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Monday, January 15, 2007

The Obstacle of Guilt

If we strive to improve ourselves on the spiritual path without a positive sense of self, it will be hard to look at our shortcomings. The desire to work with our shortcomings is the reason most work with of us enter the path in the first place. But this is not always easy-not because on the Buddhist path there is any shortage of skillful means, but because as human beings we find it difficult to accept our mind as it is. When we sit to practice we often find it hard to face what's "in there." All sorts of undesirable sensations and thoughts arise. Our response: "This is bad, very bad indeed. I need to cut this. I need to get rid of this. I'm so intense!" The more we look, the more we uncover.

When our mind erupts in anger, irritations, jealousy, pride, and arrogance, it is hard to think of ourselves in a positive way. When we express our anger outwardly toward others, we feel like a bad mother, bad father, bad husband, wife or brother. We were supposed to be caring and compassionate, but instead we lost it. Now we are a bad practitioner too! When we feel guilty, we can kiss our good self-image good-bye. Feeling guilty is an indication that we have a strong aversion toward our minds-who we are, how we feel, what we think.

Often we don't notice this aversion because we are too busy revisiting "the scene of the crime," turning it over in our mind again and again as if that could change it. It's like going to see a movie for a second time in hopes that the ending might turn out differently. We simply can't accept our wrongdoing or mistakes, nor can we accept our causes and conditions that produced the undesired result. Of course sometimes we can pin it on others, but we still feel the discomfort: "I wish I hadn't done that thing that I did last week!" "Why can't my mind settle in a peaceful state as described in the teachings?" "Bad me!" It's a little masochistic, and all because we simply don't want to accept and sit with the residue of our actions.

I think guilt is a challenge for those living in the modern world, where people give such weight to their feelings and emotional states of mind. In more traditional cultures, like Tibet, people give less importance to their emotions. I certainly don't mean to say that they don't have emotions, but they don't dwell on them as much or give them much credence. Even in modern cultures, some people feel a stronger sense of guilt then others. Sometimes people who come from a rougher, less privileged backgrounds have less guilt, while those who come from more privileged and educated backgrounds-who tend to analyze their thoughts and emotions and try to find some meaning in them-struggle more with guilt.

It could also be that our guilt has a little pride in it. We just can't stand to entertain the idea that we may have some faults. Seeing them, we feel like crawling out of our skin. Honestly speaking, if there's any skin we truly need to shed, it's our habit of rejecting our experience. This habit gives rise to guilt.

~Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
Snow Lion Newsletter, summer 2006
Reprinted in Buddhadharma magazine, winter 2006

James: I think our deep guilt complex in our modern world is largely because of our obsession with the individual. Our narcissistic mind is constantly measuring ourselves up against guidelines set up by our selfish, consumer driven, perfectionist society. We constantly think about ourselves and whether or not we have the right car, job, family, clothes, hairstyle and on and on. We build up this impossible dream with our egos that no one can live up to because the ego is basically an illusion in and of itself!! And then we wonder why we are all neurotic and guilt ridden???

We strive for nothing short of perfection and are not satisfied when we fall short. We'd rather die in some instances then admit our shortcomings and weaknesses. We think there is no middle ground. We are either failures or "gods" in our high stakes, black and white holographic vision. There is no room for a learning curve. We either fail the test of life or pass and that is plain false, egocentric wrong view.

We can't accept that we are imperfect "like all those other losers." Surely I'm different, better. We try to live up to the guy next to us and don't realize that the guy next to us is trying to live up to us!! Insanity.

Making mistakes is apart of being human and to deny that reality is to only make our situation worse. It's like a drug addict denying that they have a problem. We need to admit that we are imperfect and that that IS O.K.!!! In fact, if we didn't make mistakes we would never have opportunities to grow. Mistakes are like powerful yet gentle reminders that things are off a bit and we need to readjust and move forward. Guilt feeds the ego, takes us away from mindfulness of the present moment and only causes us more suffering.

It's like refusing to the leave the jail once your sentence is over because we just can't accept that we deserve a second chance. Or killing ourselves because we got sick with the flu and can't accept the impermanence of our body. Without the chance to start over or readjust our actions--no one would ever reach liberation and that includes the Buddha!! Do we think that we are better then the Buddha?!! That's the other part of the problem. We think we are better then everyone else so we hold ourselves up to a higher standard. We can forgive others because we somehow think that they can't help themselves because they are less then us after all. However, when it comes to forgiving ourselves we just can't do it because surely someone so important as ME should have known better. Blah, blah, blah. We aren't that important. Of course we are important--to a degree, but "this" isn't about "us" it's about "we."

Just because we have a hiccup along our path doesn't mean that it's over and we should just sit down on the side of the road and wait to die. You don't get rid of a car because you get a flat tire. You acknowledge the problem, go about fixing it and get back on the road. So many times we forget that we have a spare tire because we are too busy crying about how awful we are to have not seen that pothole in the road!! We have eons to reach liberation. The Buddha after all went through countless lifetimes to reach Buddhahood. We need to be more patient with ourselves. Of course we want to make as much progress as possible but we don't have to do it all in one lifetime or even in one day, hour or minute.

Of course there are times when guilt is necessary to bring us back into focus but for the most part we are way way too hard on ourselves and our guilt serves no positive purpose.

Be kind to yourself today and tell yourself that you are fine just the way that you are. Keep your head up and smile. You deserve to be here as much as anyone else. I'm just happy to be apart of this wonderful inter-being that we feebly call the "Infinite Universe" or "The Higher Self."

PHOTO: Picture I took of our African violet that is flowering beautifully.

~Peace to all beings~

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CJ said...

Lovely photo!

The stuff about guilt is very timely for me - thank you!

I've been going over in my mind all day about something I did this morning i.e. revisiting the scene of the crime. I've not been sure whether it was the right thing to do (although it seemed so at the time).

You've reminded me how it's important to stay with the consequences of my actions and to see them through.

I'm not a superhuman (most of the time). I do mistakes -and that's ok.

Thank you,


Greenwoman said...

The guilt that I've expereinced in my life has had roots in lack of self worth, self hate, false pride and arrogance (that idea that I must have it worse than anyone else cause I'm so unloveable while you of course are totally loveable)...

That was a very touching post. It's timely for me as well. This is a part of my nature that I've spent much of the last year trying to weed...planting some new seeds too.

Thank you.

Tim said...

James, it appears that we have both been thinking on these things. Viewing the present moment with compassion instead of judgement and solid opinion is a skillful means to cultivating love instead of guilt. This Being Human means that we too often forget this and fall asleep back into non awareness and judgement...and we all too often feel bad about this as well. But our practice should be that of compassion not of berating ourselves and feeling guilty.

"James" said...


Thanks!! I have some more pix of it that I'll post on here soon. This post was timely for me too.

Yep no superhero here either. Just a man.

You're welcome. :)


I totally understand your words. I have gone through the same aspects of guilt. What a merry-go-round, eh?? And one that always leaves me sick to my stomach after I get off that ride.


I'm happy to hear that you are planting new seeds...ME TOO!! We can help each other with our gardens. :)


So true. Love is the cure for all things...especially for guilt. It is it's counter energy. Good to hear from you friend. :)

Kuan Gung said...

Living in this world today is extremely hard...

Greenwoman said...

"I'm happy to hear that you are planting new seeds...ME TOO!! We can help each other with our gardens. :)"

Ah...and that is the essence of sangha...and I am honored that we can do that for each other by sharing this writing and reading journey together...and with all the others who read and write.

That's the great blessing of the information super highway isn't it?

"James" said...


It certainly is quite the journey.


Yes, the essence of the Sangha. There is so much support, love, strength and encouragement in a Sangha.

Yes, what a great blessing of the internet.

Chica said...

I love Africa Violets. There are never guilty - and oh so beautiful. Ty for the article.

dragonflyfilly said...

yep, for me pride and arrogance are the hardest to defeat...self-acceptance also comes slowly...but looking at the perfection of the many varities of flowers sure helps to put things in perspective.

nameste as usual My Light One,

Angela said...

Yes we humans are very limited!

I wish you happy, I wish you well!

James said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
"James" said...


They are so delicate and soft yet full of such powerful energy.


(nods) Pride and arrogance are big ones here too. May we keep practicing so that we may continue to let go of that energy.


Limited is a great way to put it.

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