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Regret, Guilt and changing your life

In Eat Pray Love (book and movie) by Elizabeth Gilbert we meet Richard, a western devotee of an Indian guru who chastises Elizabeth for every attitude she has, or so it seems – helping her deal with the issues of living in an ashram and learning to meditate.

The main lesson Richard teaches Elizabeth is that she needs to mourn the past and forgive herself.

It turns out that Richard is in fact very troubled himself: divorced after nearly running over his kid when drunk he has lost touch with his children and is trying to deal with nearly having killed one of them.

While I didn’t like the book much, I did enjoy the movie with Julia Roberts.

The lesson Richard teaches Elizabeth is the lesson he needs to learn himself – not because it’s not unforgivable to almost run over your child, but because life does go on and the only way to live it well is to mourn your losses and mistakes and forgive: yourself and others. I know it sounds sappy, but it’s the only way.

Once one has forgiven oneself the work is not done of course: it’s also necessary not to repeat those same mistakes again.

What remains when the guilt is gone is regret. In fact the distinction between guilt and regret is made quite explicitly in the first course in the FPMT Discovering Buddhism course (which is not quite an introduction into Buddhism course btw).

Guilt has a Protestant Christian connotation for many people – not for me, though. When I talk about guilt I merely mean that our past mistakes can be like a black cloud on our soul. Guilt is when we can’t move on, when we’re stuck in self-blame and self-pity.

Regret about negative actions on the other hand is simply the awareness of those mistakes and the conscious choice not to make them again.

Personally I think Jiddu Krishnamurti had a point when he said that the chances of avoiding a mistake are highest when we have a genuine insight into the causes of the mistake and just why it WAS a mistake. Buddhists would call that a realization: deeply felt, fully understood…

Still even if one does have a realization of how wrong something was, new habits need to be formed. The memory of the mistake, the consequences and regret combined help do just that: to develop new, more healthy, patterns.

I recently came into a position where I might have repeated some of the mistakes I made in my 20s. Thankfully I found it possible not to fall into those traps, in part because I knew just where they were. That felt good, however hard it was.

It probably sounds sappy, but moving from guilt to regret, it IS possible to change your life.

Please invent a pseudonym if you want to share your regrets.
How hard is it to avoid repeating past mistakes in your life?
Does insight into the problem, its causes and consequences help?

* The Discovering Buddhism course by the FPMT is given at local FPMT centres throughout the world. The online version is meant for those who want to turn to Buddhism as a practical path. Local teachers will usually adapt the teachings to their specific audience. However it’s taught the aim is to combine theoretical knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism with practical tools for personal transformation.

  • Universal Life Church November 14, 2011, 5:36 pm

    The concept of something being a mistake can go two ways. In once sense, there are things that we wish we could go back and do another way, but if we did, we wouldn’t be where we are, learning what we need to learn. My feeling is that people make the best decisions they can in that moment and as soon as they learn what they need to learn, they can then make different decisions. I have lymphedema, post cancer. I believe I probably got it when I over-did it taking detox herbs, post-chemo. Had I gone more slowly, I may have avoided lymphedema. I also think I must have something to learn by having it that I wouldn’t be able to learn without it. So, there’s no point in regrets. The only problem is if we fail to learn from our ‘mistakes’.

  • Jason Marshall November 15, 2011, 11:41 am

    How hard is it to avoid repeating past mistakes in your life?

    I think not repeating past mistakes requires gaining insight into the nature of the mistake, and resolving not to repeat the behavior.

    Does insight into the problem, its causes and consequences help?

    I think it is essential to gain insight into the problem in order to not only repeat the mistake, but to deal with what has happened and move on. Too often in the west, we tend to bury the problem deep within our psyche, or we simply medicate. Instead, by truly examining whatever has happened, we can come to terms with what has happened and actually “deal” with the problem. Only after dealing with the problem head-on can we truly progress.

    Excellent post. Thanks for sharing!

  • Joe Bill November 15, 2011, 7:06 pm

    I think the RIGHT insight helps. In other words, you may be aware of a problem, and see the big picture, but find the specific hard to nail down. You know the melody, but you lack the proper note to change it. It’s when you find the note in the theme and change it that you can then break free of the past.

  • Jo November 17, 2011, 6:25 pm

    “Surely love is a state in which there is no hurt. Hurt exists only when the ‘me’ is dominant in that love, when I am expecting something in that love. Is compassion a state in which the ‘me’ – the center, the ego, the self – is ever conscious of itself being compassionate? In compassion is consciousness of the ‘me’ necessary? When you know that you are compassionate, when you are conscious that you are compassionate, is that compassion? When you know you are forgiving, is that forgiveness? And the moment I am conscious of virtue, is that virtue? So, does not the conscious act of forgiveness, of being hurt, the conscious act, does it not strengthen the entity, the ‘me’, that is always gathering, always accumulating, comparing, judging, weighing? And can such an entity ever be free, ever know what it is to love, what it is to be compassionate? Please find out for yourself, don’t listen to my words.” – Krishnamurti. Bombay, 1953.

  • Pedro November 18, 2011, 12:31 pm

    The question was how difficult is to avoid making the same mistakes. It’s easy if one learns a better way to deal with the situation. That comes from knowing yourself and experience, which includes making said mistakes.
    Does insight into the problem, its causes and consequences help?
    In short, yes. The thing I’ve learned is that insight can come much later, after the issue has passed and perhaps making more minor mistakes of the same nature… it dawns on you that – oh, this is what I faced before and maybe there is a different way to deal with it. You understand the cause of the problem and you don’t have to repeat it.

  • Courtney November 22, 2011, 4:07 pm

    I have been meaning to watch that movie. I always heard it was great; but didn’t realize it touched on the living with guilt subject.

    I am once again discovering that I dislike or hate myself… Oh what a wonderful path…

    My friend suggested the hoʻoponopono prayer; which has helped in the past. But there is always work to be done!

    Thank you for the article. On my way to regret, what a wonderful stepping stone to aim for! lol

  • GILBERT November 26, 2011, 12:48 pm

    What has worked for me is to approach every single situation from the point of zero..That point where situations are seen for what they are and not reach into our”emotional” past to conftont it..one will repeat mistakes then. Regret is a self-puishment/victimhood strategy of the mind(ego) and it’s used as the driving force to prevent making mistakes in the future. It is a mental game we play with ourselves..If we do not regret a horrible act we feel heartless,cold and inhuman..All that is needed is understanding of oneself and deal with reality in the now point. When you do that you relise you have choice to repeat the mistake or deal with the NOW situation accordingly..it’s not a easy however because we have become our accumulated”emotional” past.
    By “emotional” past I mean the past that made an impact one ones current behaviour. Great post Katinka..Love your work