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Regret and Well Being

Ajahn Munindo

Ajahn Munindo, who is currently the senior incumbent at Ratanagiri (Harnham) Monastery in Northumberland, U.K., presents these reflections in response to a question posed during a 10 day retreat held there during vassa 1995.

Harsh and cruel words can come out so quickly when one is in a heated discussion or argument, to one's immediate regret. How can one try to avoid this?

Well the experience of regret is actually the message; it's the lesson, the dukkha that happens when we make a mistake. It's really important that we understand that, because otherwise it's like fighting ourselves. It's as though healing is taking place, but we are resisting it.

When there's some heat in a discussion, something is going on that we are not so happy about, we can end up saying something hurtful to somebody. Then afterwards, when we remember what happened, we feel regret. Now that regret is right, it is appropriate - not just the mental dimension of regret, the thought: 'I wish I hadn't said that' - but the actual feeling of embarrassment, the heat as we go red in the face and the feeling in the stomach or the throat. That's the consequence of having generated hurtful action. It's also the doorway beyond.

Now we need to have the appropriate attitude to regret, otherwise we'll never learn. The Buddha said regularly that it's only through seeing the consequence of our harmful actions that we can be released from them. That is why the whole teaching, the basic Buddhist teaching, is established on mindfulness of dukkha. It is only through mindfulness of dukkha that we can see the end of dukkha. By feeling the consequence of our inappropriate speech - in other words, by suffering consciously - the whole body mind gets the message. We realise: 'I don't want to do this, I don't want to be this way.'

This is a very simple but very important message, because often we intellectualise around the consequences of our heedlessness. We say something unkind, and we feel the pain of regret and embarrassment. Then maybe we start to feel guilty, sticking darts into ourselves for having been so foolish, really getting off on feeling guilty. We go up into our heads and we stop feeling, no longer experiencing the reaction; instead, we theorise about it and say something like: 'Well my parents always did this to me. What else do you expect?... Of course it's unfortunate and I'm sorry I said it, but it's perfectly understandable.'

But when we go on like that we're not in touch with the reaction any more; we're not being mindful in that moment. This is the displacement activity of the age. Instead of being sensitive to the actual feeling, we think about the cause of our problems. We miss the opportunity to put ourselves into the optimum position for reading feeling accurately - and to move through, and beyond it.

For example, we might do an astrological interpretation: 'I've got Mars in Leo, she's got Mars in Pisces. What else do you expect? Of course we speak to each other like that, that's how we are.' Now while that might alleviate some of the regret for a while, actually it's just displacement, it's not really dealing with it; it won't really help us in taking responsibility for our heedlessness. So if we habitually allow the passions to come out through our mouth as cruel and harsh words when 'I' am not getting my way, we really need to take an interest in how to adjust that. The painful kamma made in causing hurt to other beings through our unkind speech is enormous. If we think unkind thoughts then, mostly, we are the only ones that suffer; but we can just slice people to pieces with words. So if we have such a disposition, such a habit, we should be interested in how to alter it.

From the Buddhist perspective, the way we show interest in it is by feeling the regret - really letting it sink into our bones. This may sound as though we are being caught up with guilt again, but we really need to see and understand the neurotic tendency that we have of making ourselves and one another feel guilty - otherwise we'll never get past a certain point in practice. When guilt gets a hold on us, then as soon as we start to feel suffering we grasp it, we indulge in it: 'Well I should suffer, I should be miserable. Look how hopeless I am... those awful things I've said - it's just despicable! I should know better after all these years...' And of course, I should know better so, in a sense, I can justify my argument. But really what I'm doing is feeling very righteous, hating myself for having made a mistake; and there's absolutely no justification for that. Instead, what we need to do is learn the lesson that by getting caught up and following these wild passions - shooting that energy out through our mouths - we cause suffering for ourselves and others. We don't have to look very far to see the horror of what's going on in the world, the suffering that gets caused in this way.

But then we can also consider the consequences of exercising restraint - how we feel about ourselves then. We can notice how it feels if we're about to really let somebody have it but, rather than following that, we just do whatever we need to do to stop it: clenching our fists, going outside - doing anything to stop it, even if it is just blind repression (well it won't be blind, because we know what we are doing). The Buddha said that sometimes you've got to push the tongue up against the roof of your mouth, and just grit your teeth... sometimes passion is that strong. But you just do anything to stop it from coming out and hurting somebody.

So if we do that, and then stop and think about it - in a cool moment, not when the passion is still going - how do we feel about ourselves? If the passion is still going, we'll probably say: 'Well, yeah, I should have really told them!' - we might imagine that we'd feel good if we really tell somebody. But when we're cool and clear and we reflect on it, how does it feel not to have actually blasted them and hurt them with our speech?... We feel good. There is a natural sense of self respect that comes from such containment. The body mind gets the message that actually it is appropriate to contain the passions. If we can learn this little by little, then we'll no longer be seduced into thinking that we'll feel good if we follow these upthrusts of wild energy. It's only when we don't really inspect these things that we have the delusion that we are going to feel better by following them. Of course the same thing applies to heedlessly following any desire.

Guilt is one of the things that can get in the way of working like this; another is a lack of a sense of well-being. Even though we've got the theory down - to be mindful of dukkha and all that - if we don't have a good strong sense of well-being within ourselves then it's not going to work. While we may not feel guilt we can just get crushed and depressed, thinking about how many times we've failed: 'I just keep doing this thing over and over again. Every time she says that, I say this. When is it ever going to change?'... and we can get really depressed. If that is the case then we have to use discernment and actually observe what's going on, for without a really wholesome well established sense of well-being within ourselves, we can end up destroying the spirit by dwelling too much on our mistakes. So it can sometimes be skilful to distract ourselves, if we've made a mistake or said something really terrible and we find ourselves caught up with regret, but without a sense of well-being.

Basically, remorse is the message, and when we get that message then we'll stop indulging in heedlessness. However in order to get that message, we've got to be strong with a sense of well-being; it's better not to hammer away too much, thinking: 'Well I've got to be mindful of dukkha and all my mistakes,' all the time. Really, we also have to be mindful of a sense of well-being, and what maintains that sense of well-being.

We need to develop positive, wholesome kamma, rather than always making negative kamma through generating thoughts and speech of ill will. We can generate kind, compassionate thoughts when we do the chanting: 'May I abide in well being, in freedom from affliction, in freedom from hostility. May I maintain well being in myself.' And then: 'May all beings be well. May they be free from suffering, may they not be parted from the good fortune that they have attained.'

If you know somebody else who sincerely says nice things, who really feels these things and expresses them, you like to have them around. It's exactly the same thing with ourselves.We actually feel good about ourselves when we have the perception of ourselves as somebody who says those sorts of things. While meditation on these divine abidings (kindliness, compassion, joy and equanimity) is helpful, sometimes we are so out of practice with exercising our hearts in this way that just to think of them is not enough; sometimes we also need to say it. We can actually go through this recitation on our own, or write it down, or better still tell others. We can also make gestures of good will in daily life; we can engage in a conversation with somebody who we would not normally bother engaging with, we can offer well-being, we can make gifts for people. This is the principle of dana, generosity. When we have this operating within us, it conditions, strengthens and nourishes a sense of well-being. We know that we are a source of well-being, of good will because we're giving it out.

When we are strong in this sense of well-being, it means that we'll be able to learn the lessons we need to learn. Say we've opened our mouth and shot some toxic waste out into the world, polluting the psychosphere for goodness knows how many miles around us, and we should have known better, but we've done it; and now we've got the appropriate dose of regret and remorse. If we've got these supportive conditions, this sense of well-being - we'll be able to take it, we can get the message. But if we don't have that sense of well-being, then we need to be cautious about how much remorse and regret we open up to.

As we progress in our meditation practice, our whole appreciation of the world starts to change. We start to see through some of the apparent realities of life - the apparent solidity of 'me', and the apparent solidity and validity of the perception of 'you' and 'the world'. When this starts to get shaken up, there's a reappraisal of how we relate to each other and to ourselves. With insight meditation we start to actually see the perception of somebody as just that.

For example, I have this perception of Andy. Now my perception of Andy is entirely my business, entirely my responsibility; it is actually very very little to do with that person. I could reach out and touch Andy, but what I would touch is a totally different reality from what's going on in my mind as a perception of Andy. When we start to see this, it's very interesting, because it becomes clear that what I do with this perception affects me. So if I have a very kind caring attitude towards Andy, I benefit actually more then he does; similarly, even if he had done something really wretched, it would be harmful to me to dwell on nasty, resentful, miserable thoughts about him. In fact it would be doing very little to him - compared to what it would be doing to me!

We begin to appreciate that the whole world is what we perceive in our own consciousness. When we start to appreciate that, we don't want to go around hurting people, because it's like sticking darts in ourselves. So every time I generate ill will towards somebody else, I am actually generating toxins in my own system; I'm the one that will physically, emotionally and psychically suffer as a result of that. It may manifest outwardly into some form of hurt on other people, but primarily what it's doing is generating the conditions for enormous suffering in myself.

When insight arises in meditation and we start to see this, it becomes clear that any perception of somebody in our mind is entirely our business. For example, when thinking of my father I can see that as a perception in my mind, and that's entirely my business; the process happening on the other side of the planet is a completely different affair from what's going on in my mind. Now I'm very interested in having a very healthy, wholesome, pleasant relationship with what is going on in my mind, regardless. As it happens, I have a good father so that's no problem; but some people's fathers are not so good, so they could be spending a lot of time dwelling on unpleasant thoughts about their fathers. What they are really doing is torturing themselves. It's very helpful to see this.

This is not actually something we can imagine but, as practice proceeds, we will come to appreciate that the perceptions of each other that we have in our minds are primarily our affair. They're our business, and we maintain them, we feed them. We also have the power to release out of them.

When, in meditation, we start to undo the perceptions of self and other, our relationship to the passions also changes. It's not that we have to spend the rest of our life fighting off our unwholesome passions, we come to see that the passionate flare-ups are simply a reflection of our false views; they are conditioned by the way we think. If we start to think more clearly and see more accurately, then there are just not the causes for these flare-ups of the passions.

Ajahn Munindo
Forest Sangha Newsletter, No. 41, July-September 1997, U.K.

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