Guilt - Insight Meditation - The practice of freedom
Articles By Joseph Goldstein

A close colleague of unworthiness, walking hand in hand with it through our heart and mind is guilt. This mind state or emotion often intrudes into situations where we may have done or said un-skilful things that caused suffering to ourself or to others.

It is important to know that we actually have a choice about how we treat such situations. The customary response is to condemn ourselves, to have that feeling of "I'm so bad."  But this state of harsh self-judgement is really a trick of the ego. The mind or the ego tricks us into solidifying a sense of sense of self, of "I", in a negative judgement.

This sense of self is not a solid, continuous structure in the mind that we have to get rid of. We create the sense of self anew in each moment when we are not mindful, when, when we are identifying with whatever is happening. So in every moment of awareness, wisdom frees us from the contraction of self, because ego delusion is as discontinuous and impermanent as everything else. The wisdom of mindfulness and the delusion of selfhood cannot coexist at the same time; the one drives the other.

As guilt arises in our mind, it is fed when we identify with it and make it "self," when we fail to notice it with awareness. So when guilt comes, make that the object of your awareness. Note it. In the moment of recognition, acceptance, and non-identification  this is difficult, and it may take some time to master  you can see what a flimsy paper tiger this fierce mental force really is. Guilt arises, you note it, and in the moment of noting, when you no longer identify with it, it falls away.
In contrast to guilt there is another possible response to our unskilful actions. We might think of this response as wise remorse. We acknowledge and accept that we e have done something unskilful, we understand its unwholesomeness, we see it bears certain fruits, and with wisdom we let our acknowledgement be the force for restraining such actions in the future.

Thus we avoid that slippery, inverse trick of aggrandizing ego through negative stress on self. We feel wise remorse in a mental environment of forgiveness, because forgiveness recognizes the truth of change; what happened in the past does not have to happen in the future. There is no forgiveness in guilt because we have congealed the sense of self into a kind of unchanging stasis through negative self-judgement; according to guilt, "once bad, always bad."

One time when I was in retreat, guilt came up very strongly and unpleasant about a particular thing I had done. It came so incessantly that I drew closer to it, very interested in understanding how I was so enmeshed in it: "Okay, what's going on here?  What is this? What is this suffering about? "Finally I saw that the guilt I felt was really just a ruse of the ego, which had tricked me into creating a sense of "I."

Here is the work of Mara. Mara in Buddhism is the symbolic personification of ignorance and delusion  all those thoughts and impulses that try to draw us away from liberation. When the Buddha-to-be was making his last, great effort for enlightenment, it was Mara who attacked him under the Bodhi Tree and tried to break his concentration.

When I recognized that guilt is the work of Mara, I developed a new technique of practice I call wagging the finger at Mara. Just as the Buddha described in discourses how he would exclaim, "Mara, I see you," I wagged my mental finger at Mara: "I see you!" By that wag of the finger, the identification and deception disappeared, and the guilt I had been experiencing quickly dissolved.

Then arose the feeling of genuine and wise remorse. Wise remorse freed me from being stuck, mired in the sense of  "I'm so bad." Through it I understood that the particular action that had gripped my memory was unskilful, that I could make the effort not to do it again, and that I could move on.

Try this wagging-the finger meditation next time guilt visits your heart. "Oh, you should feel bad about this. You did something really bad, and you are really bad!" Do you accept that approach? Do you take it? Do you claim it as "I"? If you do, Mara has won. But if you see the trick and wag your finger  "Mara, I see you!  then thoughts of guilt may come, but you do not empower them with identification.

And then there is room for more genuine feelings of remorse. You did something unskilful. You did not deny it. You open to it. You see it. You learn from it. And then with a sense of forgiveness, you understand that it was impermanent. In such a moment you may feel that crucial mental shift from a place of tight ego involvement to one of great spaciousness, and you may delight in the fact that indeed you have a choice.

Keywords: Guilt, Insight Meditation, practice of freedom, heart, mind, Joseph Goldstein, Intuition, Intuitive, Articles, UK, South Africa, Cape Town,

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