Recently, I went on a retreat. There was a lot of sharing and tears, lots of pain, lots of stories of recovery and healing. There was a lot of shame hanging around. It got me to thinking about what causes so much shame in our culture. I think it’s because we live under the dome.
The dome is like a big glass cover that drops down on each of us soon after we are born. At first, the dome is imposed on us, but we take over its creation and reinforce it over time. The first layer evolves from the lessons on right and wrong we learn from our parents. Then correct and incorrect layer on, then perhaps holy and sinful, followed by preferable and distasteful, lovable and hateful, desirable and undesirable, attractive and unattractive, manly and feminine, social and antisocial, etc. etc. until the dome is thick and heavy and we are completely surrounded and confined within its structure and strictures. We see out through it; others see us through it as well. It defines and protects us; it controls and restricts us; it obscures our image and our vision.
When we act in opposition to some part of it, the dome twists and distorts our self- image, and we feel ashamed. So we punish ourselves for having damaged the dome, and we seek ways to atone for that opposition and straighten out our dome. We dare not break the dome, because outside the dome is a scary, wild, unpredictable place.
At some point, if we are lucky, something cracks the dome open. “Something” causes a physical or emotional trauma—it could be a betrayal, a death, a birth, an injury, an incarceration, an addiction, a divorce, a disaster, an illness, or even an unexpected and massive triumph. Something rocks our world, cracks open our dome, and blinds us with the light of the Divine. “Spiritual awakening” is a deceptive, uplifting term for something that feels like living hell. We feel broken. But what we are is broken open. We feel raw and unprotected; what we are is released.
Once the dome breaks open, and the Divine light illuminates us, our job becomes dismantling the dome and keeping only the parts that allow our real selves to be seen. We take apart the shell and begin to construct our glass house. We have to look at each piece of our dome, choose to retain or reject it, and then decide where the right stuff belongs in our new structure. Everything has to serve our unique purpose, and everything should be beautiful in our own eyes.
We can learn to see the dome by asking ourselves some basic but likely painful questions. What behaviors have I done that I have learned to be ashamed of? What do I hide or lie about? What do I rationalize? What do I do that I’m not proud of, but enjoy too much to give up? Questions like these help us to identify areas of shame, areas where we don’t measure up to the expectations imposed by the dome.
We can also ask ourselves about our attitudes. What kinds of people do we instinctively dislike or distrust? Are there characteristics of others—skin color, body shape, accent, hair or clothing style—that lead us to draw conclusions about a person’s worth? We can look at what we are proud of and like to show off, and what we cling to of conceal in the face of others’ disapproval. These things might be personal traits or possessions, behaviors or associates, but they all tell us something about what we value.
The dome, although broken, doesn’t just disappear. Freeing ourselves from its influence and rebuilding a roof that allows us to see and be seen clearly is a life’s work. But learning to see it, feel it, and distinguish its distorted perspective from our own true vision starts with asking tough questions and being willing to hear the answers when they come.