A few days ago I danced with a beautiful young woman. I had never met her before, and probably never will again; it was in a room full of about 80 dancing people. She looked Indian or of Indian or Pakistani descent; I will probably never know and it is not really important. What is important to me is that something extraordinary happened in our meeting. I saw a severity in her look which at first elicited some fear. But she was right there with me, and I felt a strong connection as our eyes met and our bodies moved to the music. Our hands were speaking a language which my mind could not interpret, but they seemed to understand each other. Suddenly as we danced, I felt overcome with shame; it was a shame beyond personalities. A shame for all that my people have done on this planet, for all that ‘Great’ Britain has perpetrated against the people of the ‘Empire’. The shame of being a white, privileged, middle class woman, whose countries’ wealth is only possible because of the plunder of other cultures. There were no words. I decided not to hide or cower in my shame, but to feel it, and stay with her; I looked into her eyes and I found myself bowing down to her. At first just my head bowed, and then I found I was on the ground, my forehead at her feet. When I came back to my feet, we both had tears pouring down our faces. And we kept dancing. I have no idea what happened for her, what called forth her tears, where she had come from or what she thought or felt. I do know that the connection was real, and our tears were real. I felt like I was praying for our world, our people, for connection, and love and a healing of old wounds. And after some time, I found myself filled with with a quiet joy and I smiled, and when she smiled back it was like a balm through my whole body. We never spoke.
The next day, I was in a ‘Bodynamics’ workshop run by the most extraordinary woman called Ditte Marcher. This woman has worked in war zones across the world, from Syria and Afganistan to Iraq, Rwanda and Serbia. She has trained traumatised war veterans to work with other war vets to support them to begin to relate with unbelievable levels of shock and dissociation and find meaningful connection with their own life force and other people again. She has worked with children, animals, disabled people, old people; peacemakers, gang members, political extremists and therapists across the world, drawn to where she is needed. Not without fear, but harnessing her emotions and working with and through them. She has a huge heart, a ballsy style, a big laugh, and an extraordinary knowledge of how humans and animals tick, how they deal with emotions under all kinds of extreme and ordinary circumstances, and what is needed on a very real bodily level for health, sanity and love to prevail.
She was working with us on different emotions and on this morning we worked with shame. This is a big subject for me, and one I have been working with for a while now. It took many, many years of self exploration before I even began to be ready to see and feel the deeper levels of my own shame, and realise how much my life was coloured by it. And I have had a passion in the last few years to help people who work with me to find a more realistic relationship with their own shame. But here I was getting some more perspectives on it.
At one point Ditte asked us to pair up with someone, so I turned towards the woman next to me who was a gentle looking young woman wearing what I think is called a chador, or a burka where the face is revealed, who I guessed was of Arab descent. The assignment was to tell them something we were ashamed of, whilst staying in contact with them, without collapsing or disappearing, staying in our dignity. I could feel the fear arising in me, as I realised I was being given an opportunity to speak my shame – without cowering. Extraordinary after what had happened spontaneously for me the night before. I was afraid to even acknowledge our racial difference, as if it were unmentionable. I was afraid of her anger. I was afraid to own how ashamed I felt, and how guilty I felt for my privilege, knowing that she could not have escaped the effects of racism, discrimination and prejudice growing up in ‘my’ country. Things I have never had to face just because of the colour of my skin. Initially she tried to convince me not to worry, but then she slowed down, and received my confession of shame beautifully. She then shared with me how it was recently, to feel unseen and excluded in a group she was part of, in which she was the only non-white woman. She shared her hurt and anger, but also her shame was visible.
Shame arises not only when we have done something to hurt another, are out of integrity with ourselves, but also often when we feel different from whatever group we are part of – (this could be how we look or sound, or in our capacities, life style, level of wealth and priviledge etc). And of course there are all kinds of nuances of shame, including the shame I am speaking of here which is not just personal but ancestral and national. On the bodynamics course we were being taught about red shame and white shame. If we cannot allow, feel, communicate our naturally occurring shame simply and honestly, then this will turn into a shame of who we are. In this, it is not what we (or people we are connected with) did which was wrong/inadequate/hurtful/out of integrity, but who we are. At this point the shame which was at first red, which might produce heat, and is alive and tingling, becomes white shame. When our very existence feels shameful, all colour drains out of us (hence it is called white), we want to fall into a hole and disappear. And this is generally so intolerable that we collapse, cave in and shut down. Eventually, if we cannot relate this situation, we can become shameless. This means we cut off from our feeling, and become capable of anything. Here our shame is projected out and the shaming and blaming of others (not to mention abuse) is the only way to feel some sense of power. We see the devastating effects of this both personally and collectively wherever we look.
So my new friend I was exploring with that morning, felt shame; I knew it because I could feel her slipping away from the contact which seconds before had been intimate; within seconds there was anger flashing in her eyes. She said, “you could never understand what it’s like to be so excluded for who you are”. In that moment it appeared as if we were now in seperate camps. And it flashed through me that I did know what it was like. When I was 6 years old my family moved to Italy and I was thrown into an Italian school without any grasp of the language at all; the fear and shame of being so alien, powerless, different and utterly unable to find a sense of belonging in the tribe I had entered, was devastating. I didn’t say that, I just felt her, and knew that what I had suffered enabled me to be able to understand at least something of her experience. And suddenly she looked into my eyes and said – “and you’re with me now, and you are hearing me and understanding”. There were tears in her eyes. And then I could apologise to her from my heart, on behalf of my race, and for my own, unconscious prejudice. And there was such a sweet pain in feeling her heart-felt receiving of my apology.
I felt how much shame has been a barrier for me in meeting those who are different to me in different ways, and how my difficulty in feeling that shame has created a sense of fear and ‘otherness’. As the shame is met, and the charge around it is able to lessen, I can feel how the fear of difference is softening. I also saw how much in my life I have covered a shame for all my weaknesses and insecurities either with a kind of false bravado (and therefore arrogance and superiority), or by collapsing and behaving as if I were less than whoever I am with.
What I am finding very beautiful, is this sense of being able to feel shame whilst retaining a sense of dignity and self respect. The two have always seemed to be contradictory and impossible to experience simoultaneously. And it is clear that only being grounded in a prior abiding presence can allow such dualities to co-exist (rather than one or the other). In the midst of a recognition of ways I have been out of integrity, I can hold onto myself and face who I am with; both personally and as part of a wider human collective. And that this acknowledgement can bring both more connection with whoever I am with, and a sense of devotion to our shared precious and imperfect humanity. And with that, more capacity to step forward in my life (without being incapacitated by shame and fear). When I, or anyone, allows this natural and healthy shame to become white shame, we lose respect for ourselves and each other which is where relationship starts to break down.
So I guess this is a celebration of healthy shame; that which calls us to account in a heartful way, and allows us to own up to what we are not proud of in a way which – rather than disconnecting and hiding away, shaming and blaming ourselves and each other – connects us up to one another, and allows repair to happen.