|Forest SanghaNewsletter||July 1997|
Regret and Well Being
A. Well the experience of regret is actually the message; it's thelesson, the dukkha that happens when we make a mistake. It's really importantthat we understand that, because otherwise it's like fighting ourselves. It'sas though healing is taking place, but we are resisting it.
When there's some heat in a discussion,something is going on that we are not so happy about, we can end up sayingsomething hurtful to somebody. Then afterwards, when we remember whathappened, we feel regret. Now that regret is right, it is appropriate - notjust the mental dimension of regret, the thought: 'I wish I hadn't said that'- but the actual feeling of embarrassment, the heat as we go red in the faceand the feeling in the stomach or the throat. That's the consequence ofhaving generated hurtful action. It's also the doorway beyond.
Now we need to have the appropriateattitude to regret, otherwise we'll never learn. The Buddha said regularlythat it's only through seeing the consequence of our harmful actions that wecan be released from them. That is why the whole teaching, the basic Buddhistteaching, is established on mindfulness of dukkha. It is only throughmindfulness of dukkha that we can see the end of dukkha. By feeling theconsequence of our inappropriate speech - in other words, by sufferingconsciously - the whole body mind gets the message. We realise: 'I don't wantto do this, I don't want to be this way.'
This is a very simple but very importantmessage, because often we intellectualise around the consequences of ourheedlessness. We say something unkind, and we feel the pain of regret andembarrassment. Then maybe we start to feel guilty, sticking darts intoourselves for having been so foolish, really getting off on feeling guilty.We go up into our heads and we stop feeling, no longer experiencing thereaction; instead, we theorise about it and say something like: 'Well myparents always did this to me. What else do you expect?... Of course it'sunfortunate and I'm sorry I said it, but it's perfectly understandable.'
There is a natural sence of self respect that comes from such containment.The body mind gets the message that actually it is appropriate to contain thepassions.
|But when we go on like that we're not in touch with the reaction any more;we're not being mindful in that moment. This is the displacement activity ofthe age. Instead of being sensitive to the actual feeling, we think about thecause of our problems. We miss the opportunity to put ourselves into theoptimum position for reading feeling accurately - and to move through, andbeyond it.|
For example, we might do an astrologicalinterpretation: 'I've got Mars in Leo, she's got Mars in Pisces. What else doyou expect? Of course we speak to each other like that, that's how we are.'Now while that might alleviate some of the regret for a while, actually it'sjust displacement, it's not really dealing with it; it won't really help usin taking responsibility for our heedlessness. So if we habitually allow thepassions to come out through our mouth as cruel and harsh words when 'I' amnot getting my way, we really need to take an interest in how to adjust that.The painful kamma made in causing hurt to other beings through our unkindspeech is enormous. If we think unkind thoughts then, mostly, we are the onlyones that suffer; but we can just slice people to pieces with words. So if wehave such a disposition, such a habit, we should be interested in how toalter it.
From the Buddhist perspective, the way weshow interest in it is by feeling the regret - really letting it sink intoour bones. This may sound as though we are being caught up with guilt again,but we really need to see and understand the neurotic tendency that we haveof making ourselves and one another feel guilty - otherwise we'll never getpast a certain point in practice. When guilt gets a hold on us, then as soonas we start to feel suffering we grasp it, we indulge in it: 'Well I shouldsuffer, I should be miserable. Look how hopeless I am... those awful thingsI've said - it's just despicable! I should know better after all theseyears...' And of course, I should know better so, in a sense, I can justifymy argument. But really what I'm doing is feeling very righteous, hatingmyself for having made a mistake; and there's absolutely no justification forthat. Instead, what we need to do is learn the lesson that by getting caughtup and following these wild passions - shooting that energy out through ourmouths - we cause suffering for ourselves and others. We don't have to lookvery far to see the horror of what's going on in the world, the sufferingthat gets caused in this way.
But then we can also consider theconsequences of exercising restraint - how we feel about ourselves then. Wecan notice how it feels if we're about to really let somebody have it but,rather than following that, we just do whatever we need to do to stop it:clenching our fists, going outside - doing anything to stop it, even if it isjust blind repression (well it won't be blind, because we know what we aredoing). The Buddha said that sometimes you've got to push the tongue upagainst the roof of your mouth, and just grit your teeth... sometimes passionis that strong. But you just do anything to stop it from coming out andhurting somebody.
|So if we do that, and then stop and think about it - in a cool moment, notwhen the passion is still going - how do we feel about ourselves? If thepassion is still going, we'll probably say: 'Well, yeah, I should have reallytold them!' - we might imagine that we'd feel good if we really tellsomebody. But when we're cool and clear and we reflect on it, how does itfeel not to have actually blasted them and hurt them with our speech?... Wefeel good. There is a natural sense of self respect that comes from suchcontainment. The body mind gets the message that actually it is appropriateto contain the passions. If we can learn this little by little, then we'll nolonger be seduced into thinking that we'll feel good if we follow theseupthrusts of wild energy. It's only when we don't really inspect these thingsthat we have the delusion that we are going to feel better by following them.Of course the same thing applies to heedlessly following any desire.|
Guilt is one of the things that can get inthe way of working like this; another is a lack of a sense of well-being.Even though we've got the theory down - to be mindful of dukkha and all that- if we don't have a good strong sense of well-being within ourselves thenit's not going to work. While we may not feel guilt we can just get crushedand depressed, thinking about how many times we've failed: 'I just keep doingthis thing over and over again. Every time she says that, I say this. When isit ever going to change?'... and we can get really depressed. If that is thecase then we have to use discernment and actually observe what's going on,for without a really wholesome well established sense of well-being withinourselves, we can end up destroying the spirit by dwelling too much on ourmistakes. So it can sometimes be skilful to distract ourselves, if we've madea mistake or said something really terrible and we find ourselves caught upwith regret, but without a sense of well-being.
Basically, remorse is the message, and whenwe get that message then we'll stop indulging in heedlessness. However inorder to get that message, we've got to be strong with a sense of well-being;it's better not to hammer away too much, thinking: 'Well I've got to bemindful of dukkha and all my mistakes,' all the time. Really, we also have tobe mindful of a sense of well-being, and what maintains that sense ofwell-being.
We need to develop positive, wholesomekamma, rather than always making negative kamma through generating thoughtsand speech of ill will. We can generate kind, compassionate thoughts when wedo the chanting: 'May I abide in well being, in freedom from affliction, infreedom from hostility. May I maintain well being in myself.' And then: 'Mayall beings be well. May they be free from suffering, may they not be partedfrom the good fortune that they have attained.'
|If you know somebody else who sincerely says nice things, who really feelsthese things and expresses them, you like to have them around. It's exactlythe same thing with ourselves.We actually feel good about ourselves when wehave the perception of ourselves as somebody who says those sorts of things.While meditation on these divine abidings (kindliness, compassion, joy andequanimity) is helpful, sometimes we are so out of practice with exercisingour hearts in this way that just to think of them is not enough; sometimes wealso need to say it. We can actually go through this recitation on our own,or write it down, or better still tell others. We can also make gestures ofgood will in daily life; we can engage in a conversation with somebody who wewould not normally bother engaging with, we can offer well-being, we can makegifts for people. This is the principle of dana, generosity. When we havethis operating within us, it conditions, strengthens and nourishes a sense ofwell-being. We know that we are a source of well-being, of good will becausewe're giving it out.|
When we are strong in this sense ofwell-being, it means that we'll be able to learn the lessons we need tolearn. Say we've opened our mouth and shot some toxic waste out into theworld, polluting the psychosphere for goodness knows how many miles aroundus, and we should have known better, but we've done it; and now we've got theappropriate dose of regret and remorse. If we've got these supportiveconditions, this sense of well-being - we'll be able to take it, we can getthe message. But if we don't have that sense of well-being, then we need tobe cautious about how much remorse and regret we open up to.
As we progress in our meditation practice,our whole appreciation of the world starts to change. We start to see throughsome of the apparent realities of life - the apparent solidity of 'me', andthe apparent solidity and validity of the perception of 'you' and 'theworld'. When this starts to get shaken up, there's a reappraisal of how werelate to each other and to ourselves. With insight meditation we start toactually see the perception of somebody as just that.
For example, I have this perception ofAndy. Now my perception of Andy is entirely my business, entirely myresponsibility; it is actually very very little to do with that person. Icould reach out and touch Andy, but what I would touch is a totally differentreality from what's going on in my mind as a perception of Andy. When westart to see this, it's very interesting, because it becomes clear that whatI do with this perception affects me. So if I have a very kind caringattitude towards Andy, I benefit actually more then he does; similarly, evenif he had done something really wretched, it would be harmful to me to dwellon nasty, resentful, miserable thoughts about him. In fact it would be doingvery little to him - compared to what it would be doing to me!
We begin to appreciate that the whole worldis what we perceive in our own consciousness. When we start to appreciatethat, we don't want to go around hurting people, because it's like stickingdarts in ourselves. So every time I generate ill will towards somebody else,I am actually generating toxins in my own system; I'm the one that willphysically, emotionally and psychically suffer as a result of that. It maymanifest outwardly into some form of hurt on other people, but primarily whatit's doing is generating the conditions for enormous suffering in myself.
When insight arises in meditation and westart to see this, it becomes clear that any perception of somebody in ourmind is entirely our business. For example, when thinking of my father I cansee that as a perception in my mind, and that's entirely my business; theprocess happening on the other side of the planet is a completely differentaffair from what's going on in my mind. Now I'm very interested in having avery healthy, wholesome, pleasant relationship with what is going on in mymind, regardless. As it happens, I have a good father so that's no problem;but some people's fathers are not so good, so they could be spending a lot oftime dwelling on unpleasant thoughts about their fathers. What they arereally doing is torturing themselves. It's very helpful to see this.
This is not actually something we canimagine but, as practice proceeds, we will come to appreciate that theperceptions of each other that we have in our minds are primarily our affair.They're our business, and we maintain them, we feed them. We also have thepower to release out of them.
When, in meditation, we start to undo theperceptions of self and other, our relationship to the passions also changes.It's not that we have to spend the rest of our life fighting off ourunwholesome passions, we come to see that the passionate flare-ups are simplya reflection of our false views; they are conditioned by the way we think. Ifwe start to think more clearly and see more accurately, then there are justnot the causes for these flare-ups of the passions.