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.