For many people, living with deeply ingrained feelings of unworthiness has become the norm. The veils of unworthiness—which often include guilt, shame, remorse, anguish, and resentment—can be so dense that we feel like we’re sleepwalking through life.
Feeling unworthy is behavior based. We have the capacity to change our behavior. But first, we have to see clearly that the behavior patterns that cause us so much pain are based on cognitive misperceptions and coping mechanisms that sustain rather than dissolve our of unworthiness.
The primary trance-inducing veil is fear-based thinking. When we’re stuck in fear-based thinking we are driven by a need to succeed or dominate in order to feel that we have value in the world. We act out in inappropriate and destructive ways. The more we do this, the deeper our trance of unworthiness becomes.
It’s important to recognize that fear-based thinking is evolutionary. It’s called the negativity bias and as a survival mechanism it makes sense. Imagine that one of our early ancestors saw rustling in tall grasses. If his instincts consistently told him it was a tiger rather than a rabbit his risk of extinction decreases.
Today, in first world countries we do not live in life-threatening situations. But the fight/flight/freeze response still gets activated, mostly through the movies inside our head. When our mental movies are fear-based we tend to be either overtly or passively aggressive, conflict-avoidant, or frozen through indecisiveness.
The PECSI Group (Psychologists with a Buddhist Orientation) talks about the scary movie analogy. We enjoy scary movies where we willingly suspend our disbelief and allow our emotions to flow with the content of the movie, like being on an emotional rollercoaster.
But we don’t realize that we also suspend our disbelief in the movies inside our head. As a Zen teacher the movies I hear about from my students have a common theme: I’m not good enough to calm my mind. I’m not disciplined enough. My mind is too chaotic and my emotions are too sticky.
What is going on when people think they can’t meditate?
Well, for one thing, in meditation we are alone with our patterns. When discomfort arises in the form of physical or emotional pain, our tendency is usually to fight it, becoming agitated and irritable; but we have no distractions, so we’re stuck with it. Or we try to escape the discomfort through fantasy and then feel guilty or shameful. Or we freeze up like a stone, holding our mind in a state of rigid, unfeeling blankness. In meditation we see that fight/flight/freeze is still our knee-jerk reaction, even to ordinary life situations and within our relationships.
The second veil is emotional reactivity, which is also fear-based. We often use people, food, or activities like shopping or gambling or even worshipping to help us to avoid our reactive emotions. Maybe we use spiritual objects like altars. You may have an altar in every corner of your house. Well, that’s fine if it’s meant to remind you that your entire house is an altar and that everyday life is the place of enlightenment.
If you think that religious life is separate from ordinary life, that a spiritual calm is separate from the unruly surf of life’s great ocean, then you are caught in a mental movie about living a spiritual life. In real life, it is the nature of the ocean to create surf.
Emotions are powerful. They tend to drive our lives. Drive sounds negative, but it can also be positive. Look at Barack Obama. He’s smart. He can run different narratives simultaneously—philosophical ones, psychological ones—but it’s the depth of his hope, courage, joy and love that sustains him.
Adolf Hitler was also smart. But he was driven by anger and the painful emotions of betrayal. Look at how far these unwholesome emotions took him because he kept them revved up with rhetoric and compulsive thinking. He almost ruled the world.
The key is to bring our strong emotions into our awareness without fueling them with our stories. In meditation we learn to see a strong emotion as it arises. We feel its intensity and notice where in our body it is held. Eventually, we begin to see our reactive patterns. We notice how we magnify and generalize. How we weave a web around the emotion that constrains, dominates, and hypnotizes us. When we cling to our stories we are caught.
Yes, fear-based thinking is instinctual; but human beings are not limited by instinct. We have the capacity to choose, to change our behavior, and to cultivate skillful ways of responding to the world.
It begins with an acknowledgement that unworthiness is behavior based. Living skillfully means noticing (in a non-judgmental way) our thought patterns, their associated emotions, and our reactivity to those emotions. Buddha said, “All that we are is based on our thoughts.” I would add that our thoughts emanate from our understanding of the world and our place in it. From a Buddhist perspective our world is thoroughly interconnected and your place in it is right where you are.
Through a regular meditation practice our heart and mind open up to an experiential understanding of interconnection. Gradually, our thoughts change, our behaviors change, and the trance of unworthiness begins to dissolve. It is a very natural and organic process.
Excerpted from Burkett’s upcoming book Our Mystical Reality: A User’s Guide to Living in this Interconnected Universe. He is also the author of Nothing Holy About It: The Zen of Being Just Who You Are