The gift of guilt

Applying Eastern philosophy to overcome guilt

It would be hard to say that guilt is an egoistic paralysis without foundation nor result, but it would be equally difficult to affirm the contrary. As I reflect through this article, I was inspired by Eastern wisdom to explain how we can understand our own guilt and move past it.

The experience of guilt offers us no solutions and keeps us trapped in our current selves. That is not to say that we must feel guilty of feeling guilty, but it is also useless to fight guilt when it appears- to replace one battle with another is to sink into a perverse and self-destructive pattern. So what to do?

Guilt is an egocentric paralysis

The times I’ve spent feeling guilty in my life were times when I did not know how to feel anything else. I didn’t know what else to do for myself, and while this is my problem, I also couldn’t do anything for others who most needed me. I concluded that guilt is merely a projection of oneself inside of oneself, but it is anything but a simple way to deal with a problem- it is a paralyzing selfish emotion. It prevents us from advancing until we realize its futility, which only happens when we are able to develop other qualities. These I will explore at the end of this article.

Before embarking on this process of dissolution of guilt, one must understand the origins of this emotion. It starts with distancing and our capacity to recognize guilt as such, putting a label on it — for example, writing “guilt” in our mind. A way to be honest with ourselves.

Breaking down emotion

When guilt appears and sets in, the reasons are varied. For example, perhaps an outsider has sown in our minds a seed of guilt in the past or the present. It’s highly possible, but we are responsible for letting it grow . Moreover, when we are at the origins of our own guilt, the provoked paralysis is simple to detect: our self-image is devalued, even demonized in our efforts to find a sense of justice or justness rooted in a need to experience this guilt. It is a vicious circle: one thinks only of oneself, but feels guilty of having harmed the others.

The antithesis of responsibility

Nine months ago, I misbehaved with someone close to me, and got angrier than I’d ever been. I spent the following three months feeling guilty, which lead me to no conclusions and prevented me from truly understanding what had happened. Guilt, like all negative thoughts, veils one’s face and prevents one from observing a situation with clarity. So why do position ourseves as our own judges?

It is an egocentric process, just like shame. Shame and guilt are often associated and carry similar consequences: the deterioration of one’s self-image and the resulting preoccupation with oneself and oversight of those whom we have harmed. Guilt is so unnecessary that Tibetans have no words to translate this emotion. It is merely the result of too much stigmatization of our own actions considered negative by others in the past. Once this stigmatization has been internalized, it becomes guilt. Guit is, in the end, the antithesis of responsibility and embodies a dualistic worldview which makes it erroneous, simply because there is no universal judge to say that the dualistic world view is pragmatic and, etc. etc.

Guilt is a mere symptom.

It is commonplace but necessary to remind ourselves that guilt is the result of the fear of not living up to expectations, nor meeting the demands of behavioral success imposed by … ourselves. So we have to let go. Accordingly, to get rid of guilt, we must replace it with moral responsibility: this can even go as far refusing to assume responsibility. But it is responsibility that allows us to learn about ourselves, to progress, and to not to see our emotions manifest in our minds.

The practice of compassion

Our actions — whether though words, thoughts or actions, can have negative effects on others, thus creating our own guilt. Responsibility opens the door to reflection on we wish to improve ourselves for others. In Buddhism, the practice of mettā-bhavana, or the meditation of universal love, offers a solution to overcome guilt in a constructive way for oneself and others. It starts with our ability to become our own friend. According to Buddha, you can search for an individual more deserving than you of love and affection, but you will never him. Being equal to all individuals, you are just as deserving of this love and affection.

Guilt must be seen positively to be eliminated

The ability to develop compassion towards yourself, and the consideration that that- like all individuals- you do not master the consequences of all your actions through ignorance, brings about an understanding that you are no worse than others. We can thus see guilt is as a refelction of our will to improve, and even change that we do not wish to assume. For example, I consistently felt guilty before making radical changes in my life and realized that I was letting the dissaproving gazes of certain loved ones to exist in my mind and prevent me from moving forward. Guilt, when one can understand it, becomes a valuable clue as to the decisions we must make to feel free and happy- for this it is the one and only thing we deserve.