Originally published at TaraBrach.com and graciously shared with ENDPAIN.
I remember when I was on a book tour for Radical Acceptance, one of the places I stopped was the Buddhist university, Naropa. 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 emotional pain that I encounter in myself and in those I’ve worked with. It comes out as fear or shame—a feeling of being 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, spontaneous and real with others, because we have the sense that, even if they don’t already know, they will find out how flawed we really are. It makes it hard to take risks because we’re afraid we’re going to fall short. We can never really relax. Right in the heart of the trance, there is a need to do something to be better, to avoid the failure lurking right around the corner.
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.
Entering this world is difficult. Due to their own wounds and fears, a lack of attunement from caregivers is common. Depending on severity, this can create a core wounding of severed belonging: if I am not enough or if I fail, I won’t belong anymore. It starts early, and we internalize the messages relayed through our families: Here is how you need to be to be respected and/or loved.
In order to navigate this difficult environment, we don spacesuits—our ego survival strategies—to make it through. The suffering is that we become identified with the spacesuit and forget who is looking through the mask. We forget the tender heart that longs to love without holding back.
The sense of unworthiness gets dramatically amplified depending on our culture. Western culture is very individualistic and there’s not an innate sense of belonging. 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 are particularly toxic for non-dominant populations. 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 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. A number of 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 WING OF MINDFULNESS ALLOWS US TO SEE WHAT IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING IN THE PRESENT MOMENT WITHOUT JUDGEMENT. THE OTHER WING IS HEARTFULNESS OR LOVE — HOLDING WHAT WE SEE WITH TENDERNESS AND COMPASSION.
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 is heartfulness or love — 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.