Regret or guilt?

Jul 26, 2019

There’s a practice we Tibetan Buddhists do that I like to call “the four Rs”: regret, reliance, the remedy and resolve. It’s a really practical, optimistic meditation to finish the day with.

Regret. Throughout the day it’s inevitable that we’ve thought and said and done things that drag us down or harm others, which feel like such a burden. Sit down for a few moments, steady the mind, then recall what they are. Be clear and focused; don’t get lost in the memories. Acknowledge them, and then regret them.

But what’s regret? The Dalai Lama’s answer to the question “What’s the difference between regret and guilt?” is so helpful: “With guilt,” he said, “we look into the past and go, ‘I did that and I did this, and I’m a bad person.’ With regret, however, the first point is the same – we look into the past and acknowledge what we did – but then we think, ‘What can I do about it?’”

Guilt seems to be our default mode. We just assume my having done something wrong means I’m a bad person, and we rarely question this assumption. It’s terrible! And it’s simply not true; it’s an exaggeration.

But regret is a healthy, self-respectful attitude. If I’ve eaten poison, the second I realize it I’d regret it because I don’t want suffering, and immediately I’d think “what can I do about it?”

The key to this attitude is the recognition that everything I think and do and say has consequences for me: this is the law of karma, cause and effect; that with every thought and action I’m producing myself. This first step of regret, then, is for our own sake. Compassion for others comes next.

In other words, of course I’d regret being angry, lying, being jealous, killing the ants, downloading the movie that doesn’t belong to me, first because I do not want to deepen those habits and second I do not want these things to happen to me – two of the consequences of actions. For this reason I regret these actions from the depths of my heart.

Reliance. This has two parts. The first, for Buddhists, is to remember the Buddha, whom we think of as our doctor, our mentor, whose medicine and advice we rely upon to purify ourselves. Because Buddha doesn’t assert a creator, there’s no discussion about requesting forgiveness. He would happily give it, but it’s not the point. I have to do the work of changing myself, in reliance upon his methods.

The second part is where we now have compassion for those we have harmed. I regret my actions for their sake: I know what it’s like to be lied to, harmed, stolen from, and I certainly wouldn’t like to be killed! Others are the same, so I have empathy for them. And, if I can, we can try to have compassion for those who have harmed us. Why? Because they will suffer as a result of their actions.

The Remedy. Sometimes this is called the antidote, and the most practical application of it is to consciously attempt to do the opposite: tell the truth, be kind to someone, give something to someone, save a life (of an ant, a mouse), help the sick, etc.

But in meditation at the end of the day we would visualize the Buddha above our heads and imagine him compassionately sending powerful nectar that fills us, utterly purifying every atom of our negative actions, which we visualize leaving through the lower parts of our body like filthy liquid, disappearing into space, not one atom left. Really concentrate on this, imagine it, and be delighted.

Resolve. This last step is crucial. We make a firm decision to change. Until we do this, nothing will change. Merely asking someone to forgive us is not enough; it just gets us off the hook. But with the determination to change, we take responsibility for our actions, for our own sake and the sake of others.

So, give ourselves a timeline, be realistic, don’t lie to ourselves. If anger is an old habit, perhaps we can vow to not be angry for a few hours; really mean it. The fact is, we’ll be asleep and will certainly keep it! Gradually, we can lengthen the time.

We all know that firmly deciding to do something is the main cause for doing it. We will only engage in this step if we we’re not overwhelmed by guilt. This determination to change is so powerful! It’s the attitude of self-respect and self-confidence.

As one lama said, “We create negativity with our mind, and we can purify it by creating positivity with our mind.”

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