In-tel-lec-tu-al-iz-a-tion. Now try saying that quickly a few times in a row. Aside from being difficult to pronounce, intellectualization can cause difficulties in our personal lives, our communities, and our world. So, what is it besides a word with too many syllables? A simple definition from Wikipedia states, “In psychology, intellectualization is a defense mechanism by which reasoning is used to block confrontation with an unconscious conflict and its associated emotional stress – where thinking is used to avoid feeling. It involves removing one's self, emotionally, from a stressful event. Intellectualization may accompany, but is different from, rationalization, the pseudo-rational justification of irrational acts.” Let’s read through that a few times and let it soak in. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellectualization)
As the world reels from the devastation of George Floyd’s murder and a nation’s history of racism, we chatted with Lama Tsomo about how to face those horrific parts of our world and avoid intellectualizing. For many, it may be anxiety-provoking to admit fault, as admitting fault often brings a sense of shame. She gave us some helpful anecdotes and thoughts to help us shift away from shame and into sitting with reality.
She reminded us that if we are all made of Buddhamind, or of the same ocean, then shame doesn’t make any sense. Our study and practice remind us of our true nature and deep connectedness, then we will be more able to acknowledge when we are wrong. Shame and not admitting when we are wrong blocks us from connecting with others. If we say, “Oh wow! I was wrong, and I’m sorry,” we can usually feel the wall come down between us and someone else. When we can let go of the shame, stop making excuses and explanations, only then can we see the reality of the suffering we have a hand in continuing. And only when we can see that reality can we begin to do anything about it.
Think about a time when you have been deeply misunderstood. It feels terrible, right? But how does it feel when the misunderstanding party tries to explain why they did what they did? Probably pretty aggravating, right? Unfortunately, this can easily happen when we are faced with being bystanders in a country that has allowed racism to exist. When we are faced with this, we must resist the urge to explain it, to make sense of it. There is no sense to be made of systemic racism. As long as we keep trying to explain that which is too horrific to be explained, a space will remain between humans who simply have different colored skin.
Then we must ask ourselves, what is at stake if that space between humans remains? Answer: entire groups of people being systematically left out of society, more racist acts, more shame, and more loss.
And what is there to gain by admitting fault and sitting with the discomfort of that? Connection between us and the hurting human(s) in front of us, and at least a chance for a new path forward. When we are faced with admitting fault, Lama Tsomo recommends asking ourselves this question, “Will my response join us or separate us?” Let’s stick to our practice so we can have the strength to choose the response that joins us with another, rather than leaning into shame and remaining separated from others.