Sunday, October 18, 2009

Combatting the Devistating Effects of Guilt

Back in the 80's, when I sat in my afternoon nursing psychiatry class, the professor expounded on the topic of depression. Depression, she said, was anger turned toward one’s self.

Over the years I’ve thought about that and have decided that the prof’s quote wasn’t entirely correct. Although chronic depression is a devastating illness, it’s guilt that’s the real mind killer.

Guilt is the sword that we turn on ourselves. Guilt and its consort, regret. Guilt is the grasping of stinging nettles with the intent of punishing ourselves for something we could neither foresee nor avoid.

Oh, if I hadn’t gone to the movies that night, such and such wouldn’t have happened.
Oh if I had only been watching a little closer.
Oh, if I had only paid more attention.
Oh, if I were only, stronger, swifter, smarter, prettier, etc…

Guilt is clinging in one of its worst forms. It is having a white knuckled grip on an unfavorable incident in the past that you wish with all your heart you could go back and change, no matter how impossible it is. Guilt harms no one but us. Guilt is the ghost that makes us haunt the house in the dead of night. Guilt digs the grave of depression and regret shoves us in and covers us up.

Guilt is greedy. It fills our minds until it overflows, consumes our bodies and destroys us from within. It takes away our self esteem, our confidence, eradicates our reason, forces our minds to focus on the incident like a magnifying glass catching and intensifying the sun’s rays, and is just as destructive.

Guilt is ignorant. It neither knows nor cares that the situation in question could have been avoided, or that one could learn from the incident. All it cares about is grinding us down, inwardly vilifying us, and making us feel hopeless and useless.

Guilt is a liar. It tells us that we should be super human, should know better or do better or be better than is possible. Guilt makes us dig up the past, even before we are born into this incarnation and points a cruel finger at historical events and blames us even though we had nothing to do with it in our lifetimes.

But wait, you might say. Guilt is a good thing. Without it, we’ll be little more than criminals. Without guilt we’d lie, cheat, steal, kill and the rest of it.

No. Do not confuse guilt with depravity. Also don’t confuse guilt with the quasi religious need to serve deities or people because you feel it’s your duty to do so. Guilt is never a good reason to worship, and even less so to serve others….We worship with joy in our hearts because we want to, not because we feel guilty. We do not help others because it’s our honor bound duty to do so; we help others because it brings you joy and peace of mind knowing that what we did benefits all beings.

The truth is, we’re not gods. We are not omniscient, despite what guilt would try and tell us. We are not able to foresee every variable, every circumstance and avoid doom. We incapable, as humans, not because we’re pitiful sinful beings, but we’re simply human, with our limited intelligence and physical frailties, and the occasional lack of better judgment to avoid any and all unfavorable circumstances. But even so, we could do all the right things and still not avoid something disastrous from happening. Why? Because the ever changing variables of impermanence makes it impossible for us to outwit any given situation. Although guilt would make us try, in reality the only thing we’ll get out of it is a bad case of ulcers.

So, what is the antidote for guilt?
Letting it go: by, understanding that there are circumstances that simply cannot be avoided, and since the incident already happened, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway. Letting it go, forgiving ourselves of the mistakes that were made, making amends to those whom we’ve harmed and learning from the errors we made are the best antidote to overcome guilt. And when the feeling of guilt arises, we can let it go too, knowing that it is just an emotion, an illusion, like the shadows of monsters in a child’s closet. The child of the mind can be afraid of the illusion, but as spiritual adults know better. We can tell that what we are feeling isn’t a monster, but just clothes and boxes on the floor of our spiritual closets.



  1. Dear Pat,

    Please remind the nice folks of the folly of
    the rational-emotive approach of striving to
    reason our why out of unpleasant emotions and instead

    tell the nice folks
    how to bring guilt
    into the paths of
    devotion, awareness, love and letting-go

    using the techniques found in the free texts at:

    Thank you.

    Om Mani Padme Hum,
    Lama Jigme


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