I used the experience of guilt and shame for an example in my recent post, I am foolish of human mind also? 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. 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.
In that recent post, I said that I told my son I had never felt either guilt or shame, which he deemed incredulous. I had to ask myself who was correct, him or me. 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’ 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’. This story diverts us from our intrinsically broad reality by its focus on narrow aspects.
Obviously, 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 even crazier. For both shame and guilt, perhaps I seldom if ever reach that threshold. That makes sense… For as long 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 and Shame
The discussion with my son about guilt and shame 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 (1). Additionally, guilt, along with competition, also serves to set up the hierarchical relationships among in 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. Chapter 43 offers a fix for this: Not of words teaching, Without action advantage. Of course, that would not work for this writing project of mine, so I’ll carry on…
Viewed even more closely
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) 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 war of 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. The modern belief in the importance of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” would have caused guilt and shame to increase in recent times making for a booming business for psychotherapists. Note: It helps to keep in mind that all thoughts originate in their emotional roots.
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 ‘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). In contrast, 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 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.
Feeling Guilt Precludes Understanding 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 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’.
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’, 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.
The sacred person is not defective; taking his defect as a defect
Plainly, 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 stories, ‘gossip’, ideals, myths, expectations, and such, to lead our thoughts around makes life difficult. This lets ‘gossip’ destroy our journey into the mystery of the yet to be known. Isn’t that why, as chapter 41 puts it, The superior student hearing the way, diligently travels it. Isn’t life is too short not to?
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, we actually understand ‘stuff’ long before we know. I should say pseudo understanding because it is more like mimicry that deeply knowing. Deep understanding based on experiential ‘gut’ knowing occurs gradually and continually over one’s lifetime.
Think of it this way. You can understand the words and the principles of an issue with the cortex… the gray matter outer layers of the brain where rational thought and language take place. The knowing I refer to is more a whole-brain awareness, especially the mid and lower brain regions from where primal emotion arises.
The last question I ask myself is how does one know one has full understanding rather than merely an intellectual understanding? Well, through enlightenment, of course. Yes! I’m being facetious, but I just couldn’t resist. Seriously, 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.
(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. Besides being less social, I’ve always been honest and loyal, over the top at times. Maybe this compensates for being less social. Given the dynamics of guilt I identified above, I imagine self-interest has never outweighed my need for fairness.