I remember when I was on a book tour for Radical Acceptance, one of the places I stopped was the Buddhist university, Naropa, and they had a big poster with a big picture of me and, underneath the photo, the caption was: Something is wrong with me.
I wrote about the Trance of Unworthiness in Radical Acceptance 14 years ago, and I’ve found, over the years, that it is still pretty much the most pervasive expression of suffering that I encounter in myself and in those I’ve worked with. It comes out as fear or shame — a feeling of being fundamentally flawed, unacceptable, not enough. Who I am is not okay.
A core teaching of the Buddha is that we suffer because we forget who we really are. We forget the essence — the awareness and the love that’s here — and we become caught in an identity that’s less than who we are.
When we are in the trance of unworthiness, we’re not aware of how much our body, emotions, and thoughts have locked into a sense of falling short and the fear that we’re going to fail. The trance of unworthiness brings us to addictive behaviors as we try to soothe the discomfort of fear and shame. It makes it difficult to be intimate with others, because we have the sense that, even if they don’t already know, they will find out how flawed we really are, so it’s hard to be real and spontaneous with other people. It makes it hard to take risks because we’re afraid we’re going to fail and we can never really relax, because right in the heart of the trance there is a need to do something to be better.
The core wound is severed belonging — if I am not enough and if I fail, I won’t belong anymore. It starts early, and the messages are often carried on through our families: Here is how you need to be to feel our respect and love.
The sense of unworthiness gets dramatically amplified depending on our culture. Western culture is a very individualistic culture. There’s not an innate sense of belonging and fear of failure is really big. Every step of the way, we have to compete and prove ourselves and we have a profound fear of falling short. Messages of being inferior or being set up to fail are particularly toxic for minorities. In different degrees, for those that don’t fit the dominant culture’s standards, there is an accentuated sense of not being enough.
So, we all develop strategies — I like to call them our “space suit” strategies — to manage ourselves so that we will “belong.” You probably know the ways you go about getting other people to pay attention, or to love you, or to respect you. For many of us it’s striving and accomplishing and proving ourselves. For some, there’s a habitual busyness. For others, there are addictive behaviors that numb and soothe the feelings.
One of the stories I’ve always loved took place in Asia. There’s a huge statue of the Buddha. It was a plaster and clay statue, not a handsome statue, but people loved it for its staying power. About 13 years ago, there was a long dry period and a crack appeared in the statue. So the monks brought their little pen flashlights to look inside the crack — just thought they might find out something about the infrastructure. When they shined the light in, what shined out was a flash of gold — and every crack they looked into, they saw that same shining. So they dismantled the plaster and clay, which turned out to be just a covering, and found that it was the largest pure solid gold statue of the Buddha in all of southeast Asia.
The monks believed that the statue had been covered with plaster and clay to protect it through difficult years, much in the same way that we put on that space suit to protect ourselves from injury and hurt. What’s sad is that we forget the gold and we start believing we’re the covering — the egoic, defensive, managing self. We forget who is here. So you might think of the essence of the spiritual path as a remembering — reconnecting with the gold . . . the essential mystery of awareness.
The practice of meditation, or coming into presence, is described as having two wings. The wing of mindfulness allows us to see what is actually happening in the present moment without judgement. The other wing, you might think of as heartfulness — holding what we see with tenderness and compassion. You might think of it as two questions: What is happening right now? and Can I be with this and regard it with kindness? These are the two wings that we cultivate to be able to wake up out of the trance of unworthiness — out of the spacesuit self — and sense that gold that’s shining through.
I’d like to invite you to take a moment to check in and just to feel into the inquiry: Is there anything, right this moment, between me and feeling at home in myself, at home in who I am? What is here, right now? Can I be with this? Can I regard this with kindness?
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