Updated: Mar 28, 2022
Dan was the founding managing partner of one of San Francisco's top litigation firms. Brilliant and charismatic, he founded the firm at a relatively young age. Like many of the powerful leaders I have worked with, Dan had difficulty with both recognizing authority and simply relating to others as peers. As a child, he lacked the ability to read social cues and didn’t know how to behave in groups. Other boys his age saw him as a “nerd" and he failed to attract any girls as a teenager. Aiming to compensate for his sense of shame and deficiency, Dan developed a passionate drive for power and success. Like many men, when he didn't feel attractive, Dan sought to become seductive. To discharge his anxiety, he turned to sexuality. And to make up for a lack of a sense of inherent self-worth, he aimed for high net-worth.
Dan had been with his partner for nearly seven years. While the couple seemed to genuinely love each other, Dan’s sexual desire died long ago. He began having rotating affairs with women at his law firm that lasted three to six months, at which point both his excitement and his erection would begin to falter. Dan was extremely embarrassed but unable to stop the cycle. It took about four years of working together before Dan was ready to discuss these issues with me.
While there are many valid ways of working with shame and so-called other negative emotions, I find focusing on the somatic (physical dimension) of our experience to be particularly important in helping us become “embodied,” inhabiting our bodies, our true home. So, in our session, I guided Dan in exploring his bodily experience. I prompted him to sense his shame as it lived in his body. He reported back to me that his body felt like it was deflating and collapsing. His breath was shallow, his shoulders were hunched, and his spine curved forward. It was as if his body was trying to make him “hide and disappear.” As he tuned into these feelings and sensations, he noticed the thoughts, “I am broken. I am small and weak. I am not attractive,” running through his mind. These were the beliefs he took on as a child, when the other kids rejected him.
Rather than push away these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, as most of us are used to doing, I invited Dan to allow his body to do what it wanted to do, following its impulses, guided by its wisdom. Dan’s head dropped, and he slowly began to curl up into a ball, hugging his knees to his chest as he lay on the floor. While his breathing remained shallow, he said he felt “numb and spacey,” as if he had left his body. He was disassociating, a common protective response when something is overwhelming or traumatic. I invited Dan to try to stay with this numbness and spaciness, allowing his experience to be what it was. I also suggested that he notice his body’s sense of weight on the floor, including it in his field of awareness—that pressure is our Mother Earth's constant hug pulling us into her center, it supports us as we experience our shame. Drawing from many other somatic, therapeutic, and meditative modalities, I developed this method of allowing our emotions and including other sensations in our experience, calling it “AI” (allow and include).
As he “allowed" his sense of shame and “included” the pressure of the ground, Dan slowly began to deepen his breath. After a moment, his body started to stretch out until he lay flat on his back. At this point, Dan reported feeling peaceful. His spaciness had transformed into a sense of expanded spaciousness, relaxation, and peace. From this place, he said that his sense of ego (his sense of a separate self) had dissolved, at least for a while. Our egos come back for us eventually, which isn’t necessarily a problem. As the Dalai Lama put it, "We cannot and need not eradicate our ego; rather, we must make sure it is a serving ego not a deserving ego.”
After another moment of quiet stillness, Dan spontaneously stood up and began shaking, moving, and stretching his body and reported feeling newly energized. As he thought of his partner, a sense of desire and arousal returned to him. As he sat back down, Dan felt grounded, expanded, and powerful. His presence filled the room with an air of dignity.
As I said, there are many effective ways to work with shame, including simply sharing our stories of shame and having them be heard. But the AI process in particular lets us experience whatever is arising in us, slow our reactions down as we bring our attention to them, and then open the aperture of our awareness to include the earth as it supports us. It amazes me how often meeting our shame until it dissolves can dissolve our sense of separation as well. It’s as if shame is a linchpin for the ego, helping it form as a protective shell around our sense of a separate self, forever lacking, fragile and insecure.
Following this method, Dan was able to surrender to his experience of humiliation, where he found the power and strength of humility, a heartful softening, and a dis-identification from ego.
Continue reading: 7: MINING OUR SHAME, RECOVERING OUR INNOCENCE
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