The Value of Embarrassment and the Myth of Meditation

Embarrassment is not usually talked about as a personal or institutional feature – let alone valued as a virtue. However, it is a fact that time and again, we are – openly or secretly – embarrassed by things going on in our personal or professional lives, from a runner in our pantyhose to a gaudy valentine’s surprise from our lover, from (our) kids misbehaving in public places to (male) managers getting it all wrong about gender diversity, from an associate presenting a badly designed power point chart to an esteemed colleague making a faulty argument in a newspaper article[1].

Recently, in many organisations I work with, a prime occasion to feel embarrassed is when someone within a company introduces something that tastes of (or is even called) meditation – sometimes in the disguise of its less religiously dressed cousin “mindfulness”[2]. So far, I’ve met very few executives who feel genuinely at ease with watching their breath (or, for that matter, any other movement of their physical, energetic, or mental bodies), especially when this is happening in a group of people seated in a circle of chairs (or cushions!).

There’s nothing wrong with feeling embarrassed about such a situation (just as there’s nothing wrong with feeling embarrassed about spilling orange juice on our neighbour’s white shirt on the 6am flight to LHR). At the same time, there is something wrong with discarding this embarrassment by assuming that meditation is a cure-all for – personal or professional – indispositions and that by allowing ourselves to engage with meditation not only the embarrassment will disappear but also all kinds of other miraculous results will appear instead[3].

I want to suggest an alternative interpretation, namely that those who want to get better at anything should engage with their own embarrassment – and that those who engage in meditation should not expect to get better at anything. I’ll unpack the arguments behind this in a moment:

As a basic premise, we all live inside some personal and organisational makeup that constitutes our – inner and outer – world. This makeup is a combination of aspects we were born into – such as our parents, bodies, languages, cultural environments, and unconscious habits – and aspects that we adopted (more or less) consciously such as our interests and hobbies, friends and romantic partners, lifestyle choices and occupations, theories and ideologies[4]. With each of these aspects comes an – explicit or implicit – promise of comfort which manifests variably as feeling “at home”, “good”, “healthy”, “happy”, “satisfied”, “excited”, “passionate” etc.

While it is widely accepted that we can decide to change practically every aspect of this makeup (even the seemingly most solid physical aspects such as our sex), the aim of such changes is always to (re-) gain comfort: A continuous coming-of-age, “Selbsterfahrung”, “Selbstfindung”, and “Selbstverwirklichung” with the higher purpose of being more in sync with ourselves[5] – or, in an organisational context, being more successful with regard to the organisations goals, whatever they may be. From a slightly different angle: In order for us to consider changing anything, we usually need to be convinced that something is going to be better afterwards[6].

As some kind of “continuous improvement” (sometimes also called “learning”) has become a guiding light for practically everything that happens in our institutions and to us as individuals[7], the market for tools that are designed to help us get better at almost anything has skyrocketed – from self-help blogs and books of the “Get better at anything within no time and with no effort” type[8] to the wide range of available brands of high-end coaching, consulting, and cupcakes[9]. The marketeers of these tools, I should add, usually also emphasise that using their tool will be (at least) as comfortable (read: easy, effective, and enjoyable) an experience as achieving whatever you want to get better at[10].

In this market, meditation (together with other members of the family of introspective techniques) has become a popular tool to address almost every (personal or institutional) shortcoming from health issues to stress and burnout, from lack of vision to lack of creativity, and from dealing with chaos to dealing with boredom[11]. As a consequence, it has become good practice to include some kind of meditation into almost any (personal or institutional) effort of getting better at anything. And like with other tools, sales pitches for meditation usually also underline the vast amount of positive side effects that come with this tool.

But: Regardless of whether meditation can or cannot make anything better (it probably can, just as panacea, holy grails, and cupcakes do), its ultimate purpose is not to make anything better – but something quite different: “So by sitting and meditating we acknowledge that we are fools […]. We begin as fools. We sit and meditate. Once we begin to realise that we are actually one-hundred-percent fools for doing such a thing, then we begin to see how the techniques function as a crutch”[12]. Using meditation as a tool to make something better is abuse – it turns ultimate goallessness into a means for achieving a particular (and therefore necessarily relative) goal[13].

I do not propose to not meditate. Quite the contrary: I do suggest that everybody should practice meditation regularly, continuously, and all the time, no matter whether they want to get better any anything or not. What I want to suggest, however, is to drop the focus on what meditation might (or might not) achieve. First and foremost, practically every established type of meditation does include something to focus on (for beginners: the breath), so there’s not need to complicate things by introducing another focus on top (which equals adding a distraction). And: While this makes meditation ultimately self-sufficient[14], at the same time, the feeling of embarrassment that appears as we embark on something so pointless can be a vehicle for exactly the achievements that we’re looking for in terms of relative improvements.

How so? Embarrassment arises whenever we see ourselves (or someone else[15]) do something that clashes with who we think we are or who we think others should think we are[16]. It points to a part of us that is no longer (or not yet) consistent with the rest of us: A toddler who’s embarrassed at being seen sucking a pacifier by his peers in kindergarten, a teenager who’s embarrassed about the Lego bricks in his room when his girlfriend visits, a mother who’s embarrassed when her kids confront her with the infatuated love letters she wrote (and never posted) to the pop idol of her youth – and, of course, an executive who’s embarrassed about sitting and doing nothing. Our usual reaction is to try to make the embarrassment (and its trigger) go away. However, if we’re at all serious about something like – personal or organisational – “development” or “growth”, I suggest that we don’t look away, but rather look into the embarrassment.

Accepting, experiencing, inviting, and facing embarrassment are strong hooks to make us unravel our current makeup of who and what we are. As any wish to get better at anything necessarily includes changing (at least part of) this makeup[17], a hook that pokes holes into the perceived consistency of ourselves is a very powerful instrument, especially when it just appears without us having to manufacture anything. Grabbing the thread of our makeup that comes out when we notice our own embarrassment can be the first step towards untying all kinds of entanglements that actually prevent us from getting better at what we want to get better at.

Of course, embarrassment does not have to come in a package with meditation only. There are many other situations in life where we can meet our own embarrassment – or we can create such situations, like the confidence coach who asked a friend of mine to walk through the city pulling a toothbrush behind her on a dog’s leash[18]. The more aware we become of what our embarrassment feels like, the more we’ll encounter it all the time – and the more opportunities we’ll have to inhabit – rather than: inhibit – our inherent contradictions[19].

One word of caution: Looking at our own embarrassment is one thing. Embarrassing others is a different thing – and completely unacceptable, unless we have been granted explicit license to do so. If you don’t have that license, just look at the embarrassment that you feel at not being able to embarrass the other person.


[1] The outstanding comedians of this world seem to be among the few who truly savour the value of embarrassment – just watch any Charlie Chaplin movie (again). BACK TO TEXT

[2] How omnipresent this is by now is nicely laid out by Otto Scharmer in his blog post about this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/otto-scharmer/davos-mindfulness-hotspot_b_4671062.html [retrieved Mar 4, 2015] BACK TO TEXT

[3] Nobody said this as well as Chögyam Trungpa, to whom I owe much more than the title of this blog: “Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss or tranquility, nor is it attempting to become a better person. It is simply the creation of a space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deceptions, our hidden fears and hopes. We provide space through the simple discipline of doing nothing”, see “The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation” (1976), p. 2. If this intrigues you, I can highly recommend diving further into any of his works, his thinking, and his lineage. BACK TO TEXT

[4] I’m painfully aware of the fact that there is a big “nature vs nurture” debate behind every single aspect I just mentioned. I’m consciously choosing to not go into these debates here and now, because the outcome of each of these is not relevant to the following arguments. BACK TO TEXT

[5] The German words have a particular ring of silk painting, pottery, and group therapy that might not be accessible to those without profound knowledge of German culture; for a short, but pointed introduction see Loriot, “Die Jodelschule” (1978), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hG6RyQCggdI [retrieved Mar 4, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[6] For a critical appraisal on how to identify change that works, see my previous post hereBACK TO TEXT

[7] I would argue that even if (economic) “growth” has lost a bit of its appeal in terms of being a universally accepted currency, “development” still plays that role – even (and sometimes even more) for those who express a certain skepticism towards growth; see, for example, the thinking around “sustainable development”. BACK TO TEXT

[8] The pinnacle of this genre is Tim Ferriss’ work, born from his “Four Hour Work Week” (2007), blossoming through his other books, and masterfully integrated in his website http://fourhourworkweek.com [retrieved Mar 4, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[9] This is not a typo. I’m convinced that the rise of popularity of cupcakes is closely linked to the topic of this post, as the quintessence of a cupcake is that it makes you feel better without making you feel (too) guilty while being able to choose a highly individualised mix of flavours and decorations. For proof, watch this clip from “Sex and the City”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2FuDCGt7vI [retrieved Mar 4, 2015] BACK TO TEXT

[10] A notable exception to this generalization is Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (2011) – which actually received a lot of criticism for its suggestion that sometimes getting better at something can be hard (and painful) work for all involved. BACK TO TEXT

[11] Just search any of these terms in combination with “mediation” or “mindfulness” to get a broad set of – reliable and unreliable, inspiring and worrying – sources as well as contradictory research findings on almost any individual aspect of the discussion. BACK TO TEXT

[12] Chögyam Trungpa, “The Myth of Freedom”, p. 44. BACK TO TEXT

[13] A little like a variation on Martin Buber’s famous quote: “Niemals heiligt der Zweck die Mittel, wohl aber können die Mittel den Zweck zuschanden machen”. I could not find the original source for this quote – any hints welcome! BACK TO TEXT

[14] Even though, admittedly, depending on the path followed, the specific techniques might change over time. BACK TO TEXT

[15] As in the beautiful German expression “Fremdschämen”. BACK TO TEXT

[16] See also Wikipedia’s lovely definition – “an emotional state of intense discomfort with oneself, experienced upon having a socially unacceptable act or condition witnessed by or revealed to others” – from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embarrassment [retrieved Mar 4, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[17] Some might argue that this is less relevant when we’re talking purely technical change (for more details on change, see my last post). My answer is that, superficially, yes, we might be able to achieve some purely technical improvements without any change in our overall makeup; however, there’s always a limit to technical improvements and a threshold beyond which adaptive change is called for. You can learn to run faster and faster, but in order to fly, at some point, you’ll need to grow wings. BACK TO TEXT

[18] In my search for a source for this exercise, I came across the following short story by Michael Bruchner (apologies for those who do not read German) – a brilliant illustration of the power of embarrassment: http://www.michaelbruchner.de/textilien/einezahnbuerste.html [retrieved Mar 5, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[19] I readily admit that my conviction that this is a helpful thing to do owes much to Robert Kegan’s thinking, e.g. as spelled out in “In Over Our Heads” (1994). For a coaching approach that translates this into practical exercises (usually not including toothbrushes), have a look at http://mindsatwork.com [retrieved Mar 5, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

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