I used the experience of guilt and shame for an example in my recent post, I am foolish of human mind also? (p.276) 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, p.565), 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. The act of naming 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, as chapter 21 puts it, only suddenly, only indistinct. In other words, naming creates an illusionary reality — just one small part of the elephant — and blinds us to the rest of the picture. (Google, blind men and the elephant).
In that recent post, I said that I told my son I had never felt either guilt or shame, which he deemed incredulous. Was he correct? This reminds me here of my depression experience. In reassessing my lack of guilt, I assume I’ve experience some form of shame and guilt, but not enough to stick for 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. We get locked into our story.
Obviously, experiences have to reach a certain threshold before we give them a name. Otherwise, we would neurotically run around labeling every miniscule moment of experience, and drive ourselves even crazier. For both shame and guilt, perhaps I seldom if ever reach that threshold. As far back as I can remember, I’ve never felt a need to conform to the prevalent societal norm. That 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. deep knowing. My son referred to some complex physiological ways of examining the nature of guilt. I suppose the idea being that through analyzing guilt thoroughly, one could find ways to understand and manage it. Frankly, I find complex analysis just beats around the bush offering up just illusions of resolution. I see complexity more as a symptom reflecting a lack of fundamental knowing. 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 stimulating members of a group to interact. Additionally, guilt, along with competition, also serves to set up the hierarchical relationships among social animals, humans included. This is the simplest view I’ve arrived at to date, at least one that can be spoken of, i.e., naturally, taken to the simplest level, words fail. Indeed, life is simpler than the words used to describe it. The problem with putting even simple and straightforward observations into words is that misinterpretation always enters the picture. As chapter 43 offers, Not of words teaching, Without action advantage. Of course, that would not work for this writing project of mine, so I’ll carry on…
Self-interest vs. group interest
Guilt and shame appear to be the result of two opposing needs with undercurrents of the ‘fairness gene’ influencing everything. (See, Unfair Trade and Ape Aid, p.587.) On one hand, one feels a social need to connect to the group, do the right thing socially for the group… do the fair thing. On the other hand, one feels the self-interest need to be happy and win at life. Thoughts of self and thoughts of the group vie for our attention, and an inner battle between opposing ideals ensues. Obviously, one’s guilt and shame increase in proportion to how much self-interest wins out over one’s ideals and expectations for fairness. Thus, I suppose the modern belief in “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” has caused guilt and shame to increase in recent times.
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 ostracize whistle blowers, even though their actions are virtuous.
Now honestly, doesn’t considering humanity 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 that avoids such painful honesty, and allows us to be hypocritical when emotionally necessary.
The biological side of guilt
Considering guilt as a biological and zoological dynamic is the more effective path to understanding. Psychology can frequently over-complicate and distract us from a universal view. Neglecting to consider matters as symptomatic of underlying natural causes leads to difficulty, as chapter 71 hints, Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty. A rigorous Symptoms Point Of View (p.141) always leaves the unknowable door somewhat ajar.
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. 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. After that, 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 the hoodwinked 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 emotional actuality at-the-moment. Buddha’s path really helps: 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 strive on diligently, even though as chapter 20 reminds me, 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 us, 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. As far as I know, this only applies to Homo sapiens. For us, we are able to understand things long before we truly know. I should say pseudo understanding because it is more like mimicry that deeply knowing. Deepest understanding based on intuitive knowing occurs gradually and continually over a lifetime.
The last question I ask myself is how does one know one has full understanding rather than merely an intellectual understanding? Chapter 71 offers the best answer I’ve found …
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 view 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 fundamentally they are actually one, i.e., they are all blame directed either inwards or outwards. When an animal perceives something disturbing, it naturally focuses attention 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 1st truth describes the basis for the major disturbances that all animals can feel, “… 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 unfeasible for an animal to perceive how and why it may be truly responsible for the disturbance it feels. For humans, any blame directed inwards easily threatens the illusion of self—ego. Overall, we look outward and blame external forces for whatever 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 desperately 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 endemic… 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.