Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche on "The Obstacle of Guilt"

This was condensed in the new issue of Bodhidharma, so I went to the Snow Lion Publications Summer newsletter and copied this whole first section of the article. You can read the rest of it as a PDF at the Snow Lion site.
If we strive to improve ourselves on the spiritual path without a positive sense of self it will be hard to look at our shortcomings. The desire to work with our shortcomings is the reason most of us enter the path in the first place. But this is not always easy—not because on the Buddhist path there is any shortage of skillful means, but because as human beings we find it difficult to accept our mind as it is. When we sit to practice we often find it hard to face what’s “in there.” All sorts of undesirable sensations and thoughts arise. Our response: “This is bad…very bad indeed. I need to cut this. I need to get rid of this. I’m so intense!” The more we look the more we uncover.

Without a doubt the world is complex; we have to face what is happening around us—our relationships or just whatever goes on in our mind. We cannot expect it all to go away; the mind needs to adapt to what it confronts. The mind gets jealous, it gets angry, it gets irritated, it gets depressed. It gets…you name it…it gets that way! When our mind erupts in anger, irritations, jealousy, pride, and arrogance it is hard to think of ourselves in a positive way. When we express our anger outwardly toward others we feel like a bad mother, bad father, bad husband, wife or brother. We were supposed to be caring and compassionate but instead we lost it! Now we are a bad practitioner too! When we feel guilty we can kiss our good self-image good-bye. Feeling guilty is an indication that we have a strong aversion toward our minds—who we are, how we feel, what we think.

Often we don’t notice this aversion because we are too busy revisiting “the scene of the crime,” turning it over in our mind again and again as if that could change it. It’s like going to see a movie for a second time in hopes that the ending might turn out differently. We simply can’t accept our wrongdoing or mistakes, nor can we accept the causes and conditions that produced the undesired result. Of course sometimes we can pin it on others, but we still feel the discomfort: “I wish I didn’t do that thing that I did last week!” “Why can’t my mind settle in a peaceful state as described in the teachings?” It’s a little masochistic. “Bad me!” And all because we simply don’t want to accept and sit with the residue of our actions.

I think guilt is a challenge for those living in the modern world where people give such weight to their feelings and emotional states of mind. In more traditional cultures, like Tibet, people give less importance to their emotions. I certainly don’t mean to say that they don’t have emotions, but they don’t dwell on them as much or give them much credence. Even in modern cultures some people feel a stronger sense of guilt than others. Sometimes people who come from rougher, less privileged backgrounds have less guilt, while those who come from more privileged and educated backgrounds -— who tend to analyze their thoughts and emotions and try to find some meaning in them —- struggle more with guilt.

Some people are deft at managing or justifying their shortcomings. When they do something they don’t feel good about they just say, “Oh, well.” They know how to suppress their emotions and simply move on. Others have a more sensitive nature, they notice more, and they dig a little too much. Instead of investigating mind with a sense of curiosity they fix their attention on how they feel. They give a lot of importance to the content of their emotions and the sensations that arise. On top of this they often feel uncomfortable with the feelings they fixate on. This is not bad by any means. It’s just a harder way to go. It could also be that our guilt has a little pride in it. We just can’t stand to entertain the idea that we may have some faults. Seeing them we feel like crawling out of our own skin. Honestly speaking, if there’s any skin we truly need to shed it’s our habit of rejecting our experience. This habit gives rise to guilt.
Having been raised Catholic, I know the guilt thing pretty well. I also tend to think that guilt is part of an over-developed Inner Critic, which I've written about quite a bit here in the past.

Anyway, I liked this article. It seems to easily reflect some of the integral theory stuff about having a healthy ego -- meaning no overwhelming guilt issues, or issues of other kinds -- in order to transcend the self through spiritual practice. Nice to see that being supported in the Buddhist writers.

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