Most of us maintain, through diligent attention and effort, our inner autobiography, a long running, constantly updated tale of who we are, our views and opinions, what we'd like to experience in life. And yet we often act, speak and think in ways that fall outside of what we’ve established as “the respectable” or acceptable. Destructive habits—often located in the arenas of sex, intoxication, shopping, work, relationships, family—along with setbacks and disappointments in life can give rise to a chain of self imposed suffering, what has been ironically referred to as ‘shame spirals.’ We shoot ourselves with additional arrows of suffering in the guise of “I should be better” and “What’s wrong with me?”
While we’ve come to believe these internalized voices of disapproval, what Freud called the superego, are useful* and necessary to maintain correct, adequate performance in the world, such stern reprimands tend to add more agitation to a discouraged mind, often resulting in greater states of suffering. This creates a feedback loop:
• a turbulent and fearful the mind has less awareness of underlying physical stress;
• underling somatic tension arises due to our self-fixation and creates reactive, impulsive tendencies;
• meanwhile, only overly dramatic stories and fears grab the mind’s attention, as subtler, ‘everything will be ok’ and 'its not as bad as all that' thoughts fail to grab our attention; the mind is too distracted to note the subtler voices of reassurance.
Baited and hooked by fear, driven by physical tension, the likelihood grows that we’ll fall into the same ingrained routines and self-destructive behavioral tendencies.
The way out of this causal chain is to develop a non-resistive, open hearted mindfulness of present experience—the breath and body sensations, gut feelings, sensory perceptions such as sounds, contact sensations, etc. The breath, body and sensations doesn’t contain a story of “who I am” or “what I should be,” as they’re simply a series of pleasant, neutral and uncomfortable events, parading through awareness. Rather than keep ourselves in line by adding a new chapter to our story called “Why I Suck As a Human Being,” we can simply experience the feelings of shame—what the buddha called samvega—and note how uncomfortable an action makes us feel afterwards.
As we become aware that uncomfortable feelings that follow disagreeable actions—ie. karma in a nutshell—we tend to act in increasingly skillful, less harmful ways. We can relax the physical tensions that condition reactivity and defensiveness. So staying on the path to serenity is not a matter of storytelling and thinking, but simply observing and relaxing; the mind isn’t belabored by an even longer self-narrative. And one day we might even come to experience how unnecessary that inner autobiography is, and that’s whern the road of freedom becomes truly scenic.
* the early developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky established that inner talk in children was an internalization of the voice of the caretaker, a self-regulating device; the child directs and limits their actions through their thoughts.