Realizing Guiltlessness

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Dear Still Water Friends,

Many years ago I was part of a group offering a Day of Mindfulness in a Maryland State Prison. About half way through the day, as I was explaining methods of observing the mind in sitting meditation, a tall muscular prisoner in his thirties who had been quiet through the day raised his hand and asked a question. “Isn’t what you are teaching us really just about learning how to work with our emotions?”

Something in his tone made me wonder if it was a reproach, a dismissal of mindfulness practice. And, also, I realized he had a point. All our talk about becoming more aware of what is going on inside us and around us could be viewed as helpful skills for dealing with emotions. I took a breath and said to him, “Yes. One could see it that way.” He noticeably relaxed in response to my answer and said quietly, “I wish someone had taught me these things when I was a teenager.”

Later in the day we talked. Twenty years earlier, when he was 17, in an angry moment he shot and killed a man. His life since then was lived in prisons. He was looking forward to his release within the next six months. I thanked him for his question and wished him well.

Our short exchange has stayed with me. Emotions matter. At its core, mindfulness practice is about working with our emotions, especially if one considers emotion in its original and largest sense as that which moves us. This is especially true in the Plum Village tradition. Thich Nhat Hanh, in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, explains that a mental or emotional state is wholesome or unwholesome in accord with its repercussions.

“Unwholesome” means not conducive to liberation or the Path. In our store consciousness there are many seeds that are not beneficial for our transformation, and if those seeds are watered, they will grow stronger. When greed, hatred, ignorance, and wrong views arise, if we embrace them with Right Mindfulness, sooner or later they will lose their strength and return to our store consciousness.

When wholesome seeds have not yet arisen, we can water them and help them come into our conscious mind. These seeds of happiness, love, loyalty, and reconciliation need watering every day. If we water them, we will feel joyful, and this will encourage them to stay longer.

All of the above provides a context for for this Thursday Dharma Sharing in which we will consider the difference between regret and guilt. In 2004, Tricycle Magazine published “Realizing Guiltlessness,” a short conversation between Pema Chodron and her teacher, Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. The gist of their discussion is in these two exchanges:

Pema Chodron: Rinpoche, I don’t really see the difference between regret and guilt. There’s still the sense that one has done something bad.

Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: The difference between guilt and regret is that guilt never faces the wrongdoing straightforwardly. There’s just this strong emotion of “I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish I didn’t do it. I wish I had never gotten angry” or “I wish I didn’t do that embarrassing thing,” and so on. Regret is the opposite of guilt. We acknowledge it, we expose to ourselves that we have done something harmful and how it came about from our ignorance, but we don’t get caught in emotions and story lines. The sense of remorse is not anywhere near as heavy as the “bad me” that guilt produces. As a matter of fact, the sensation of wholehearted remorse is freeing. By applying the view of selflessness, we can see how unhelpful guilty feelings freeze us in our perception of ourselves as “bad me.” When one feels room to open and can see that out of ignorance, not out of an intrinsic “bad me,” one has done something to trouble others, then there’s no hesitation to see that. And there is no hesitation, if it seems beneficial, to apologize.

Pema Chodron: Thank you. That certainly clarifies a lot for me. Are there other benefits that come from reflecting on guiltlessness?

Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: When one realizes guiltlessness within oneself, one feels freer and lighter. The attachment to the self, which we all have, lifts. We also start to work with our minds better. The mind is more agile and flexible, because our intelligence becomes the reference point instead of this self we so desperately grasp onto. Then we can break down our actions more precisely and work with our actions in more creative ways in the future, with more wisdom. In the case of relating to the wrongdoings of others, we see that the nature of their mind is also innocent, guiltless. Ignorance has influenced them and they are blinded and vulnerable. And because they are helpless under the power of ignorance, it is easier for us to generate compassion for them and forgive them as well. It is much easier to do all this when we see the person as innocent rather than guilty and intrinsically bad.

Does this distinction between regret and guilt resonate with you? Does living your life with significantly less guilt appeal to you? You are invited to join our gathering this Thursday evening. And if you can’t be with us, you are invited to reflect on these questions with a friend.

You are also invited to join the Still Water community:

On Saturday, August 13th, for a Day of Practice at Blueberry Gardens. The theme will be “Clarity, Calmness, and Strength: Cultivating Compassion in Ourselves and Others.”

On Sunday, September 25, for Facilitating Mindfulness Groups in the Plum Village Tradition: An Afternoon Training, at the Yoga Center of Columbia.

And at our other regular gatherings, now in English and in Spanish.

Also, you may wish to mark your calendars for Still Water’s Day of Practice with Dharma Teacher Kaira Jewel Lingo on Saturday, October 1, and our Fall Practice Weekend Retreat October 7 – 9. Registration will open and information will be on our web site for both events very soon.

Lastly, Brother Phap De, a monk at Deer Park Monastery, transitioned on August 4. He was a good friend and a supporter of the Still Water community, often emailing encouraging words to us after reading a weekly topic that touched him. I think he would have especially liked tonight’s topic. More information about his passing and a picture is available on our Still Water website. He was an Irish-American and I enjoyed hearing him singing this blessing. In my heart I’m singing it back to him.

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind always be at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

and rains fall soft upon your fields.

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Warm wishes to all,

Mitchell Ratner