Learning to Forgive Ourselves
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
Guilt is not entirely negative, because to be able to know that one has been at fault shows there is judgment at work, that there is some part of the mind that knows right from wrong. But guilt becomes a very serious handicap and a terribly oppressive force when we keep thinking about it, very much at our own expense, resulting in loss of self-respect, loss of self-confidence, and the development of a generally negative image about ourselves. That is where guilt can be very destructive.
So I am going to suggest a number of steps for dealing with this kind of guilt complex. First, it is a very unfair complex, because when you think about a misdeed that you committed twenty years ago, and condemn yourself severely today, it is like changing the time context. If you want to be fair and helpful, put yourself back twenty years, so you now have more hair on your head, no wrinkles, no bags under the eyes, can run a long distance without panting, and come back and eat everything in sight.
In other words, physically you are able to see the absurdity of it. Emotionally, too, it is the same thing. It’s most unfair to keep on criticizing yourself for what you did twenty years ago from the point of view of what you are today. When I say that I have committed many silly mistakes in life, and I don’t have the slightest guilt complex, that’s because today I can look very compassionately upon the fellow who made those mistakes. I can understand his outlook, his point of view, the situation in which he was, the pressures to which he was subject, the inability to see clearly, and the reluctance to exercise adequate control over his senses. It’s because I understand all this that I am able to be very compassionate with myself. And that’s what I would ask every one of you, when you look back on your past, to be very understanding, very compassionate, and not to go on carrying this big burden of guilt.
A curious aspect of this guilt complex, when it becomes obsessive, is that it is another card up the ego’s sleeve. I have met quite a few people during the last twenty years who really gloated in their guilt complex, and who would have felt terribly deprived if I had snatched away their burden and taken it to the dump. So, let’s be very careful about this, because in a guilt complex you are dwelling upon yourself.
Second, whenever thoughts begin to turn to the past, there is always this possibility of developing a guilt complex and carrying it on your shoulders all through life. That’s why in the great mystical tradition of all religions they say don’t think about the past. There is no such thing as the past. When your thoughts go back to the past, to your university or college or high school or kindergarten days, bring it back to the present. That’s where the repetition of the mantram can be very useful.
We have to stay alert right at the outset. Most people do not deliberately think about the past, but little associations—you see the same car the fellow owned with whom you used to go out in those days, for instance—just a few little touches like that, and you are already back in the olden days. And that is due to lack of vigilance. That’s where you can really repeat the mantram.
India is very dear to me, I have many dear relatives in India, but I don’t let my thoughts go to India. I am able to keep my attention all the time here. You can all learn to do that with the help of the mantram. Whenever thoughts come up about the past, not only painful ones, but pleasant ones too, don’t let your thoughts travel to the past.
Finally, if you have committed mistakes in the past, learn from them not to commit them again today. And absolutely not tomorrow. The Lord is merciful, he is loving, he knows that we need to commit some mistakes to learn. I don’t ever deprecate a person for committing mistakes. Where it bothers me is when I see that person continuing to make the same mistake over and over again. That is like being in the first grade all one’s life. There is some satisfaction being in the first grade for one year. But, after four years, five years, ten years, when your knees are lifting the desk, and when your feet are dangling over the feet of the fellow in front, it’s time to get out of that class and go to a higher one.
So if you were unkind to somebody yesterday, try to be a little kinder today. If you did your job poorly yesterday, pay more attention to it today. When you have committed a mistake, don’t dwell upon it as a guilt situation, but use it as a learning situation.
When we look with some detachment at our own behavior at the end of the day, we may be tempted to write, “This won’t do.” I am not dissuading you from that. Write in the left-hand margin, “This won’t do.” But in the right-hand margin, write, “I’ll do better tomorrow.”
Then your mistakes have a purpose, and they don’t take away from your confidence, your self-respect, and your self-improvement.
As our spiritual awareness deepens and we begin to see ourselves more clearly, there will be times when past mistakes will swim into our vision and do their best to consume us in guilt or regret. At such times, it is essential to repeat the mantram and turn all our attention outwards, away from ourselves. Analyzing our mistakes and dwelling on how to repay them is of no earthly benefit at all.
But here I can offer one consoling application of the law of karma. If, when you were in Milwaukee, you happened to say something insulting about your girlfriend’s dog, it is not necessary to go to Milwaukee and find your old girlfriend or her dog to make amends. Every dog you treat with kindness will be a proxy for that dog.
If you have treated a particular person badly, even if you can no longer win that person’s forgiveness, you can still win the forgiveness of yourself, of the Lord of Love within, by bearing with everyone who treats you badly and doing your best never to treat anyone else badly again. This is the tremendous practical implication of St. Francis’s words, “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.” Whatever we have done, we can always make amends for it without ever looking backwards in guilt or sorrow.
One of the most consoling implications of this is that no matter what mistakes we may have committed in the past, no matter what liabilities we are oppressed by in the present, our real Self can never be tarnished; the core of our personality is always pure, always loving, always wise.
In both East and West, the mystics illustrate this by drawing a comparison with the sun. Even when it is completely hidden by the clouds, even when we close our eyes to it, the sun is always blazing away with the same radiance. Similarly, even if we have done our best for many years to cover up the splendor of the Self, it is still there, as radiant as ever, in our heart of hearts. We don’t have to make ourselves loving or patient or forgiving; we have only to remove from our superficial personality everything hostile, everything impatient, everything resentful. When all these coverings are removed, the beauty of the Self will shine forth unimpeded.