Self-forgiveness (written 2014)
Recently I woke in the morning aware of a dream lingering, leaving its flavor in my mind. I tried to recall what the content of the dream had been, but it was only smoke and mirrors now. No actions, no characters, no setting. The flavor left behind though was real enough. I knew I had been angry in the dream. And now, the anger was only a tang under the bitter taste of guilt. I was feeling guilty for having been angry in a dream.
Saying this to myself didn't help. Not being able to get hold of the story didn't help. Knowing the foolishness of this state of mind didn't make it go away. I could wish it were smoke and mirrors like the rest of the dream, but the feeling was in my body...no waking to rested ease, but to this muddy sense of self-judgment. Ouch.
How much more intense is guilt when it happens in waking life. When we feel we've acted in a way we're not proud of or pleased with. When we've been in the wrong. Guilt is not a skilful emotion. Rather than allowing the clear seeing and resolve that will help us to make positive choices in the future, it causes us to see ourselves darkly. We create a cartoon goblin self who deserves punishment or at least whatever negative consequences follow from the actions taken. We cast ourselves as the “bad guy”. One of the problems with this is that it can become a habit. “That's the way I am. I always screw up. I hurt people. I do the wrong thing.” But what's the alternative? How not to go there. How to go towards clear seeing.
We do this better, often, when we're dealing with others. We know it instinctively, whether we can do it or not. We need to forgive. When someone hurts us, or treats us poorly, we can hold onto that too, of course, create a goblin-self for them and pretend we're wearing white, maybe even haloes. But if you've tried it, you know: forgiving eases your own pain, whether the other person makes reconciliation or not. And forgiving lets everyone drop the costumes and be who they are, larger than any one action, more than any one mistake.
So it is the same with guilt. Guilt is a form of self-harm. When we can forgive ourselves for the action, the anger maybe, or whatever caused it this time, we begin to be able to see things more clearly. In the Buddhist tradition there is a tricky concept of anatta, usually translated as no-self or non-self. While people can tie themselves in knots trying to make sense of this, the understanding I have reached is that it is the concept of self as stagnant, fixed, thing-like, that no-self is denying. We are processes, moving through time. And not only are we capable of change, we have to change. It's in our natures. It's in the nature of everything, and we are part of that. Creating a goblin-self then is like taking a picture and saying “this is me”, it's just a representation in a single moment. The picture isn't me. The moment captured is not me. To feel this in watching the mind's maneuvers in meditation is to begin to see the world differently.
I keep favorite quotes on index cards so that the glimmering insights they bring can be revisited when memory has faded. One such quote from a monastic teacher whose name, alas, I didn't note, is this: “Do not have expectations of others. Only treat them with kindness.” Our private expectations are what allow us to think we are in the right. So I would carry this further. You may set resolutions or determinations, but don't warp these with expectations of yourself. Only treat yourself with kindness. Be ready to forgive.
On the morning I woke feeling muddy with self-judgment, I eventually closed my eyes and rested, letting the hectoring voices fade. I let the taste of guilt linger and watched it break apart. I took time to breathe and to see. To be kind to myself. But most important, I remembered: Though I might have said “ I am lying in my bed”, that “I” is no more solid and fixed than the dream self who had acted unskillfully.