The Position of Guilt in Spiritual Life
We often fall short of our ideals. Thus, it is not uncommon for us to feel guilty from time to time when we fail to perfectly follow the practices of sadhana. However, guilt can play either a negative or positive role in Krishna consciousness depending on how we deal with it.Is it bad to feel guilty? Can we use guilt as an excuse for falling away from Krsna consciousness? Is it right to forgive ourself, and if so, how do we do this? And isn’t it wrong to forgive ourself if we continue to make the same mistake? These are all important questions to answer and are addressed in the attached audio file.
When our actions are out of alignment with our values, we feel guilt. When it’s too difficult for us to confront the guilt, we suppress it. We do this when we find it difficult to admit that something we are doing or thinking is out of alignment with what we know to be right. Vedic psychology tells us that the intelligence is activated to process our emotions (in this case guilt) when we fully confront / experience these emotions. Emotions carry information. But if we suppress our emotions, we also suppress the messages they carry. Guilt is telling us that we need to address what is out of alignment in our life. If we allow ourself to hear the message guilt brings, the guilt will motivate us to improve ourselves. However, if we don’t change and simply lament how bad we are, guilt will have a negative effect by keeping us in the mode of ignorance. Thus, we will feel so guilty that we won’t do anything to improve ourselves. Chanting with some
remorse is recommended by Bhaktivinoda Thakura. We can think, “Krsna, I have sinned but please forgive me and please help me rectify myself. I am fallen but I want you. Please accept me and purify my heart.” This is healthy guilt and it moves us to improve ourself. If we make a mistake and then feel guilty, and if this guilt impels us to improve ourselves, this guilt is very much wanted.We forgive ourself by accepting our conditioning (emotions) and simultaneously working to improve ourself. We should be kind to ourself, not beating ourself up for making a mistake. At the same time, we should get back on our feet and rectify our mistake by insuring, as best we can, that the mistake will not be made over and over again. In some cases this might mean lowering our personal standards or goals to a level that is more achievable for us at the present time, and from this platform gradually working towards higher standards. We may fall down from time to time, but as long as we do not remain down, we are not failures. We are failures only if we stay down.It is important to realize that we often only learn by failing. So, if we cannot forgive ourselves when we fail, it will have negative repercussions on our advancement. After all, if you learn something valuable through failure, then you really haven’t failed.We will not always act in ideal ways, but the important thing is that our vision is set on Krsna conscious ideals and that we are determined to reach them despite the obstacles we face on the path. Without a healthy level of self-forgiveness, we may lose our enthusiasm – or even give up our Krsna consciousness altogether.
The order of Srila Prabhupada to us is to remain enthusiastic. If Lord Chaitanya and Lord Krishna are willing to excuse unintentional offenses and sins, then who are we not to forgive ourself, Mercy is given to those who deserve it the most, those who are most sinful. The fact that we are so imperfect totally qualifies us for Their mercy. Srila Prabhupada never rejected any disciple, no matter how fallen, as long as that disciple was willing to serve and continue to make the effort to advance in Krsna consciousness.
To remain enthusiastic in Krsna consciousness, we need to create the proper balance between self-forgiveness and rectification of our faults. Depending on how we process guilt, it will either be an impetus to advance in Krsna consciousness or a cause of keeping us down.
One may ask, “Should I remain self-forgiving even if I continually commit the same mistake?” If you continually commit the same mistake, and if the mistake is a serious one, it would not be correct or healthy to be continually self-forgiving. This could easily lead to blaming unfortunate situations or others for your mistakes, or for not taking your mistakes seriously. In this case, accepting full responsibility for your actions and rectifying your behavior is necessary means to forgiving yourself. As mentioned before, gradual steps to improvement may be necessary. At least you should be doing something to improve yourself.