I used the experience of guilt and shame for an example in my recent post, I am foolish of human mind also? Really though, I feel our habit of naming emotional experiences deserves its own post, so here goes, beginning with a personal example…
Up until thirty years ago, I had never experienced depression… or so I didn’t think. Following a very intensive six-month period of creativity (i.e.working out correlations) I began experiencing a period of depression, or so I did think. Then I began noticing that elements of what I was experiencing I had experienced before… I just never named the experience. Up to then, life was either up or down, or various shades in between.
Calling it “depression” singled out the experience; in some ways, the naming of it nailed down the ‘reality’ of it. That is not necessarily helpful. While such naming of experiences eliminates the dreaded unknown, it also highlights and nails down that which is often best left to flow only suddenly, only indistinct. In other words, names create an illusionary reality—just one small part of the elephant—and blind us to the rest of the picture.
In that recent post, I said that I told my son Luke that I had never felt either guilt or shame, which he deemed incredulous. I had to ask myself who was correct, him or I? This reminded me of my ‘depression’. In reassessing my lack of guilt, I assume I’ve experience some form of shame and guilt, but not enough to ‘stick’ long. I’d say, not naming it as such played a role in keeping it from ‘sticking’. The unique problem we face results from thinking, naming, labeling, and lugging around and rehashing our ‘labeled reality.
I suppose experiences have to reach a certain threshold before we give them a name. Otherwise, we would run about labeling every miniscule moment of experience, and drive ourselves insane. For both shame and guilt then, perhaps I seldom if ever reach that threshold. That makes sense, because from infancy I have always marched to the beat of my own drum, which naturally makes me less socially susceptible to guilt. That may also be why playing music on the beat is so challenging!
Guilt and Shame
The discussion with my son about guilt and shame helps exemplify knowing vs. understanding. My son referred to some complex physiological ways of examining the nature of guilt. I suppose the idea being that through analyzing it thoroughly, one could find a way to manage it. Frankly, I’ve never found complexity in perspective effective at resolving anything. I see complexity more as a symptom reflecting an essential lack of knowing and understanding. Seeking the simplest view illuminates. That is what makes Buddha’s Truths so utterly powerful! Finding the simplest comprehensive view is also the most difficult, from engineering problems to philosophical ones.
Anyway, I countered with my simpler zoology based view. I see guilt as being merely an innate social instinct, with the express practical purpose of pushing and pulling members of a group to interact (1). Additionally, guilt, along with competition, also serves to set up the hierarchical relationships between people… and other social animals. This is the simplest view I’ve arrived at to date, at least the one that can be spoken. Naturally, taken to the simplest level, words fail. In other words, it is simpler than the words used to describe it. The problem with putting a simpler and straightforward view into words is that misinterpretation always enters the picture. The solution: Not of words teaching, Without action advantage. Of course, that approach would not be very blog worthy! So, I’ll carry on…
Viewed even more closely
Guilt and shame would seem to be the result of two opposing needs with undercurrents of what I call the fairness gene influencing everything. First, one feels a social need to be connected to the group, do the ‘right thing’ socially for the group… do the ‘fair’ thing. Second, one feels the self-oriented need to do be ‘happy’, ‘fulfilled’, ‘spread your wings and fly’ and ‘win’ at life. Thoughts of self and thoughts of the group vie for our attention, and an inner war of opposing ideals ensues (these ‘thoughts’ originate in their emotional roots, of course). I imagine that the sense of guilt and shame increases in proportion to how much self-interest wins out over one’s ideals and expectations for fairness. Having been led to believe in “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, I suppose guilt and shame have increased over the centuries, making for a booming business for psychotherapists.
Modern humanist ideals of self determination, and the desires these ideals stir, must perturb the social instincts that cause guilt and shame. Given the social bonding purpose of these instincts, it is reasonable to assume that feeling guilt and shame increases in proportion to increases in self-interest. Mother Nature ‘wants’ social animals to bond rather than be off doing their own thing. Consequently, an increasing need to do your own thing would naturally induce painful conflict: self-interest desires vs. group-interest desires. We call that conflict guilt (2). On the other hand, the group member feeling a persistent need for group bonding would experience anger toward any member’s inclination to do their own thing. This explains why groups ostracize whistle blowers, even though their actions are virtuous.
Now honestly, doesn’t considering humans from a zoological standpoint help simplify and clarify? Of course, it also eliminates the convoluted rationales that we use to judge and blame others. No wonder we prefer the complex view; it give us something to hide behind, and be hypocritical when desired.
Feeling Guilt Precludes Understanding Guilt
Considering guilt as a biological and zoological dynamic is the more effective path to understanding. Contemporary psychobabble over-complicates and distracts from a more universal and sound view. Neglecting to see things a symptomatic of underlying natural causes leads to difficulty, as chapter 71 puts it, Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty.
Seeking out the deeper and unknown underlying causes helps ensure that I never think that I know. Why? Because each cause I manage to identify turns into a symptom of yet deeper causes… going right back to the Big Bang and even its mysterious ‘ancestor’. i.e., I don’t know of whose child it is, It resembles the ancestor of the Supreme Being.
At some point, science, with its commitment to impartiality, will lay out the biological basis for all human experience. Even then we won’t truly know. However, at least then we can leave it in the lap of natural causes, rather than the ‘devil’ or some other scapegoat. For the rest of the ‘story’ we can just turn our mind’s eye to a Taoist worldview; am I right?
Science does a lot more for advancing our sanity than is often realized. For example, the Aztecs killed thousands under the belief that such sacrifice would insure the Sun’s daily ‘rebirth’ in the sky. Knowing the science behind the Sun now makes that impossible least culture wide, although there will always be pockets of the misinformed who will believe in anything, including the virtue of blood sacrifice. Eventually, science will force most humans to face their biological reality, which will bring us a few step closer to appreciating the deeper mystery underlying biology, and even the ‘ancestor of the Supreme Being’.
Forever, a Work in Progress
Alas, even with a simpler and more balanced view, I must remain actively aware of the bio-hoodwink acting upon me. I say alas, because emotion constantly bubbles up to steer the mind back to support emotion’s non-rational ‘truth’—my emotional standpoint at-the-moment. Buddha nailed it all right: Right Mindfulness keeps me remembering what Right Understanding sees. Right Concentration and Right Attentiveness keep Right Mindfulness pointed in the right direction. Right Effort pulls Right Concentration to stay attentive. But, double alas, I Am Foolish Of Human Mind Also?
The sacred person is not defective; taking his defect as a defect
Clearly, our tendency to not know yet think that we know is part-and-parcel of having a brain that has a mind of its own. Allowing the story, ‘gossip’, ideals, myth, expectations, and such, to lead our thoughts around like a bull with a ring through its nose, makes life difficult. Doing this, we let the ‘gossip’ destroy our journey into the mystery of the yet to be known. That is why, When the best student hears about the way he practices it assiduously.
One way to look at this problem is to think of understanding as being a two-part process. A few years ago I more clearly began to realize how one must know before one can understand, as I have discussed in past posts (e.g. see You Know). Naturally, this only applies to us thinking animals. For us, it is not only possible to understand long before we know, it is also typical. True understanding based on experiential ‘gut’ knowing occurs gradually (and continually) over a lifetime.
Think of it this way. You can understand the words and the principles involved with the cortex—those gray matter outer layers of the brain where much of rational thought and language takes place. The knowing to which I refer is more of a whole-brain awareness, especially tapping into mid and lower brain regions from where primal emotion arises.
So, the last question I need to ask myself is how does one know one has true and complete understanding rather than merely an intellectual understanding? Well, through enlightenment, of course. Yes! I’m being facetious, but I just couldn’t resist. Seriously though, returning to chapter 71 helps immensely…
Realizing I don’t know is superior, not knowing this realization is a defect.
Man alone faults this defect, this so as not to be defective.
The sacred person is not defective, taking his defect as a defect.
Man alone has this defect, this is because to him there is no defect.
(1) I tried to find a photo of a cat looking guilty for this post, but only found dogs and monkeys with a sufficiently guilty look. Then I realized, unlike primates and canines, cats are not very social and so don’t utilize guilt and shame in their behavior.
(2) I now have another possible reason why I don’t feel much guilt (although naming the experience still plays a major role in making whatever is felt worse). Besides being less social, I’ve always been an intensely loyal person, not by choice mind you! I was just born that way. So, given the dynamics of guilt I identified above, I imagine self-interest has never outweighed my drive for or ideals surrounding fairness. There’s more to this story, but I’ve said enough for now!