collins-lesulie_group of people standing near waterwalls

Across 2019 I’ve been peeling back the many layers of Buddhist teaching that support mindfulness practices, and attempting to apply them to my self-care, relationships, and work.

I’d been studying and trying to practice mindfulness for several years; but it was only when I took this deeper dive into Buddhism, in which mindfulness finds its larger context in the Buddha’s laser focus on the cessation of suffering, that I began to experience consistency in my practice…and a steadier, calmer disposition from day to day.

Along with this disposition, I’ve gained a heightened awareness of how much I continue to suffer inside my mind and body. More specifically, through looking deeply at my patterns of thinking and responding—both conscious and unconscious patterns—I’ve detected a deep embodiment of toxic shame.

Toxic Shame

Toxic shame, as noted on the website Very Well Mind, is a powerful emotion that can cause people to feel defective, unacceptable, and even damaged beyond repair.

It’s often confused with guilt, which is a related but different emotion. When you feel guilty, according to Very Well Mind, you’re making a judgment that something you’ve done is wrong. When you feel healthy shame you experience normal humility and boundaries; with toxic shame, however, you’re feeling that your whole self is wrong.

A considerable amount of my lingering shame is grounded in me continuing to dwell on the guilt of unkind or unhealthy decisions I’ve made or actions I’ve taken at different seasons of my life; at least one or two in every decade that I’ve been alive. I also carry significant shame from dwelling on things others have said or done to me, or disappointing outcomes.

Whatever the circumstances and whomever is “guilty,” if anyone, shame is real for me and continues to get in my way. More often that I’d like, I unconsciously or unconsciously expect to be called out, judged, and rejected. I’m even “ashamed of being ashamed.”

And I’ve finally had enough.

I’ve started the hard work that’s necessary to extricate these tentacles of shame from my life. This work dovetails with my ongoing study and application of the foundational teachings of Buddhism known as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight-fold Path, along with more nuanced Buddhist teachings.

The Four Noble Truths

  1. First Noble Truth. The Buddha taught that suffering exists. Life can often feel like it’s misaligned in some manner. There’s an underlying unease that plague humanity.
  2. Second Noble Truth: Through ignorance of our true nature (demonstrated through attachments, avoidances, and aversions), we permit ourselves to suffer. This suffering is not caused by the situations we encounter or by what others do to us, but by how we respond.
  3. Third Noble Truth. Here’s where the good news begins. We can stop causing this suffering. We have choices in the matter.
  4. Fourth Noble Truth. There’s a path of steps to stop causing our suffering, and that is The Noble Eight-fold Path. This journey involves embracing intentional mindsets and habits that gradually help a person transform from suffering to healing and freedom.

The Four Noble Truths are the gateway to healing and freedom; but there’s many more wonderful Buddhist teachings that serve as the foundation for mindfulness practices. I’ll say more about The Noble Eight-fold Path in an upcoming story post, and touch upon several other core Buddhist teachings in subsequent stories.

John M. DeMarco is a writer, executive coach, and activist based in Nashville, Tennessee.