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AWAKENING FROM THE TRANCE
OF UNWORTHINESS

O ur most fundamental sense of well beingis derived from the conscious experience of belonging. Relatedness isessential tosurvival. When we feel part of the whole, connected to our bodies, eachother and the livingEarth, there is a sense of inherent rightness, of being wakeful and in love.The experience of universal belonging is the heart of all mysticaltraditions. In realizing non-separation, we come home to our primordial andtrue nature.

The Buddha taught that suffering arises out of feeling separate. To thedegree that weare identified as a separate self, we have the feeling that something iswrong, something ismissing. We want life to be differentfrom the way it is. An acute sense of separation--living inside of acontracted and isolatedself--amplifies feelings of vulnerability and fear, grasping and aversion.Feeling separateis an existential trance in which we have forgotten the wholeness of ourbeing.

Never, in the history of the world, has the experience of a separate selfbeen soexaggerated and prevalent as it is now, in thetwenty-first century in the West. In contrast to Asian and other traditionalsocieties,our distinctive mode of identification is as individuals, without stablepreexisting contexts of belonging to families, communities, tribes orreligiousgroups. Our desperate efforts to enhance and protect this fragile self havecaused anunprecedented degree of severed belonging at all levels in our society.In our attempt to dominate the natural world, we have separated ourselvesfrom the earth. In our efforts to prove and defend ourselves, we have separated from eachother. Managing life from our mental control towers, we have separated ourselvesfrom our bodiesand hearts.

With our Western experience of an extremely isolated self, wefully exemplifywhat the Buddha described as self-centered suffering. If we identify as aseparate self,we are the background "owner" of whatever occurs. AgahnBuddhadasa, a twentiethcentury Thai meditation master, describes this conditioning to attach anidea of self toexperience as "I-ing" and "my-ing." Life happens--emotions well up,sensations arise,events come and go--and we then add on to the experience that they are happening to me, because of me.

When inevitable pain arises, we take it personally. We are diagnosed witha disease orgo through a divorce, and we perceive that we are the cause ofunpleasantness(we're deficient) or that we are the weak and vulnerable victim (stilldeficient.) Sinceeverything that happens reflects on me, when something seems wrong, thesource of wrongis me. The defining characteristic of the trance of separation is thisfeeling and fearingof deficiency.

Both our upbringing and our culture provide the immediate breeding groundfor thiscontemporary epidemic of feeling deficient and unworthy. Many of us havegrown up withparents who gave us messages about where we fell short and how we should bedifferentfrom the way we are. We were told to be special, to look a certain way, toact a certainway, to work harder, to win, to succeed, to make a difference, and not to betoo demanding,shy or loud. An indirect but insidious message for many has been " Don't beneedy." Becauseour culture so values independence, self-reliance and strength, even theword "needy" evokesshame. To be considered as needy is utterly demeaning, contemptible. Andyet, here we allare with needs--physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual. So the basic messageis, "Your naturalway of being is not okay; to be acceptable you must be different from theway you are."

Almost two decades ago, author John Bradshaw and others enlarged ourculturalself-awareness by calling attention to the crippling effect of shame. Sincethen, manyhave recognized the pervasive presence of shame much like we might aninvisible toxin inthe very air we breathe. Feeling "not good enough" is that often unseenengine that drivesour daily behavior and life choices. Fear about failure and rejection feedsaddictive behavior:We become trapped in workaholism--an endless striving to accomplish--and weoverconsume tonumb the persistent presence of fear. 

In the most fundamental way,the fear ofdeficiency prevents us from being intimate or at ease anywhere. Failurecould be aroundany corner, so it is hard to lay down our hypervigilance and relax. Whetherwefear being exposed as defective either to ourselves or to others, we carrythe sense thatIf they knew..., they wouldn't love us. A winning entry for the Washington Post T-shirt contest highlights the underlying assumption of personal deficiencythat is so emblematic of Western culture: "I have occasional delusions of adequacy."

During high school, I consciously struggled with not liking myself, butduring collegeI was distressed by the degree of self-aversion.  On a weekend outing,a roommate describedher inner process as "becoming her own best friend." I broke down sobbing,overwhelmed atthe degree to which I was unfriendly toward my life. My habit for years hadbeen to be harshand judgmental toward what I perceived as a clearly flawed self. Myattachment to self-improvement transferred itself into the domain of spiritual practice. While I realizedat the time that kindness was intrinsic to spiritual life, in retrospect it is clear howfeeling unworthy directly shaped my approach to spiritual life.

I moved into an ashram and spenttwelve years trying to be more pure--waking up early, doing hours of yogaand meditation,organizing my life around service and community. I had some idea that if Ireally appliedmyself, it would take eight or ten years to spiritually awaken. Theactivities were wholesome,but I was still aiming to upgrade a flagging self. Periodically I would goto see a spiritualteacher I admired and inquire, "So, how am I doing? What else can I do?"Invariably, thesedifferent teachers responded, "Just relax." I wasn't sure what they meant,but I didn'tthink they meant "relax." How could they? I clearly wasn't "there" yet.

During a six-week Buddhist meditation retreat, I spent at least twelvedays with astomach virus. Not only was there physical discomfort, but I found that Imade my self"wrong" for being sick. Having already struggled with chronic sickness, thisretreat madeit clear just how harshly I had been relating to myself. Sickness had becomeanother signof personal deficiency. My assumption was that I didn't know how to takecare of myself.I feared that being sick reflected unworthiness and a basic lack ofspiritualmaturity.

In one of the evening dharma talks, a teacher said, "The boundary to whatwe canaccept is the boundary to our freedom." For me this rang incredibly true. Ihad been hittingthat boundary repeatedly, contracted by the almost invisible tendency tobelieve somethingwas wrong with me. Wrong if I was fatigued, wrong if my mind was wandering,wrong ifI was anxious, wrong if I was depressed. The overlay of shame convertedunpleasant experiencesinto a verdict on self. Pain turned into suffering. In the moment that Imade a myself wrong,the world got small and tight. I was in the trance of unworthiness.

Several years ago, at a meeting with a group of Western teachers, theDalai Lama expressedastonishment at the degree of self-aversion and feelings of unworthinessreported by Westernstudents. I know many friends and students who have found, as I did, thateven after decadesof spiritual practice, they are still painfully burdened by feelings ofpersonal deficiency.Many assumed that meditation alone would take care of it. Instead, theyfound that deep pocketsof shame and self-aversion had a stubborn way of persisting over the years.

Carl Jung describes a paradigm shift in understanding the spiritual path:Rather thanclimbing up a ladder seeking perfection, we are unfolding into wholeness.We are not tryingto transcend or vanquish the difficult energies that we consider "wrong"--the fear, shame,jealousy, anger. This only creates a shadow that fuels our sense ofdeficiency. Rather, weare learning to turn around and embrace this life, in all it'srealness--broken, messy, vivid,alive.

Yet even when our intentions in spiritual practice is to includethe difficult energies,we still have strong conditioning to resist their pain. The experience ofshame--feelingfundamentally deficient--is so excruciating that we will do whatever we canto avoid it. Theetymology of the word shame is "to cover". Rather than feel the rawness ofshame, we developlife strategies to cover and compensate for its presence. We stay physicallybusy and mentallypreoccupied, absorbed in endless self-improvement projects. We numbourselves with food andother substances. We try to control and change ourselves with self-judgment,or relieveinsecurity by blaming others. We are so sufficiently defended that we canspend yearsmeditating and never really include in awareness the feared and rejectedparts of our experience.

Often those who feel plagued by not being good enough are drawn toidealistic cosmologiesthat highlight the sense of personal deficiency but offer the possibility ofbecoming adramatically different person. The quest for perfection is based in theassumption that weare faulty and must purify and transcend our lower nature. This perceptionof spiritualhierarchy, of progressing from a lower to higher self can be found inelements of mostWestern and Eastern religions.

When we are in the process of trying toascend, we neverarrive and always feel spiritually insufficient. This was clearly the caseduring my firstyears of practice in pursuit of becoming a more perfect yogi. The temporaryand passing states of peace or rapture were never enough to soothe my underlying sense ofunworthiness. I felt continuously compelled to do more. An alternative face of such insecurityis spiritual pride. The very accomplishments--like improved concentration or periods ofbliss--if owned by the self, reinforce a sense of a deficient self that is moving up the ladder.With either pride or shame, our awareness is identified as an entity that is separate andafraid of failure.

In my own unfolding, as well as with friends, clients and dharmastudents, an intentionalspotlight on shame and unworthiness has been enormously revealing. Manypeople have told methat when they realize how pervasive their self-aversion is and how longtheir life has beenimprisoned by shame, it brings up a sense of grief, as well as life-givinghope. Fear ofdeficiency is a prison that prevents us from belonging to our world. Healingand freedombecome possible as we include the shadow--the unwanted, unseen and unfeltparts of ourbeing--in a wakeful and compassionate awareness.

FOR A CHILD TO FEELbelonging,he or she needs to feel understood and loved. Wereach a fundamental sense of connectedness when we are seen and when what isseen is held in love. We habitually relate to our inner life in the same wayothersattended to us. When our parents (and the larger culture) don't respond toour fears,are too preoccupied to really listen to our needs, or send messages that weare fallingshort, we then adopt similar ways of relating to our own being. Wedisconnect and banishparts of our inner life.

Meditation practices are a form of spiritualreparenting.  We are transforming these deeply rooted patterns of innerrelating bylearning to bring mindfulness and compassion to our life. An open andaccepting attentionis radical because it flies in the face of our conditioning to assess whatis happening as wrong. We are deconditioning the habit of turning against ourselves,discovering that in this moment's experience nothing is missing or wrong.

The trance of unworthiness, sustained by the movement of blaming,striving and self-numbing,begins to lift when we stop the action. The Buddha engaged in his mythicprocess of awakeningafter coming to rest under the bodhi tree. We start to cut through thetrance in the momentthat we, like the Buddha, discontinue our activity and pay attention. Ourwillingness tostop and look--what I call the sacred art of pausing--is at the center ofall spiritualpractice. Because we get so lost in our fear-driven busyness, we need topause frequently.

The Buddha realized his natural wisdom and compassion through a nightlongencounter withthe forces of greed, hatred and delusion. We face the shadow deities bypausing and attendingto whatever presents--judging mind, depression, anxiety, obsessive thinking,compulsivebehaviors. Because shame and fear are often not fully conscious, we candeepen this attentionby inquiring into what is happening. Caring self-inquiry invites thehabitually hidden partsof our being into awareness.

If I pause in the midst of feeling even mildly anxious or depressed andask, "What am Ibelieving?" I usually discover an assumption that I am falling short orabout to fail in someway. The emotions around this belief become more conscious as Iinquire, "What wants attention or acceptance this moment?" Frequently Ifind contractions offear under the story of insufficiency. I find that the trance issustained only when I reject or resist experience. As I recognize the mentalstory and opendirectly to the bodily sense of fear, the trance of unworthiness begins todissolve.

There are times that the grip of fear and shame is overt andvicelike. At a retreat I led a few years ago a young man named Ron came intoan interviewwith me and announced that he was the most judgmental person in the world.He went on to provehis point, describing how scathing he was towards his every thought, mood orbehavior. When he felt back pain, he concluded that he was an "out of shape couch potato,not fit for a zafu." When his mind wandered, he concluded he was hopeless as ameditator. During the lovingkindness meditation, he was disgusted to find that his heart feltlike a cold stone. In approaching an interview with me, he felt caught in the clutch offear, embarrassed that he would be wasting my time. While others were notexempt, his most constant barrage of hostility was directed at himself. I asked him if he knew how long he had been turning so harshly on himself.He paused forquite a while, his eyes welling up in tears. It was for as long as he couldremember. He hadjoined in with his mother, relentlessly badgeringhimself and turning away from the hurt in his heart.

The recognition of how many moments of his life had been lost toself-hatred brought up adeep sorrow. I invited him to sense where his body felt the most pain andvulnerability.He pointed to his heart, and I asked him how he felt towards his hurtingheart this moment."Sad" he responded, "and very sorry." I encouraged him to communicate thatto his innerlife--to put his hand on his heart, and send the message, "I care about thissuffering." Ashe did this, Ron began to weep deeply.

In Buddhist meditation, a traditional compassion practice is to seesuffering and offerour prayer of care. Thich Nhat Hanhsuggests that when we are with someone who is in pain, we might offer thisdeeply healingmessage: "Darling, I care about your suffering." We rarely offer this careor tenderness toourself. We are definitely not used to touching ourself, bringing the sametenderness that wemight to stroking the cheek of a sleeping child, and gently placing a handon our own cheekor heart. For the remaining days of the retreat, this was Ron's practice.When he became awareof judging, he would consciously feel the vulnerability in his body--theplace that for solong had felt pushed away, frightened, rejected. With a very gentle touch,he would placehis hand on his heart and send the prayer of care. Ron was sitting in thefront of themeditation hall, and I noticed that his hand was almost always resting onhis heart. 

When we met before the closing of the retreat, Ron's whole countenancewas transformed.His edges had softened, his body was relaxed, his eyes were bright. Ratherthan feelingembarrassed, he seemed glad to see me. He said that the judgments had beenpersistent but not so brutal. By feeling the woundedness and offering care,he had openedout of the rigid roles of judge and accused. He went on to tell mesomething that hadtouched him deeply. When he had been walking in the woods, he passed a womenwho wasstanding still and crying quietly. He stopped several minutes later down thetrail and could feel his heart hold and care for her sadness. Self-hatredhad walled himoff from his world. The experience of connection and caring foranother was the blessing of a heart that was opening.

The Buddha said that our fear is great, but greater yet is the truth ofour connectedness.While Ron was able to rediscover connection and loosen the tranceof unworthiness by tenderly offering kindness to his wounds, we might feeltoo small, tootight and aversive to open to the pain that is moving through us. At thesetimes it helps toreach out, to discover an enlarged belonging through our friends, sangha,family, and theliving Earth. A man approached the Dalai Lama and asked him how to deal withthe enormousfear he was feeling. The Dalai Lama responded that he should imagine thathe was in thelap of the Buddha.

Any pathway of remembering our belonging to this world alleviates thetrance of separationand unworthiness. After his night under the bodhi tree, the Buddha was veryawake but notfully liberated. Mara had retreated but not vanished. With his right hand,the Buddha touchedthe ground and called on the Earth goddess to bear witness. By reaching outand honoringhis connectedness to all life, his belonging to the web of life, the Buddharealizedthe fullness of freedom.

We are not doing this path alone, building spiritual muscles, climbingthe ladder tobecome more perfect. Rather, we are discovering the truth of our relatednessthrough belongingto these bodies and emotions, to each other and this whole natural world. Aswe realize ourbelonging, the trance of unworthiness dissolves. In its place is notworthiness; that is another assessment of self. Rather, we are no longercompelled to blameor hide or fix our being. When we turn and embrace what has felt sopersonal, we awakenfrom feelings of separateness and find that we are in love with all of life.Rumi writes,

"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
Doesn't make any sense."

Written by: Tara Brach

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