Relinquishing Sin & Shame


Today I would like to talk about the concept of Sin.  Because even if you aren’t religious, this concept has rooted itself very deeply in the culture.  We may not always call it by that name, but the concept is there…  the idea that certain thinking and behavior is shameful and wicked.

The word “sin” has taken on heavy connotations in our society.  It can carry with it a great deal of judgment and shame.  And for this reason many spiritually conscious people don’t like to use it.  But the term, in its original language, is actually quite appropriate in describing those thoughts and behavior which misdirect us from our spiritual aim.

The word “sin” comes from the Greek root, meaning “guilt”.  And ever since its introduction into society, it has carried with it that exact connotation.  But actually, the word “sin” is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word “chata’ah”, an old archery term, which means “to miss the mark”, the center of the target.

So, you see, this original term does not necessarily imply guilt or shame, but merely a lack of focus; a lack of aim, or misdirection.  In spiritual life we talk a lot about being centered.  The term “chata’ah” simply means to be off-center or out-of-balance.

And what is that center?  That center is what some might call God or Divine Spirit, the higher nature, our true essence.  It’s the very center or “heart” of our being.  To be centered in that is the very aim of our spiritual endeavors.  And therefore, any thought or behavior which does not bring us to that center is called “chata’ah” or, in modern terms, “sin”.

With this understanding, there’s no connotation of a sin being something evil or wrong, and therefore no need to attach any shame to it.  It simply means that your aim is off.  So, just as in archery, there’s no need to beat yourself up for missing the target.   You simply re-focus, re-aim and fire again.

In the Vaisnava tradition of India, which I’ve had some association with, the word that is commonly used in this manner is “aparadha”.  It’s generally translated here in the west as “offense” and sometimes even as a “crime”, which again carries certain heavy connotations.  And I think that this interpretation is once again influenced by a culture which has come to misunderstand the nature of sin.  But the literal translation of this word “aparadha” is something more like “contrary to Radha”.  And because Radha is the representation of pure Divine Love, the word “aparadha” could be understood as meaning “contrary to love”.  So, therefore, any thought or behavior which is not coming from a place of love is called “aparadha”.

Once again, this doesn’t imply guilt or shame.  It’s simply suggesting that our intention is not in alignment with Divine Love.  So without having to attach a sense of guilt to it,  one can simply be aware that he or she is not in accordance with Divine Love, and can then simply redirect his or her intention.  And how exactly does one do this?  Not by feeling shame and guilt, which themselves are contrary to love, but by loving oneself and having compassion and acceptance even in the midst of sinful behavior.

Now, if we look again at the Christian tradition, the recommended way to resolve one’s sin is to repent.  This word, “repent“, means to turn around or change direction.  It doesn’t mean that you have to get on your knees and beg God to spare you from the fiery pits of Hell.  It simply means that you recognize that you’re going in the wrong direction, that your aim is off, that you have somehow wandered away from the center.  So what do you do in that situation?  What do you do when you’ve wandered off the path and find yourself caught in the brier and thorns?  You stop.  You turn around and you return to the path… You return to your center… to that place of Divine Love.  It’s really just that simple.

For many of those who have taken up the effort to rid themselves of sin and sinful behavior, there is often a great deal of shame and guilt.  These feelings arise from self-judgment.  It may be that others judge us as well, or that our culture carries strong judgments about sin and sinful behavior.  Or it may be that the Christian tradition, if we’re a part of that, often speaks in terms of Divine Judgment.  But truly it is our own self-judgment which results in this feeling of shame.

Society, whether religious or secular, has placed upon us a set of standards, and if we fail to abide by those standards we often feel shameful for having not lived up to them.   The judgments of society may be very harsh, but we don’t have to agree with them.  Always there will be someone judging, regardless of what we do, but we should always remember that other people’s judgments are not about us.  It has much more to do with their own perceived need to judge—to feel superior, to feel self-righteous, to distract themselves from their own sense of shame.

Some will say that the feelings of guilt and shame are necessary because they keep us in check.  But I disagree.  Guilt and shame only keep us trapped.  When we feel shame we feel disempowered.  We feel weak and helpless.  We feel that our sins are so overbearing that we have no control over them.  And with this kind of heavy emotional burden it becomes very difficult to progress.

So we try to hide our sins from others because of our shame, and because of shame we don’t even want to acknowledge them ourselves.  We’d rather bury them, cover them over and pretend they have no place in us.  But how can we hope to change something which we’re afraid even to look at?  How can we understand something if we refuse to acknowledge and examine it?

Regarding our sins, we need to first come from a place of acceptance.  We often strive too hard for perfection, and thus become overwhelmed by our perceived imperfections.  We are anxious to enter the light, but we don’t want to journey through the darkness.  But it’s often the case that the light is always just out of our reach, just beyond the darkness, and the only way out is through.

In order to face the darkness we need to put aside shame.  We need to become shameless.  And the way to do this is to become prideless.  Because, in truth, pride and shame are two sides of the same coin.  You see, it’s our pride which is at the root of our shame.  We want to feel righteous.  We want to hold ourselves in high regard.  And it’s our desire to attain perfection which inhibits us from accepting our imperfections.  There are those heavy burdens within us that are preventing us from rising up, and rather than dealing with them, we would rather pretend they aren’t there at all.  We would rather pretend as though we are already perfected.

So in order to cover our shame concerning one thing, we take pride in it’s opposite.  Our pride enables us to become distracted from these other flaws.  It enables us to have a sense of feeling elevated.  And at the same time, we must maintain that thing which makes us proud.  Otherwise we’ll bring about more shame.  So, for example, if we are proud of our wealth, then inherently we find poverty shameful.  And so we had better do all we can to maintain our wealth.  Otherwise, if we lose it, we’ll lose our false sense of self worth.

But I say, get rid of pride altogether.  Accept yourself just as you are, right now in this very moment.  Accept all of your flaws.  Be completely honest with yourself.  Admit where you’re mistaken.  Acknowledge your inadequacies…your imperfections.  Own up to your bullshit.  Don’t put on a show for others, but be willing to stand naked, allowing everything to be out in the open. This requires you to be vulnerable.  And this takes great courage, because others will certainly judge you.  But just remember, they aren’t perfect either.  No one is.  They are likely pretending just as you’ve been pretending.

There’s this story about Jesus who was walking through a village one day when he saw a woman being dragged into the street.  A crowd of people gathered around her and raised stones in the air, ready to kill her.  Jesus went and stood over her and asked the angry mob for an explanation.

This woman has sinned,” one man answered, “and according to the law she must be stoned to death.”

Now Jesus could have easily argued that such a law was ridiculous and barbaric, but he knew the power of societal thinking.  These people were more obedient to the law than to reason.  And so instead of arguing with them he used a different kind of logic.

Very well,” he said, “If that is the law then who am I to tell you to disobey it?   However, let whoever among you who has never sinned throw the first stone.

The crowd fell silent.  Slowly, one by one, they dropped their stones and walked away.  And the woman’s life was spared.

People’s judgments are like stones being hurled at us.  But who among them is so perfect that he is qualified to pass judgment?  Only the purest being is so qualified, but being so pure, such a person would have nothing more than compassion for those who are lost and blinded in their own ignorance.  Perhaps Jesus was such a person.  Perhaps he was the only one there who was truly qualified to pass judgment upon that woman.  But he didn’t pass judgment.  What he did instead was show her compassion.

I think that what we can learn from this, apart from cultivating compassion toward our fellow beings, is to cultivate compassion for ourselves.  We must redirect our focus, to become centered, and to come from a place of love.  We must be willing to put aside our judgments concerning our own imperfections, to relinquish shame and guilt, and to forgive our own sins.    And in this way we might transcend them.


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