“This human birth is precious.
Our opportunity to awaken.
The body is impermanent
and time of death is uncertain.
The cause and effect of karma
shapes the course of our lives.
Life has inevitable difficulties.
No one can control it all.
This life we must know
as the tiny splash of a raindrop,
a thing of beauty that disappears
even as it comes into being.
Therefore I recall my inspiration and aspiration (to engage the spiritual path)
and resolve to make use of every day and night in order to realize it.”
I have been told that, when the Dalai Lama first began to speak to western students, someone in an audience asked a question that he didn't understand. So he asked the translator to explain the question, and the question was asked, and repeated and again clarified.
The translator was explaining to the Dalai Lama what guilt is. I have been told that the Dalai Lama expressed disbelief: “Do you mean to tell me that I am speaking to a room full of people who somehow have the idea that they are basically and fundamentally unworthy and bad?”.
Who would think such a thing?
I am told that guilt was not known in his home culture.
Traditional Tibetan culture knows the idea of regret: to do something, to feel badly about it, and then to seek to make it right. Regret is the third step in a complete karmic act. A complete karmic act includes: intention, the action itself, and the presence or absence of regret.
To feel badly about something one has done, and then to work to make it right again: this is regret.
To do something that one feels badly about, and to take this as evidence one is basically and fundamentally bad and unworthy, so that the weight of this sucks and crushes life out of us - heavy, sticky, dragging us down, suffocating us as if we were trapped in some deep cavern, unable to be free of it enough to work to set things right again, to let go and move on: how does this serve us?
Ancient Indian, like Tibetan, culture holds that life itself is fundamentally good. As humans we are alive - some days more than others – but we are alive.
Life itself is descent, worthy and fundamentally good – in a way so very far beyond any kind of a distinction between good or bad – and therefore so are we…because we are alive.
We are basically descent, worthy, kind, wise, resourceful, strong and fundamentally good, like life itself. There’s not much we can do about that.
There may be behavior that we regret, that we will learn from and seek to correct. The being itself is good because life itself is good.
There may be a systematic and repeat pattern of behavior that causes harm or that we regret. That behavior is unfortunate. The being is good, able to learn, to change and to grow.
I have been asked to answer the question how to work with guilt, the big stuff that weighs us down and suffocates, and the small stuff that eats you, that you think about in the night, and that – if we are not careful - you may think about on your deathbed.
How to work with guilt?
Let us begin by exploring the traditional Buddhist idea of the precious human birth.
The human birth is precious because it is our opportunity to awaken. We are born with the human birth. This means we are just confused enough to be able to learn, and to move forward in our gradual process of spiritual maturation.
This is the gift. It's a Goldilocks view of the human experience. We are just confused enough – it’s just right - to be able to see through that confusion, to learn and adjust, to let go and move on to the next learning.
In the traditional Buddhist view, there are six realms, understood as both internal and external states of the mind. There is a hell realm, where there is such intense suffering it becomes nearly impossible to see anything other than suffering.
There is a hungry ghost realm. The hungry ghost has a very big belly and a very thin neck. What it is we are starving for, we reach out for it, and it disappears even as it comes into our hand. We can never be fed, so it is a life of craving, of deep starvation, and it becomes difficult to move forward.
The animal realm is said to be a realm where the being does not have enough self- awareness for there to be strong spiritual maturation or growth. This is not to say that animals are less than humans. Certainly Sarah-the-Wonder-Dog - the golden retriever I once lived with - had a very clear understanding of habitual patterns of the mind as it related to walks and cookies. In my biased opinion that comes through the lens of love, she was a remarkable being who chose to be in the body of an astonishingly beautiful dog in order to be of benefit to others. The tradition would understand that – as remarkable as she was when she came into that body - it was difficult for her to spiritually evolve within the context of an animal birth because there is not sufficient self-awareness to be able to deeply learn and to grow.
In the jealous god realm, people are wrapped up quite strongly in pride; they think they are gods, but they're not. They are constantly struggling to be what they're not, competing and measuring, and not able to be what they are because they are so focused on what they are not. The god realm is considered the realm of greatest happiness, one could say, but I'm told that, in the god realm life, lasts for a seemingly infinite period of time, and the time delay between the cause of an action and the effect of an action is so unbelievably long that it becomes basically impossible to learn anything.
In the space in-between the animal realm and the jealous gods lies the human realm, precious because it is the state that best permits our spiritual growth. Just confused enough, we are able to make our mistakes, and then to see them, to work to make things right, to learn, let go and move on to our next learning.
By its very nature, among the richest opportunities to learn and to grow are those opportunities that come from having made the mistakes that we most deeply regret.
The stages of a complete karmic act: the intention to act, the action itself, and the presence or absence of regret. To this can be added a fourth step: the person or situation that is being acted upon.
The tradition does not have a fifth step which is to say that one bears the weight of the guilt of one's mistakes and becomes immobilized and suffocated by it.
The purpose of our lives it is to live. By virtue of the fact that we are born a human, we must necessarily act. So we engage in an endless series of causes and effects, and we thus engage in an endless series of opportunities to grow, and to learn, from our mistakes and from the suffering that we have experienced or somehow imposed on others.
There is a beauty to life that we are missing if we somehow have the sense that we must be “perfect”, or behave “perfectly” - all the time - in order to be “good enough”. Life itself is good enough. We come along for that ride. That ride is the journey of deep spiritual learning and growth. Our growth requires our mistakes.
Life itself, of which we are a part, has a beauty beyond measure and its own inherent perfection. It is not that we must be perfect, or our behavior must be perfect, in order to be worthy of honor, respect and love, and our own forgiveness.
We are alive, and life itself somehow - in its perfection - unfolds in a way which permits us to taste with a ripe directness the effect of our actions, the intention of our actions, and the action itself.
Cause and effect are both ends of a same stick. What good could come from beating ourselves with that stick?
If we taste the effect of our cause and find it bitter, then we taste the bitterness, and this permits us to make different choices, and to begin to behave in a way which will make our lives, and those that surround us, sweeter.
We engage cause and effect simultaneously. We pick up both ends of a same stick.
The human birth is precious because it is an opportunity to awaken, to spiritually evolve, to learn and to grow. We honor life itself in part by engaging this opportunity, by permitting ourselves to learn and then also to grow.
Letting go of a weight of guilt when we are able is part of what permits us to move on, and the letting go of guilt can be itself a very valuable lesson to learn. Life is good. We engage a full range of human experiences. We learn from it all.
The human birth is traditionally considered precious also because it is rare. How rare is it to have this human opportunity to learn, and to grow, to evolve and to move on?
It is said that it would be as if to take a pin and to place it in a large field. You then you go up into an airplane, high about the clouds. You reach out the window of the airplane holding a single green pea. You drop the single green pea, and the single green pea goes out from your hand, from the window of the airplane. It falls to the ground. It falls on the needle that you placed in the ground, and it stays there.
What are the odds that this could happen? It is essentially unimaginable.
These are the odds, they say, that we would find ourselves in a human body. It would have been much more statistically likely to be a mosquito, an amoeba or an ant.
As humans, we are just confused enough to be able to learn.
Guilt is a way of refusing this very core quality of being alive. In this way, it is a shutting down and closing off of life itself. That's what makes it so heavy and suffocating.
It is somehow failing to appreciate that the miracle of the human experience of being alive is that we are able to act. We will necessarily engage cause and effect simultaneously. The intention, the action, the effect of these actions: these are parts of a whole. If we did not intend to cause harm, or if we regret having caused harm, then we've already begun to slowly and gently dismember - or take apart - this harm that we have done.
If the guilt is heavy and hard, consider actively feeling and expressing regret.
It can be expressed internally. Perhaps you would like to journal or write it down. It may, or may no, be possible or appropriate to say it out loud to another. Consider saying it aloud to yourself. If there has been this suffering, then the feeling of regret is part of how we open to the possibility of letting go. Because we have opened to the possibility of letting go, we begin to open again to an engaging of life itself.
We are able to learn, and having learned, we are able make different choices in times to come. The human birth is precious. We are just confused enough to be able to learn, to grow, to evolve, to shift and change. It requires the learning, and the growing, and then the ability to let go of that which we regret in order to open to the possibility of moving on.
“This human birth is precious.
Our opportunity to awaken. “
It’s not about what we do. It’s not about what we did. It’s about who we are….and then what we do about it.
Copyright © 2019, Adela Sandness