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There are three kinds of guilt and you don’t want to carry any of them around with you. Learn about dealing with guilt and letting it go.
Heather had been estranged from one of her childhood friends for several years—the result of a quarrel that both of them held on to out of angry pride. When she heard that her friend was ill with cancer, Heather knew that they needed to reconcile before her friend died. But there was, she told me, an unforgiving place inside her that made it hard to call. She put off calling her friend for months, and when she finally did, her friend was in a coma and could no longer talk. Now Heather was consumed with guilt. “How could I have let my friend die without saying goodbye?” she asked. “I just can’t let it go. I can’t forgive myself.”
I suspect that many of us, like Heather, have spent countless hours replaying a searing, guilty memory. Guilt—feeling bad because you’ve done something that goes against your values—is a primal human emotion. Everybody feels guilty sometimes. But some of us feel guiltier than others, and not always because we’ve done more bad stuff. That’s why it’s crucial to investigate where your guilt is coming from and what kind of guilt you’re feeling. Guilt is heavy baggage. You don’t want to carry guilt around. If you can distinguish where your guilty feelings are coming from, it’s easier to see how to get rid of them, whether that means making amends for something, working through the guilt, or simply letting it go.
There are three basic kinds of guilt: (1) natural guilt, or remorse over something you did or failed to do; (2) free-floating, or toxic, guilt—the underlying sense of not being a good person; and (3) existential guilt, the negative feeling that arises out of the injustice you perceive in the world, and out of your own unpaid obligations to life itself.
The Three Types of Guilt
1. Dealing with Natural Guilt
Suppose you feel guilty about something immediate and specific—putting a dent in the car your friend lent you or lying to your boyfriend about where you were last night. That’s what I call natural guilt. You can tell you’re suffering from natural guilt because it’s local: It relates to your actions in real, present time. Natural guilt can be horribly painful, especially if there’s serious damage involved. But even if what you did was really, really bad, local guilt is reparable. You can make amends. You can ask for forgiveness, pay your debt, and resolve to change your behavior. And once you repair things, the guilt should dissolve (if not, see the section “Toxic Guilt”).
Natural guilt serves a functional purpose, and it seems to be hard-wired into the nervous system. It’s an internal alarm bell that helps you identify unethical behavior and change course. Natural guilt prompts you to call your mother, or leave your phone number when you ram the fender of a parked car. Natural guilt, some social scientists believe, comes from our ability to empathize with others’ suffering, and it’s one of the reasons we have things like social safety nets and movements for social justice. When you have a healthy relationship with your personal guilt, you don’t agonize over guilty feelings. Instead, you use them as signals to change your behavior.
You deal with your guilt about not calling your sick friend by calling her. You handle your remorse over spending too much by holding back. If your guilt comes from recognizing your own part in some collective wrongdoing—racial injustice or some other form of oppression of one group by another—you look for a way to help bring about change. And if your guilt comes from something you can’t do much about—like the working mother’s guilt about not being the one to pick up her kid from school every day—you practice giving yourself a break.
That said, natural guilt has a shadow side. It often turns into a major instrument of parental and social control. An old joke captures this perfectly. How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb? None: “Don’t worry, I’ll just sit here in the dark.” But it’s not just mothers (Jewish or otherwise) who manipulate us through guilt. Spouses and partners do, too. So do religions, spiritual groups, and tribes—even yoga tribes. Have you ever been guilt-tripped by a vegan friend who caught you eating salmon? In fact, natural guilt gone wrong— that is, when it’s too harshly punished or used as a weapon of control—can quickly become toxic. When that happens, we find ourselves in the state of continual low-grade suffering that I call toxic guilt, which is a pervasive feeling of being “wrong” or flawed in some basic way.
2. Dealing with Toxic Guilt
Toxic guilt is what happens when natural guilt festers. It manifests as a nagging feeling of pervasive but nonspecific badness, as if your whole life has something wrong with it. This type of free-floating guilt is the hardest kind to deal with, because it arises from lingering patterns, or samskaras, lodged in your subconscious. How can you expiate your sin or forgive yourself for something when you don’t know what it is you did—or when you believe that what you did is essentially irreparable?
To some extent, this particular type of guilt seems to be an unintended by-product of Judeo-Christian culture, a residue of the doctrine of original sin. Yogic texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra do not recognize nonspecific guilt, though they do say quite a bit about sin, karma, and how to avoid or purify transgressions. But even though toxic guilt is not specifically mentioned in most traditional lists of yogic obstructions, the yogic teachings do offer help. We need to work with toxic guilt not only to alleviate the pain it causes us, but also because accumulated feelings of guilt build up and attach themselves to any current transgression, even very minor ones, causing negative self-talk and bad feelings that are out of proportion to the offense.
People normally experience toxic guilt in two ways. First, it can simply be there, like a flavor in your personality, a miasmic feeling that can spontaneously come into consciousness at certain times, causing you to feel bad or unworthy. Second, it can be triggered from the outside—whether by a mistake you make or somebody’s suspicion. If you’re carrying a toxic guilt backpack, it doesn’t take much to activate it—a slip-up at the office, a fight with your lover, or a call from your mother can do it. In extreme cases, people feel as though they’re walking around on eggshells, afraid they’re about to do something that will expose their innate badness. So it’s important to learn how to recognize feelings of toxic guilt so that they no longer program you from the inside.
Toxic guilt often has roots in early childhood: Mistakes that your parents or teachers treated as a big deal, for example, or religious training, especially the kind that teaches original sin, can fill us with guilty feelings that have no real basis. Some believers in the doctrine of reincarnation—the idea that our present circumstances are determined by patterns set in past lives—see toxic guilt as the karmic residue of past-life actions stored in our subtle system. One ancient text of Tibetan yoga, called The Wheel of Sharp Weapons, lists past transgressions that certain present-day problems have evolved from and gives remedies for mitigating them. Many of the purist catory yogic practices—especially daily chanting and mantra repetition, selfless service (karma yoga), and offerings—are considered medicine for these guilty feelings.
But there’s no question that toxic guilt can also come from a cumulative buildup of specific, unrepaired hurt that you’ve caused in this life. When you’ve racked up a few painful moments of self-betrayal, or cheated on a lover or two, or even when you neglect to call your parents or get enough regular exercise, you can accumulate a fair amount of free-flowing guilt. Moreover, a yogi on a path of awakening will often develop an exquisitely scrupulous conscience. Once you begin to hold yourself to the ethical standards of the spiritual path, it becomes harder to let yourself get away with insensitive or harmful behavior. At the same time, you may still have some old habits of carelessness and unconsciousness. So, despite your best intentions, you sometimes do things that you know aren’t good for yourself or other people—and feel guilty. But if you are willing to look more deeply, you’ll probably find that your sense of toxic guilt has very little to do with anything that you did. That, paradoxically, is what makes it so toxic. When you suffer from this kind of pervasive guilt, any real-time infraction you commit becomes so freighted by the weight of your stored guilty feelings that facing it can feel paralyzing.
3. Dealing with Existential Guilt
Your guilty feeling could also be social or political. This is the guilt you feel when you see pictures of animals in a pen, or read about the suffering in Zimbabwe, or recognize the radical privilege of your life compared with the lives of many others. I call this existential guilt. Existential guilt is quite real, and even reasonable. Why? Because there is essentially no way to live life on earth without having some sort of negative impact on others, whether it’s the owls who lost their homes when trees were cut down for your office park; or the plants you trample while walking in nature; or the fact that your child got a space in a great public school, and lots of your friends’ children didn’t. Often, the resources we use to live, even to live simply, mean that those same resources are not available to others.
Years ago, a beautiful, wealthy woman told one of my teachers that she was suffering from intense guilt and depression. My teacher responded by asking, “What have you done for life? Have you ever put a bagel on a tree and walked away?” My teacher’s remark has stayed with me for years, not only because of its arresting, koanlike quality, but also because of the essential wisdom behind it. That woman’s guilt complex was in part existential, and existential guilt can be remedied only by making unconditional offerings to life. Like that woman, most of us reading this magazine live in a privileged milieu, using resources denied to 95 percent of the people on the planet. It’s easy to understand why a person might feel a burden of existential guilt. The Vedic sages, whose wisdom is at the root of all the yogic traditions, taught that we have certain basic debts—to our ancestors, to the earth, to our teachers, to God, and to everyone who’s helped us. When we don’t pay those debts, we suffer from existential guilt.
Modern liberal society, with its intense individualism, broken families, and consumerist attitude toward spirituality, invites existential guilt, simply because so many of us haven’t been taught to make the basic gestures that honor the web of life. I’m talking not only about conscious environmental practice, but also about heart practices like inviting guests to your table; sharing food with poor people, animals, and, yes, local spirits; giving service to the community and donating part of your income; taking care of elders.
To complicate matters, when our toxic guilt gets mixed up with our existential guilt, we’ll often suffer from a feeling that we’re responsible for everyone else’s pain. My friend Ellen is an example. She grew up with a rageful mother, who used to direct her anger at Ellen’s sister. Ellen empathized profoundly with her sister but felt powerless to stop her mother’s scapegoating of her sister. Her helplessness and frustration turned into an overwhelming feeling of responsibility for any pain, anywhere—a type of survivor’s guilt. Ellen found herself enabling depressed friends, giving money to spiritual charlatans, and breaking her heart over her inability to rescue everyone she to live up to our own values.
For Ellen, the process of learning to discriminate between true compassion and useless self-sacrifice had to start with checking into her guilty feelings when they arose, asking herself whether her pain at not fixing something was related to the present, or a toxic holdover from the past. Once she’d done that, the work she did to help others became freed of its sticky residue. And, unsurprisingly, it also became a great deal more effective. Like Ellen, we are often confused about what kind of guilt we’re feeling. Once we can recognize a painful feeling as guilt and identify its type, it becomes easier to work with it. Some guilts do need amends, because the guilty feeling points out a failure to live up to our own values. Other guilts are best let go.
How to Let Guilt Go
And this is where yoga philosophy offers one of its most valuable and life-changing gifts. The yoga tradition has many specific remedies for feelings of guilt (See The Yogi’s Guide to Self-Forgiveness for specifics). But the greatest guilt-busting attitude the yogic tradition offers us is the radical recognition of our essential goodness. Tantric traditions especially are known for looking at the world through a lens that sees all life as fundamentally divine. Your attitude toward your guilt will undergo a huge change when you begin to follow a spiritual teaching that—instead of assuming human beings are intrinsically flawed—teaches you to look beyond your flaws and helps you to know your deeper perfection.
My teacher, Swami Muktananda, used to tell a story that I think clearly illuminates the difference between these two ways of viewing ourselves. There were once two monasteries, each located close to a big city. In one monastery, the students were told that human beings were sinners and that intense vigilance and penance were the only ways the students could avoid their sinful tendencies. In the other monastery, the students were encouraged to believe in their fundamental goodness, and to trust their hearts. One day, a young man in each of these monasteries decided that he needed a respite from monastic life. Each boy sneaked out his dormitory window, hitched a ride to the nearby city, found a party, and ended up spending the night with a prostitute. The next morning, the boy from the “sinner” monastery was overcome with punishing remorse. He thought, “I’ve fallen irrevocably from the path. There’s no point in my going back.” He didn’t return to his monastery and soon became part of a street gang.
The second boy also woke up with a hangover. But his response to the situation was very different. “That was not as satisfying as I imagined it would be,” he thought. “I don’t think I’ll do that again anytime soon.” Then he went back to his monastery, climbed in the window, and was admonished for sneaking out at night. My teacher would say that when we believe that we are sinners, a very small slip can send us spiraling into a pattern of self-destructive action. But when we know, as the yoga sages tell us, that we are fundamentally divine, that we are all Buddhas, it’s much easier to forgive our selves for the bad or unskillful things we do. It’s also easier to change our behavior. So the real solution to our problematic guilty feelings is to recognize, over and over again, the light of God’s love that illuminates our heart.