Notes on a Buddhist path

Shame (and Pride) On Me

September 9, 2012 By | 4 Comments

“Pride is nothing but lying.” ~ St. Vincent de Paul

“Shame is like everything else; live with it long enough and it becomes part of the furniture.” ~ Salman Rushdie

A few days after Clause, my cat died, I was speaking to a friend on the phone and told her I was glad in a way that he was gone now. Less cat food to prepare, less litter to scoop, less to clean, less money to spend. Almost immediately I slipped into shame over what I had said, and not so much that I had spoken the words, but shame in what my friend would think of me now that those words had escaped into the bright light of truth. Even now I feel a gnawing need to justify my relief in his dying. Like the dust gathering on the furniture, it can seem invisible until pride starts fluffing up the pillows and points out shame’s dirty presence.

Pride, or conceit, is one of the 10 fetters of Buddhism that enslave us to our suffering and keep us from achieving nibbana. Pride elevates us and forces us to look down on others with judgement and superiority. Shame is simply the other bracelet of the same handcuff. It drops the floor out from under us and we fall into a pit of victimhood that demeans us and demonizes those we consider better than ourselves. Whenever we believe we are greater than or less than another, we have built a wall of arrogance that enforces our delusions of the Three Poisons: greed, hatred and ignorance.

Since that conversation with my friend, I’ve been paying more attention to pride and shame shifting in and out of my days. My ego nimbly points out how cool I must be to win One Lovely Blog Award (and then it made me add this link to the blog post where I wrote about it) and promptly kicks me in the shins, reminding me that in the universe of blog-land my posts are mere lint riding on the back of a dog who belongs to some really, truly awesome blogger. Pride lobs one over the net when I pat myself on the back for not having the muffin at coffee with friends yesterday and shame wins the set today after I burrow my face in a jar of almond butter with a generous side of honey. Pride pulled up a chair next to me in a restaurant last week when I was on a date and pointed out all the flaws in my companion while shame sneered at me for not being entirely honest with him as our evening ended and I told him, sure, I’d love to see him again.

In the midst of my to and fro dance with pride and shame, I’ve tried to find the middle way of humility. Unlike the polarizing effects of pride and shame, humility reaches across the divide of better or less than and extends a hand of equanimity and compassion. Humility is not a dressed down version of pride nor is it shame without the sport of self-abasement. It’s an honest recognition of our cravings, our aversions, our inability to see things as they truly are. When I’ve touched the hem of humility, a lightness of being sweeps through me that supersedes any attachment I  may have to outcomes or thoughts of otherness. In that moment I feel like a beach of fine white sand, cleaned by the waters of loving wisdom.

It’s been three weeks now since Clause died and I sense him less and less. I don’t hold the same expectation of him walking around a corner nor the anticipation of his absence from my doorway. Instead there’s a peace that has filled the rooms where he once walked and ate and slept. Jack, my other cat, has taken to sleeping in places Clause used to frequent, yet he doesn’t seem much altered by the lack of a second cat. The other day though he scratched and meowed at the wall in front of my meditation cushion. Did he sense Clause’s presence? Sometimes I think I hear his step in the kitchen or see a shadow pass down the hall, but even those are fewer as the days start to move faster again through my life.

There is indeed less of him. Less of his coat burnished reddish brown in the warmth of the sun, less of his body brushing against my legs, less of his plaintive meows for food, less of his warmth curved against my side in the bed at night, less grief to meet me each dawn. And there’s less shame in the words I spoke after his death. Sometimes I miss him, yet there is a relief in his end of suffering and the end of his care. In the place of shame is a present filled with more time and more spaciousness, more ease and more peace.

Even in death the earth still blooms.

The Task

By Jane Hirshfield

It is a simple garment, this slipped-on world.
We wake into it daily — open eyes, braid hair —
a robe unfurled
in rose-silk flowering, then laid bare.

And yes, it is a simple enough task
we’ve taken on,
though also vast:
from dusk to dawn,

from dawn to dusk, to praise, and not
be blinded by the praising.
To lie like a cat in hot
sun, fur fully blazing,

and dream the mouse;
and to keep too the mouse’s patient, waking watch
within the deep rooms of the house,
where the leaf-flocked

sunlight never reaches, but the earth still blooms.

“The Task” by Jane Hirshfield from The October Palace: Poems, Harper Perennial, copyright 1994, courtesy of Poetry Chaikhana.

Quote by Salman Rushdie from his book, “Shame”, published by Jonathan Cape, copyright 1983.

Image credit: Pensacola Beach 1957 White Sand – Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)


  1. Right On. Just think if all, and I mean All, could think this way what a better world we’d be in. Come on humanity, we can do it.

  2. Ahh Clause, still the mentor! That shadow in the hallway was him departing after he left this little tidbit for you to mull over from you phone call.

    And we can’t even escape the wrath of Pride and Shame by thinking we are just the same as the other. It’s all in the same karmic-hell of Judgement. The only place we can rest is in believing we … just are.

    Although I’m pretty sure I’m still better than Stephen Harper.

    Just saying.

    P.S. “… and then it made me add this link to the blog post where I wrote about it”. Classic!

    • Ah, David, your wise words resonant as always. Yes, all that judgement and the ego’s sly way of turning just about anything into a virtue can be crazy making. The suchness of all without a hook of attachment is a delicious state to experience, whether its shadows in the hallway or even Stephen Harper.

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