“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into the reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
“Blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability. Blaming is a way that we discharge anger.”
~ Brenè Brown
“I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.”
~ Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Are you a blamer, or do you know a blamer? For most of us being in the company of a blamer for extended periods of time leads to some difficult moments. I am a recovering blamer. Over a decade ago, I first tried a practice of having a blame-free day. I made it all the way to 10:00 am when a friend commented that a task I agreed to do was undone. Not only did I defend myself, but I got down off my metaphorical high horse and cut off someone else’s head with my sword of blame. It was intolerable to be perceived as unreliable and I had to let my friend know—it was not my fault. After the blaming massacre, I was shocked at how automatic my response was and how I was willing to malign another person to save myself. But save me from what? What would happen if I simply forgot to do what I said? What would be so wrong with making a mistake? For blamers, and recovering blamers, being seen as wrong or less than perfect can be excruciating.
Blaming others is a powerful tool which absolves us of responsibility and shame and allows us to remain as an innocent victim of the situation. Our egoic self remains pure and intact; there’s no risk of looking bad or feeling inferior. Shame researcher Brenè Brown points out that blame does not lead to accountability. Blame hijacks the mind into a frenzy of evidence seeking and does not go any further. Blame cannot consider reasons, understanding, or empathy. Blame seeks only to condemn and punish. It is the opposite of healing.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and arguments. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.” Blame is nothing new. Over 2,600 years ago the Buddha is reported to have listed the qualities that make a monk difficult to be with and the qualities that make a monk welcome in the community:
“he does not accuse one who has corrected him; he does not disparage one who has corrected him; he does not correct in turn one who has corrected him; he does not evade the criticism by asking another question; he does not change the subject…he succeeds in explaining his behavior when corrected; he is not jealous and greedy; he is not hypocritical and deceitful; he is not stubborn and arrogant; he is not worldly nor does he cling to things that belong to this world and he does not find it difficult to let go. These, my friends, are the qualities that make it easy to approach and talk to him” (Nhat Hanh, Trans. Anumana Sutta, MN 15). The first time I read this, I was surprised that monks would evade the question and blame the one who points out a fault, all lawyerly tactics, and apparently not new.
At the heart of blame is a frightened small self and the belief that seeing one’s imperfections is unacceptable. There is a fierce impulse beneath the blame to keep the egoic image free from stains and we are willing to sacrifice another to maintain our own purity. This type of egoic fury does not care about relationships, justice, or truth, all it seeks is its own survival and status. Buddhist nun, Sister Khema, describes the rationale behind blame in a 1994 dharma talk titled Meditating on No-Self, “Now the blame that is levied at us is not the problem. The problem is our reaction. The problem is that we feel smaller. The ego has a hard time reasserting itself. So, what we usually do is we blame back, making the other’s ego a bit smaller too…So we are constantly in a quandary, and in constant fear.” Blaming is a habit that took time to root in oneself. It also takes time to uproot.
When something goes wrong, we have an opportunity to ask a different question. Instead of “who did this?” We can shift and consider, “how am I with this?” What is happening in the body and the mind? Is there a visceral feeling of agitation and intolerance? Where is it in the body and what is its story? What would happen if we didn’t blame, but made a vow to love and accept ourselves no matter what—even if we made a mistake? At the root of blame is a very young desire to keep safe and accepted, the way every child needs to feel they are safe and loved. This old way of adaptive thinking still believes that is we are in the right and righteous, our place in the group is secure. But blaming does the opposite. It creates division and bad feelings within families and communities and blocks the transformation of our own fear and intolerance beneath the blame/shame response.
There’s always time to change behavior and the first step is always to notice what we are doing, to stop and consider what would happen to us if we made a mistake? Can we stand beside ourselves even if we are imperfect, forgetful, we drop things, get lost, are late, are human? We can move from blaming others to accepting the full range of our experience with kindness, curiosity, and the confidence that comes from loving and welcoming all of ourselves without discrimination
May we all trust our light,
This is a link to a story about the habit of blaming from Mindful Magazine by Dr. Brenè Brown.