Guilt is a form of Suffering

By Desmond Yeoh SC

Dan often feels guilty about being lazy and not putting in enough effort in his work. Whenever he leaves work early, he reprimands himself for not staying back to finish up his work. So he often ends up working late into the night. He takes on more and more work to placate his guilt for not working hard enough. This leaves him little time for rest and he feels tired all the time.

At the same time, he also feels guilty about not spending enough time with his wife and kids. His kids are growing up so fast and he is missing out on most of their milestones; when they first start to crawl, walk, talk and so on. It appears like these self-imposed demands are stretching him like a rubber band towards breaking point and it leaves him feeling extremely resentful.

These are just the tip of the iceberg. When he was young, he attended a Christian school and at an early age, he was taught that humans are born sinful. This brought about feelings of guilt that has never left him. Later on, he explored other religions. They often talk about past masters who were extremely compassionate, generous and kind. These stories made him feel that he is not compassionate, generous or pure enough; no matter what he does.

Perhaps many of us can understand and identify with Dan. We too may share the same feelings of guilt. Conscience is helpful because it keeps us from harming others. However, when it is taken to an extreme, it leads to the unhelpful feeling of guilt which is really a form of suffering which we burden ourselves unnecessary. We should not do anything out of guilt because it leads to resentment in the long run. If we force ourselves to go out with friends because we feel guilty about turning down their invitations, we will eventually resent them and not enjoy the friendship.

Regret is a form of guilt. Regret over what we did or did not do in the past shows that we are not able to let go of our past. How we acted in the past depended on the causes and conditions at that point in time, and we are unfair to ourselves when we evaluate our deeds base on hindsight. We may not be as conscious or wise as we are now but that is not unreasonable. Judging our past “Self” only brings about guilt which robs us of inner-peace. Rather than regret, let us accept everything in our past as part of our life’s journey which has added to our spiritual growth and understanding.

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Understanding this is the first step towards letting go of our guilt and regrets. Once we recognise it as a huge bag of stinking garbage which we lug around with us unnecessarily, we will naturally leave it behind. To gain that understanding, we need to watch the mental conversations we have with ourselves to clearly see how we judge ourselves. We need to know the things that we say that trigger feelings of guilt. More importantly, we need to recognise what guilt feels like. It subtler than other emotions such as anger and fear; so we need to watch more intently.

We listen to our mental chatter from a witness perspective; as if we are an understanding therapist listening patiently to his patient. We then objectively evaluate if these thoughts are really fair or useful for our personal development. We will then realise that a majority of these thoughts do nothing but bring about emotional turmoil. When we reach that conclusion, we will naturally let them go like how we immediately drop a hot iron which we accidentally picked up. Then we would have taken a small step towards enlightenment.

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