Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment. – Buddha
We all have something we’re particularly good at, and what I’m good at is guilt. I come by this talent honestly: I remember when I realized that it was a very good way to stay alive. I was still a child in grade school, and I remember one night escaping into the bathroom at my aunt’s house in a potentially dangerous moment, and perched on the side of the bathtub, knowing that the ax was probably going to fall. I’m sure I’ve mentioned, here, that I come from the Family from Hell, a phrase coined by professionals who work with such people and have to keep a sense of humor somehow–therapists, social workers and the like–and I also happened to work with such people for many years, as is so often the case with people who come from the Family from Hell: that’s where we learn to save lives, including our own. I don’t know who it was who first spoke of how the children of sorrow are often the bringers of joy, but it’s true, I think, because who else would know how to deal with these moments?
As usual, I digress. There I was, probably about age 9, balanced on the edge of the tub in my aunt’s pristine bathroom, feeling the unbearable weight of all my wrongdoing, at the same time knowing that I was probably going to get it for something that I wasn’t sure I’d actually done, and that didn’t matter whether I had or not: I would still have to be the scapegoat. I didn’t know words like scapegoat at that time, and I certainly didn’t understand concepts like corrosive guilt and emotional abuse, but I knew enough to know that I was generally miserable and that I was probably going to be made more miserable before long. And suddenly, a solution occurred to me: I’d apologize before the ax fell! Yeah, that’s what I’d do. If I took responsibility before it was conferred on me, I could maybe control the force of the blow that was surely coming. And for the most part, it worked pretty well. When I was nine and had no other recourse, that is.
The problem with solutions found by children is that while they work at the time they are found, they tend to become entrenched habits and solutions that are pulled out of the hat so often that by the time the child becomes an adult, it seems too late–and too dangerous–to find less painful and debilitating solutions. It all works together, of course, this mind-body thing: the mind solves a problem and if the solution doesn’t grow up, the body becomes more and more weary from carrying an unviable solution. I wrote a post awhile back about Fibromyalgia, a post that has been meaningful to a lot of people, remarking that chronic illness is an excellent example of this phenomenon: our bodies are the sensors, the recorders of our experiences, and when the writing becomes too deep, the pressure too great, the body begins to collapse, and some form of exhaustion takes its toll. I often think that I am fortunate: some people get cancer or even more cataclysmic illnesses. With my ignominious little chronic body-mind syndrome, I still look healthy and my mind is in relatively good shape (at least I think it is), and it’s probably not really going to get much worse. I don’t know whether this is significant, but it seems to me that it is a sign that I have not given up yet. But then, what do I know.
So: guilt. “The gift that keeps on giving.” I know most of the jokes made by chronically guilty people, and I proved to myself as that child sitting on the side of the tub that I wasn’t giving up. I added another skill at almost the same time: that of getting even, but that’s an essay for another time, for it helped me make far worse messes than my generally internalized sense of global shame. Guilt worked the best, although it has long worn out its efficacy. It’s what I do. It’s how I stay alive. It’s a misery, but it’s one I’ve learned to live with, although I continue to cherish the hope of finding another coping mechanism. Still, if I’m feeling lousy on a particular day, it’s no doubt my fault, and if the window won’t open, that has to be because of something I’ve done in not maintaining my house, and if I have yet to finish my doctoral dissertation or publish seventeen novels, then I am a BAD PERSON. You get the idea. I’m sure that some of you play this tape over and over for yourselves too, it’s a popular way of getting by. It’s my most polished ability. Just ask my husband!
Here in cyberspace, there is a tremendous amount of good advice going around: just Google whatever it is you’re thinking about, and you can instantly learn what everyone else is thinking about it. At one time, we read books, and hopefully we still do, but I think we have learned to consider things in short, sharp bursts of information that, with any luck, hit home. It’s not a bad way to think about things, either, because we’re all looking for that “Ah Ha!” moment, and sometimes we get it when we read a quote or a news story or a Facebook meme. I have a vast number of ideas stored away, and yesterday I was considering guilt, which continues to take its toll. I’m better at ignoring than I once was, mind: it doesn’t have quite so much power to take me down, but it’s still a bad habit. Yesterday, I was considering how much energy it takes and how difficult it makes it to see things clearly, and I thought of the idea above, the supposed quote from Lord Buddha: we have, each time undesirable thoughts come, the opportunity to ask ourselves where they come from, and if we do, we generally find that they come from past feelings and conditioning, past events and ideas and relationships, and if we consider the emotion of the moment, we realize it’s fear of the future that perpetuates them. In this sense, of course, guilt and fear are synonymous.
Considering this, I did something I’ve done before but not really developed a habit of doing as yet: I considered my guilty feeling in the moment, relinquishing the past and my fear the future, and I allowed myself to be in the moment. “How do I really feel RIGHT NOW,” I asked myself, divorcing the constructs that produced this sense of pervading remorse, and I stayed with that for awhile. I was in pain, yes, but the pain was less, and there was a sense of expansiveness, of freedom. Suddenly I had more energy. I didn’t feel so attached to it, and it wasn’t accompanied by all the habitual “shoulds” that plague me (“I’m shoulding all over myself” is a popular phrase, too). I realized that in this very moment, I really don’t have any problems: I’m warm and dry and I live in a beautiful atmosphere and I’m loved and I have time for the things I most want to do. But there’s another aspect that this little practice brings, because it’s like meditation: when I let go of the past and the future, I become pure consciousness. I live in this soul. I have always been and I will always be. What is this?
I have a page here on this blog where I share the Ten Oxherding Poems. Read them if you are in the mood. I have loved oriental poetry for many years, and in addition to these, Ryokan, “(1758–1831) … a quiet and eccentric Zen Buddhist monk who lived much of his life as a hermit. He wrote poetry presenting the essence of Zen life, but refused any titles, such as teacher. His poems are characterised by his playfulness, directness and questioning nature.” (http://www.poetseers.org/spiritual-and-devotional-poets/buddhist/ryokan/). It’s the playfulness part that appeals to me: this man learned to laugh at himself!
Too lazy to be ambitious,
I let the world take care of itself.
Ten days’ worth of rice in my bag;
a bundle of twigs by the fireplace.
Why chatter about delusion and enlightenment?
Listening to the night rain on my roof,
I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out. – Ryokan
So there I was in that moment, no past, no future, just Being. A great relief.
We live in an increasingly complicated world. A hut in the mountains and a life in solitude is something that most of us won’t even consider, and so we continue to try to navigate the pain of living with schedules and possessions and worries and….love. That’s the problem, isn’t it: love. Perhaps our greatest need, and rightfully so: Inayat Khan said “You are love, you come from love, you are made to love, you cannot cease to love.” And there we have it: the ultimate dilemma. We come from love, and we are made to love, and all the rest of it (including guilt) is an outgrowth of that. Can the responsibility of love be found in just Being? What happens to the quest of love if we relinquish past and future as the learning tools we have been given? It seems to me that the predicament lies in the fundamental process of our own becoming: we are, after all, thoughts in the mind of God, and ultimately all our experiences arise out of our quest for realizing what that means in this particular life and being.
How awful! And how wonderful to realize that my guilt and my worry and my faults and my miseries are all expressions of God becoming God. I remember my life’s teacher, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, saying over and over that if we knew what love really is, we would be shattered in our understanding. Could it be that this deadening talent for remorse is right out there on the luminous arch of the bridge into divine understanding? How may we embrace our share of the agony of knowledge?
There is a well-known story about an event where the Dalai Llama was observed, as an Easterner, not to have the same concept of guilt as those of us in the West do. I thought about that as I was writing this, and then I found this story, which changes that idea:
The Dalai Lama with (sic) working with an American psychiatrist who was interviewing him for a book on happiness. The subject of remorse was broached: His Holiness explained that one time an elderly Buddhist man came to see him to ask for instructions on how to do a very difficult Yoga pose. The Dalai Lama told the man that he was too old and should not attempt the pose as it would be too dangerous. The old man thanked the Dalai Lama, went home and killed himself so he could be reincarnated as a younger, healthier man who could attempt the pose. After hearing the news, the Dalai lama was overcome with guilt at being the reason for another man’s death.
“So how did you deal with that?” asked the interviewer. “How did you get rid of the remorse.”
The Dalai Lama sat there in silence for a minute or two, thinking hard about the question.
“I didn’t get rid of it” the Dalai Lama explained. “It’s still with me every day. I just continue to live with my heart open.”
(From another, rather wonderful blog: http://doorsandsardines.tumblr.com/post/8111056301)
If our lives are the writing in the book of the divine life, that is what it’s about: keeping an open heart, despite everything. It occurs to me that herein is the divergence of Zen and Sufism, although in the core of each that divergence curves back into itself:
The Sufi considers devotion of the heart the best thing to cultivate for spiritual realization. It might seem quite different from what many think, but the ones who close their hearts to others, close their hearts to God. Jesus Christ did not say, “God is the intellect”. He said, “God is love”. if, therefore, there is a piece of God that can be found anywhere, it is not in any church on the earth, nor in Heaven above; it is in the heart of each person. The best place where you are sure to find God is in the loving heart of a kind person. – Inayat Khan
Years ago, I read a wonderful book by Joan Borysenko, Guilt is the Teacher, Love is the Lesson. The title alone was enough, really: what if we can learn to bear the cross of guilt, that one that so often seems far more heavy than anyone should reasonably be expected to carry, and bear it not only willingly, but gratefully?
A great gift.