartfelt, rather than being a manufactured emotion we designed to side step our pain.

Clearing the inner emotional blockages is in many ways, the process of healing itself. Healing is a process not just of feeling, but of grieving. As we learn to express our emotions in healthy ways and grieve each and every loss, big or small, past or present, we find ourselves moving through waves of changing emotion as the energy takes its own natural course through the body. Once the energy of each emotional experience is fully expressed, the system begins to settle, the storm clouds clear … and we suddenly find ourselves feeling at peace with what is and what has been.

You see, acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, these are not principles, they are experiences and if we try to force the principles upon ourselves prematurely, we actually block ourselves from ever being able to access them authentically. There is nothing wrong with our rage, frustration, envy or anything else that we feel. These are all human emotions. The path to awakening is not to deny them, but to learn to investigate them, to hold them in both curiosity and compassion. We heal by unwinding them, by seeking to understand their deeper roots and learning to treat ourselves with loving kindness. We cannot bully ourselves well nor can we shame ourselves awake.

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