On the “Useless” Emotion of Guilt

On the third night of a weekend retreat on Buddhist grounds, somewhere in the state of New York, I asked a question of my teachers: what is the antidote for guilt in Buddhism?

A soft-spoken nun named Chen-Ma laughed a bit and spoke into her mike after a measured pause: “In Buddhism, we consider guilt to be a useless emotion. It just keeps us stuck in the same cycle of misery…I actually forgot about it.”

As a human-shaped well of guilt, myself, I was impressed by this admission. Forget about guilt…what an idea! And a great idea, at that.

Evelyn, another teacher, added that Buddhists reframe guilt as regret. The purpose of this reframing is to put the negative feeling into motion, to make it a feeling we can use as a lesson towards situations in the future. Guilt keeps us feeling bad, and Buddhism teaches that all sentient beings want -and should work to maintain- peace and happiness, so anything that makes us miserable literally gets thrown out of conversation: useless. Right on, guys. I got you.

But…now what?

Run! Each time I’ve felt overwhelmed by the teachings that fill my head up, the quiet that causes stirring between teachings, and the meditation periods that remind me of all my itches, coughs, tummy grumbles, and unwanted memories (and regrets!) over the last few days, I walk in the woods. “Now what?” is put on pause. It’s second or third in a series of more pertinent concerns, like not falling over on slippery rocks while crossing a lovely stream and not bumping my head on the limbs of many fallen trees (it rained a lot last week, so: ka-boom… ). It’s mindful walking, a step sideways from sitting meditation.

Later on, I deal. I sit and clear my head breathing bad feelings out as black smoke and good intentions in as white light. It is a start, at least, in being a better (feeling) human. It isn’t easy, though. Dealing with “now what?” is about recognizing truths we don’t like. I don’t like mine, and I figure most people feel the same way when they first meet their’s. That simply does not matter, though. It is what it is and we do with these what we will.

So, I am left sitting with the concept of regret, no matter how many walks I take, when I sit, I will bow down to this honorable judge and, as my teacher said, make a commitment to “not do that again.”

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