"Each of us must live according to the physical and mental capacities that nature presents centered only on the needs, interests and concerns that mysteriously arise in any moment."—Darryl Bailey
The vast majority of my clients seek help to deal with guilt and shame. They feel that they’re a bad person for cheating on their partner or a failure for being passed over for a big promotion.
Underlying these types of self-critical statements is a belief that we all take for granted but actually causes a lot of unnecessary suffering. I’m talking about the conviction that we all have an actual self (an "I" or "me") who is personally responsible for what we do. We chastise ourselves constantly, thinking of our poor choices as a result of personal weaknesses or inadequacies.
By supporting individuals in recognizing, exploring and accepting shameful emotions, conventional Western therapy can be somewhat useful. But beyond that paradigm—which still puts an "I" at the center—there is spiritual perspective known as non-duality, which offers an essential tenet for eliminating the root cause of guilt and shame.
According to non-dual perspective, our true identity is not an individual self but rather an unexplainable, spontaneous, vibrant dynamic, which appears as everything that exists in the world. Our individual selves do not exist separately from this creative life energy—hence, the term non-dual.
What does non-duality mean in terms of behavior?
Non-duality describes the idea that all of our intentions, urges, desires, and actions are movements of a collective energy. There is no "I" or "me" to control. We cannot blame or shame ourselves for our "failings" when whatever happened did so the only way it could have.
Some may argue that the elimination of fault could be used as an excuse for recklessness and irresponsibility. But under the principles of non-duality, someone who would choose to act in this manner is already conditioned by life to do so. Non-duality is only a rationalization; it's never a cause of deviant behavior. Fortunately, most people are expressed in decent, considerate ways. For example, most of us—even with the knowledge that we would never be caught—would never rob our neighbor’s home. And, if life did occasionally express us maliciously, there also arises natural, genuine feelings of remorse and the desire to make amends.
Here's what it looks like in practice.
There is a simple exercise that clearly illustrates our inseparability from life. If asked to sit down and just notice what happens, you may report an ongoing flow of sights, sounds, sensations, and breath. When asked what you are doing to make any of this happen, the obvious answer is "nothing." It becomes obvious that this dance of life is freely appearing and disappearing moment by moment.
The same is true for thinking. Thoughts appear and disappear. You might think, "I am hearing" or "I am seeing." But, upon examination, you will find that sounds, sights, thoughts, and breath simply arise, and it is only another thought that owns the process and claims, "I am making all of this happen." However, if the "I" is carefully inspected, it has no actual existence. Rather, it is a component of a fleeting thought. Further evidence of the falsity of the claim of "I" is the example of a baby. A baby is capable of seeing, hearing, breathing, and sensing before the development of language and the sense of a personal self.
It becomes clear that you are not the author or director of your life. Once you accept this, you can move away from blame, guilt, shame, and suffering. Realizing that events could not have happened differently brings an acceptance of life's unfolding, even if it is disliked. This is particularly useful when feeling shame for an undesirable action that you believe was your fault. Ask, "What would've needed to happen to have produced a more favorable result?" By repeatedly asking this question, you soon realize that a different outcome could only have happened if different circumstances and conditions had occurred, and that this possibility was never in your control to begin with.
For example, a client of mine was feeling guilty for getting drunk and wrecking his car. He was mercilessly berating himself. I asked the question, "What would've had to happen for you not to have gotten drunk?" His response was that he should have stopped drinking after one drink. I asked again. His response was that he would have needed to have the thought to stop drinking after one. Once again, I asked the question. His response was, "The thought would've just appeared." "Did it appear?" I asked. "No," he answered. "Then how could you have possibly told yourself to stop after the one drink?" As he grasped the impossibility, there was an immediate look of relief on his face.
Non-duality claims that we are unique expressions of life itself and not autonomous individuals. This expression is designed, inspired, animated, and directed by life's creative flow. We don't choose our parents, bodies, brains, neurochemistry, interests, or influences. And we don’t control our lives. Once non-dual inquiries and reflections are sincerely considered and followed, one can realize their non-dual identity as life itself. With this realization, blame, shame,and guilt naturally fall away and what remains is a sense of well-being and opening to all of life’s offerings.