Guilt was never a rational thing; it distorts all the faculties of the human mind, it perverts them, it leaves a man no longer in the free use of his reason, it puts him into confusion.
~ Edmund Burke
Guilt is, simply put, a wrong notion. Guilt is paralysing, destructive. You think you have done something you shouldn’t have; you hadn’t done something you should have.
Guilt is the false idea that you could have done better; that you had the power to choose. But if you look deeply into it, you will see that you were helpless. There was simply no choice.
There might still be tears and sadness, efforts at reparation might still be needed – but deep down inside, there will be a measure of peace, resting in the knowledge that you were not at fault.
Update: People seem to miss the statement above – “efforts at reparation might still be needed”, and the closing statements at the end of the article. Many think I’m advocating just ignoring the whole thing, or somehow that what we’ve done is right. I am suggesting that if we have done something unwise or hurtful, we let go of beating ourselves up, because it accomplishes nothing and sometimes can actually keep us doing it (however paradoxical it might sound). For instance, if I cheated someone’s money, torturing myself with guilt keeps me stuck and often helpless. This does not mean it was the right thing to do, or that I don’t repay what I owe! In fact, the more I heal my guilt, the more likely I am to do the right thing, and make amends if needed.
The death of guilt comes with the realisation that you could have done nothing else. Your emotional state, your past conditioning, your beliefs and knowledge, your instincts and intuition – they were just too strong. A beach ball, separated from its owner, pulled along by the raging waves – what can it do? It is dragged out, lost at sea. Who can blame it?
Without awareness, we are without control, completely at the mercy of our past.
Relax your body; close your eyes. Think of the last time you felt angry. Place yourself, as best as you can, back in time.
Perhaps someone had made a comment, one that is designed to hurt; immediately you are engulfed in a storm of emotions and thoughts. It pulls you with such force, it takes over your body – and you begin to react. Your voice becomes deeper, louder, and you begin to shout in rage.
Right now you might be safe, in an office, at home. That person is just a memory, but still the urge to shout is there. You recognise it now – you can see the anger, you can feel the compulsion to act. But you don’t, because you are aware. And with this awareness you begin to see a different possibility. You can hold your anger down now; there is no longer a need to shout.
But you lacked that recognition, and therefore that choice, in the past. Your mental and emotional patterns had taken over, and you didn’t know – the awareness was simply not there! You could have done nothing else.
Given what was happening inside you, outside you at that time, you did the best you could!
Guilt is born the moment we know better. Guilt is created the moment we think back, the moment we see the hurt we have caused. Hindsight creates the lie that we had a choice. But we didn’t. We always do our best, restricted only by our awareness.
The Pull of Unconsciousness
One day I was at a train station with a friend. The train had been delayed, and I was getting bored. I leaned back on the bench, crossed my legs and began shaking my foot. It was just an old habit, one I rather enjoyed. My head was off in the clouds, and I was suddenly snapped back into reality when my friend reached over and slapped my thigh.
“Stop shaking!” he said. “It’s annoying!”
Amused, I stopped, but after a few seconds my thoughts began to drift, and my foot began to shake once more. My friend slapped my thigh again. “Why can’t you stop?” he asked. I shrugged – I don’t know.
I don’t know. That was simply how most of us live our lives. Without awareness, we simply don’t know what we are doing. The past is in control. Without awareness, we are slaves to our unconscious impulses.
Psychologists and Buddhist teachers alike have identified these patterns inside each of us. They have different names for it, of course, but they all refer to the same thing: patterns, instincts, old conditionings, beliefs, emotional states, perhaps a wound that is still bleeding.
The possibility of choice only comes with consciousness – when these patterns arise, can we recognise them for what they are, instead of getting pulled along by their force?
Ten Thousand Influences
The lie of guilt becomes even clearer when we begin to consider our emotional states, our physical states – and even the temperature and humidity.
I get mildly annoyed whenever I have to repeat myself. It is normally almost imperceptible – a minor difference in my tone of voice, a small frown. A long time ago, I was having an awful, stressful week. The first chance I got, I jumped into my car and went for a cruise to clear my head. Not long after, a friend rang to ask me where I was.
“Just cruising, not going anywhere in particular,” I mumbled. “What?” she asked.
My awareness was low, obscured by my stress, and the irritation was amplified – it took over completely.
“NOWHERE!” I shouted. And I didn’t even realise I had shouted, that I had hurt her feelings, until days had passed.
And this was no different from a night of hard drinking. Our consciousness has dropped, old mental-emotional patterns have arisen. No longer could we catch them before they take control. And the results are the stuff of songs and stories! We lose our inhibitions, we wake up in bed with someone we dislike, perhaps we end up crying, dancing, or singing like a fool.
These patterns are constantly there, running our lives underneath our conscious awareness. Why do many people have the same relationships with different lovers? A man dates a series of women who all lie to him; a woman dates a series of men who all cheat on her. Their past, in whatever form, is in control, making their choices for them. They had no say at all.
This is my favourite definition of the word Karma – until we can become aware of our past, aware enough to choose, we unconsciously have to relive it again and again.
An Automatic and Involuntary Reaction
And to drive the point in, we have to consider the countless external factors that come into play.
Consider this passage from The Book by Alan Watts:
“The illusion that organisms move entirely on their own is immensely persuasive until we settle down, as scientists do, to describe their behaviour carefully.”
A scientist will soon discover that in describing the movement of an ant, for instance, he will soon have to take into account other factors – food sources in the area, hostile or friendly behaviour of other organisms, and countless other factors…
“The more detailed the description of our ant’s behaviour becomes, the more it has to include such matters as density, humidity, and temperature of the surrounding atmosphere, the types and sources of its food, the social structure of its own species, and that of neighbouring species with which it has some symbiotic or preying relationship.”
“When at last the whole vast list is compiled, and the scientist calls “Finish!” for lack of further time or interest, he may well have the impression that the ant’s behaviour is no more than its automatic and involuntary reaction to its environment. It is attracted by this, repelled by that, kept alive by one condition, and destroyed by another.”
Why am I sitting at home now, on a beautiful summer afternoon, instead of being out by the beach? At first glance, it might seem like a conscious choice. But on dissection, one can see the countless factors that have led up to this point. The heat makes me wilt; the humidity makes me grumpy; my lack of sleep makes me too tired to drive out; my workload meant I have not had any writing time for a while.
Guilt is useless
Guilt is unhealthy – completely, utterly useless.
Why then, do we continue to indulge in it? There is a mistaken belief that guilt is atonement, that somehow it will make things better, perhaps motivate us to make reparations.
But that is simply not true; it is the opposite. It is dead weight; it constantly drags us down. All our mental energies are wasted on punishing ourselves, keeping us in low spirits, keeping us weak. This shows up in many forms: depression, low self-confidence and self-esteem, constant rumination.
How does a weak, sickly man make amends?
How can self-punishment possibly do anything but bring more misery into life? Punishment might scare us into not doing something, but the patterns are still there. You must have seen this for yourself. A child is punished for eating sweets before dinner; all that has done is put a layer of pain over her desire for candy – it is still there. There won’t be any lasting change or improvement. Even in psychological treatment, punishment to stop undesirable behaviour is always the last option.
End the guilt; bring an inner acceptance to our lives. Then the energy begins to spring forth – bringing quality to our actions, giving us the courage to sincerely apologise, to make amends.
Make a resolution to learn from your mistake, to become more mindful, more aware of yourself. With this mindfulness comes increased awareness – when you see the past conditionings arising, can you remain aware enough to have a choice?
The end of guilt
Make a decision now to cease all self-punishment, to return to health, to take steps towards mental maturity.
Ending guilt does not mean what happened was right, that you can do it again. It doesn’t mean you are justified in going out there and doing it again, under the excuse – I don’t know any better!
A healthy man learns from the past, makes amends, and corrects his mistakes. A neurotic is mired in the past, trapped in his own mental prison, constantly condemning himself, hoping for a better past.