An Antidote to our Culture of Unworthiness
By Fleet Maull, Ph.D.
In today's fast-paced world, terms like "goodness" and "virtue" can often sound old-fashioned and tinged with religiosity. However, within the Buddhist tradition, these concepts take on a refreshingly practical and down-to-earth character. Virtue, in this context, becomes a moral compass guiding us toward a more fulfilling life, both for ourselves and those around us. It can be understood as the simple act of doing what leads to happiness and avoiding actions that cause suffering.
At its core, virtue arises from a profound trust in our innate goodness. It's an expression of our fundamental worthiness, a natural state of being where kindness, mindfulness, and precision arise effortlessly. In this state, we experience inner congruence, a deep sense of wholeness, and unwavering clarity of mind. Freed from the shackles of unworthiness and fear, our hearts naturally open, and compassion flows effortlessly. Virtuous behaviors possess an inherent strength and momentum, generating positive energy.
In Buddhism and other spiritual traditions, this positive energy is known as "merit," the accumulation of virtue that we dedicate to the benefit of all beings. Merit is, in essence, the tangible result of virtuous living and it sets in motion a positive cycle that fuels our well-being.
For many of us, the concept of a "virtuous cycle" is familiar in the context of pursuits like meditation, dieting, or exercise. We embark on the path, full of inspiration and determination to establish positive habits, gaining momentum along the way. Yet, somewhere down the line, our good intentions often wane, and we find ourselves ensnared in what we might term a "non-virtuous cycle" or, in harsher terms, a "vicious cycle." As we are all too aware, this descent leads us further from our goals until we reach a point where we hit rock bottom. Fortunately, this low point can serve as a catalyst for action, reigniting our original inspiration and prompting us to regain our motivation, once again embarking on the journey toward establishing a virtuous cycle of desired behaviors and outcomes.
However, the idea of virtue presented in this blog transcends the common understanding of a virtuous cycle. It refers to behaviors rooted in a sense of inner harmony and completeness, stemming from our trust in our innate goodness and the innate goodness of others. This confidence in our innate goodness gives birth to a self-sustaining virtuous cycle that is less susceptible to the highs and lows associated with conventional efforts to better ourselves.
Now, let's delve deeper into the concept of basic goodness. While we commonly understand goodness in relative terms, distinguishing between good and bad, the goodness we explore here transcends this duality. It represents an unconditional goodness that underlies all of existence. We can either have confidence in this ground or lose touch with it and get distracted by fear, speed, aggression, doubt, or mindlessness.
In this context, there exists but one foundation for all beings, for all of life—a foundation fundamentally good and pure. How could it be otherwise? It is life itself.
Throughout history, humanity has asked, "What is the meaning of existence? How did we come to be? Why are we here, on this planet?”? Various philosophies, religions, and creation stories have emerged in our quest for answers. Yet, the notion that existence itself could be a cosmic mistake defies logic. This "reality" we inhabit is the only one there is. The belief in inherent human flaw or unworthiness, upon closer examination, lacks a logical basis and contradicts our deepest experiences. Yet, we have some challenges and confusion that tend to make us feel unworthy.
So, what then leads us to doubt not only ourselves but also the innate goodness of others? Why do we harbor self-doubt, mistrust, and feelings of unworthiness? In Western culture, what contributes to this collective sense of inadequacy? What rituals of unworthiness have we collectively adopted?
The Human Condition
Even with supportive parents, it is almost impossible to grow up as a young child and enter adulthood without at least a mild case of insecurity about ourselves. Our vulnerability as infants, despite our caregivers’ best intentions, leads to feelings of self-doubt, helplessness, and fear. On top of this, our society bombards us with messages of unworthiness. While Western culture has its merits, it often feels like a grand ceremony of unworthiness. The underlying but prevailing assumption is that we are not good enough, that we are not okay the way we are, and that we are fundamentally flawed. But where does this feeling of unworthiness stem from?
As infants, we depend entirely on our parents for survival. As we come out of the womb, we may emerge as separate individuals, but we are still in a unitary state with our mother. The slow process of individuation means we lack a strong sense of self. We can't stand up to our parents' emotions or establish boundaries. At 3 years old, we cannot face our screaming mother and say “I’m sorry but I don’t have to take that in… that’s just your stuff, your suffering. And you are confused.” It is impossible at that age to distance ourselves and remain objective. As a result, any discomfort or lack of support can become overwhelming. The most caring parents cannot keep us from getting an earache and being in extreme pain for several hours before the medicine kicks in.
We desperately cling to anything for stability. Throughout childhood and adolescence, we construct our identities based on available experiences, even if they are negative. Any reference point is better than no reference point. Shame, in particular, becomes a powerful way to confirm our existence, and our culture, with its expectations and norms, often reinforces this feeling of shame.
When, as children, we do not meet these expectations and do not conform to the norm, even the most loving parents get concerned and fearful. And when we perceive that fear, how do you think we interpret it when we are six months old, three or five years old? We interpret it as “Uhhh ohh, that part of me is not lovable, that part of me will be rejected.” And we internalize the impression that we are fundamentally flawed and that the truth of who we are is not acceptable.
And, of course, many parents are not so benevolent, educated, or concerned about their children’s self-esteem; many fathers and mothers communicate with their children in an overtly shaming or disparaging way…to say nothing of overt neglect, abuse, abandonment, and so forth.
Our Culture of Unworthiness:
Let's now explore how our mass media and marketing-driven culture reinforces these feelings of shame and unworthiness, which shape our coping mechanisms and personality adaptations. Marketers capitalize on our feelings of inadequacy, making it seem like their products can restore our self-worth. We've all seen it: "Buy this, and you'll feel better about yourself and become more attractive to others." From a young age, we're bombarded with messages of unworthiness, and escaping them is nearly impossible.
Another source of shame and unworthiness can be traced back to growing up in a Judeo-Christian culture. While these traditions hold profound wisdom, some interpretations have veered off course. The idea of original sin, akin to the Buddhist concept of "ego," has been taken to extreme levels. Buddhism views ego as a relative phenomenon, one that is not entirely real. It's a momentum that can be recognized and transcended by connecting with our innate goodness or Buddha nature.
To acknowledge that we sometimes make mistakes and are developing as human beings on a path of growth is one thing. For example, I’m reminded of the Zen master, Suzuki Roshi, saying to his students “You're perfect just as you are, and you could use a little fixing”. However, being told "you are a sinner" sends a different message, which leads to internalizing the belief that we are unworthy, unlovable, and untrustworthy. Growing up in a predominantly Christian society, I was constantly warned by priests that I would go to hell if I didn't change my ways. While they believed it was for our good, it left a lasting impact of self-doubt and anxiety.
When individuals internalize a sense of unworthiness and society collectively adopts the belief in humanity's flawed nature, it shapes our culture, institutions, and systems—including education, healthcare, and prisons—which in turn reflect this belief. Modern Christianity isn't solely responsible for this situation. Rather, it's a challenge inherent in the human condition.
Our survival hinges on the goodwill of others, and the experience of unconditional parental love diminishes over time, contributing to our vulnerability. Even the most loving parents can't shield us from existential fear about survival and self-worth. The fear-based distrust of ourselves and others isn't solely rooted in modern Christianity but is another example of fear pervading human institutions. This leaves us torn between love and fear, forgiveness and shame.
This dilemma also prompts the question: What drives violence, crime, and conflict in our societies? Is it an inherent flaw in human nature or the result of misguided beliefs and habitual patterns rooted in fear, shame, and trauma? I would posit that if evil exists, it is more like a virus circulating in our culture as internalized trauma and shame that erupts as violence in its various forms.
Perhaps it's time to address violence as a pervasive issue and tackle its root causes. Ensuring the safety of our children and fostering non-coercive, non-shaming education and enculturation methods is crucial.
What can I do?
On a personal level, we can use these challenges as opportunities for self-reflection and growth. When we feel inadequate due to the media's standards of beauty or succumb to fear in response to global events, we can delve into the origins of our unworthiness, fear, blame, and shame. We must recognize that we are all in this together.
For real change to occur, we need to heal the negative conditioning we've absorbed to varying degrees. Questioning and breaking down the belief that something is inherently wrong with us or with others can lead to positive shifts. As we explore our proclivity for fear, shame, and blame, we can rewire our brains to align with our innate goodness, both within ourselves and others.
This transformation can pave the way for new possibilities grounded in the acknowledgment of human goodness, trust in our shared humanity, and reverence for the unconditional sacredness of our world.