Sunday, October 28, 2012

Minding the Guilt

Guilt is an interesting emotion with many nuances worth exploring. 

Guilt came up recently in a caregiver support group I help facilitate. One woman felt guilty for not being there for her husband 100 percent of the time. I explained that we often set ourself up with unrealistic expectations of ourselves, 'should-s' that demand from us more than we can humanly give. And we end up with this yucky feeling in our stomach, a mixture of self-hate, confusion, and powerlessness. This is false guilt, a toxic emotion to be disposed of promptly as soon as we can see it for what it is.

Guilt can also be of the rightful kind. There are a few major decisions I have made in the past that have come back to haunt me, both in terms  of negative outer consequences, and also the pain from a tormented heart. There is no escaping such guilt. I have found it needs to be endured with great tenderness, and also the determination to learn from it. Rather than lingering in biting remorse, better yet is to mine the wisdom buried in one's earlier mistakes. Whenever guilt raises its ugly head, I meet it like this:

First, I feel the guilt completely, including the slew of other, all very unpleasant mind states attached, the sadness, the remorse, the regret, . . . I feel them all. Guilt is a blow to the ego. It crushes one's inflated view of one self, and as such, can be seen as a very good thing. Guilt opens one's heart.

Second, I move on to a state of self-compassion. I revisit what happened, and the circumstances that led to the original action. A state of limited consciousness and heart not being opened, for sure. I forgive myself. 

Third, I step out of myself, and I feel the pain of those I unwittingly hurt. I use that intimate knowledge to build up the necessary resolve to not repeat such hurtful acts. Part of that resolve is a renewed commitment to mindfulness and loving kindness practice, the two best safeguard I know against negative karma. 

Fourth, I take a forward thinking stance. The past is the past that cannot be undone. All I can change is how I think, feel, and act in this present moment. The opportunity to love is right now. Today is the first day of my remaining life.

How do you deal with guilt?


  1. I think there is a great deal of common sense in what you say.The great problem with life (I have always thought) is that whatever we do is done and gone. However upset or guilty we feel about a situation there is never an opportunity to return and re-create it in any way. For example if you kill someone they are dead for all time etc. I remember going to confession many years ago to confess something I thought quite unforgiveable and the priest simply said, OK you have done xxx now go away and do not do it again and try to learn from this and in furure try to do good rather than harm.....I think this chimes in with the Buddhist teaching to live a harmless life if you possibly can.

  2. guilt-feelings give me impulses to reflect. understanding opens my heart. i have learned to think and communicate in ways that are often not helpful. now i am learning to express my needs appropriately. that works for me.

  3. When the feeling of guilt arises (or any other feeling) I mindfuly observe it through the breathing ... noting bodily sensations acompanying that feeling ... noting if its pleasant, unpleasant or neutral ... noting its intensity through each in and outbreath ... seeing its changing nature ... noting its passing away ...
    Discerning awareness is the key to ending suffering; noting noting noting, calming calming calming :)
    May you be happy at heart

  4. A very important and insightful post you have here.I see a lot of people running away or resisting guilt because they figure that someone's awakening or spiritual path is somehow allergic to remorse or anything deemed negative.
    The acceptance gives us an insight into that feeling and allows us to learn from it and that in itself is the road towards healing.
    Much love and hugs,