Embracing Love for Ourselves: Overcoming Guilt and Shame

Embracing Unconditional Love, Part 1

Last week in our post on the New Spiritual Awakening, we discussed the wave of awakening that is rippling through humanity, a rebirth of consciousness based on Unconditional Love. I gushed on and on about the wonders of Love and the hope it brings for humanity.

But you might be wondering, what does this have to do with my everyday life?

Let’s suppose for a second there is a New Love Revolution taking place, a swelling tide of emerging consciousness on a scale similar to the Enlightenment – what does that mean for each of us in our daily existence? We still need to work, pay rent, interact with family, and deal with assholes as we try to get through each week.

The idea of a new spiritual awakening is nice to entertain, but until it leads to sweeping social changes that meaningfully impact our lives, does it really matter?

The answer is Yes! An era of radical change is upon us, but the message of Unconditional Love must spread wider before we begin to witness physical transformation on a large scale.

Yet we can all actively participate in this New Love Revolution right now. The only thing we need to do is embrace Love: Love for ourselves, for our experience, and for other people.

It starts with Love for ourselves. This will be a struggle for many of us, because we’re often haunted by our failings. We have all made poor decisions that led to negative consequences. Perhaps we’ve even “ruined” our lives or the lives of others with the mistakes we’ve made.

If you struggle to love yourself, you’re not alone. Many of us have deeply ingrained feelings of shame and unworthiness that make it impossible to feel Love for ourselves, that make us feel like we’re inherently flawed, unworthy humans.

So the big question is how? How do we love ourselves when we’ve spent so much of our lives thinking there’s something wrong with us?

We may have heard messages urging us to “think positive thoughts”. However we can’t just ignore our negative self-talk and force ourselves to be positive, that only temporarily represses the negativity, forcing it to come out sideways at a later time. And then we blame ourselves for failing to think positive, further reinforcing the shame-spiral.

We can’t force ourselves to love ourselves. Instead, the answer is to embrace the negative thoughts, embrace the feelings of shame and guilt. Stop trying to hide from them and bring them into the spotlight. Fully examine them in minute detail.

If you feel guilt for things you’ve done in the past, if you feel shame for decisions you’ve made, the pain you’ve caused for other people and for yourself, then examine that. Or maybe you feel like you’re still messing up your life, letting others down? Perhaps it feels you’ve self-sabotaged yourself your entire life, preventing you from achieving your full potential? Embrace those feelings, bring them out in the open.

With these feelings out in the light, let’s examine them through the Buddhist concept of Maitri: the idea of fully accepting ourselves – mistakes, guilt and all – with Lovingkindness. (For more on Lovingkindness, check out Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg.)

A key tenet of Lovingkindness is that we are all doing the best we are capable of in any given moment. That may sound like a load of new-agey baloney, but modern cognitive science is producing evidence to support this notion.

A substantial body of research suggests that feelings lie at the root of all thoughts, and thoughts lie at the root of all behaviors. We may think we are consciously in control of our minds, but the evidence suggests otherwise. (For more details on this idea, check out this video: A Modular Model of the Mind, or read Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True.) This is why we sometimes feel compelled to do “bad” things, to make “wrong” choices.

When we make a bad decision, when we have a thought about doing something we know is not productive, but we act on it anyway – that’s because the feeling driving that thought is too strong to override. It’s not a flaw in our character, it’s not because we lack self-control. It’s because the feeling underlying the behavior carries more force than any other feelings driving alternate behaviors.

Now stop and consider, do you choose the feelings you have? Do you decide which feelings pop into your mind?

Of course not, no one decides what they’re going to feel. When the conditions come together for a feeling to arise, it arises.

Those conditions are determined by three factors: our inherited personality tendencies, the experiences we lived through growing up (which shaped our personality and the programming in our brains), and the current circumstances in which we find ourselves.

This idea is critical, so let’s repeat it: The feelings we have, which determine the thoughts we have and the behaviors we act out, all arise within our minds as a result of those three conditions: our inherited personality tendencies, our upbringing, and our current environment.

We don’t deserve the guilt and shame we heap upon ourselves, because even the worst feelings we have, even the most sinful, dirty, destructive urges and desires we feel – those arise because of our conditioning. When we have bad thoughts or feelings, that does not mean we are bad people. We have no control over the thoughts and feelings that arise in our minds.

So those mistakes we made, although we are responsible for them and we have to deal with the consequences, those mistakes do not mean we’re bad people, we’re not weak, or sinful, or evil. We were doing the best we were capable of. And we still are doing the best that we’re capable of.

This doesn’t mean we can’t change our behaviors or alter our patterns. Absolutely we can and we should change behaviors that don’t serve us or humanity. But if we fail in changing them, it’s not because we’re bad or lacking will power. We were simply not yet able to overcome the lifetime of conditioning that drives the behavior.

And most importantly, we can still love ourselves when we make mistakes and fail to be the best possible versions of ourselves.

Because loving ourselves is the key to making better decisions in our lives and living up to our full potential. When we cultivate Love, then that feeling of love starts to override all others. The more we love ourselves, the easier it becomes to make the “right” choices, choices that don’t hurt us or other people.

Feelings drive all our behaviors, so when we start to feel Love for ourselves, that feeling drives thoughts that lead to more love for ourselves and creates behaviors that nourish ourselves and others.

We can strive to be better, to live up to the greatness we know is inside us, but we can do so with love and compassion for ourselves. We can cultivate the good feelings associated with positive choices, instead of suppressing the bad feelings that lead us to suffering and chastising ourselves for our failures. (Check out this video for help in feeling Love in our hearts: Loving your own Heart)

And when we begin to love ourselves, fully and completely, then we help spread this love in the world, and we play an active role in advancing the New Love Revolution. When we unconditionally love ourselves, we are helping humanity evolve to our next stage of consciousness.

Here’s a video discussion of this topic: Overcoming Guilt and Shame

Tune in next week for Part 2 of this series Embracing Love for our Experience: Loving Negative Emotions.

If you would like to join in the conversation about Embracing Love, we meet in person on Mondays at 6pm at the Abbey, and Thursdays at 5pm PST on Zoom. Contact us for more info!

More Embracing Love

Published by Matthew B

Surfing the eddies of existence.

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