During my first meditation class, I had a shocking moment. My teacher was guiding us through a series of steps designed to help balance our energy systems. At one point, he directed us:
Take your right hand, reach around in front and then set your hand down on our left neck/shoulder area. Look to the right, and then say 16 times, “I am not guilty.”
Try it and listen to the internal conversation that quickly erupts!
By about the 13th repetition, I finally managed a little internal silence. It was a startling change from the normal chatter in my head. Wow, what a relief. That feeling is something I immediately experienced as ‘valuable’, and have since made it a point to reconnect with.
Many of us have been raised on guilt, so it’s difficult to imagine life without it, or even why one would want to live that way.
In this context, I am talking about guilt as the repeated pattern of thinking about the past and feeling badly about it, rather than the simple fact of accepting responsibility for an action.
The 12-step program developed first as Alcoholics Anonymous has a beautiful method for thoroughly and systematically cleaning up our relationship with the past. The process begins with a written self-inventory, counseling with a sponsor, and then making amends.
Repetitive guilty thinking is a stake that pins our attention to the past. It makes us feel unworthy. It makes us feel stuck and ‘wrong’ in a way that can never be ‘righted’.
But we all know that it’s ‘perfectly human’ to make mistakes. Ah, yes, that’s it. We are perfectly human and we make mistakes. We commit errors, lose money, say or do hurtful things, and feel regret. Yes, that is perfectly human.
When you’ve done something wrong, you can’t undo it. The guilty thinking approach keeps you in internal turmoil, and fosters depression and inaction. In this state, inner peace is not to be found…which is a signal that something in our thinking or attitude needs to change!
Guilt keeps you replaying a story that starts with, “I’m such a bad person. I should have …” It’s a complete waste of time that keeps you bound to the past. Doing so, means you are unable to move freely and be present for what’s in front of you now.
What’s a more useful course of action? Admit promptly when you’ve done something wrong. Spend some time sorting out any complexities of each situation. Then consider, “What can I do now to make amends for that situation. How can I ensure it doesn’t happen again?” Take actions now.
Start with a thorough, deep-cleaning guilt removal program. By addressing each issue honestly in the present, you’re snipping away the web of tiny threads that have tied your attention to the past. This alternate approach cultivates inner peace. You’ll feel the difference immediately.
Once you’ve experienced the freedom associated with cleaning up some of the past issues, you’ll want to find a way to keep this intact. Develop a daily ritual for repentance and guilt cleaning. This makes it a cinch to see your responsibility for today’s actions, what needs to be done and what needs to be changed. While guilt fosters depression and inaction, an honest analysis is a much more practical and effective approach. It heals and liberates you to experience the present fully. And that’s really living!
“[Guilt] often turns out to be a form of self-deprecating laziness.”
- View on Buddhism, http://viewonbuddhism.org/guilt.html
The gift that keeps on giving.”
- Erma Bombeck,
comedienne and author
- Day 1: find a place to sit by yourself. Try saying to yourself, 16 times, I am not guilty. And listen to the internal dialog that follows. Later, make a list of the top three to five things you feel guilty about.
- Day 2: Consider the items on the list. Consider each situation compassionately, as if you were talking to a friend. What happened? Why? What did you learn from that experience? Were there some misunderstandings? Did you act in haste? Forgive yourself for being ‘perfectly human’. Brainstorm some actions for making amends. (Take as many days as necessary for this step.)
- Week 2: Talk to a trusted friend about these situations. Develop a plan of action. Actions could include calling, writing a letter, making an apology, or doing something else to make amends. Next, take one action for each situation.
- Do an inner peace check. Are you feeling more at ease, more loving and compassionate toward yourself and others? Continue to identify and address other areas of residual guilt.
- Add a review and repentance check up to your daily routine. Are there any sticky spots that didn’t go well? Why? What can you do to apologize, right or avoid repeating that mistake?