I suffer from the embrace of shame. I feel ashamed of my needs, desires, personality, physicality, and intellect.
“Through the long lonely years of my childhood, when my fathers palace seemed to tighten it’s grip around me until I could not breathe, I would go to my nurse and ask for a story.” Chitta Banerjee Divakaruni writes as she takes us on a journey with a heroine of remarkable character in her book, Palace of Illusions.
Draupadi, also known by the name Panchali, is a female character in the Indian epic poem, The Mahabharata. Her story of rising beyond shame is brought to life in A Palace of Illusions. This book elevates Panchali as an enlightening character who lived in a world of literature where the potency of mortal women is rarely articulated.
Panchali is a deep and complicated person. She is married to 5 men, the Pandava brothers. This is a daring circumstance even in our modern world. Her plight and life’s work is often credited as the inspiration behind the great battle, the Kurukshetra, described in The Bhagavad Gita.
At one point in Palace of Illusions, Panchali, after refusing to sweep the kings floor, is taken before a court to be punished for her insolence. Panchali’s sari is forcefully removed as a means of inflicting shame. The exposure is considered a serious degradation in old India. The shame of her nakedness is so grand that society would have expected Panchali to commit suicide after such an assault.
I often feel shamefully imperfect. A few years ago, a friend referred me to Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You Are Supposed To Be and Embrace Who You Are.
“Shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection.
Her Guidance helps me to know my shame, recognize it when it arises, and gives me tools to set myself free to live a radically alive life.
Brown, a researcher, author, and professor, tells of an “ah-ha” moment in her work on shame. There was a moment when she noticed there are some individuals who do not suffer from the infliction of shame. She calls these people the whole-hearted.
She studied the group and compiled a list of their shared do’s and don’ts:
“The do column was brimming with words like: worthiness, rest, play, trust, faith, intuition, hope, authenticity, love, belonging, joy, gratitude, and creativity. The don’t column was dripping with words like: perfection, numbing, certainty, exhaustion, self-sufficiency, being cool, fitting in, judgment, and scarcity.”
Brown says, “Whole hearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think no matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.”
Panchali as imagined by Divakaruni, in the midst of her affront begins contemplation. Her concentration is so powerful that the sari being unwrapped becomes limitless in length. The endless unwrapping simultaneously illustrates Panchali’s strength of focus and the results of her single mindedness. The object of her meditation is the face of her friend, Krishna, who also happens to be the god of love.
Panchali’s concentration is so strong that she sees Krishna’s expression with impeccable clarity. This vision sets our heroine free. She sees the smile that sometimes appears on his face. She feels him carry her off into a garden that is filled with swans and blue flowers falling from a canopy of trees. The fragrance of sandalwood fills her body with pleasure and tastes sweet in her mouth.
Over the years, I have added some of Brown’s do's into my daily thinking. Love, gratitude, and authenticity fill my yoga practice and teaching each day. But too often, when life takes me by surprise, I can fall back into a feeling of not belonging. I will sacrifice my persistent creative drive to try and fit in, be perfect, and have value. Somehow I attach these ideas with my very survival. If I am not perfect I will end up alone and ultimately I will die, abandoned and miserable.
Brown continues, “Our imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re are in this together, imperfectly but together.”
She says shame is different from guilt; whole-hearted individuals have a certain amount of both. It makes us human. The differentiation between shame and guilt is illuminating.
Guilt = I did something bad
Shame = I am bad.
“Panchali no one can shame you, unless you allow it.” The Palace of Illusions, Chitta Banerjee Divakaruni
Brene Brown speaks about three tools she considers essential on the journey to Wholeheartedness: Courage, Compassion and Connection.
In the story of Panchali’s shame we can see that she overcomes her predicament and survives whole-heartedly by employing the very same tools Brown suggests.
“Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves the experience of vulnerability...we are all made of strength and struggle." The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown
Panchali did not choose to marry 5 brothers. She loved Arjun, one of the brothers, and thought she was joining the family to marry him alone. Tradition required Panchali to submit to her mother in-law's wish that she marry all five sons. Can you imagine the courage that took? Panchali also shows courage in the Mahabharata as she faces the difficulties and judgment aimed at a woman with 5 husbands. This same courage is present as she defies the king and faces the shaming. Panchali also shows her courage after the shaming, when she refuses to wash the blood and dirt in her soiled hair until the king is revenged.
“Compassion is not the relationship between the healer and the wounded, it is a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness can we be present with the darkness of others” The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown
In the yogic tradition, compassion is one of the three classic means of accessing energy. Along with merging and boundaries, the practice of compassion facilitates awareness of the happiness and inevitable suffering everyone experiences. Brown describes the practice of compassion as: I understand, I’ve been there.
Panchali’s compassion, like many mythical liberators, does not imply a sweet sticky Hallmark abbreviation of the fierce experience. It insists on a whole-hearted comprehension and presence with what is. What is in another and in our self.
“Compassion is daring.” Pema Chodron
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship...we are both those who offer help and those who receive it.” The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown
Krishna, Panchali’s long time friend and god incarnate, provides the opportunity for connection. Panchali’s ability to put her mind on the face of her friend offers comfort. Everyone needs connection to be healthy. We know that babies need touch or they perish. According to Brown, the ability to make and receive connection is required to be whole-hearted. For Panchali, without the ability to connect, she would have died.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerability is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love, belonging, and joy.” The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown
Brown says that story, in our case the story of Panchali, is about worthiness and embracing the imperfections that bring us courage, compassion, and connection.
“Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.” The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown
I bring Panchali’s story to you, not to condone the actions of the King and his court, but to help us remember that although we have had extremely difficult events in our life, we can use the tools of our yoga practice to cultivate a steady mind. This focus transforms our suffering into a garden. In this garden we can be free of our shame and lose ourselves to love.
Women, by Adrienne Rich
My three sisters are sitting
on rocks of black obsidian.
For the first time, in this light, I can see who they are.
My first sister is sewing her costume for the procession.
She is going as the Transparent Lady
and all her nerves will be visible.
My second sister is also sewing,
at the seam over her heart which has never healed
At last, she hopes, this tightness in her chest will ease.
My third sister is gazing
at the dark red crust spreading westward far out on the
Her stockings are torn but she is beautiful.