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Across 2019, I peeled back the many layers of Buddhist teaching that support mindfulness practices, and attempted to apply them to my self-care, relationships, and work. This journey has continued with earnest during 2020.

Before 2019, I’d been studying and trying to practice mindfulness for several years, with mixed results. I also wrote numerous posts about mindfulness, including this series in July-August 2016 that I later incorporated into my book The 4 Spheres of Intentional Living–and I still stand by the practices and teachings I offered in those posts and that book.

But when I fully opened myself to Buddhism, in which mindfulness finds its larger context, I began to experience consistency in my practice and a steadier, calmer disposition from day to day. And that’s enhanced and enriched both my life and the ongoing writing that I offer here on this website.

The catalyst for my 2019 growth steps was Thich Nhat Hanh’s masterpiece, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, which I took with me on a vacation to Italy and read cover-to-cover while journaling more than a dozen pages. A secondary catalyst was learning about another mindfulness-oriented framework, the Enneagram. The Enneagram is an ancient spiritual “road map” of nine different but interrelated “types” of personalities, each of which is centered in a portfolio of healthy and unhealthy tendencies.

New growth brings new challenges. Introspection, fueled by Buddhism and the Enneagram, has amplified my awareness of how much I continue to suffer–mentally, emotionally, and physically. More specifically, I’ve detected within myself a deep embodiment of what’s been termed “toxic shame.”

Toxic Shame

Toxic shame, as described in the work of the late self-help pioneer and author John Bradshaw and in resources such as 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 Bradshaw’s work and Very Well Mind, you’re making a judgment that something you’ve done is wrong. When you feel “healthy shame” you experience normal humility, remorse, or boundaries. But with toxic shame, you think and feel that your entire self is wrong and broken. There’s a deep lack of what Kristin Neff calls “self-compassion.”

A considerable amount of my lingering toxic shame relates to me continuing to dwell on the guilt of unkind or unhealthy decisions I’ve made. I also carry significant toxic shame from dwelling on things others have said or done to me, or disappointing outcomes. Whatever the circumstances and whomever is “guilty,” if anyone, this shame is real for me and continues to get in my way. More often that I’d like, I consciously 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 toxic shame from my life. Specifically, I’m applying a fusion of mindfulness practices (grounded in Buddhism) with the healing and therapeutic steps showcased in Bradshaw’s bestselling book Healing the Shame That Binds You. Additional resources, such as Neff’s work and writing by Buddhist psychologists Tara Branch and Jack Kornfield, among others, are helping to inform this healing journey.

About This Series of Posts

Because I usually learn–and heal–best by writing about topics, this post you’re reading is the first of a series that will emerge, in real time, from my own healing journey I referenced above. While I’ll maintain privacy regarding the specifics of my own internalized shame, I’ll bring to life, to the best of my ability, common examples of embedded shame and what can be done to heal them.

Here’s how the series will flow:

  1. Story posts featuring members of a diverse group of professionals, individually demonstrating how mindfulness practices can be applied to help you begin to heal from toxic shame.
  2. Then, as the series continues, story posts of these same individuals integrating their mindfulness practices with therapeutic steps for healing toxic shame. This is important because, as I’ve come to understand, mindfulness practices, and spiritual development in general, must be accompanied by psychological healing in order to reach their full potential (experienced through intimacy, joy, gratitude, peace, etc.) within an individual. 
  3. Finally, the series will offer story posts featuring these people exploring the Enneagram map, recognizing how the mindfulness-healing integration work culminates in drawing out the most healthy qualities and behaviors of each personality type.

However much or little you read of this mindfulness series, and what I’ve shared on this website in general, I hope it offers you love, compassion, joy, equanimity, and healing.

Let’s get started with some core Buddhist teaching that informs mindfulness practice.

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths are the gateway to all healing and freedom, regardless of your particular life experience or suffering, and independent of any specific religious affiliation or lack thereof. They acknowledge how much life can suck, for any of us, but then proclaim that life can also become wonderful–and that each of us possesses the resources to make it so. Here they are:

  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, avoidance, and aversions), we permit ourselves to suffer. Here’s what’s crucial to understand: This suffering is not caused by the situations we encounter or by what others do to us or have done 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. We’re not doomed to suffer until death.
  4. Fourth Noble Truth. There’s a path of steps we can take to stop causing our suffering, and it’s called The Noble Eight-fold Path. This journey involves embracing intentional mindsets and habits that gradually liberate us from suffering.

Here’s how I’ve been applying these four truths to my own healing from shame:

  1. First Noble Truth. I’m learning to recognize and accept the suffering I experience from carrying decades of internalized shame; and to stop distracting myself from this pain or trying to rationalize it or justify it. This suffering is real for me, and I’m working on owning and feeling it deeply and completely…so that I can begin to move past it.
  2. Second Noble Truth: I’m noticing how often I intensify and prolong this internalized shame, through conscious thought patterns and unconscious, instinctual reactions that I’m bringing to the light of awareness. I’m owning my responsibility for my own suffering.
  3. Third Noble Truth. I’ve become more aware of alternative actions I can take, and taking them. This is helping to reduce shame and suffering for me. I have choices. I have a free will!
  4. Fourth Noble Truth. From this increased awareness, each day I’m exploring and re-framing physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts within the Noble Eight-fold Path and its practices. This involves challenging my thinking and assumptions and focusing more on what’s happening in the moment. The next post in this series will explore the Eight-fold Path in more detail.

Once you start applying these truths to your life, you’ll see that they’re called “truths” for a reason. And you’ll be grateful for how relevant they are to anything you’re experiencing today, whether it’s toxic shame or something else that’s hindering your potential for loving yourself and your life.

Growing Your Strengths

I’m a Nashville-based writer, talent strategist, and certified executive coach. On this website, I primarily write stories featuring a diverse group of professionals whose examples of applying mindfulness, learning agility, and storytelling will help you love your career and enhance your quality of life.

These nine “protagonists” face familiar pain points: nonstop change, accelerating economic and technological disruption, and the collective “noise” that grows louder each day. The impact, for these professionals and for many of us, has been confusion, distraction, and stress.

Until they begin to apply the aforementioned strengths of mindfulness, learning agility, and storytelling. Strengths that you can develop as well.

The protagonists and supporting characters in these stories will teach you that you don’t have to settle for confusion, distraction, and stress. You’ll learn that you’re stronger than that, and capable of much more.

Want some context before jumping into the stories? Start with this post. And, as time permits, check out my books, and join our learning community to receive free, exclusive content via email each month with timely guidance on applying mindfulness, learning agility, and storytelling.


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