Several months ago, I wrote an article for Offbeat Home about trying to make it through a yoga practice without stopping to clean up balls of cat hair floating by my face. Even though I’m still working on making peace with my occasionally fuzzy home, I still have issues meditating in the morning without glaring around the room in horror at all the papers out of place or sneaky dust piles that crept up over night. It wasn’t until this morning that I recognized this feeling as guilt. To my surprise, I feel guilty about dust, and somehow, about pretty much everything else.
Here’s my own cycle of guilt, in a nutshell: It’s dusty in here because I don’t clean enough, I don’t clean enough because I’m balancing two careers at once, I’m balancing two careers at once because my primary career has yet to be financially sustaining, it would be financially sustaining if I were more talented. The guilty accusations go round and round and round. Substitute other life issues–family trouble, relationship bumps, money issues–and you have my brain on any given day.
The Freedom of Guiltlessness
In a wonderful interview between Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron and her teacher, the Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, the two discuss the important differences between guilt and remorse. To me, these have always been one and the same–remorse just being a more extreme version of guilt. However, Dzigar Kongtrul explains that guilt only perpetuates a state of “bad me,” or in physiological terms, the idea of Learned Helplessness. We know that something is wrong, but instead of focusing on the issues themselves and looking for ways to remedy them, we turn anger and embarrassment in on ourselves and fall into an unproductive pile of self-pity.
Buddhism takes a nihilist approach to the idea of self. If everything is impermanent, as Buddhist philosophy states, then the concrete personalities and mental images we have of ourselves are also temporary. And therefore, turning blame onto ourselves in the form of guilt is blaming something that doesn’t exist. Have I lost you? Hang in there, I’m still figuring this out myself.
When we choose regret or remorse for our wrongdoings to ourselves or others, we choose to focus on the events themselves. This is not to say that we should pass blame on to some mysterious force in the universe–if you yelled at your barista, it’s still your fault. But do you focus on the act of yelling, or the idea that you are somehow intrinsically a bad person that yells at baristas? In Christian terms, hate the sin not the sinner. Focus on the yelling, and you see that this was an act of hurt that can be changed. Focus on yourself, and you carry around that defensive guilt to pass on to everyone throughout your day.
It’s like when you were little, and the teacher yelled at your for talking during class, so you instantly burst into tears (just me?). You felt so guilty, and angry about being made to feel guilty, that your emotions take over. However, as soon as you calm down, you go right back to talking during class. You know that you did something wrong, without looking at the wrongdoing itself.
As Dzigar Kongtrul brilliantly states, “With the view of guiltlessness we can work with wrong or right, did or didn’t. It doesn’t matter. We can feel free to work with that situation without struggle. The mind is more agile because there is more space—space to look without feeling threatened. Once guilt has awakened, it has this extra-strength feeling of intrinsically “bad me.” This is not helpful and not true and not in accord with the way things are. If we bring the view of egolessness to our guilt, it will pop the deep part of our emotional attachment to this intrinsic “bad me.””
Guilt: The Great Chameleon
As you begin to play with this idea of guilt vs. remorse, you’ll start to spot guilt parading as other fun emotions, especially defensiveness, anger, or as stated before, learned helplessness–when one accepts their recurring challenges and hardships as a fact of life.
Guilt can also parade as ignorance, and this is where things become particularly dangerous. Guilt is safer, and often easier, than change. On a small scale, it’s the attack you receive when you correct someone’s grammar. On a larger scale–politics.
I have a collection of friends from childhood that have fallen into the trap of voting for politics that hurt their own interests without realizing it. Even though they are working or middle class, they rally behind politicians that ignore the needs of those with financial hardships. It’s hard to watch. But when a difficult financial situation or lack of understanding about our political system is turned into guilt, it’s easier to fall victim to a false-idol promising you a way out, opposed to accepting that you can educate yourself about the details of a politician’s views and be open to new ideas.
As always, I don’t believe this is something easily changed overnight. But if even for the next hour, we accept that we have nothing to feel guilty about–that maybe we are not innately terrible people, then perhaps we can see a glimpse into that mental space that Dzigar Kongtrul promises. And then we can start making real steps forward.