When I was in high school, a friend of mine said to our class, “My goal for this year is that I want to have no regrets.”
“That isn’t something you can achieve through your actions,” I thought, in an unusually insightful moment. “Who can act perfectly? Having no regrets has to be a consequence of a decision you make!”
Living in Ananda communities, I’ve seen more clearly that the habit of regret is not a virtue, it’s a fault! By returning my mind to its mistakes, regret usually makes it harder, not easier, to improve myself.
If you feel the same way, these simple practices have helped me — perhaps you’ll also find them useful.
What Can I Do Now?
“I wish that hadn’t happened!” What a drain on life the attitude of regret is!
Regret is a form of desire that refers to the past. Therefore, I find that the more I keep my awareness in the present, the more easily I can let go.
What I try to say to myself is, “What happened has already happened. What can I do now, to improve things?” Even if I can’t change the situation itself, sending prayers, blessings, or making an affirmation to do better next time are almost always available as options.
Voila! After answering this simple question, I have a constructive activity to occupy my mind; my mental state improves immediately.
(In the same way, concentrating on the present moment is also an effective way to deal with fear — a form of desire that refers to the future. Is it even possible to fear something that is happening right now?)
The Carping Spirit
Today (as I write), I missed an opportunity that I regretted afterwards. The nagging, though, stayed with me for hours, like a dark bird on my shoulder, harping in complaining tones, now and again returning my mind to the cause of regret.
I got fed up with it while walking through the forested hills of Ananda Village this summer afternoon. The outer scenery was beautiful and harmonious; my “inner scenery” was less so.
Finally, I turned to this nagging aspect of my mind, and said, mentally, “Well, if you are complaining so much, what do you suggest that I do about it?” I waited, keeping my attention on the source of the complaining, and waiting for constructive input. “All right, then — if you don’t have any suggestions, I’m going to let it go.”
(Would this technique always work? I don’t know! Unlike the other tips, it wasn’t directly inspired by Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings. So use it with caution: asking your subconscious mind for suggestions comes with no guarantees!)
It isn’t the end of the story — I still face this regret tonight, even as I write — but, in the struggle against it, that was the turning point. It was easier then to be more positive and to forget the incident — both of these are things, I’ve found, that require courage.
Interesting coincidence, at that moment, the most positive and courageous person I have ever met passed by in a car! That person was Swami Kriyananda.
God Is the Doer
An incredible disadvantage the kind of regret I’ve been talking about — besides the fact that it is just painful — is that it tends to focus us on our ego. As Swami Kriyananda often says, “Someone who is throwing dust on their own head thinks only of dust, and their own head!”
Thinking of God as the Doer, instead, gets our thoughts moving in the right direction. You can’t beat darkness out of the room with a stick, but you can turn on the light.
One way to “turn on the light” is to give the responsibility for your actions to God. I love this passage from The Art of Supportive Leadership, by Swami Kriyananda:
See God as the Doer. Give Him the credit for any good that you do. Offer your work as a service to Him.
… you will also find it easy, in this case, to give God the blame — not in a spirit of accusation, but in the thought that, if a project failed, maybe it did so for a good reason.
The Darkest Time of My Life, For Which I Am Very Grateful
There’s a period in my life I don’t often talk about, before I really came onto the spiritual path, though I refer to it in this article in Clarity Magazine. It was a dark time, and painful, and because of the depths of my own moods, I lost almost all my friendships twice over.
Once I was through the worst of it, I looked back, and was intensely embarrassed at my behavior.
But, a year and a half later, I stepped onto this spiritual path, and found that this period in my life had helped me tremendously in my personal growth. (As Yogananda said, “You don’t get strong by fighting weaklings!”)
Was that time bad, because it was painful or because my friendships turned to dust? Or was it good, because it helped me look for an inner solution to life’s problems and made it easier for me to have a clean break with the past? Either way, surely the important thing was that it brought me closer to God. I can see that now, and can no longer even think of regretting the experience, at least not as a whole. It was so clearly a blessing.
This attitude took time to reach, however. With the passing years came detachment and perspective; these opened the door to gratitude.
I suppose that if I want to regret, there will always be something to regret. (“Oh, if only I had said the right, inspiring thing!” “Oh, if only I had been calmer!” “Oh, if only I hadn’t been five minutes late and missed the opening previews!”)
If that is so, the only way to overcome this type of suffering is to change my attitudes. Focusing on the present moment, confronting the attitude directly, and giving my actions to God are all things that have seemed to work. If you know of others, please share them — add your comment below!