QUESTION: What is the right attitude to have toward guilt feelings?

SHORT ANSWER: It is unproductive and wasteful of life to attack oneself for being what one is.


An Assault Upon Ourselves

First we must distinguish between guilt feelings and objective guilt. Secondly, we must take into account that guilt and justification have a particular role in our culture due to our history of monotheism on the one hand and ancient Greek ideas about justice as the highest good on the other. Thirdly, guilt feelings are closely bound up with pride and conceit in that much of what presents as feelings of guilt is really an assault by ourselves upon ourselves for having generated evidence that we are actually not the type of person that we want to believe that we are. Our self ideal says one thing and the evidence says something else and we prefer to punish ourselves for betraying the truth so that we can continue to hang onto our illusion. Another way of saying this is that we do not want to face our shadow.

Human Nature

Human nature is deep and complex and derives from a long evolutionary and karmic history. We have within us all shades of tendency. We are angels and devils. We cherish, preserve and protect life and we are destructive and murderous. We respect one another, the other's rights and property and we are rivalrous, avaricious, greedy and prone to take what we have no right to. We speak words of love, kindness and compassion and we gossip, lie, weave skeins of half truths, tell exagerated stories and stir up quarrels. We are sexual beings who express love and care with our bodies in delightful ways and we lust after all manner of satisfactions that we know would bring pain and trouble to others. We enjoy healthy habits of life but are also extremely vulnerable to compulsions and addictions of many kinds. In the course of our evolution humans have destroyed many other species, fought innumerable wars, raped, pillaged, desecrated, betrayed, abandoned and destroyed and, correspondingly, have also been the victims of all such iniquities. All this is in us. Taken as a whole we call it the shadow.

Avidya: Not Wanting to Look

Generally speaking we do not want to look at this side of ourselves. We do not want to see the harm we do and especially we do not want to see the impulses within us that lead us toward becoming victims and persecutors. We do not want to see our own greed, hate or arrogance. However, the paradox is that the less willing we are to see the shadow side of ourselves the more likely we are to act it out in subtle ways without realising what we are doing. We then find ourselves in a position of feeling guilty or of deceiving ourselves about the evidence before us. However, such feelings of guilt are themselves just another way of making victims of ourselves and such deception only feeds the repression that leads to further acting out. Typically, therefore, ordinary people who have done little or no insight work are caught in cycles of self-waste, squandering their life energy in the effort to expunge the evidence of the reality of their nature.

Cultural Dimensions

The problems is particularly difficult in a culture in which the prevailing metaphysic has been one that believes that at the end of life one will be held to account for everything that one has done with terrible consequences awating whosoever is incapable of justifying themselves before the ultimate tribunal. The problem is easier in Buddhism because there is no such Judgement Day reckoning. Karma accumulates piecemeal and each wilful act brings its own consequences. Thus Buddhism sees error where judgement religions see sin. Also, it is relatively easier to accept that everybody makes errors then to see everybody as a sinner. In the early form of monotheism, although we are all sinners we could rely upon God's mercy, but as believe in God has weakened we have tended to abandon the salvific aspect without losing the judgemental part which is rather unfortunate.

The Solution

The solution is, therefore, to look deeply into our nature and see both the yin and the yang of it. This enables us to see that all are in the same boat and as we realise our own vulnerability and suseptibility to error so we can better appreciate that it must be the same for everyone else. From this flows fellow-feeling and mutual understanding, something that our world is much in need of. It is by this means, rather than by the inculcation of guilt, that our world will become a more loving and peaceful community.

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  • Thank you, Massimo - this is deep stuff. I think there is a touch of Nietzsche in this idea of eternal recurrence. The tathagata needs to teach the same lessons endlessly and so there need to be suffering beings who come to him as "clients". 

  • Hi.

    in reading this discussion I feel something that from time to time, increasingly often, is comes up to me: re-reading Kafka. I don't do it from a long time. And I miss it a lot. Kafka has been a master of the guilt feeling and of all human feelings as well. The trace he left in me is so deep, maybe comparable to the one of the Buddha's Teachings. Gregory Samsa, Mr. K in the process, the man in the penal colony and many others come up to my mind as replicas of the suffering people that go and consult the Tathagata.  The not little difference is that the wanderers, poor women, kings that we read about in the sutras usually go away with a sense of relief. They understand and go away. While K. dies "like a dog". But - this is question - are their questions really aswered?  On a wider scene, in a zoom out that includes the cycle of rebirths,  they, as representatives of human mankind, seem to me like condemned to posing their questions on and on.  And the Tathagata looks going on replying again and again. Being understood by somebody (an incredibly small minority: those who are able to stop asking), but not by the very many who repeat the suffering "routine", i.e. the most human feeling/routine (absolutely the first one, the first truth). This way the Tathagata himself seems to me there for repeating his wise stories, and each of us here re-actualising the gigantic drama in which we are all involved.       

  • The power of having confidante(s) that one can trust is so valuable. On the one hand we learn some important things by containing stuff on our own and we learn other things from sharing. Shame and the fear of loss of love are powerful forces - seem close to life threatening sometimes. Putting these into the context of understanding that this is the human condition - that basically we are all the same in this kind of vulnerability - transforms deeply troubling feelings into a real foundation for universal compassion.

    Juline Smit said:

    I find a helpful attitude is to be open about guilt and admit ... when this happens I feel guilty.  The grip, the heaviness of the emotion.........

  • I find a helpful attitude is to be open about guilt and admit ... when this happens I feel guilty.  The grip, the heaviness of the emotion is somewhat released by doing so. Over time I have befriended some of my difficult emotions (shadow) and now feel more comfortable to open up and share with trusted friends hidden, darker parts of me. Allowing vulnerabilities into the light bring potential for transformation, an opportunity to look at what we would rather not, in a different way, a chance to let go. A lot of gentleness is required during the process because guilt seems closely linked to shame. We have a tendency to hide what we are ashamed of, usually parts of ourselves we or others find difficult to accept or love. Another helpful way to deal with guilt might then be to realise and accept it is something all human beings experience at some point in life might it be for different reasons.  Guilt is not uniquely self-generated because our individual deficiencies or weaknesses. Guilt is something we all share. Exploring the causes of personal guilt has helped me to appreciate how hard I can be on myself and others. A good dose of self-compassion and love is required to dissolve unhelpful and paralysing feelings of guilt and hold it in the wider context and reality of living a human life filled with joys and challenges. NAB.

  • It is an interesting question whether we are less intelligent at a collective level than at an individual one. The Western, especially French, retalliation in Syria can be seen as a guilt driven, primitive urge for vengance and also an attempt to prove in a brutal way that one Frenchman is worth ten Arabs - rather as the Nazi's used to hang ten locals for every German killed by the resistance. Yet the French, collectively, have not learnt that lesson and the Western world is swept up in supporting the primitive instinct.

  • Thank you for this lovely piece. An interesting thread for me is that of humans commonly having a need to see themselves as being right; cognitive dissonance arises when we see evidence that we are mistaken or in error— particularly when our actions have hurt others (or ourselves). When the results of our actions are not foreseen or desired, suffering results. This can result in a sense of guilt and, consequentially, compensatory behaviours or beliefs: we often attempt to justify and rationalize behaviour after the fact. It can be come a vicious cycle as we attempt to shore up our rationalizations with further speech or action. As I think Dharmavidya is suggesting this can lead to ongoing problems at the level of societies and governments as well.

    So this feeling we label guilt can become a misguided motivator driving various rationalization projects. But what might be an alternative? Is there a way to rethink the problem?

    I'm pondering a way of thinking I would label "cybernetic". Artificial intelligence explorations have made it clear that an essential aspect of learning is to act and watch what happens. Seeing the consequences of actions, we can choose to adjust and change future actions, with the goal of moving towards a desired result. In the cybernetic model, "error" is redefined as an essential part of a path of learning and progress. Our ability to predict and imagine consequences can be thought of as part of an optimization process. It is not about getting things right or perfect, but about seeing the results of our predictions and actions and then making adjustments. Thought of this way we might actively teach children to redefine errors as "testing" and to take joy in seeing the results and deciding what to try next. We could then come to focus on information gathering rather than judgement. Undesirable results no longer need to be justified, instead they can be rethought as providing interesting, important information useful in guiding further choice.

    This approach allows us to step out of the compensatory habit of guilt. It redirects us back toward the joy of real learning, something one can observe in all children prior to being chastised and criticized. It encourages us to step out of habitual safe patterns that may no longer serve us, to support us in entering into an open space of creative uncertainty. We see that it is not our ability to be right that counts, but our ability to risk and experiment and learn. Free of this kind of critical self-judgement, we can actually hone our capacity for objective judgement. We can become better people naturally, freed from the compulsion to act mindlessly from outdated habit and justify our actions after the fact.
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