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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Guilt, Shame and Buddhist Practice

Remembering a wrong is like carrying a burden on the mind.

James: This reminds me of something that my mom told me in regards to guilt. Carrying guilt around in our minds is like hiking up a mountain and picking up every rock we stub our toe upon and throwing it in our backpack. That is unskillful. It is unnecessary suffering and it stems from a belief in a separate self. That somehow we are so important that we should suffer more than anyone else. It is also the belief that we are so powerful that we can actually revisit these past unskillful actions and somehow in reliving them change the result.

I personally have greatly suffered from the vicious cycle of guilt and shame and understand this process very well. I have worked hard on being in the moment and am now slowly learning how to let go of guilt through meditation and concentrating upon mindfulness.

Through meditation we can practice letting go of the burdens within our mind via deep breathing. Further, meditation is like a reset button that we can push to return us to the sharp wisdom of the present moment. Bringing us back to our natural state of peace, relaxation and freedom from the specter of invented ghosts which the ego-self creates for it's need of chaos and drama to feed "itself" and survive.

Mindfulness brings us back to the present moment as well. It keeps our attention upon what is going on in our present reality. Keeping us focused and aware. This keeps us from falling one step behind ourselves which leads us to trip over obstacles along our path because we are so focused on reliving the past that we do not see them coming. Obstacles which throw us off of the trail of balanced Reality of the present moment and into the waiting arms of the ego-self. Staying mindful of the present moment allows us to be aware of obstacles rising up and have the mental clarity to move safely around them.

May we all be more aware of the present moment and not pick up rocks. And if we do, may we only hold them for only a moment and throw them innocently back down onto the path and not into our backpacks to carry around like a martyr.

~Peace to all beings~

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Paul said...

James, would you say it's better, when some wrong is done to us, to meditate on it immediately, rather than wait for it to enter our long term memory? I'm thinking that if we wait for it to enter our long term memory, it becomes much more difficult for us to clense ourselves of it.

MethoDeist said...

The subject of guilt is definitely a good one for me to think about. I tend to pick up those rocks and then not only do I put them in my backpack for safe keeping I take them out and hit myself over the head on occasion as well.

Dharma and psychology are definitely on the same page here as both see the harboring of guilt by us as a problem of attachment and non-acceptance.

We become attached to what we did to another human being and then focus on the past at the expense of the moment. This is a time that forgiveness of yourself is in order and then letting go of that attachment that you have formed.

I do this because of a greater attachment which is that I want others to have a positive view of me so I go out of my way not to cause problems or express myself even when they may be warranted.

This leads to my problems of guilt as I am upset that I brought about a problem. The other person will get upset which messes up how I am viewed by them which in turn gives me fits. So, one attachment is causing another attachment.

Since I have become a practitioner of dharma I have had to confront things about myself that I did not want to confront. This is one of those and it is proving to be the hardest as it is deep seated. However, mindfulness of the moment and understanding how craving leads to difficulties coupled with the Eight-Fold Path are helping me move past this type of thinking but I admit that it has been hard.

Dharma gives us many ways of taking the middle way and moving beyond past moments. I know that I cannot change the past and must accept this. I know that others having a positive view of me is an attachment due to craving and focusing on the Eight-Fold path is how I can transcend this but it still is difficult none-the-less.

Great post.


James Ure said...


I would agree that it is easier to let go of things the sooner we meditate upon them.


You said, I tend to pick up those rocks and then not only do I put them in my backpack for safe keeping I take them out and hit myself over the head on occasion as well.

I had to chuckle at that because I do the EXACT SAME THING. Very well illustrated.

You and I sound very similar as I try very hard to please people too.

And yes it is difficult. It is a huge step, however, that we are at least aware of our attachments, willing to work on them and know the path we need to take to do so.

Steven Crisp said...

Great post, James. You illustrate very well how mindfulness and presence can serve to counter-balance guilt and resentment.

Many in the West -- certainly from Christian backgrounds -- have had their share of guilt and shame heaped upon them (and ultimately picked up and placed in our backpacks by the ego-self).

I appreciate how you explain the benefits first hand of returning to the present moment where guilt has no foothold. Where you get to remove your rucksack, and lighten your load. This "lightness of being" is precisely what the Now moment can bring to each of us. So that we can easily skip or float right over the random rocks along the trail.

Thanks for helping to illuminate that important quality of mindfulness and conscious awareness, and the Self-delusion that typically enthralls our egos.

Greenwoman said...

I love your wisdom. Simple and elegant. ((hugs))

david said...

Guilt is really a reflection upon an "un-realistic" action. If we harm another or behave badly towards ourselves or others, we do 2 things. We reinforce the notion of "other". "Look at what I did to you". And when we hurt ourselves, we have this horrible echo chamber, "what did I do to myself".

On a transcendant level, it doesn't feel right, we think on it and it makes us very uncomfortable.

This is because these actions are not in sync with reality. They are "self-ish" and in reality, the Buddha taught, we all "inter-are". Right actions, ones that feel right are always realistic. We are process beings not absolute beings. When we act for the benefit of others, it always feels right, we don't worry about ourselves, there's nothing in those actions for guilt to ever feed upon. These actions are entirely realistic.

All unrealistic action is caused by ignorance, and you must always forgive ignorance. Even when we supposedly "know better" but then act badly, obviously we were deluded about what we really thought we knew.

This life of action is a wonderful chance to really learn these lessons.

Greenwoman said...

Hello Again! I decided to tag you for a meme game. If you're in the mood to play, come see Honestly Speaking and pick up the questions. ((hugs))

James Ure said...


Thanks. I really have been looking into guilt how to over-come it's selfish energy.

Yes, growing up Christian I learned the guilt game very well. I like a lot of Christian principles but the guilt that is placed upon people is not healthy. Not for the most part anyway.

Sure, we need to feel remorse when we hurt someone but guilt is very different from remorse.

I like how you talk of the present moment being a chance to take of the rucksack and recharge ourselves.

I'm happy that my illustrations and examples of how I use mindfulness and meditation to help let go of the suffering is helpful to others.

Green Woman:

Thank-you dear one. I shoot for being simple in my explanations. I know for myself I prefer concise yet direct and informative examples and thoughts. I'll check out the meme.


Well said. Working toward change is a much better choice then wallowing in the past trying to change the results. When we need to ask forgiveness then we do and when that is granted we move on. We don't continue to beat ourselves up.

You are right that guilt is selfish and only reinforces the ego's sense of self-worth and importance.

Tex69 said...

Another simple but sweet, cleaning notion. Thanks

Tex69 said...

errrr, "cleansing". I have an unfortunate habit of doing that. Thanks.

James Ure said...


Cleansing is a good word to use. Very refreshing and comforting word.

Kuan Gung said...

Great thoughts on the moment for we know guilt, worry about the future and remorse for the past is just misplaced imagination. If we could always hold on to the "now", life would be so very wonderful indeed...thank you

James Ure said...

Kuan Gung:

"misplaced imagination," I like that wording.

Tracy said...

Thanks for a great post! I loved the imagery of meditation being a reset button.

Guilt is something that was heaped on me as a child too(having grown up in a "Christian" society) and something that I try hard not to inflict onto my kids. It can be tough when by "conditioning" we are used to reacting to situations by making others feel guilty or shamed. Hard, but do-able, when we are being mindful.

CJ said...

I find it helpful to treat myself in the same way I strive to treat my partner. I would not want to constantly dwell on her wrongs and remind her of them, rather I would try to move on and set them behind us. If that is the best way to treat someone else, then it is also the best way to treat yourself.

Expanding on that relationships theme, I think the reverse is also true. That is, if I demand perfection from myself and beat myself up for failing to achieve this, then I think that this inevitably causes me to do the same thing to my partner eventually. And I really don't want to do that to her, so I try not to do it to myself either!

They call him James Ure said...


Good example. Thank-you for putting it that way. That really brings some things home for me.

pchopz said...

So what do you do if the person you wronged won't forgive you and always reminds you of the wrong you have done even after you have sincerely apologized and expressed regret and remorse for your actions time and time again? For me, the guilt comes back when this person reminds me of the wrong I have done, how does one deal with this?

They call him James Ure said...


That's a difficult situation. First of all, I'm not expert in this area or a Buddhist master. That being said, however, I think you should feel like you've done your best by apologizing and if they can't accept that then perhaps limiting your contact with them would be best.

Meditation helps one let go of unnecessary guilt through simple breathing. I would do something like this:

First, center yourself through some deep but relaxed breathing. After a few minutes you'll feel a little more relaxed and ready to work through some of this negative energy.

Now, I'd say in my head, "Breathing in I recognize this guilt. Breathing out I recognize that this guilt is painful." Then, "Breathing in, I know that this guilt isn't mine and isn't necessary. Breathing out I let go of this guilt." Then, "Breathing in I know that I hurt (name)." Breathing out I know it is time to for forgive myself."

You could add some more thoughts but the main thing is the breathing as it relaxes the physical stress that is so harmful to our mood and feelings. Breathing is such a great, natural medication for many stresses, pains, miseries, etc.

Those are my suggestions. I might suggest a therapist as well (psychologist). I see one and it helps a lot. I hope this helps.

Bangalore Surgeon said...

Dear James, i came searching for a place to discuss my increasing guilt and remorse, inspite of my addressing the person i wronged, of being socially made to make reparation, i still wake up with growing guilt. i come from a christian background and i dont know you if you are aware of the 'Millstone around the neck' analogy. I am living it. i believe in a caring god, i understand i have to let go and my wronged person's mum tells me i have forgive myself thats alll...but i gnaw and hurt. thanks for your insight about breathing and letting go one line at a time. i will use it. thanks for being there. Charles

que said...

Thanks a lot. Your thoughts are helping me fight my own feelings of shame and failure.

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