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Beyond Guilt: A Reflective Approach to Mistakes

Recently, I was at Brian Gravestock’s Bike Clinic – designed to outfit and repair bikes for the homeless and unemployed. I love going there. Conversations with Brian, observing his dedication and the kind and respectful way he deals with his customers is as important to me as getting my bike repaired. I frequently leave the clinic energized, encouraged and inspired.

The bike clinic operates from the garage of a shelter helping homeless men transition to mainstream. While I was there, a well-dressed man from the shelter came up to me and talked at length about my electric bike’s battery. I was impressed by his command of the subject. But I was mystified. I didn’t expect an educated and articulate man to be homeless. When I shared my thoughts, Brian said, “Most people are here because they have gotten into trouble. But I don’t think it is right to judge someone by the worst thing that they have done.” Touched, I reflected more on it. 

Many of us have experienced guilt being been used to shame us into skillful behavior. The problem is that it doesn’t work very well. When we feel guilty we feel bad about ourselves. This can diminish our energy as well as capacity to focus clearly. Without clear focus, it is more likely that we will do the same thing again. When we do the same thing again it can reinforce the idea that we are, in fact, a bad person. It is ironic that guilt contributes to repeating our mistakes. Yet, when we see this, we can be motivated to find a guilt free way to be more skillful.

From a Buddhist perspective, guilt serves no useful purpose. What is extremely important is to separate out the cause-and-effect of the unskillful action and its result from the bad person who is the agent of the action. Looking this way, we can see that there isn’t an enduring bad person that does bad things. Instead, we see the result of unwise attention, unwise action and unskillful results. When we don’t feel like we are a bad person, we aren’t likely to succumb to feelings of toxic shame. Instead we can see that when we do something unskillful, it causes unskillful results. Seeing this, we naturally recoil from causing harm.

Seeing our choices and their results has positive impacts. Rather than drain our energy and loose focus, we are careful not to make the same mistake again. Since there isn’t a “me” that gets configured when we look at the cause and effect, we don’t see ourselves in a fixed way – thinking we are basically bad, stupid or get everything wrong. Likewise, when we see others make mistakes, it makes it a little easier to stay open to their strengths, vulnerabilities and weaknesses, place their actions in context, and stay connected.

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