I touched on guilt and shame in the post, I am foolish of human mind also? (p.276). Nevertheless, I feel our practice of naming such 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 an intensive six-month period of creativity working out Correlations (p.565), I began experiencing a period of depression, or so I did think. Then I began to notice I had experienced elements of this incident before… I had just never named it. Up until then, life for me was either simply up or down, or various shades in between.
Calling it “depression” singled out the experience. The act of naming it nailed down its alleged reality. This is often unhelpful. While naming experiences eliminates the dreaded unknown, it also solidifies that which is often better left fluid, as chapter 21 puts it, only suddenly, only indistinct. In other words, naming induces our perception of a pseudo reality — only parts of the elephant — and easily blinds us to the rest of the picture. (Google [blind men and the elephant].)
In discussing guilt and shame, I told my son that I had never felt either guilt or shame, which he thought impossible. Was he correct? This reminds me of my depression experience. In reassessing my past, I assume I’ve felt some shame and guilt, but not enough to stick in memory. By not naming either surely helped make the experience forgettable. The uniquely Human problem we face results from thinking, naming, labeling, and lugging around and rehashing our labeled reality. Our story imprisons us.
Obviously, experiences must reach a certain threshold before we name them. Otherwise, we would run around labeling every trivial experience in life, and drive ourselves even more neurotic. For both shame and guilt, perhaps I never reach that threshold. As far back as I can remember, I’ve never felt a need to conform to the prevailing societal norm. Such detachment would naturally make me less socially susceptible to guilt and shame.
Guilt as a vital emotion in social relationships
The discussion with my son about guilt and shame (p.276) helps exemplify understanding vs. intuitive knowing. My son referred to some complex physiological ways of examining the nature of guilt. The idea being that through analyzing guilt thoroughly, one could find ways to understand and manage it. For me, complex analysis just beats around the bush, only offering up an illusion of resolution. Complexity is more a symptom arising from a lack of fundamental knowing. The simplest view illuminates. This is what makes Buddha’s Truths so powerful! Finding the simplest comprehensive view is also most difficult, from engineering problems to philosophical ones.
I deem guilt as being an innate social instinct, with an actual practical purpose of stimulating members of a group to interact. Additionally, guilt, along with competition, serves to set up the hierarchical relationships among social animals, humans included. Granted, this is the simplest view I’ve arrived at to date, at least one that can be spoken of. I mean, taken to the simplest level, words fail. Indeed, life is simpler than the words we use to describe it. The problem with putting even simple and straightforward observations into words is that misinterpretation is always inevitable. As chapter 43 offers, Not of words teaching, Without action advantage. Of course, this won’t work for my writing project here, so I’ll carry on…
Self-interest vs. group interest
Guilt and shame are most likely an emergent property (p.121) of conflicting needs (desires) and fears (worries) influencing social behavior. On one hand, one feels a social need to connect to the group, do the right thing socially for the group—the fair thing (see, Unfair Trade and Ape Aid, p.587). On the other hand, one feels a personal need to be happy and prevail. Thoughts of self and thoughts of the group vie for our attention, and an inner battle between opposing needs and fears develops. Logically, one’s guilt and shame should increase in proportion to how much self-interest wins out over one’s wishes for justice. Accordingly, I assume the modern belief in “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” causes guilt and shame to increase steadily.
Modern 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 needs 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. In contrast, the group member feeling a strong need for group bonding would experience anger and blame toward any member’s inclination to do their own thing. This explains why groups vigorously ostracize whistle blowers, even though their actions aim at a greater good.
Now honestly, doesn’t considering humanity from a zoological viewpoint help simplify and even illuminate… without the usual drama. Of course, this also eliminates the convoluted rationales that we use to judge and blame others. No wonder we prefer the complex view that avoids painful self-honesty and allows us to be hypocritical when emotionally necessary.
The biological side of guilt
Considering guilt as a biological and zoological dynamic is a more effective path to understanding. Psychology can frequently over-complicate and distract us from the universal, natural view. Neglecting to consider matters as symptomatic of underlying natural forces leads us astray. A rigorous Symptoms Point Of View (p.141) always leaves the unknowable door ajar.
Seeking out deeper underlying causes helps ensure that I never think that I know. As chapter 71 notes, Realizing I don’t’ know is better. Why? Because each cause I identify turns into a symptom of yet deeper causes… going right back to the Big Bang and even its mysterious ancestor. As chapter 4 says, 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 we can leave it in the realm of natural causes, rather than God, the devil, or some other scapegoat. Then, we can let our Taoist worldview handle the rest of the story.
Science does a lot more for advancing our sanity than is often appreciated. 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 nigh impossible, although there will always be pockets of disconnected souls 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 steps closer to appreciating the deeper mystery underlying biology, and even the ancestor of the Supreme Being.
The brain has a mind of its own
Alas, even with a simpler and more balanced view, I must remain actively aware of the bio-hoodwink acting upon me. To be honest, emotion constantly pulls the mind’s thoughts back to support my emotion’s non-rational “truth”, i.e., my current emotional reality. Buddha’s path (p.604) succinctly points out helpful steps to take to avoid this: Right Resolution keeps me remembering what Right Comprehension sees. Right Effort and Right Thought help keep my Right Resolution focused on my responsibility. Right State of Peaceful Mind motivates me to, as Buddha’s last words advised “Strive on diligently”. Even though as chapter 20 reminds, I Am Foolish Of Human Mind Also.
Evidently, our inclination to not know yet think that we know is an essential aspect of having a brain that has a mind of its own. Thought allows stories, gossip, ideals, myths, expectations, and such, to misdirect and lead us down one dead end after another. Isn’t that why, as chapter 41 puts it, The superior student hearing the way, diligently travels it. Isn’t life too short not to?
One way to look at this problem is to think of understanding as a layered process. True understanding always follows an intuitive, without words, knowing. Simply put, one must know before one can understand (see We only understand what we know, p.254) As far as I know, this only applies to Homo sapiens. For us, we are able to “understand” something long before we truly know. I should say pseudo understanding because it is more like mimicry that deeply knowing. In other words, we can understand the words without knowing the deep meaning. Instead, we misinterpret them to match our current emotional reality. Any deeper intuitive understanding occurs gradually and continually deepens over one’s lifetime.
So, how does one know one has deep knowing rather than merely an intellectual understanding? Chapter 71 answers this bluntly.
Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.
Man alone faults this disease; this so as not to be ill.
The sacred person is not ill, taking his disease as illness.
Man alone has this disease; this is because to him there is no illness.
UPDATE 2020: I now feel guilt, shame and blame as having deeper roots than in the fairness instinct alone, although that social instinct still plays a major role.
Shame, guilt and blame appear to be complimentary instincts, or perhaps they are fundamentally one since they are all forms of blame directed either inwards or outwards. When an animal perceives something disturbing, it naturally focuses on what is responsible for the disturbance it feels (‘blame’), with the intent to resolve the situation, often through some form of either flight (repulsion) or fight (attraction).
Buddha’s first Noble Truth describes the basis for the major disturbances that all animals are capable of feeling, “… sad it is to be joined with that which we dislike, sadder still is the separation from that which we love, and painful is the craving for that which can’t be obtained”. Naturally, it is impossible for an animal to perceive how and why it is ultimately responsible for the disturbance it feels. We’re not that different given that taking responsibility threatens the illusion of self—ego. Like all animals, we look outward blaming external forces for what disturbs us… it is “they” who are responsible.
Buddha’s 2nd Noble Truth observes. “…The surrounding world affects sensation and begets a craving thirst that clamors for immediate satisfaction. The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things. The desire to live for the enjoyment of self entangles us in the net of sorrows. Pleasures are the bait and the result is pain.” While this applies to all animals generally, only the part concerning cleaving and the illusion of self (ego) are human burdens. This makes our stories of blame, guilt, and shame sticky indeed.
Clearly, the human mind needs to cleave to belief to stabilize itself. Without that, we go insane. (See Belief in Nothing is Dangerous, p.160) That pressure to hold onto belief makes faultfinding narratives universal… it’s the disease chapter 71 points out. This is not so for chimpanzees, for example. They feel emotions of anger, fear, need, social bonding, fairness, etc. These same emotions in humans also strongly influence thought. The disease happens when these unscrutinized thoughts feed right back into our emotions, amplifying them to various degrees, causing unnecessary stress and suffering.
UPDATE 2022: Upon reflection, I also suspect that guilt and gratitude are complementary… two sides of the same coin. Pondering the difference between dogs and cats with regard to this offers a straightforward example. Interestingly, research shows that a sense of gratitude is linked to happiness. Does this apply to guilt—albeit subtly—as well?