A thousand years ago, when I first started studying Zen, I came across a set of precepts that included one that went, “No speaking of past regrets.”
I have a very clear and distinct memory of reading this. I even remember it being part of a list in which each precept was explained. But, in the case of this one, the precept was just re-stated instead of explained. It went something like, “The precept of not speaking of past regrets means no speaking of past regrets.”
Over the years I have done a number of searches through the Interwebs and through my collection of Buddhist books and papers to try to find this precept again, but I’ve never been able to locate it. I don’t know if I just made it up myself or dreamed it. But there you go. Somewhere, though perhaps only in the Land of My Dreams, there is a Buddhist precept of not speaking of past regrets.
I have a number of regrets in my life. I’m sure everyone does. Even Frank Sinatra had a few. I’ve done things I shouldn’t have done and said things I shouldn’t have said. You have too, I’m sure. Sometimes you do and say these things without really understanding that they are going to go wrong. Sometimes you might have had an idea they may wrong but decided to do/say them anyway. Sometimes you were just an asshole, doing or saying something deliberately intended to hurt someone. If you have a conscience at all, you regret these things.
Sometimes people write and ask me for advice about regrets. They seem to think I might have some magic Buddhist formula for dealing with them. But the Buddhist advice on regrets is pretty conventional.
The fact that you even have regrets is a good thing. It means you are aware of your own wrongdoing. Lots of people never even get that far. So, good for you!
If you are weighed down by regrets, that’s a problem. But it’s not a problem specifically related to regretting things. It’s more a problem of the way we allow our minds to be dominated by recurring thoughts that we use to define our “selves” to ourselves.
Some people define themselves according to their talents, abilities, and all of the great contributions they’ve made to humanity. Others define themselves according to their flaws, incompetency, and past mistakes.
Conventionally we define the former as boosting one’s ego and the latter as tearing it down. However, the way ego is defined in Buddhism both strategies are involved in building up and inflating a false sense of self. For those of us who favor the latter strategy, regrets are a far better ego boost than counting up the things you’re satisfied with about your self.
The advice you’re likely to get from Buddhist literature and from Buddhist teachers specifically relating to regrets is likely to be pretty obvious stuff. There is no need to dwell upon your regrets. That doesn’t do anyone any good. Just acknowledge that you did something wrong and do your best to try to put it right. Sometimes that means apologizing, but sometimes an apology can just make things worse. Sometimes that means trying to repair the damage done, but sometimes your attempts to repair the damage just create more damage. It’s tricky and you are always the one in the best position to know what strategy will work in your specific case.
In my own life, right at this very second, I have a handful of regrets. In two cases that come to mind as I write this, I did something wrong to someone and later apologized and made efforts to right those wrongs. In both cases the people who I have wronged responded by trying to use my admission of wrongdoing as a way to leverage more guilt from me and to demand that I do more to compensate them. In both cases, they have not made any specific requests or have made requests they know I can’t fulfill, thus making it impossible to comply. I have to assume this is deliberate even if it’s being done unconsciously. This allows them to continue to feel I owe them something and to resent me for it.*
I only understand this strategy because I have used it myself. Which is something else I regret. Whenever I see myself pursuing this strategy these days I immediately stop. Which is how I deal with that particular species of regret.
In these specific cases, there’s simply nothing more I can do. At least nothing I can come up with. It’s clear that becoming further entangled in the drama these individuals are seeking to perpetuate won’t help anything. So my only strategy is to stay out of the drama.
In one of these cases it means that I have stopped communicating at all with the person in question. In the other case, circumstances have continuously forced me into communicating with the person in question. So I have made my efforts to try to have as normal and un-dramatic a relationship as possible. I have already offered my apologies and done a few things to try to put things right. Apart from that, there’s nothing more to be done.
If there was some magic solution or mantra that would make things right, I’d use it. But there isn’t. Or if there is, I don’t know it.
But I have learned that the best overall strategy is to not do things you’re going to regret.
I know this is easier said than done. None of us knows the future. You always have to act with only the knowledge you possess at the moment. You’re going to make mistakes. When you’ve made a mistake and hurt someone, it’s best to apologize or try to put it right in some other way as soon as possible. Often it’s not possible to do very much. And sometimes, as in the cases I referred to above, the other person seizes upon the apology or your attempts to make things right as a way to try to leverage some kind of gain for themselves. And that’s always difficult to deal with. I wish I could do more than commiserate and say that it’s happened to me too, and that it feels shitty, but that’s pretty much all I can do.
The holiday season may bring you in contact with somebody you’ve wronged in the past. If you haven’t apologized yet, now is your chance. Use it. It may not come again. If you already have apologized, then just do your best to try not to do other things you’ll regret in the future and do what you can to try to get the relationship back to whatever level of normalcy you can manage. Or end the relationship if that’s what is best.
If you’ve done that much, then there’s no sense hanging on to any regrets. If you find yourself hanging on to regrets anyway, my best advice is to sit with your regrets.
See if you can avoid dwelling on your regrets. See if you can avoid the urge to wallow in them like a pig in a mud puddle. See if you can just let them come, let them stay as long as they need to and, most importantly, let them go when it’s time for them to go. Don’t try to figure them out. Just leave them be.
If you do that, you just might discover what you really need to do about them.
- You are definitely not one of the people I’m writing about, dear reader. Neither of them read this blog — ever. Get over yourself. (smiley face emoticon here)
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April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 9:30 there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
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